Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why Andrew Sullivan is wrong about debating evolution

Yesterday, I posted a link to a disagreement that I had with Andrew Sullivan. Several people have commented and emailed me regarding the desirability of such debates. I'm sympathetic to the impulse to favor debates. Science is all about transparency- what could be more transparent than a debate of the issue? In this case, things are not as simple as they might first appear.

As he usually does, Andrew lays out his case with clarity:
I'm a firm believer that debate exposes the flimsiness of arguments, and debate is always preferable to mere stigmatizing.
The problem is that this position presupposes that both parties enter into the debate in good faith. This issue resides in the political agenda of the creationist side of the debate. They are looking for the legitimacy that our society accords science while circumventing the normal processes of obtaining it. The creationists have been unable to produce work that stands up to the process of peer review, so they seek out the forum of a public debate instead. Not only is peer review the standard for vetting modern science, it stands in contrast to public debates, which are a notably poor forum for such evaluation. The approach that the creationist camp takes to these debates illustrates why.

In a creationism/evolution debate, there is an asymmetry of information. All of the evidence rests on the side of science- creationism has no evidence of it's own. Indeed, how could it? Being based on faith and on the supernatural, creationism isn't actually testable. In a debate, creationism is therefore relegated to attempting to point out shortcomings in the theory of evolution.

Therein lies the problem. It's very easy to phrase a critique of a scientific theory. Even when the critique is clearly off base and easily refutable, it typically takes a lot more words and time to present the refutation than it does to present the initial critique. The creationist approach also takes advantage of the fact that lines of evidence from many different disciplines converge in pointing to the theory of evolution. In a debate, a critique of some aspect of the fossil record can be coupled with a critique of molecular evidence and followed up with a critique of carbon dating techniques- all from vastly different branches of science and all delivered within a minute or two. At this point, it doesn't matter whether there is any validity to the creationist arguments or not. The debater on the evolution side of the argument can not, within the time he or she has been allotted to speak, get through all of the refutations. It's a common technique that has come to be called the "Gish gallop," named after Duane Gish the founder of the Creation Research Institute.

The payoff for the creationist side? They get to claim peer status with scientists, often of considerable reputation, and can often claim victory- even when their arguments are entirely without merit. That works for them, because in the end, their aims are really political rather than scientific. If public debate of the sort proposed by creationists were truly of value for sorting out scientific controversies, it would be more widely used for exactly that purpose. Andrew Sullivan comes from a background of history, philosophy, and politics. In these fields oral debate is a much more widely-used tool for resolving disputes, mainly because it's more effective. It's a pattern that has been revealed time and again around the issue of evolution. I'd love to find out if Andrew feels it would be mere stigmatizing if Charlie Brown finally told Lucy van Pelt what she could do with her damn football.



At 21:19, Blogger Will said...

It seems to me also to be a confrontation between the emotional and the rational. Emotions can be wonderful things, but I wouldn't want the world or even just my country run by them.

However, twelve years of Catholic school taught me just how badly rational logic can be twisted into a pretzel when skilled practitioners with a preconceived agenda get their hands on it.


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