Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tips on Debating Creationists

Later this morning, progressive talk-show host Thom Hartmann will use the 3rd hour of his national radio program to debate a creationist from the Discovery Institute. Now, Thom's a really bright guy, and he's widely read, but he's not a scientist, and biology isn't his field of expertise. You can be certain, of course, that his opponent will be well versed in creationism, including all the sophistries and rhetorical tricks used to promote it.

To help level the playing field a little bit, I shipped the following tips to Thom and thot others might appreciate seeing them as well.

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Tips on Debating Creationists

Some creationists are more sophisticated than others. Here are a couple of arguments that the cleverer ones may bring up, along with appropriate responses thereto.

"Evolution is only a theory."

This is a disingenuous ploy which takes advantage of the fact that most average people think that "theory" is the semantic equivalent of "guess" or "hunch". That's not the way the term is used among scientists, where it's about the 2nd most prestigious thing you can call an idea (right after "law"). To a scientist, a theory is a fairly simple statement of general principles that explains a sweeping range of observed phenomena and to which no exceptions are known. These propositions have been tested time and time and time again and have always held up under scrutiny. They have extensive and impressive predictive powers. Examples of famous and deservedly respected theories are:
 • theory of optics
 • germ theory of disease
 • theory of relativity
 • theory of gravitation
 • quantum field theory
 • atomic theory of matter
 • plate tectonic theory

The National Academy of Sciences has an official statement on the subject: "The theory of evolution explains how life on Earth has changed. In scientific terms, ‘theory’ does not mean ‘guess’ or ‘hunch’ as it does in everyday usage. Scientific theories are explanations of natural phenomena built up logically from testable observations and hypotheses. Biological evolution is the best scientific explanation we have for the enormous range of observations about the living world. ... The occurrence of evolution in this sense is a fact. Scientists no longer question whether descent with modification occurred because the evidence supporting the idea is so strong."

The closest word science has to "guess" is "hypothesis", but even then something doesn't get to be a hypothesis unless it starts off with at least some carefully observed phenomena for which it's a plausible explanation. It isn't yet a theory, however, because there must first be a rigorous search for disconfirmation — experiments specifically designed to show where the hypothesis fails.

I have long contended that it's a mistake to refer to the "theory of evolution"; what we should do instead is refer to the "natural selection theory about evolution". This emphasizes the extremely relevant point that evolution is an observable fact (species do indeed change over time, most easily observed in the case of species like bacteria, where generations are measured in hours instead of decades), and that natural selection is the best explanation for that fact.

The importance of the natural selection theory about evolution was best summed up thus: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." —Theodosius Dobzhansky, Russian biologist

"We should teach the controversy."

This too has a superficial appeal to a sense of fairness. But it fails to take into account several salient points:

  (1) There is no controversy in science. The theory of natural selection is as rock-solid as gravitation. The only controversy is in the realm of religion and politics, where some people for purely emotional reasons desperately want the science to be wrong (and the few honest ones will actually admit it). If we want to be teaching controversy about evolution, the place to do it is in courses on political science or sociology, not biology or chemistry.

  (2) This argument only gets trotted out as special pleading for creationism. Nobody at all is seriously suggesting that we should "teach the controversy" about the phlogiston explanation of heat, or the geocentric explanation for observed movement of bodies across the sky, or phrenology as a method of diagnosing personality disorder, or the imbalanced-bodily-humors hypothesis about disease — despite the fact that all of these at one time commanded widespread belief and respect and did in fact explain some observed phenomena. They were displaced for something better when phenomena came along that they couldn't explain.

  (3) This is one that I keep harping about but nobody seems to pick up on, but I hope you [Thom] will. There's such a thing as developmentally appropriate instruction. Little kids need simple, concrete ideas about the way things are. Their minds are not yet well developed enuf to handle complexity, abstraction, uncertainty, or multiple competing hypotheses. Besides, they haven't yet acquired a solid, widespread foundation of factual knowledge in order for explanations of it to make any sense. Eventually, of course, they do gain that level of adult sophistication. When they get to that point (usually by the time they're juniors or seniors in high school, but for some not until they get to college), it would be appropriate to "teach the controversy" — but not until then, and even then not in a course on biology but rather in one on the history of science or the philosophy of science, which is where the whole creationism vs. evolution foofaraw belongs.

"Evolution can't explain how life got started in the first place."

This is easy to handle. Simply agree. Evolution doesn't pretend to answer this question, which is an entirely separate subject known as "abiogenesis" (life arising from non-life). The short answer to the question of how life got started in the first place is "nobody knows". Scientists are honest enuf to admit this (tho they're working on it, and any answers we eventually come up with will be only due to science, not anything else). Evolution answers an entirely separate question, namely "What's the best explanation for how already existing life changes over time?". Isn't an honest "I don't know" better than "I have a story out of my 2000-year-old book of folk tales, fables, and legends, and it's way better than anything anybody's come up with since"?

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Fundamentalists feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms but have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.

— anonymous


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