Wednesday, February 5, 2014

How To Lose A Debate By Entering It

Screenshot courtesy of YouTube
Mark Stern and Phil Plait both published articles on Bill Nye's recent debate about evolution with infamous creationist Ken Ham. Plait argues that these kinds of debates have the potential to do some good, by giving us a platform to educate the large percentage of Americans who believe in creationism. Stern, more accurately, recognizes that Bill Nye lost the debate just by showing up, and that such endeavors are fruitless.

The reason we should avoid well-publicized debates about the fact of evolution is rather simple. These kinds of debate are all that the creationists want. They don't want to find the truth, or better understand their opponent's position; often, it seems, they're not even really interested in convincing their opponents. What they want to do is undermine the established scientific theories of evolution by natural selection and the verified estimates of the age of the earth. They want Biblical creation myths to be seen as plausible alternatives.

We know the is what they want, because they have told us over and over again. When creationists challenge the teaching of evolution in school, rarely do they advocate throwing out biology textbooks and replacing it with the Bible. In an inspired PR campaign, they endlessly declare simply that we must "teach the controversy."

But scientifically speaking, there is no controversy. Evolution by natural selection, and 4.5 billion-year-old Earth, are not subject to challenge in any serious scientific journals. Details about the theories are contested constantly, but that's the point. Everyone studying these theories in an empirical way accepts their basic veracity. They only argue over the finer points.

By appearing in a formal debate with a creationist, however, Nye reinforces the idea that there is a legitimate debate going on. There is certainly a cultural debate going on that surrounds these ideas, and many others, but all that nuance is lost in the spectacle of the arguments. The message that is sent is that there is someone Nye believes is equally deserving of audience consideration, with whom a reasonable discussion can be had.

Unfortunately, Ham does not deserve the attention he gets, and does not even desire to engage in a reasonable discussion. He's interested in affirming his faith and promoting his organization.  He is skilled at debate, insofar as he can reply evenly and calmly reply to any criticism, and utter complete fallacies with beaming confidence. In the theater of debate, these skills are at least as highly valued as persuasive argument.

Those who support Nye's entrance in the debate have replied that given the large numbers of people who believe in creationism and doubt evolution, we must do our best to reach them on their own terms. But many serious scientists have debated creationists before in large forums. Despite failing to provide any rational case for their views, creationists now point to these debates as evidence that legitimate disagreement exists.

Generally speaking, I'm not in favor of formal debates. They are often explicitly polarizing and present false dilemmas. The biggest problem is that the debaters themselves are incentivized to obscure and sensationalize, because their objective is to win. This encourages red herrings, plausible-sounding logical fallacies, and erroneous emotional appeals. These features of debate are to the detriment of audience, as many see the structure of the debate falsely as a model for rational discourse.

A better way of learning is socratic discussion. Instead of each individual trying their best to win, everyone participates in a collaborative effort to come at the truth, by questioning one's own an others' assumptions. There are problems with this under some conditions (see: Groupthink), but the priority need not be to reach a firm conclusion. This is only what we should be aiming at. Given time-constraints, we should never be assume consensus will be reached. We should be satisfied to simply make progress towards the truth.

If egos derived from a desire to win are put aside, then the fallacies can be left at home, or at least easily disposed of once they're pointed out. When two intelligent individuals who disagree try to figure out what's true, rather than who can score the most points, it is much more likely that everyone will benefit. (For a fantastic example of this, see Ayer and Williams in one of the best videos on YouTube) Unfortunately, this cannot happen when debating avowed creationists, or for that matter in most debate settings. When the goal is to impress rather than clarify, confusion is compounded upon, rather than cleared away.

But this is not to say we don't have any options for education and outreach. Since adults are much harder to convince, most of our efforts should go to ensuring accurate education for children. And we continue to do this, by fighting attempts to bring creationism and other pseudoscience into science classrooms. Richard Dawkins, very wisely, wrote a book that, rather than setting itself up as a response to creationism, simply presents the tremendous amount of evidence for evolution.

And we should do our best to resist the notion that there is a legitimate scientific debate going on. This does not mean giving up on education about important scientific truths, but it does mean refraining from dignifying absolute nonsense.

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