(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.
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.
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??
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.
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 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?
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.
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?"
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)
And who decides the winner? I fear we would end up with something like this:
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.)
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 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.
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)
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.
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?
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.
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.
But is it good to viscerally express this opinion? Some people will get the scorn and react badly to it.
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.
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.