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.