(EDIT:  Woozle has an even better idea, which would apply to many debates in general if the true goal were seeking resolution and truth.)

Friends, Romans, non-Romans, lend me your ears.  I have for you a modest proposal, in this question of whether we should publicly debate creationists, or freeze them out as unworthy of debate.

My fellow humans, I have two misgivings about this notion that there should not be a debate.  My first misgiving is that - even though on this particular occasion scientific society is absolutely positively not wrong to dismiss creationism - this business of not having debates sounds like dangerous business to me.  Science is sometimes wrong, you know, even if it is not wrong this time, and debating is part of the recovery process.

And my second misgiving is that, like it or not, the creationists are on the radio, in the town halls, and of course on the Web, and they are already talking to large audiences; and the idea that there is not going to be a debate about this, may be slightly naive.

"But," you cry, "when prestigious scientists lower themselves so far as to debate creationists, afterward the creationists smugly advertise that prestigious scientists are debating them!"

Ah, but who says that prestigious scientists are required to debate creationists?

Find some bright ambitious young college student working toward a biology degree, someone who's read Pharyngula and the talk.origins FAQ.  Maybe have P. Z. Myers or someone run a test debate on them, to make sure they know how to answer all the standard lies and are generally good at debating and explaining.  Then have the college student debate the creationists - if the creationists are still up for it.  If not, of course, we can all make a big ruckus about how Michael Behe is afraid to debate a mere college student, and have the college student reply to all requests to debate Richard Dawkins or supply a scientific authority for the TV networks.  And if Michael Behe manages to defeat the college student, then he can go on to debate a PhD, and if that doesn't work, Behe gets to talk to P. Z. Myers, and in the unlikely event Behe manages not to get his butt handed to him by P. Z. Myers, he would have earned the right to debate Richard Dawkins.

If we're dealing with young-earth creationists, then we add a bright 12-year-old at the start of the chain.

That way, anyone who wants to know the state of the debate and the status of the arguments, is welcome to watch creationists being beaten up by some college kid - armed with real science, mind!

But there will still be a debate.  And if the scientific community, at some point in the future, manages to go astray on some issue where the opposing side seems "silly", then we can hope - if public debate is any use at all - that the challenger will gently defeat the 12-year-old, unravel the college student, score points against the PhD, and hold their own against senior scientists.  There would still be a path to victory for worthy new ideas, and not a general license for a community to shut down all debate it thinks unworthy.

It's this notion of shutting down debate that I fear as dangerous; and it seems to me that you can get just the same strategic conservation of prestige, by endorsing the principle of debate, but sending out some bright college students to present the standard position.  If the "controversy" as shown on CNN consists of some ID-er with a sober-looking business suit and an impressive-sounding title, versus a TA in jeans to represent the scientific community - but with accurate science, mind! - then I think this would viscerally answer what the scientific community thinks of creationism, and not create the false impression of an ongoing debate, while still giving airtime to the standard scientific replies.  If CNN isn't interested in showing that "controversy" - well then, that tells us what CNN really wanted, doesn't it.

If an idea is so completely ridiculous as to be unworthy even of debate - then send out some bright un-titled college students to debate it!  Do vet them for knowledge of standard replies, explanation ability, and debating ability against evil opponents, to make sure standard science is not needlessly embarrassed.  But there should be plenty of ambitious young bright college students who can pass that filter and who would enjoy some TV exposure.

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0Eliezer Yudkowsky15y

It's a photoshopped image of a Mortal Kombat tournament ladder. Once Behe defeats Dawkins he gets to debate Motaro.


Actually, he'd probably go straight to Shao Kahn... I just can't see a centaur being a good advocate for Darwinism.

It's PZ Myers rather than Dawkins.

I'm very skeptical of the value of TV debates. Why not just insist that any debates be conducted online, in text mode, in non-realtime? Then they can't claim that evilutionists refused to debate them, nobody has to go stand on stage under hot lights and time pressure in a situation where they have minimal access to informational resources (thus giving a huge advantage to Teh Stoopid), and there will be a nice searchable record of the discussion when it's over.

...which begs the observation that we have been debating creationists, continually, ever since they started poking their heads up; they just choose to ignore those past debates because of the inconvenient fact that they always lose.

So perhaps whenever they challenge someone to a debate, the appropriate response is "Sure! Send me your opening argument in writing, and I will respond similarly until one of us gives in. Anytime, anywhere." Do ya feel lucky, punk??

5Eliezer Yudkowsky15y
That is probably a superior suggestion, especially if there were some standard format and repository for conducting such debates.
See my suggestions here -- though ultimately I'd like to see more sophisticated software tools emerge for handling online debates. I've got a fairly detailed proposal for how this should work, I'm trying to get around to putting out some actual working code, but my coding time is absurdly limited right now.
Would the most vulnerable people exposed to creationist arguments really read these online debates, though? I don't know, I consider this all more of a public education campaign than a "debate" per se. I'm not against creationism being persistent because it's wrong; I'm against it because it's wrong and harms the public good.
What's the main point, the main product/output, of such debates? If it's to produce videos to pass around or upload, then the debate could be conducted in rounds and edited together -- or each side could present a separate video summarizing their case (and the case against the other) after a text-based discussion. If it's to present the debate to a captive audience -- at, say, a church or club of some kind -- then perhaps it should be handled like a court case. Each side writes down the points they intend to make. Then they take turns rebutting each other's points in writing until one side or the other decides they're done responding. Each turn, both sides should make a list of points not yet addressed by the other side -- so neither side can claim they made a point which the other side left standing without the other side being aware of it. In the "live" portion of the debate, neither side can introduce any points or evidence not covered in the written portion; it's more like a visual re-enactment of the real debate which took place on paper, for people who need that sort of thing. Either way, if it's creationists approaching scientists for debate, then the scientists should feel free to set all kinds of conditions (such as the above) in order to give the truth a little assistance putting on its boots so it doesn't get walked all over by creationist lies.

Here's what I think...

In-person debates are somewhat pointless, because someone can simply start lying their ass off and you won't be able to do the research in time to call them on it. Even if you know what they're saying is flat-out wrong, and you call them on it, your opponent can simply accuse you of being the one who has the facts wrong - and an audience that doesn't already know the truth won't have any way to tell the difference. The only kind of debates worth having are written debates.

A couple solutions : * Record the debate, and post it on YouTube * If you're certain your opponent is lying and that you could easily prove him wrong given access to the right information, pull out a hundred bucks and take a bet. See how long the certitude lasts. If he doesn't have cash, somebody in the public might.
Who could judge the bet? The root problem is that creationists and scientists have no common higher authority to appeal to, not even that of reason.
Take a cue from the legal system and have evidence (in this case, probably citations mostly) be required to follow certain rules of admissibilty.
Maybe have a referee that you show the sources for all your facts to in advance of the debate. Then if at some point during the debate someone says something that wasn't confirmed with the referee in advance, the referee would interject something like "That's unconfirmed" before allowing the debate to continue. Edit: It might be best to have a team of referees made up of folks from both sides of the debate and maybe a few unaffiliated folks to help everyone keep in mind their purpose and break ties.

For a creationist to publicly debate a college student is to admit that his or her status is roughly on par with that of a college student. Why would any creationist do that? And I'm sure they can come up with a better excuse than "I'm afraid to lose to a student."

Michael Behe seems to be a full professor. Has any professor ever formally debated a college student (excepting classroom instruction), in the history of academics?

The creationists are free to send college students too.
And that highlights the problem: these debates are won or lost on emotion and social cues, and have little to do with truth. Certainly any scientist could win against a creationist college student on facts and reason. But that's not what the debate will be about. There's no one to adjudicate the debates and declare a winner (that is, no one both sides could possibly agree on), including the scientific or Bayesian method. Because of this the progression of debating higher-level opponents (on either side) won't work. In almost every debate both sides will declare that they have won.
Since the scientific community prides itself on its supposition that even the highest-ranked scientist could in principle be proved wrong by a student, one would expect such debates to happen now and then. Otherwise the scientific community isn't living up to its own ethos.
The scientific community? Not adhering to the standards of science when it might cost members status? Stop the presses![1] [1] Or invoke whatever procedure is now used to cancel a current ongoing print run of newspapers under modern production methods.
I don't have a link, but it happens all the time. A few years ago at SCSU we had a formal debate on something or other (legalization of marijuana?) that involved both professors and one or two students.
Perhaps we should pit college students against college students :o)

The danger I see is that the college student will win on logic but lose on rhetoric; the public impression given may well be that the student lost. So the issue then becomes: who is to judge who won the debate?

Train the student to be good in rhetoric then.
6Eliezer Yudkowsky15y
Choose students who are already good at rhetoric. Keep in mind that a professional biologist has the same problem, and that by sending in a prestigious biologist you're already losing the "game" aspect.

The return of the dojo metaphor! And here I thought we had seen the back of it.

Personally, I would go a step further and say that debating popular ideas which are unworthy of debate might be a good way to train bright un-titled college students.

My grandmother, being time-rich and lacking for good conversation, never failed to invite door-to-door prosyletizers into her house, then spend hours telling them how ridiculous their beliefs were. Soon after this behavior became known, one told her he had been placed in charge of training new young missionaries, and asked if she would mind if he brought them around and seeing how they did against her. She didn't, so he did, and continued to until her health took its final turn for the worse.

Unfortunately, the anecdote ends there, so I don't know what the results of the experiment were, or if they are an actual argument for this trial by verbal fire. But I'm sympathetic to the guess that the practice would inculcate surety in those students who didn't give up mid-way: they would have the answers to the common lies "beaten" into them.

In every debate I've heard of, the pro-evolution people believe that the evolution side soundly thrashed the creation side and the pro-creation people believe that the creation side thrashed the evolution side.

This subjectivity over even who won makes debates eminently pointless for convincing anyone of anything.

Why would a high-status creationist have a motive to debate a low-status evolutionist?

And how would that play out? "The scientists aren't really interested in listening to us, all they'll send are college students." Would you agree to debate Behe's proofreader?

But for the purpose of actually getting scientists to hear out the crazy ideas (which are correct every once in a while (EDIT: ID/creationism not being one of those!)) without risking anything, I think this is a great idea.

I think it would be bad PR. Good science, bad PR.

Well then, how about sending a non-biology professor (math, literature[!], engineering, philosophy, etc) who merely has a side interest in biology? (and passes all of EY's suggested vetting) Then you'd be sending someone of equal status, with similar biology credentials (except maybe compared to Behe), and still have the same impressive effect of winning despite having limited experience in the field.
I don't think it's a great idea to imply to the public that scientists are equally competent in all fields. They already have that impression, no need to strengthen it...
Do they have the same impression regarding mathematicians and philosophers?
It's better than "the scientists aren't really interested in listening to us, they won't debate at all", and I don't think professional scientists should feel obliged to spend their time arguing about stuff that was debunked generations ago. And it's something I would have been happy to volunteer for when I was a student. Proposal upvoted.
However, the main problem is that ID people don't really come up with new ideas. They just skim through the existing scientific literature, look for open, unresolved cases (discovered, asked by scientists) and point at them: "See, you can't explain that yet..., therefore ID is true."

So I've turned on the tv to watch a debate on evolution and creationism on CNN (or Fox News). The creationists have sent an older, respectable-looking gentleman in a suit, bible in hand. The evolutionists have sent a scrappy-looking college kid in jeans, barely out of his diapers and studying something fancy-shmancy at the University of Liberal Professors, Berkeley.

A priori, whose side will I be on?

How many people will think: "Is this the best guy the evolutionists have to offer?"

No, the student would be studying something related, such as biology, evo psych, geology; and the university would be a scientific one. Winners don't win by playing dumb.
I know that the student would be studying a related field; that was not the point. I as a hypothetical viewer would not care what the grad student was studying, exactly, I would care that he was only a 20-year old graduate student still studying at a university (that I would assume to be populated with liberal professors). "Winners don't win by playing dumb." And that is why I don't get this proposal. It is assumed that this college student would absolutely destroy the creationist debater and persuade the open-minded and objective audience through sheer, well, persuasiveness. But the audience, unless already completely in favor of evolution, is at least sympathetic to the creationist and interested in their views. This proposal would signal that this experienced debater and high-status leader of a movement is no more than a wet-behind-the-ears, unexperienced student. Doubting listeners would dismiss this fact out of hand and a priori; they will think it condescending to send someone like that to debate someone like this, which it is, to the creationist but especially to the audience. They will then attach less weight to any arguments, however persuasive, the student would make. Biasing your audience against you before the debate has even started is not a viable tactic.
The college student doesn't have to wear jeans...
Yes he does. disrespect is part of the point, and Americans like underdogs and generally don't like young members of the establishment.
Okay, but he's clearly young. I don't see how sending a low-status person to debate a high-status person could ever convince the adherents of the high-status person.
I think the opinions of bystanders are more important.
They are. But that's also where Hans' point is most important. Will the fact that what the student is saying is 'obviously being right' overcome the flair, status and woo of his opponent in influence on the audience? I'd be very surprised.

FWIW, I've tested out what it's like to debate random people (on YouTube) while taking the ID side. Even when I got people who were obviously intelligent and well-versed in biology, I had exchanges like this:

"If you reject evolution, what's your alternate theory?"


"Ignorance isn't a theory!"

"Considering that it predicts the data equally well [I had claimed evolution doesn't actually imply what we see] and has a lower Kolmogorov complexity, it most certainly is a theory, if for no other reason that its superior... (read more)

First, you devil's advocacy is actually considerably more articulate and thought out then even the least ignorant ID advocate. Second, the most K-complex theory of all is that some mind designed everything.
True. I should have clarified: in that particular debate I was simply attacking the science, not defending ID.
Attacking the science is WAY easier than defending ID. We should always make sure to distinguish between the two things when talking to creationists. Most of their "arguments" are exactly of this "have the cake and eat it too" variety (cake=attack evo, eating=defend ID afterwards).
Is it? You haven't seen me be a devil's advocate for ID yet, have you? ;-)
It's uncomputable, so has no role to play in the epistemology of science.

And if Michael Behe manages to defeat the college student, then he can go on to debate a PhD, and if that doesn't work, Behe gets to talk to P. Z. Myers, and in the unlikely event Behe manages not to get his butt handed to him by P. Z. Myers, he would have earned the right to debate Richard Dawkins.

And who decides the winner? I fear we would end up with something like this:

http://www.theonion.com/content/video/new_live_poll_allows_pundits_to :)

Doesn't it kind of defeat the purpose though, when you have to apply nearly as much filtering to the potential science representatives as a PhD program does?

(Btw, a lot of your hedging about qualified debaters seems inspired by my misgivings about taking a random TA.)

0Eliezer Yudkowsky15y
Well, not literally inspired. I originally wrote the post before you wrote that comment. :)
Suuuure you did! Think you can prove the necessary conditional independence? ;-)

I'm a first-year grad student, and I'd be more than happy to take down any ID'er that crosses my path while dressed in jeans.

Jeans are comfy.

EDIT: Oh. I don't have a biology degree. Nevermind then.

I'd be weary of going dressed in selfish jeans.
"wary" ... and "genes" (proving I'm a humorless pedant)
Well, he said "jeans", so it actually makes sense to be wear-y about them :-P

I haven't sifted through the comments fully to see if it's been addressed, but I think it's very important to clearly separate the creationism amongst scientists vs. creationism in the public sphere. I am not at all worried about creationism making inroads amongst biologists, paleontologists, etc. What I am worried about is a bad idea catching on in the public arena where things like the education curriculum in public schools are decided. The perception of people not in the know could be that scientists are dodging the debate. It's all very tedious, but it... (read more)

They could also let Myers speak, but also insist that Kasparov be invited to advocate "new chronology" or the like.

Do they really get that much mileage out of saying that they debated famous scientists? It's a nice rhetorical flourish, but what reason do we have to think it's a major driver of success?

Without debates, it is much easier for adherents of dogmatic philosophies to stay in an echo chamber of support.

They want the word "controversy". It sells textbooks in Texas.

Edit: just realized that the above comment by wedrifid gives pretty much a summary of mine.

Scientists are handicapped in these debates, whatever their status. Their goal is to convince the debate's audience using scientific facts and logic. The goal of the creationists, however, is to convince the audience by whatever means work best.

So they will lie, invent and suppress facts, avoid or ignore questions, use ad hominem attacks, and generally use every kind of psychological or rhetorical tactic they can. And they're quite good at this, so that only trained ... (read more)

Are they quite good? where do you get this belief? quite good compared to what?
I took this belief to be implied by the OP and all the anti-creationist activity out there. If they weren't good at what they did, we wouldn't need to debate them, they would fall apart on their own (or at least not pose a danger of converting anyone who wasn't already a creationist). Of course that's no proof. Maybe they are no good at what they do, but no-one has bothered to really check this, and (some) scientists pay them attention because they perceive them as a (social) challenge. I agree that we should look for evidence first.
I think that this is enough to explain everything that we see. This is not evidence against their effectiveness, but that's my null hypothesis. I think that it's telling that when the ACLU wanted to challenge the TN law against teaching evolution, they chose Scopes, whose school district had assigned him a book containing evolution. The creationists, and perhaps their opponents, cared more about the nominal law than the facts on the ground. But when Scopes challenged them by asking his students to turn him, they had to prosecute. (I certainly agree that they lie; I'm just skeptical that they're particularly effective lies. I think it's better modeled as selecting people who are better at lying to themselves than people who think about what lies are effective.)
Well, if you consider that most Americans still believe God created the universe, they seem to have done rather well so far.
Most people simply don't have beliefs about God, creation, etc, just loyalty signals. You could call rhetoric framing the argument as loyalty signals "deliberate antirationality," but it's quite different from lying. It's not at all clear to me that it's deliberate; I suspect it's more along the lines of asking themselves "what can I say here to reassure myself?" and it being well-tuned to the audience...if it even is well-tuned, a claim for which I don't see much evidence (either for or against). I guess "so that only trained rationalists might be completely immune" does pin down "quite good" in absolute terms. But I think it's false. I think most people who profess belief in evolution do so for completely irrational loyalty reasons, yet are immune to creationists.
I agree. But that describes the average creationist-follower. I was talking about the kind of high-profile creationists who work full-time at promoting their ideas that tend to be mentioned on Pharyngula. From the descriptions there of what they say and do, I have gained the impression that they often lie; e.g., by presenting an argument while ignoring and never answering the objections given at previous debates; or by saying unsupported things like "evolution is the subject of a controversy in science". I don't live in or near the US, and all I know about US-specific creationists I learned from anti-creationist sources like Pharyngula, Dawkins' books, etc. So taking them as examples, I'm disproportionately aware of the highest-profile creationists. But they at least do certainly lie.
Are you saying that it is not the case that "evolution is the subject of a controversy in science"?
Yes, in the sense used (or implied) by creationists. It is not the case that there is significant disagreement among scientists (or among facts) about the proposition that the diversity of life on earth developed entirely by a process of evolution involving (mostly random) variation and (at least some) fitness selection.

There's the specific sense of "debate," which are talking events where people on different sides of an issue argue with each other in front of an audience. Then there's the more general sense of "debate," which is a long-term public discussion in which people on different sides of an issue make arguments in various formats (books, blog posts, radio interviews, etc.) and respond to some of each other's arguments. "Refusal to debate" in the general sense seems like a bad thing - it's worth publicly knocking down their argument... (read more)

Why do you think that someone will actually make this happen? Many sensible things do not happen because there is no party with the incentives to do it.

That's a good point. I don't think the creationists would agree to such an arrangement, because they can only lose or break even: if he wins the debate, people will say "Great, he can out-argue some random college student, so what?"; if he loses, people will say "Hah! He can't even win a debate with some random college student!" There would seem to be very little incentive for a prominent creationist to submit to that.
I'm sure there're plenty of students who would be up for it though.

Find some bright ambitious young college student working toward a biology degree, someone who's read Pharyngula and the talk.origins FAQ.

I'm a first-year undergraduate at Grand Valley State University, and I am considering biology as a major. I could read both of those. What do you say?

The talk.origins FAQ is an easy read, and it's particularly quick if you're already familiar with its content.

I 95% agree with this argument. 

The one exception I'd make is... I think you under-estimate Behe. He already had a paper debate with Ken Miller, a professor flush with accolades, where Behe argued that the TTSC descended from the flagellum and Miller argued for the reverse. 

Additional research conducted after their debate seems to support Behe. Now granted, Miller really should have known enough to realize that an adaptation for parasitizing complex plants would not have evolved before complex plants, themselves, did. But he didn't and Behe score... (read more)

Debates of this kind are an exercise in effectively employing rhetoric, not reason. Let them debate college students that we weren't expecting to actually think rationally anyway.

Proficiencies at rhetoric and reason are not mutually exclusive. And despite the common lawyers' saying, reason does matter in a public debate.
Nor are smoking and marathon running. Mutual exclusivity is not a claim I would make. I wouldn't even predict a negative correlation. Just a trend towards negative causality. If a brain is constantly rewarded for employing whatever lines of argument it thinks it can get away with then it will become more proficient at doing just that.
Rhetoric skills are like a knife: If you have a knife, you can use it to kill people or you can use it to prevent people from being killed, but possessing it will not kill you, with admitted rare exceptions.
But if you've spent your life convincing people to embrace nonviolence, you throw the knife away to save your reputation.
The analogy is not a useful one. In this context it is the killing that is desirable while the use of the knife is the problem. I would prefer people didn't believe stupid things. All else being equal I would prefer to not rely on the exploitation of cognitive biases and weaknesses in reasoning in order to do so. There are cases where this is useful. When I suggested 'let them debate college students that we weren't expecting to actually think rationally anyway' I mean just that. Most people, even most scientifically minded people, I expect to arrive at accurate conclusions through the social pressure of the institutions we have in place rather than actual rational thinking. With those people by all means throw them out to play word games with crackpots if it benefits whatever cause is valued. But for myself I know that the better I become at arguing with rhetorical tricks the more likely I am to stick to false conclusions.
Proper rhetoric is useful to prove points that are rational or irrational. if i write liek dis no matter how smart my point is u wont care no matters how rational u think u r the presentation of facts and stuff will matter. u dont listen to people who cant show da fact to u rite, u ignore em. Rhetoric is not about getting people to believe stupid things; it's about knowing how to persuade people to believe what you want them to believe. If what you believe is well-supported by evidence, your rhetorical approach will probably be quite rational. If what you want them to believe is contradicted by evidence, your rhetorical approach will probably need to be anti-rational or else simply dishonest. Persuading people can either advance rationality or inhibit it. As an obvious example, you can persuade people to think rationally, and you can persuade people that they should eschew rational thinking. Rhetorical skills are the tool you use, not the outcome.
You don't sound like someone well-versed in what rhetoric is about. It has been closely linked with reason from the beginning - indeed, it is from rhetoric that the discipline of logic first sprang, since reason is so vital to rhetoric.
On the other hand, we have this. Rhetoric is indeed a knife, not necessarily on the side of truth in the wrong hands.
The personal comment is neither necessary nor accurate. Do not assume that I reject rhetoric and debate in general merely because I have deployed soldiers against them in a battle for one particular territory. It is clear that I am comfortable engaging in this debate. I am also employing far more from the body of rhetorical techniques than the strict subset of cold logic. It may be that I disagree with you on just which category of debating situations and contexts are useful vs a recipe for bad epistemic hygene. But my assertion that arguments where the implicit reward structure is too far divorced from accuracy are a recipe for bad habits of thought is hardly controversial.
Surely causality is correlation? I expect rhetoric and reason to be positively correlated, largely through intelligence. Do you expect that, holding intelligence constant, there is a negative correlation?
Absolutely not. But I must admit that this is the first time I've seen the error go in this direction! Consider the below (with the obvious translation to causal/correlation jargon): A = y*noise - x*B + C B = z*noise + C That seems to be a safe assumption. Not particularly. An expectation on that relationship isn't implied by my reasoning and here and there are too many other likely important variables at play for me to trust anything I came up with. I take it as implied, by the way, that such things as as education and personality type were to be held constant. By virtue of describing education as crystallised intelligence or otherwise. If those aren't controlled for obviously the correlation would be positive.
Could you explain this, please? I don't think many people understand.
It is possible to have a negative influence on something while also being positively correlated with it. For example, tax-paid-this-financial-year is positively correlated with net worth despite being a negative contribution. (At least, it is sure to be once we control for legal expenses!) The equations just point roughly to how (with the right x) a set could be produced where B tends to have a negative causal influence on A despite being positively correlated. I'm not sure how useful they are in understanding the flaw in the statement "surely causality is correlation". But then, I also would have thought "um... no?" to be more than sufficient. The only interpretation I can make of that claim that doesn't seem completely ridiculous is if he means 'an overriding dominant causal influence will guarantee correlation'. Even then, it's not what he said and it doesn't remotely fit the context.
Ahhh, excellent, thankyou. The original sense would be that intelligence makes one good at rhetoric and logic, but practising rhetoric then makes one worse at logic. My personal experience (weakly) confirms this.

Comes a day, when a creationist is hell bent on having a debate to prove how rationalists/biologists are ignorant, and that day, we will send a college-student-rationalist--there is no need to go out there and bat for Darwin, but we would act in defense if required to.

this would viscerally answer what the scientific community thinks of creationism

But is it good to viscerally express this opinion? Some people will get the scorn and react badly to it.

These debates are rarely purely rational; emotion has a big role to play. The creationists often express scorn towards science and that doesn't harm their cause. I think that if scientists don't express their own scorn (in moderation :-), the audience is liable to perceive their attitude as respectful or deferential towards creationism.
An audience is also liable to perceive actually accepting a debate as a sign of some respect too. As though there is some sort of plausible doubt which argument could help sort out. Or, thinking socially, as though the creationist position has sufficient status in your eyes as to warrant even consider a rival.

The point is not that we convince them of evolution. Who cares? The point is that they become full-blown rationalists who think for themselves. Let's set our standards a little higher and look at the fundamental causes of irrationality (the education system). Let's set our sights a little higher.

Creationists don't have to debate college students - they have Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christoper Hitchens, Sam Harris, P Z Myers, Robert Wright - who all seem quite prepared to stoop down to their level as part of some kind of "gutter outreach" program.

There is a good point hidden here: they can indeed debate someone like Christopher Hitchens, a respected man of letters, who, though not scientifically trained, is adept enough at exposing creationism for the futile folly it is.
0Eliezer Yudkowsky15y
Some of these people are nonstoopers. I don't know if all of them are.
They "stoop" - in the sense of writing a lot of material on the topic. It seems a shame to waste so many science writers on the area. If the anti-science brigade had aimed to waste the time of the science enthusiasts with unscientific trivia - in order to prevent them from leading and educating real young scientists from the front - I would have to say they had won. Rarely have so many science enthusiasts expended so much time and energy on such garbage. I particularly lament the loss of Dawkins. His latest book lays out the evidence for an established scientific theory - for the sake of the ignorant American hordes. That's two whole books from Britain's leading science writer that target those in the scientific gutter. I would rather people like him showed the way forwards from the front.
Huh? None of those people debate creationists.
Sure they do. Most of them have even written full length books on the topic of how theistic religion is bullshit. It seems like a pretty dead point to me. Scientists have not had any truck with god for a hundred years or so now. Scientifically speaking, it's rather like writing books on how the earth is round. It's not a scientific issue - and hasn't been for a long time now. It is more a matter for educators and politicians.

Considering how many people in the world still believe in creationism, writing popular books about its faults is a worthy mission. It is not the same as debating creationists, though. Debating someone gives them the chance to positively espouse their ideas, whereas in writing about those ideas you can take a purely critical view. I mean, The God Delusion is no more a debate with theists than Atlas Shrugged is a debate with communists.

"Yes, of course I'd much rather have been spending my time working on consciousness and the brain, or on the evolution of cooperation, for instance, or free will, but I felt a moral and political obligation to drop everything for a few years and put my shoulder to the wheel doing a dirty job that I thought somebody had to do." - Daniel Dennett. Yes, someone had to do it - but since the job resembles mucking out the public toilets, it really shouldn't have fallen to Daniel Dennett.
Dennett's book had nothing to do with creationism.
Uh, check "creationism" in the index.
OK, I did. A page and a half, in the middle of something explicitly labelled (on the previous page) as a digression, explaining that he isn't going to waste space arguing against creationism. One endnote, supporting that with some pointers to places where, if you want argument against creationism, you can find it. One endnote saying that a certain kind of behaviour, allegedly engaged in by many theists and annoying to Dennett, is also characteristic of the advocates of "Intelligent Design". That's it. Since your point was (apparently) that Dennett wasted a lot of time and effort addressing creationism, I'm having trouble seeing how this supports it. (Well, actually, what happened is that someone said that people like Dennett don't waste time engaging with creationism, and you said "but they write books attacking theistic religion" (I'm paraphrasing, I hope not misleadingly) as if that were the same thing, and in what follows you've repeatedly responded to comments about creationism in ways that would kinda make sense if they were comments about theism instead. So I don't know whether pointing out one more time that Dennett's book was not about creationism will help...)
Many people seem to use the term "Creationism" as though they think it is a synonym for "young earth creationism" - the 6,000 year squad. If you look at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creationism ...what it says is: "Creationism is the religious belief that humanity, life, the Earth, and the universe were created in some form by a supernatural being or beings, commonly a single deity." Many followers of Abrahamic religions appear to think that. I think this explains some of the misunderstandings in this thread. For example, the apparent controversy over whether Dinesh D’Souza is a creationist. He has written: ‘the Genesis enigma is solved, and its account of creation is vindicated not as some vague parable but as a strikingly accurate account of how the universe came to be’. That sort of thing makes him a creationist in my view. However, he is no young earth creationist.
If you define "creationism" so broadly that it encompasses all theistic religion then I will readily agree that yes, one of the things Dennett's book is about is "creationism". Congratulations. On the other hand, that fact is then of little relevance to the question of whether Dawkins and Dennett and others like them should, or do, "refuse to debate creationists" since (everybody, I suggest, knows) the word as used in that phrase is not meant to be equivalent to "theists".
Whaat?!? Creationism is about a supernatural creator of the universe and man. Theism is about the existence of god - sometimes an interventionist god. They are different concepts. Theism is typically a broader concept than creationism - since you can believe in a god that answers prayers without also believing that she created the universe. The inaccurate conclusion that I have these concepts muddled together seems to be without a basis in anything I have said. I do not know where you are getting it from :-(
I'm getting it from the fact that (as I said earlier) you've taken a statement about "creationists" and disputed it on the basis that the corresponding statement with "theists" in place of "creationists" is false.
Right - well, leaving aside the whole issue that I did no such thing, that appears to be some faulty logic you have there - creationists are theists (if you believe that god created the universe and man, you at least believe in god) - but not all theists are creationists.
Uh, my point was that the previous poster's claim that "Dennett's book had nothing to do with creationism" was flat wrong. Dennett's book is about the Abrahamic religions (mainly Christianity, but also Islam and Judaism) of which creationism is an instance - and he explicitly gives a long string of pointers to explain the problems with it in the book.
It seems that we understand different things by "had nothing to do with". Suppose someone writes a book about the rise and fall of Nazism in Germany, with a particular emphasis on where Hitler's hatred of the Jews came from and how he was able to get so many other people to share it, or at least act as if they did. And suppose that at one point in the book there is a brief digression in which the author says: yes, there are some Holocaust deniers out there, and of course their position is dead wrong, and here are a few pointers to places where you can find out why, and now if you don't mind I'm going to get back to discussing some actual history, and what a bizarre nuisance it is that I had to spend a page talking about that nonsense. -- If someone then claimed that the author of this book was putting a lot of time and effort into refuting Holocaust denialism, and someone else said "don't be ridiculous; the book has nothing to do with Holocaust denialism, it's about the rise of Nazism and the road to the Final Solution", which of them would you think more reasonable?
An irrelevant question, due to a faulty analogy: creationism is a component of many of the Abrahamic religions - whereas Holocaust denialism was not part of Nazi Germany.
The problem is that debates are a dime a dozen while bestsellers are one in a million. Anyone can debate a creationist. Not many can write a compelling and popular book refuting creationism. And it's important enough that someone like Dennett doing it may save many other people the time of trying.
It still seems to me rather like getting Einstein to teach Kindergarden kids. Yes, he can teach classes twice as big as a regular teacher. However, aren't there one or two other things he could be getting on with?
If the kindergarten kids controlled his research funding, spent half a trillion dollars on the military every year and were in charge of deciding who got to press the nuclear button, I'm sure he would be quite happy to speak to them, and I wouldn't stand in his way. Teaching science is not a frivolous issue that can be left to those who are merely good at it, especially when your potential audience is not a classroom or an auditorium but everyone who can read. Religions certainly don't confine their best assets to their studies; they put their most persuasive shysters front and center. It isn't just Michael Behe and the Discovery Institute that scientific writers are up against - it's Billy Graham and sermons on Sunday television, too. In any case, individual scientists aren't that important. They seem important because they got there first, but so what? Someone was going to discover relativity, and it didn't have to be Einstein. If there were two or three or four times as many scientists thinking about the same problems at the time, it may well not have been him. And if Dennett convinces more people to do or support science, he might find his work a lot easier. Or he might be replaced entirely by people who are way better at it than him ;)
And, in fact, Einstein did put quite a bit of work into political activism, which on the face of it would be as much a waste of his talents as teaching small children, because he thought the danger of nuclear war was very great and that he might be a useful advocate against it.
Yes, they debate with theists all the time. Are you really going to make me demonstrate that theists are not the same as biblical creationists and that the debate over the existence of God is not the same as the debate over evolution?
E.g.: "Dinesh D'Souza Debates Daniel Dennett" * http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iw7J15TeDG4 "Richard Dawkins and Edgar Andrews" * http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_jjO7dG2Tc
The subject of the Dennett-D'Souza debate is "Is God a man-made invention?". It is not "Did God create the world in seven days?" The Dawkins-Andrews debate is 23 years old. The description of the video actually says Dawkins no longer debates creationists. See here.
Richard Dawkins argued with Ben Stein in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008), although he was duped into believing it would just be an interview about religion. And interestingly enough, he admitted that there was a non-trivial chance that life on earth was designed (excactly the IDers' claim!), albet with the designers themselves having arisen by a process like evolution if that were the case. What exactly is the epistemological status of, "I think life on earth could have been designed by a higher intelligence, but, like, not when speaking to a creationist"?
1. The IDers' claim is not exactly "that there is a non-trivial chance that life on earth was designed". It's that there's compelling evidence that life on earth actually was designed. 2. Although the IDers generally say that ID-as-such has nothing to say about the identity of the designer, it's notable that (1) they are almost all conservative Christians and (2) probably the single most prominent ID advocate, William Dembski, has said in so many words that "Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John's Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory". (Though there is some reason to think that Michael Behe thinks some features of life on earth were intelligently designed by the devil -- at least, that seems to me the most charitable interpretation of what he's said about the malaria parasite.) 3. I would be interested to know if you have any evidence for the claim that when talking to creationists Dawkins denies the possibility that life on earth could have been designed (by some other entity with finite power and knowledge that arose evolutionarily, of course). I think you might perhaps want to be a bit more careful about your own epistemic status...
RAOW! Did I signal that I'm on the wrong "team" there? FWIW, Robin Hanson brought up the same thing here. Yes, the probabilities are different, but critics of ID consistently, incessantly argue that ID and related concepts are not just wrong, but incoherent and totally outside the realm of science. Don't you think it's significant that Dawkins -- without probably realizing it -- just admitted that there's a 1% chance of this incoherent, unscientific idea being true? Nope, not a good enough reason for refusing to address the case as presented without reference to the persons presenting it. Well of course Dawkin's doesn't deny it when talking to Ben Stein ;-) But if you're asking if there's evidence Dawkins changes his claims when talking to creationists, well, sure, for one thing, he changes his claims to "..." when talking to creationists by virtue of not debating them. But as for the fundamental issue: all across YouTube and the blogosphere, anti-creationists (sorry, don't know a better term to use, suggest a better one rather than criticize) were absolutely livid that Stein presented a Dawkins interview that he got under false pretenses and that this somehow makes the claims of the interviewees less significant. Now tell me, for purposes of ascertaining what Dawkins believes, why does it matter whether Dawkins made a statement in an interview with a creationist vs. in an interview "about" religion? So that's why I ask about the epistemological status of "I believe this, but not in a way that creationists are ever supposed to hear". The point is, when people like Dawkins so horribly fail at the use of probabilities, it makes it easier for people like me to be a devil's advocate for creationists.
No, you said something I thought was obviously unreasonable. There's a difference. Sorry, but if "related concepts" includes the possibility that life on earth might have been designed (really truly without any implication that the designer need be supernatural) then I don't believe you. (Two examples of such "related concepts": In The God Delusion -- notable among Dawkins's works, of course, for its consistent open-mindedness towards religious ideas[1] -- Dawkins says, in so many words, (a) that it's very likely that there are intelligent aliens whose powers we would readily classify as godlike, and (b) that if a genuine instance of "irreducible complexity" could be found, then indeed Darwinian evolution would be dead.) OK, so you don't consider it a good enough reason. However, if Dawkins does -- and it's not hard to see why he might -- it seems to me that your sneering at his "epistemologicical status" is un-called-for. Excuse me, but are you even slightly serious? (Perhaps I've made the mistake of responding seriously to what's just 100% trolling, in which case I hereby apologize to anyone whose time I've wasted.) In what possible world is there any equivalence, as far as "epistemological status" goes, between (1) "Dawkins says one thing to one set of people and another incompatible thing to another set of people" -- your earlier assertion -- and (2) "Dawkins says one thing to one set of people and doesn't talk to another set of people"? What, please, does that have to do with Dawkins's opinions, or practices, or attitudes, or honesty, or intellectual integrity? I'm not aware that anyone has said it does. Would you care to make your argument a bit more explicit at this point? Er, is it just me or is this a complete change of subject? Why should Dawkins, or anyone else, care how easy it is for someone to be a devil's advocate for creationists? If what you actually mean is that it makes it easier for creationists to be advocates for creationists, then that
Yes, you've definitely been saying things that could be twisted for the purpose of gaining status at your expense.
I warned that I've played devils advocate on this issue. I've argued a position held by Robin Hanson. And I'm on Less-muthaf---in'-Wrong-dot-com. Doesn't that get me a little leeway on the tribalism?
Afraid not. It is my role (as Machiavelli's advocate) to be as unreasonable in my interpretation of your position as I think I can get away with. 'Devil's Advocacy' is seldom fully appreciated, even with warnings and it is (or would be) my role to encourage that. You can only appeal to Devil's Advocacy so many times without appearing insecure, a defeat from which I would benefit far more than in merely proving you to be out-of-group. No, it doesn't matter if your arguments are good ones. It doesn't matter if your contribution adds much needed rigour and balance to the discussion. It doesn't matter if your efforts probing and challenging allows the in group to more clearly understand and communicate their position. Being a team player isn't about doing what's good for the team, it's about playing the team. That Robin Hanson has argued for your position helps, but once again I get to benefit from any doubt. On topics that are difficult or unintuitive Robin or Eliezer can expect effort to be expended understanding them before their controversial claims are harvested for status. But the topics are still difficult to understand or controversial so take some time to become a norm. Until that time you are still a ripe target if you express them yourself without the high status advocacy evidenced somewhere in the context. But be careful. Make too much effort to convey that you are supporting the position of the high status guy and I can insinuate that you are a sycophant. Yes, it's absurd to claim that you are both out-of-group and a sycophantic in-grouper, but an even moderately competent debater will get away with such nonsense. A token effort at subtlety and a couple of posts buffer in between are more than enough. After all, nobody is going to stand up for the out-of-group guy. That usually applies even if 'stand up for' is replaced with 'even become conscious of the absurdity of the accusations levelled at'. I'm afraid playing Devil's Advocate just gives wannabe-an
I'm not convinced our barriers for entry are all that high.
The tribalist I complained about wasn't a low-karma newcomer ;-) (snark removed)
I would be interested to know what, as a matter of general principle, you think is sufficient evidence to justify calling someone a "tribalist".
He's been saying that for years - but it's simply not true - e.g. see: "Richard Dawkins interviews creationist John Mackay" * http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YorA7046Klo
Interviewing someone is not the same as debating them. Dawkins interviewed all sorts of crazy people for his recent TV series "The root of all evil?" and "The enemies of reason"; doing so did not give them credibility in the way that holding a debate with one of them might have.
Indeed - Dawkins' team controlled the camera, and could edit at they chose fit. No doubt any points the opponents might have made to give themselves credibility were edited out. Seriously, these are often called "informal debates". I would grant that they are not formal debates. They consist of animated discussions between the parties over a debating point, held in public. Even writing books enters into the public debate on the topic. My point is that science writers are spending their time on a point of no scientific interest. Dennet was doing science - but it was a relatively obscure branch of sociology associated with how people acquire and perpetuate their delusions - not a terribly inspiring area.
You've now completely lost the point of the initial discussion. Eliezer proposed having creationists debate students rather than credentialed scientists so as to maintain the institutions that sustain the marketplace of ideas while simultaneously making it clear that one should not consider creationists and scientists equally credible. Your initial comment was that creationists don't need to debate students since they can debate all these famous atheist science writers. You haven't been able to provide any recent (read: in the last two decades) examples of any of the people you named debating evolution with creationists in a formal setting. You seem bothered by the fact that the people you listed spend so much time dealing with creationism. But even if they were engaged in work on creationism for significant periods of time that doesn't change the fact that they aren't willing to engage creationists on an equal footing. Thus, the rationale for Eliezer's proposal remains. It strikes me that you may have just wished to complain about public intellectuals spending time on creationism and that you comment as such on this post because it was related. But if thats the case you really need to clarify that because as it stands you comments make very little sense in the context of Eliezer's initial post. Look at the karma, its time to update. Of course if this was you intent it still doesn't change the fact that your list of public intellectuals at fault is really strange. Most of them aren't biologists. Most of them work on issues unrelated to creationism. A few do more work on interpretations of evolution, but in that case the work is related to important questions in philosophy of science and philosophy of biology. The only person you named that seems to spend a preponderance of his time explaining basic science is Dawkins. And I don't really see any reason to think Dawkins would be doing better than average work in research biology.
Re: You haven't been able to provide any recent (read: in the last two decades) examples of any of the people you named debating evolution with creationists in a formal setting. Your claim about my actions is inaccurate - and I expect it is because you need to familiarize yourself with the top of this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creationism If you want more evidence, try this: "Creationism vs. Humanism: Christopher Hitchens vs. Jay Richards" * http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2rp_VB7MCE This guy was formally debated last month - he's an evangelical Christian who believes in the virgin birth, immaculate conception, resurrection, the holy trinity, god's covenant with the jews, a designed universe - and is from the Discovery Institute. A big enough nitwit for you?
Re: Your initial comment was that creationists don't need to debate students since they can debate all these famous atheist science writers. No it wasn't. What I actually said was: "Creationists don't have to debate college students - they have Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christoper Hitchens, Sam Harris, P Z Myers, Robert Wright - who all seem quite prepared to stoop down to their level as part of some kind of "gutter outreach" program." I didn't say the "stooping" was done via formal debates. That was an inference on your part. My list was of people who had recently bothered to write whole books on the subject - plus P Z Myers - who also apparently spends an enormous amount of time on the issue.
I think my paraphrase was more than satisfactory. The topic under discussion is debates with creationists. You've claimed that the term debate should include books, blog posts and disagreeable interviews. But that definition is over broad for purposes of this discussion because it includes mediums that don't come with the 'giving credibility' issues which brought about this post. The whole post was about why it would be best to pair creationists with students- all of the examples were like this. You don't get pairing like that with people writing books. The whole back drop of all of this is several people leaving bloggingheads.tv because creationists were debated there. The people who left bh.tv have probably blogged about creationist issues before- but if that counted as debating in our context then it would be weird for them to quit blogging heads over someone else doing the debating. Btw, of the people you listed only one has written a book on the subject of creationism. That book was published in 1986. (I think I'm done with this thread as I've done my due diligence correcting errors.)
I don't really see why you don't get it: EY says creationists can debate college students. TT points out that they are already getting plenty of attention - as a result of all the TLC lavished on them by the "new atheists". They appear on atheist documentaries, interview atheists on their documentaries, and generally bathe in the resulting media circus. There are many books written by learned men explaining why traditional religion is nonsense. Observers might be forgiven for thinking that there was some kind of real controversy here - instead of just a plague of ignorance and superstition.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky15y
You don't get it. Different forms of engagement cause different amounts of prestige to flow. Writing a book mocking UFO cults doesn't transfer prestige to UFO cults, but debating their leader in business suits does.
I am not clear on where I am supposed to have claimed equal effects on prestige. People writing serious books about how there are no UFOs would probably have much the same effect as if they wrote serious books about how there is no God - it would make people think that there was a real issue there that was worth discussing and spending time on. Ridicule is a bit different. Books by comedians taking the piss out of religious idiocy would not induce the same type of comments from me. For example, note that Pat Condell [http://www.patcondell.net/] was not in my list - even though he evidently spends a lot of time on religious issues.
Science writers aren't scientists. They aren't looking for scientific interest. They're trying to educate the broad public about science. The most important subjects, to them, are the "most wrong" beliefs contradicting science that are common in the audience. They correctly try to fix those, even though the beliefs' alleged theories ("a GOD created the universe in 7 days 6000 years ago!") aren't of any scientific interest. Your point is perhaps that scientists shouldn't become science writers because it's lower-status or less beneficial work. But people very rarely choose work according to what is objectively most beneficial to humanity...
Someone rather more sceptical might propose that these authors are interested in selling books - are inspired by The God Delusion's 1.5 million copies, and want in on the debate - irrespective of its scientific relevance - or lack thereof. We have certainly have had a recent rush of top science writers towards the theistic gutter. I preferred it when they were talking about science. Maybe the sheer number of people in the gutter mean it is an interesting place to go. However, from my perspective, engaging with the theists gives them undeserved credibility, and effectively takes science writers out of circulation - by getting them to deal with mindless drivel all day. In education, the most conventional structure is a ladder, with people teaching those a bit below them. Here we see those at the top reaching down to teach those at the bottom. Anyone can teach those at the bottom - it's easy. The problem with those at the top doing it is it takes them away from their regular roles - at the top is important - it's the leading edge, where progress happens. If this were a plot by theists to take the science enthusiasts out of their usual orbits - from where they could teach and inspire the brightest of the next generation - I would have to say it is going well.
Anyone can teach at them, maybe. It's easy enough to tell them, "there is no god, and evolution is true". The hard thing is to make the masses at the bottom rung believe it. Even our best rhetoricians and scientists from way up the ladder have been having only meager success (measured against the amount of people in the world who profess belief in creationism).
Sure: that's one of the properties of blind faith - no amount of reasoned argument helps. They recognize that it is the devil talking - and they know his reputation as a debater - so the fingers go in their ears and we hear the "la-la" song.