I Was Suckered into a Debate and Survived!
Two years ago, I debated Walter Brown, director of the Center for Scientific Creation, which is located in Naperville, Illinois. Although I am not unique in this experience, nothing similar to the way in which I was maneuvered into the debate and the nature of the strategies that were used has been described in the literature dealing with creationists. Therefore, I would like to provide a brief synopsis of the events in the hope that others will benefit in future encounters.
It all started in April 1985 when I was asked if I would talk informally on the creation-evolution controversy to the Georgia Tech Faculty/Student Christian Forum. I agreed to do so. Normally, when addressing such an audience as this, my talk emphasizes how religion and science supplement each other. Since I have a background in religion, I also discuss the origin, meaning, and significance of the Old Testament. This talk was intended to be no exception.
However, a week later, at the end of April, I was asked by the meeting organizer if I would mind having a local creationist opposite me so that there could be an informal exchange. "Fairness" was used as the reason. Having previously debated several local creationists in the Atlanta area, I had no misgivings. So I agreed. A week later I was informed by the meeting organizer that an out-of-town creationist would be in town at the time of the talk. It was then suggested that I debate him. By now I was getting concerned, but, rather than withdraw and thereby foster propaganda that I was afraid to debate the creationist, I again agreed.
On May 16, I received a letter stating that the out-of-town creationist was Walter Brown. A brochure listing his qualifications was enclosed: he is a mechanical engineer and director of an organization whose purpose is to "bring glory to our Creator." He debates suckers like me all over the country. By this time, I was upset, but more was to come.
A week before the debate, which was slated for May 30 (during final exam week at my university), a packet of materials arrived, including: (1) an agreement to debate (which prohibited the discussion of religion and stated that the creationist was to speak first); (2) a descriptive list of suggested support personnel for such a debate; (3) the text of before-and-after questionnaires for the audience; (4) a suggested stage diagram (with the moderator placed on the same side with the creationist); and (5) a copy of Brown's now famous The Scientific Case for Creation: 108 Categories of Evidence, which lines up against evolution an array of mostly physical and chemical technicalities that take a lot of time to research and refute. The agreement to debate is illustrative:
After receiving this material, I reminded the organizer that I had originally agreed only to a small informal meeting with a Christian organization, that now this had grown to a full-fledged formal debate, with the subject of religion prohibited, in a large auditorium with the public invited, and that, if he wanted me to participate, there would be no more preconditions, no questionnaires, and no more trickery. He seemed to back off, but that may have been only because he had already emptied his bag of tricks on me.
Such maneuvers appear to be common. For example, when Duane Gish spoke some time back at Georgia State University, the "debate" was set up by the philosophy club with Gish talking for forty-five minutes, three opponents responding for five minutes each, and Gish taking another forty-five minutes to answer. Fortunately, I was not a participant that time.
As I hurriedly prepared for the impending encounter, I reminded myself that the creationists' idea of a scientific debate is to pick at the scientific literature, keep the opposition on the defensive, and stay away from the Genesis account, which they immediately label as out of bounds because it is religion. Most audiences accept this because they don't understand that the primary issues in the creation-evolution controversy are political and educational, and they don't realize that so-called scientific creationism is merely religion in the guise of science. In my opinion, the creation model needs to be introduced into every debate on the subject. Given the usual circumstances, however, it is the debater on the evolution side who has to do the introducing.
Dr. Brown opened our debate with the standard creationist line of argument. At the end of his allotted time, he posed a number of questions for me—an obvious strategy to gain the offensive and keep the opposition busy. I didn't fall for it. In my opening remarks, I included a brief account of how I was manipulated into the debate and the nature of the creationist preconditions. Audience reaction indicated a lack of approval for such creationist machinations. I then pointed out that this exchange could not be a typical scientific debate in which participants are stimulated to test ideas in the field or the laboratory. Rather, I said, this was to be a philosophical discussion in which nothing would be settled—that, even if all of Brown's arguments were answered, he would probably say the same or similar things to other audiences later, as creationists consistently do. I added that, for these and other reasons, many scientists feel that such debates are a waste of time. Next I proceeded to explain the nature of science: reproducibility, rejection of authority, concern with the physical world, description of how the world works by statements, testability, falsifiability, universality, and so forth. The scientific approach was contrasted with other ways of viewing the world. One example I used was law, which is based upon authority and precedent, is variable from court to court, concerns itself with personal interrelationships, is "moral," and so on. (The example of law is useful because most people can accept it more easily than if religion is selected. Once the example of law is established, however, religion can then be compared with it and both together contrasted with science.) I used art as another perspective, saying, "Heaven help the person who has an appendectomy by a surgeon who studied anatomy under Picasso." I then pointed out that evolution is a scientific statement, carefully defined it, and warned of the creationist misdefinition. My brief overview of organic evolution followed.
Once these points were made, I explained that, in order to be perfectly fair, the source and nature of the creation model would next have to be examined. What was the source? I told the audience that this was revealed in a literature search I had earlier performed using creationist attorney Wendell Bird's version of the creation model from the December 1978 issue of Acts & Facts as a starting point. (I projected Bird's model on the screen.)
This search was to locate in the library a creation account possessing all of Bird's points. Over a thousand such accounts were found, but only one had all seven of his points in order. I explained that the probability of each point was 10-3, so 10-3 seven times is 10-21.The diameter of the universe in inches is 1028, and the chances that the account that I found is not the one referred to by Wendell Bird is about one in 1021. I then acknowledged that this use of statistics is ridiculous but typical of the way the creationists use numbers. The actual probability that the account I found is the wrong one, I explained, is possibly one in 5,040 (seven factorial)—statistically significant but still highly unlikely.
Anyway, I noted that this one matching account was a familiar one which originated largely from Mesopotamia but had been appropriated by a bunch of itinerant sheep herders who modified it from a polytheistic to a monotheistic form. It was therefore called the Modified Mesopotamian Model, I said, well known by the acronym MMM (pronounced "ummm"). I then suggested that, since further slight changes had been made to it by the "scientific" creationists, it was now called the Modern Modified Mesopotamian Model, or MMMM. The MMMM was then explained in full detail, utilizing "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Creation Model," by Frank Awbrey from Creation/Evolution I.
Comparing it with scientific statements, I was able to show that the MMMM is dogmatic, based upon authority, cannot be falsified, and so forth. Furthermore, members of some creationist organizations sign oaths that they believe this model to be literally true (I projected the text of one such oath on the screen). I emphasized that scientists do not sign oaths committing them to hold some idea or principle to be irrevocably true. I concluded by presenting Brown with about ten questions to answer concerning the creation model.
In his rebuttal, Brown appeared upset, accused me of introducing religion (to which I demurred), ignored my questions (as I had ignored his), and introduced more standard creationist rhetoric.
In my rebuttal, I used specific illustrations to outline general creationist strategies. I also noted that, when I see how they treat the things with which I am familiar, I have no confidence in how they treat the things with which I am not. Some of my examples included:
- Population statistics, utilizing the "bunny blunder" described by David H. Milne in Creation/Evolution XIV.
- Misquotes, using Richard Lewontin's article, "Adaptation" (Scientific American reprint #1408), showing how creationists had pieced together phrases distant from each other in the article to reverse his position.
- Lies or blunders, referencing figure 2.9 in the creationist book Origin of Life by Bliss and Parker, wherein they imply no intermediates between coacervates and eukaryotic cells by simply leaving out about six phyla.
- Erection of strawmen.
- Misstatement of evolution.
- Misuse of probability statistics.
- Misrepresentation of the second law of thermodynamics.
- Bringing up of discarded ideas from the scientific literature, such as ammocetes, hectocotylus, Piltdown man, and Nebraska man—all of which were later corrected by scientists, not creationists.
After pointing out such misdeeds, I offered the names of books for further study. My close was a paraphrase of T. H. Huxley's final statement from his famous debate with Bishop Wilberforce:
Thousands of people have devoted their lives—many have given their lives—to better the human condition and to build the intellectual body of knowledge we call science. In describing how the physical world works, it is unsurpassed. In my opinion, use of that knowledge in the kind of deception characteristic of creationists destroys their integrity, subverts their credibility, and belittles the beliefs they try to promote. Is their religion dependent on subterfuge for validation and sustenance? I would rather be descended from the lowest worm than be specially created with great intellectual powers and use them in such a fashion.
When the debate was over, I had as much or more of the audience gathered around my table as Brown had around his. If this indicates that there is something useful in the approach I selected, please feel free to use it in your own encounters.