Engaging in creationism vs. evolution debates is anti-science

When I was a weer lad starting down the road of science, I used to think that any opportunity to engage creationists in debate was a Good Thing. We should take the education to them and show them how wrong they are! I was gung-ho and ready to pull back the curtain of ignorance on religion.

But then I watched some of these circus acts and realized very quickly that there is nothing to be gained here and everything to be lost.

I was unaware that there was a televised creationism debate on last night until my Twitter timeline was rapidly filled with scientists pointing out logic flaws in the creationist's arguments. My response: creationism STARTS with the suspension of reality. It does no good to treat it as anything more than a fairy tail.

The problem is that it is not a debate. A debate is an argument of two valid sides. It's the use of facts to make your option sound more appealing than the other person's. But the entire exercise is futile when one side has facts and the other side has only unsubstantiated belief. It's not even that creationists are bringing a knife to a gun fight, it's that they're showing up empty handed imagining they have a nuclear bomb.

These "debates" aren't constructive, helpful or useful to spread facts. Instead, they play right into the hands of creationists by lending false credibility to the very idea that the two sides are on equal footing. Do doctors conduct open public debates with faith healers? Do physicists debate astrologers or magicians? Do geologists debate flat-Earthers? Of course not! We don't give that kind of lunacy the public stage that we do creationism, but the absurdity of such "debates" is no different.

The FACT is that we can observe evolution in real time. Antibiotic, herbicide and insecticide resistance? How about the annual global migration of the flu? The very reason why vaccine development for diseases like AIDS and malaria has not been effective? All of these are examples of evolutionary forces we can observe, record and demonstrate. It's repeatable and crystal clear what is going on. It's not debatable. Either you are willing to look at the data or have decided you refuse to accept reality. There is no middle ground. The very act of engaging in these spectacles legitimizes the lunatic fringe and is anti-science.

So what do we do? Yes, creationism has gained a lot of steam in certain parts of the US and it's not just "the ignorant masses". Doctors, lawyers and politicians count among those who have chosen to ignore observable data for belief. But the thing is, you're not going to argue those people into submission. You're not not going to have a break through with 99.9% of adults who Believe. You can spend all of your professional time trying to shine the light of science into every dark corner and you will never reach every nook and cranny.

Instead we need to concentrate on the schools and youth. Educate the kids. This is the exact tactic creationists have been using for decades now, resulting in the level of acceptance you see today. How was big tobacco crippled? Not by going after the life long smokers, but by making it "uncool" to the youth. You'll never get them all, but educating kids is the best tool we have to less ignorant future.

In addition, I think it's critical to engage religious people who are not literalists. There are millions of religious people who do not take every word of the bible as fact and who are willing to accept science, and specifically, evolution. Thousands of scientists, including the current director of NIH, consider themselves people of faith. Science and religion are NOT incompatible and it will require the engagement of religious and agnostic alike, to ensure we educate the future leaders of our country.

22 responses so far

  • @Strangesource says:

    Love it. Was thinking exactly this today...creationism is an argument between people of faith. Most Christians, I think, don't take the Bible literally.

    FTR my favorite Bible verse is Matthew 13:34

    "All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable."

  • BugDoc says:

    Well said! Although it's hard to call Bill Nye "anti-science" - after all, he's the "Science Guy"! You are absolutely right that evolution and faith aren't incompatible because they are not even sitting at the same table! If religious folks have faith, I fully respect that, but there's no point in trying to make it all sciency with faux facts and logic. It's....faith. Not science. Teach it in religious traditions class. Not science class.

  • Dr Becca says:

    Preach, brotha! I was so angry last night that this was going on. Nye did not "educate" the misinformed masses, he made the classic mistake of thinking that his target audience forms opinions based on things like logic, evidence, and facts. They do not. It only legitimized the creationists' position as something worth discussing in a public forum, which it is not.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I didn't watch it because I've already seen that movie. The very fact that it was staged at the Creationism museum was enough to reveal that it was a publicity stunt from the get go.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    This attitude betrays the privilege of people who don't face sending children to public school in the Southron US States.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    No dude, that is where there is the most to gain by youth education. I think it's critical to engage school districts, but if you think public debates change the minds of the Blindly Faithful sitting on school boards, you're wrong.

  • Alex says:


    Either a typo or DM is a Tolkien geek.

    Aure entuluva!

  • becca says:

    Of course you can have a debate on this! You can have a debate on bigfoot vs. water bears if you like. Parliamentary debate, not Lincoln-Douglas. GEEZE.

  • DebateAway says:

    How does debating preclude working to make sure that evolution is taught well in schools?

    Bill Nye presented a number of quite clear pieces of evidence against young earth creationism. Will that change everyone's mind? Of course not, but it almost certainly made a few people think and start to ask some questions. In my experience talking with people who were raised with creationist beliefs, it is exposure to points like this that made them start to question what they were taught. What better way to speak to those people than by having the opportunity to speak at a creationist museum?

    (Also if you'd watched the debate, you'd know that Ham didn't argue against the idea that evolution occurs. Instead he argued that all of the organisms on earth today evolved in the last 4,000 years from the several thousand 'kinds' that were on the ark. Just as wrong, but a completely different argument.)

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Well the debate got Pat Robertson upset with Ken Ham, so I suppose it did some good. I did not watch. What I see of comments was that it came off much better than many of us had feared. I would never publicly debate a creationist, because that would give their position some aspect of legitimacy.

  • drugmonkey says:

    yes dude. the apathetic teevee watching public are the ones that let the schools get taken over by idiocy. most people don't really pay enough attention to know how ridiculous things have become. a show debate like this is for theatre, not to move the needle on the confirmed. it is profitably addressing the apathetic middle.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    You mean ineffectively addressing.

  • DoucheMonkey, you're saying that Nye's goal with this was to demonstrate to apathetic couch-sitters how flat out loonie toons off the deep end these creationist wackanuttes are?

  • PUI Prof says:

    I also did not watch. These things are like trying to compare apples to... motor oil. Please, scientist friends, forget not that there are many nuanced philosophies other than these two extremist views that reasonable people (even Christians) ascribe to. You just aren't hearing from thoughtful people that espouse the idea of non-overlapping magesteria (science is apples, faith is motor oil; not comparable) or theistic evolution (evolution as described by science is 100% true; somehow God was responsible).

  • Hermitage says:

    Meh, if reaching couch-surfers was the go, I'm pretty sure the follow buzzfeed article featuring the inanities of creationists would be 100x more effective.

    I'm pretty sure anyone watching that debate is pretty firmly ensconced on one side, or the other, and is not going to budge. Maybe I'm underestimating the number of people who grew up with Bill Nye the Science Guy, but are unaware of recent educational changes.

  • PUI Prof says:

    Edit: non-theistic evolution isn't extremist, IMHO.

  • RP says:

    Like you, I do not engage in 'debates" with creationists. Several times I have had creationists try to engage in a debate with me, but I try my best to steer the conversation elsewhere. I have found the conversations to not be about evolution vs. creationism, but science vs. faith and that is a topic I am not going to discuss.

    I did not watch either, but when I do hear/read from creationists I can't help but be afraid we are failing in our attempts to teach science. Many of the "pro-creation" points are a poor understanding (or ignoring?) of science, and this troubles me. I don't have an answer for how to fix this, but that is what the debate should be: how to we improve science teaching/learning.

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  • theshortearedowl says:

    I agree with drugmonkey. The point of a televised debate-spectacle like this is not to change the minds of the diehard faithful - it's to reach the people who don't really care and have probably never thought about it much. It's the independents who decide elections.

  • StatisChic says:

    Well said! "Science and religion are NOT incompatible" indeed.

  • qaz says:

    ShortEaredOwl - actually, in the American system where voting is not a requirement, the influence of independents are swamped by turnout proportion of partisans. (A good [very clear] example was the disaster of 2010. This is especially true in non-presidential elections, but appears to be true in presidential as well. It is, of course, why republicans are into voter suppression.)

    Elections in the US are typically decided by the proportion of partisans that turn out to vote. This has been one of the democrats' mistakes over the last several decades. While republicans fire up and turn out their base, typically democrats have chased independents. Recent elections are suggesting that some democrats are starting to recognize this - see, for example, Terry McAuliffe's recent change from DLC (when he worked for Bill Clinton) to championing more leftward (and popular) causes in his recent (successful) run for governor of VA.

    An interesting question is whether these science vs. anti-science debates do actually encourage normal people (scientists, people based in reality, non-wackos) to become more willing to speak out. I don't know. Certainly it's hard to take public stands when you think you're the only voice.

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