Recently, I saw a tweet from a fellow skeptic that I follow, @Skepticasm (Adrienne Myers). If you don’t know or follow her, you should. Though we don’t always agree on everything, indicative by this post, she is very interesting, writes wonderfully well, and isn’t afraid to curse in order to emphasize her point (a trinity of qualities I consider fucking essential).
I considered posting the entire conversation – still available on twitter if one is truly compelled to look for it – however, I decided that instead, I would simply explain what happened. Nevertheless, here is the original post that I responded to.
@Skepticasm: Treating creationists as INTELLECTUAL EQUALS doesn’t reaffirm their beliefs or lend legitimacy, it makes them LISTEN.
Despite the 140 character limit of Twitter, a personal effort was made to ensure none of my responses to her would be seen as arrogant, short-tempered, short-sighted, or “scoffing” to the idea of supporting creationists. Remember, it is I who follows her on Twitter. I very much respect and value her opinions. I was also interested to hear her elaborate on this!
My general inquiry was assembled and became focused by her words, not mine. What I mean by this is that my original response was not my final question, once I had pieced together the specific problem I had with the post. Eventually, I asked what I thought to be my real question:
How do you treat someone as an intellectual equal without assigning validity to their argument?
Interestingly, the response was essentially: ‘read my blogpost for clarification of my views on this’ and “@Skepticasm: @Up_Hill_Battle Pretend their views are as valid as yours. That’s what it comes down to if the honest truth is that you’re laughing at them.”
(I like Adrienne, so I’ll blame Twitter for her short reply). So, I read her blog on the matter (yes, all 4000 words of it; and most of the comments).
I have some problems with her position on debating creationists. Firstly, if you read only to the second paragraph, she states that: “debates are about rhetoric rather than facts”. I genuinely want to disagree with this point. Yet, when I watch some of the best science/religion debates YouTube has to offer, “winning” comes down to which side was able to convince the audience more. Support polls are taken before and after, and the side with the higher increased change in support wins*. Are the views of the audience being changed by facts? Again, I truly want to say yes – but most people would not be qualified to fact check the majority of what is said during the one or two hours of the debate (even with the smartest of smart phones).
So, while I whole-heartedly want to disagree with Adrienne on this point, I cannot. However, she goes on to say such things as:
Ignoring creationists publicly risks forsaking reasonable minds whose circumstances do not already include training in critical thinking.
Refusing to debate holds rhetorical value, too. I believe it’s potentially extraordinarily damaging to the image of science and the goals of skepticism.
I see her point, but I’m not convinced. My position is better expressed by Dawkins who explains that he doesn’t debate creationists for the same reason he doesn’t debate those who believe in fairies, leprechauns, or the Easter bunny. Creationism simply has a larger following (though the Easter bunny probably comes in a VERY close second if we count the votes of children), so why treat it differently? Validity isn’t affirmed or nullified by the size of a following; that’s faith’s job.
It has also been summarized as such by Brian Dunning. The cited quotation can also be found in Adrienne’s blog:
The primary reason I oppose debates is that… The very nature of a debate presents science as if it is merely a competing opinion. When we agree to a debate, we are agreeing to drag science down to the level of a view that competes with pseudoscience.
This may be the distinction between our opinions. I don’t have a problem with damaging the image of science in the eyes of creationists; whether or not they can be convinced of their own ignorance. I do, however, have a problem debating on a playing field that is slanted heavily in favour of those who can spin truths using pseudoscience and win audience members with charismatic catch phrases. I’m also of the position that science has nothing to prove; as facts are not predicated on belief like faith is. That is a debilitating quality for faith; or at least it should be. Yet, as discussed earlier, debates are not won by facts, but feelings – another great reason why science should not debate pseudoscience; and why treating someone who is not your intellectual equal as such does you no favours. Please note, I think remaining polite is fundamentally critical. Being an asshole-scientist gains no ground either, in and outside of debates.
Ms. Myers also wrote several times that she asked many direct questions to scientists but that “NO ONE WOULD ANSWER MY DAMN QUESTIONS!”**. Note: It is not stated to what degree these scientists were educated, nor whether her questions were in line with their respective areas of expertise***.
Yet, I think she’s addressed the real problem here. The question is not whether we should or should not debate creationists; as science has far more to lose than to gain; it is how do we position ourselves to give lectures that address the questions of young inquisitive minds. Minds that evolved under circumstances such that they, as Adrienne put it, “do not already include training in critical thinking”.
Ms. Myers went on to say that:
We are not going to convince them of the technicalities of arguments we make within debates. We can only show up and appear reasonable and approachable, and let that be the mark of skepticism in their world.
Her position is more that we should kill them with kindness by meeting them on their turf, losing their staged debates, but ultimately planting seeds that scientists are cuddly; in hopes that these seeds grow – Win their hearts first so you can win their minds later.
I’m not saying that wouldn’t work on a few of the fence sitters, but it truly isn’t the answer. An open forum where a panel of scientists could be questioned by an audience (even a creationist audience) would benefit both the audience and the reputation of science, critical thinking, and skepticism a lot more than presenting the other side as an equally valid theory and letting the listeners mull over whose facts sound better.
So now, is it possible to do this? Yes of course. In fact, famous guest lecturers are being booked more often than ever (and at a higher price), skeptic conferences are becoming more frequent, and the online skeptic community (and its following) is expanding exponentially.
Adrienne is exactly right when tweeted: “It’s called sincerely respecting others’ beliefs. How right you are shouldn’t determine how insulting you choose to be.”
Where she lost me was when she told me that I should “pretend their views are as valid as mine” and that it is somehow possible to treat someone as an intellectual equal without assigning validity to their argument. She made no strong case for this, and I remain unconvinced of its plausibility; not to mention its practical value for the scientific community.
*If you don’t understand how the debates I’m speaking of are “won/lost”, imagine there are 500 eligible voters in a creation/science debate. At the beginning of the debate, 250 are in favour of science, 249 are in favour of creation, and 1 person just doesn’t know his/her postion. At the end of the debate, another poll is taken. 250 are still in favour of science, but now 250 are also in favour of creation. Technically, the room is split 50/50. However, since the creationist speakers were able to convince the one originally abstained vote, the moderator would (or at least, should) announce that the creationists won the debate.
** One of the questions she lists in her comments is “How did the Colorado River form the Grand Canyon if water can’t flow uphill?”
Well, water definitely cannot flow uphill without breaking some physical laws, but perhaps a good rebuttal question is: once one believes the earth is millions of years old with earth quakes and shifting tectonic plates that can create and destroy mountains, ice ages and (evidently) giant thaws that can carve valleys like that in Yosemite National Park, what does “uphill” mean? And what makes you think a river that flows in a certain direction has always flowed in that direction?
I’ve never studied the geological phenomena that went into the formation of the Grand Canyon, but I can say with certainty that water doesn’t flow uphill. So, another cause must be part of the solution.
*** She does, at one point, mention that some of the people debating the creationists were “public school science teachers”. Speaking only on behalf of my own science teachers, who were magnificent: when I asked a question that was beyond their capacity (as young students are so often capable of doing), I had to wait for a response. I cannot remember a time when the answer to such a question was not researched (by the teacher) and later presented to the inquisitive student. Perhaps my school was different. However, if these same teachers were put into a debate and asked questions beyond their capacity, I can only imagine them conceding questions on that very basis; out of their range of knowledge.