Monday, February 4, 2008

Myers vs Simmons: How to Debate Creationists Effectively

Recently PZ Myers debated creationist Geoffrey Simmons on evolution on a Christian radio show, and I thought his opening statement was such a good example of how the arguments should be made with creationists that I thought I'd transcribe it here, with some commentary:

OK. Well the first thing I have to admit is that it is often very difficult to get biologists to debate these sorts of topics, we actually communicate with one another and we discourage each other from spending time in these debates. It actually happens and there are a couple of good, very good reasons actually. One is that there is such a profound misconception of biology on the creationists side, that often we feel like we we have to give everyone a course in basic science just to get everyone up to speed. That means we are talking about stuff that isn't very good for debating.

This is something that is not understood by the average layman and really needs to be emphasized in these public discussions. The creationists appeal to the misperception that anyone who is intelligent can understand these issues if they just think about them for a while. The public needs to understand that science builds on a large quantity of previous work done over decades, and which takes a great deal of dedication to understand, and simply cannot be fully grasped over a few focused moments of reflection.

For instance, here I am being asked to give the evidence for evolution in five minutes, which really just tells me how unaware people are of the subject. Would you ask a mathematician to come on and teach you how to do calculus in 5 minutes? Would you ask a plumber to come on and tell you how to completely plumb your house in 5 minutes? No. But evolution is a much more complicatedd subject than either of those topics. And then the other problem is what I experienced here. An hour and a half before the show I am old that the topic of the debate has completely changed. Now, that tells me that there is an utter lack of professionalism and integrity on the creationist side. [the host interjected briefly, the PZ continued] Well, you simply don't do that. It's not something you ever do in any kind of debate is change the ground rules while you're running. Basically what that tells me is the people are unwilling to discuss the actual issues, and they'd rather play games to avoid the risk of a well-prepared critic. And so far you gotta realize I'm really unimpressed. [brief interruption by hosts]

So we've got this new question: Are Darwin's theories fact or faith issues? Now we can't blame this on the radio show hosts, this is Dr. Simmons' fault. This is a terrible question. There's a myth going around that there's no such thing as a stupid question. This is a stupid question. First of all, I'd like Dr. Simmons to explain why he is so infatuated with Darwin. Darwin published the outline of his ideas almost 150 years ago. We respect his work, we think he was brilliant, but we also know there are many things he got wrong. We don't adhere to Darwin's theories any more. He provided a rough framework, but in the last century and a half we have filled in many details. It isn't Darwin's any more. It's the work of generations of scientists, and while parts of it would be recognizable to Darwin were he alive today, most of it would astonish him. This isn't about Darwin, it is about bioloy. so let's change the subject of the debate a little bit.

Part of the creationist PR game is to frame the discussion as religion vs religion, wih Christianity on one side with its hero Jesus, and "Darwinism" on the other side, with its hero Darwin. This resonates with their target audience, who is used to an authoritarian epistemological structure. Indeed, for some of them wrapping their mind around the concept of objectively demonstrable facts independent of authority is simply to much to ask. So the creationists present Darwin as essentially Satan, and attempt to hide the facts, as PZ presents them above, about just how far from "Darwinism" modern biology has moved. This is something that must be countered consistently and simply by correcting these people everytime they attempt this frame. It's evolution stupid, not Darwinism.

Is biology a fact or faith issue? But wait, we've got another bait and switch here. The original debate was to be a presentation of the evidence for both sides. I'd sum up my evidence for evolution, he'd tell us all of his excuses for intelligent desgn. Notice that in this new topic he has removed any obligation on his part to defend intelligent design. He just wants to question modern biology, and I call foul on that.

This of course is the lynchpin of PZ's argument, and the vulnerable underbelly of ID/creationist debaters. They have no substance on their side (except the YECs, and their's is demonstrably false), it is simply an attack on unsolved problems with evolution. Any science could be attacked in this manner, since all science has unanswered questions. This also needs to be pointed out in these confrontations.

Biology is not an issue of faith. Biology is. We have a body of hard solid facts, with strong theories of predictive power that integrate that collection of evidence, allows us to test our interpretations, and generate new ideas and new experiments. Evolution is a theory with practical applications in medicine, agriculture, research, economics, computer science and many other fields. It is powerful stuff, and it works. But we don't have any faith at all in modern biology.

That's why this question is so nonsensical. There is no more faith behind modern biology than there is in modern plumbing or modern engineering, or modern computing. That's why we keep testing it, and revising it to require new information. We conform the theory to the evidence, which is one reason Darwin would not recognize many parts of it today. We do not have a predefined expectation of what the answers should be, and we do not ignore or twist the evidence to fit the model. We leave that job to the creationists.

So I am going to ask Dr simmons to be flexible and change the topic yet further. We have the evidence on our side. There are hundreds of papers published every week documenting the theory of evolution. I would like for him to eplain to the audience where his evidence is. Why should we regard intelligent design as anything other than faith-based reasoning, since he certainly has no mechanism by which his designer acts, nor does he have physical evidence of his designer's existence. Biologists don't have to defend evolution's status as an idea build on the bedrock of "naturalism". The onus is on Dr. Simmons to defend his claims honestly, with evidence and with facts that make sense.

So does he have anything other than his belief in the Bible to support the thesis of a designer? Let's see something positive from the intelligent design/creationist side. Something besides dirty debating tactics, misbegotten and erroneous attacks on the theory of evolution, and vague mumblings about how an unnamed designer, could have poofed organisms into existence, by an unspecified mechanism at a mysterious time they don't name. Let's hear some specific science.

I can't improve on that, and its what we need in every debate like this.


Stanton said...

It's like I told another person once, in that comparing evolutionary biology with Creationism, er, Intelligent Design is like comparing and contrasting ketchup versus motor oil in terms of edibility and nutrition.

Troublesome Frog said...

I liked the part where the host restated Simmons' complaint that the "problems" Simmons described were not being taught and Myers responded something like, "What problems? He just made up a bunch of stuff that's objectively untrue," and then proceeded to pound him.

That was sweeeet.

Luke said...

One thing he missed though: Simmons at one point, talking about neural connections being pruned says "perhaps they are pruned by don't know how they are pruned, you can never know". That is a bare admission that the design aspect is faith - it doesn't generate a testable hypothesis. Obviously a flying spaghetti monster must be involved!
Another one is that Simmons frequently uses arguments like "I find it incomprehensible", or "I can't imagine" as if the universe were somehow constrained by the limitations of his comprehension or the accuracy of his guesses.
The guy has all the hallmarks of a crank, just like the ones that claim quantum physics must be wrong because it defies common sense.

Malcolm said...

Re: the charge that belief in the evolutionary process requires faith so 'Evolution is just another faith'

I like to respond "Evolution is a religion in the same way that Bald is a hair colour" :)