Magazine article Free Inquiry

On Debating

Magazine article Free Inquiry

On Debating

Article excerpt

Richard Dawkins rarely agreed with Stephen Jay Gould, but, in Dawkins's op-ed "Why I Won't Debate Creationists" in the Winter 2002/03 issue of FREE INQUIRY, we learned that their opinions converged on the matter of debating creationists: simply put, it is a terrible idea. Since I--like Dawkins and Gould--am also a professional evolutionary biologist, but one who thinks it is worthwhile for scientists to engage creationists in public, I am happy to debate this question.

First, it is worth noting that the only argument that Dawkins (or for that matter Gould and countless other academics) have advanced against debating creationists is that in so doing a scientist "legitimizes" the creationist position and provides "free publicity" to the creationist movement. There are several ways in which this point can be countered. For example, the risk of legitimization may be lower than the dangers posed by leaving creationist nonsense unchallenged. Furthermore, the real beneficiary of the publicity debates generate is evolutionary, biology, not creationism (creationism, after all, has an opportunity to be beard without opposition every week from the pulpit).

I further challenge the "debate skeptics" with the results of research into the public's perception of and the effects of debates. There is no research that I could find explicitly on the effects of evolution-creation debates (a good thesis suggestion for sociology or communications students). However, something is known about other kinds of debates, especially those involving political candidates, and presidential aspirants in particular. I will not claim that one can simply transfer the results of such research to the evolution-creation arena, but a reasonable skeptic should at least consider any available evidence, imperfect as it may be. We should not retrench into questionable arguments from first principles.

There are three kinds of effects that debates can have on the people watching them: educational, persuasive, and relational. Most of the available literature shows that people do in fact learn from debates. This may in part be because most people don't have the time (or the inclination) to inform themselves through reading or more active forms of inquiry. Debates communicate actual information, so they are worthwhile as a first introduction to a subject or to stimulate curiosity. The picture is less clear about persuasion; it turns out that the degree of persuasiveness depends on circumstances as well as the a priori positions of the individuals in the audience. As one would expect, intransigently opinionated people are not persuaded by debates. However debates do have an effect on less committed people. "Fence sitters" ought to be the real target of scientists engaging in debates against creationists. …

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