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Debating Creationists

Forum

Charles L. Rulon

Volume 31.3, May / June 2007

I was asked by the Anthropology Club at Long Beach City College to debate a scientist from the Discovery Institute regarding intelligent design. These were my opening remarks.

I want to be up front with all of you today. I have very mixed feelings about being here—about debating someone who still rejects the established fact of our biological evolution. Let me say that again. Evolution—meaning that we are ancient cousins of apes and whales and starfish—is a scientifically settled fact, as much so as the fact that our sun gives off heat. Thus, there’s something surreal about this debate.

So, why am I here? Have I actually deluded myself into thinking that I have some silver bullet arguments to convert the creationists in today’s audience? Hardly, as I discovered from decades of frustrating personal experiences. The only way creationists have been defeated, so far, from introducing their anti-evolution beliefs into public school science classes has been in court cases where their phony science has been exposed.

So, again, why am I here today? Because I believe that science educators have a duty to defend the scientific method from irrational attacks. I also feel a moral obligation toward those in the audience who are still undecided—those whose minds haven’t already been snapped shut by anti-evolution religious dogmas. I feel strongly that the fake science of the creationists must not be imposed on captive students in our public schools. That’s why I agreed to debate today. Even so, there are excellent reasons for science educators to not debate the anti-evolutionists.

First, in science’s search for truth, it’s the rigorous application of the scientific method that counts, not oratory skills. Yet, repeatedly, the overwhelming majority of debates before public audiences are won not by the actual scientific content but by the emotional rapport, public speaking skills, likeability, and believed authority of the debaters. How could it be otherwise, given the audience’s lack of expertise in being able to recognize fake science?

The creationists know this and most are excellent debaters, now with impressive and entertaining PowerPoint presentations. In fact, several Christian fundamentalist colleges are now churning out lawyers and other graduates who are highly skilled in debating and in defending conservative Christian “science.”

A second reason for not debating is that there is no such thing as bad publicity for the creationists. If a scientist debates, it’s “proof” that a scientific controversy actually exists. If he declines, it’s “proof” that evolutionists are running scared.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Regardless of superficial scientific appearances, intelligent design was fabricated by a handful of Christian apologists with the mission of discrediting evolution and of bringing conservative Christian values into public school classrooms. The scientific evidence for evolution is ultimately irrelevant to the faithful, since their “truths” come straight from God.

A third reason for not debating today is that creationists can churn out more scientific misinformation in thirty minutes than I could possibly refute in a week, as I’ve personally discovered. Creationists know that the student audience does not have the necessary expertise in evolutionary biology, historical geology, anthropology, and paleontology to be able to separate out scientifically solid evidence from half-truths, poor logic, outdated references, misleading quotations, selective data, and outright falsehoods.

A fourth reason for not debating creationists is that in debates equal time is given to both sides. Yet, the scientific method is not about equal time but about the rigorous evaluation of all the evidence on all sides. To require science teachers to “teach the controversy,” to give equal time to evolution and ID is, in essence, to require teachers to lie to their students. Unfortunately, this appeal for equal time has been an effective propaganda tool for the creationists for decades. Many powerful politicians continue to support these efforts.

A fifth reason for not debating creationists is that these debates are also publicity stunts to increase the membership of Christian clubs on campuses. Such clubs now number in the tens of thousands. Most are spreading falsehoods regarding evolution, thus creating serious obstacles to the ongoing science education of students. Remember, anti-evolutionists are also trying to convince students to reject large chunks of well-established physics, chemistry, astronomy, anthropology, and geology.

To make matters worse, most of these Christian clubs also hold religious beliefs that can seriously interfere with rational, compassionate, and scientifically informed decisions related to other vitally important areas such as emergency contraceptive pills, the abortion pill, gay rights, death with dignity, and overpopulation.

And then there’s the extremely scary Armageddon theology belief currently held by millions of Americans. After all, why be concerned about destroying our planet’s life-support systems when the destruction of the world is already inevitable as foretold in Scripture?

Today the United States is being confronted with large numbers of scientifically ignorant, politically active Christians who are locked into ultra-religious, anti-scientific views and who want to force these views on others through our elected officials, our courts, and our schools. That’s why I’m here today.

Charles L. Rulon

Charles L. Rulon is a professor emeritus of Long Beach City College, where he taught in the Life Sciences Department for thirty-four years. He has spent the last four decades lecturing and writing on the subjects of evolution, creationism, science and religion, the Christian Right, pseudoscience, abortion, and environmental issues.