Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Debating Creationists

I have been thinking about this particular post for a while. I think trying to talk to certain people over on Topix, particularly the Evolution Debate section of Topix, sorta helped my thinking on the subject coalesce. Creationist, as in those who try and pass off their religious beliefs as science and wish their beliefs to be taught as science, come in a variety of flavors. Some you can talk to and many it really doesn't matter what you say.

  • The anti-evolutionist: This is someone not spouting a particular strain of religion, but seems to think denigrating evolution is the best way to advance Creationism/Intelligent Design. You can usually spot these people based on just how off the wall their anti-evolution statements get. You get the garden variety who say things like "Evolution violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics" or "The odds of random events culminating in us is absurd". Discussing anything with them should stay focused on their own statements and trying to correct their own misunderstanding of science. The even more uninformed variety simply pass on known foolish comments, like "Darwin recanted on his deathbed" or "Evolution is like expecting a tornado through a junkyard to build a 747". These folks are harder to talk to because they really have no understanding at all and are usually just repeating things other people have said.
  • The pro-religionist: This person really doesn't care about the details of evolution, as evidenced by their complete lack of understanding of the subject. They also make many nonsensical comments about it, but they really have no interest in debating evolution. What they seem to expect is everyone to just roll over at brilliance of their religious commentary -- regardless of which variety of religion they seem to spout. These people are impossible to debate because the only voice they seem to listen to are the voices inside their heads.
  • The pseudo-scientist: Here is a fun type to discuss things with. They usually claim to not be supporting any particular religion and they also frequently claim to have in their hearts a genuine interest in improving science education. Unfortunately their references are usually from discredited sources like Answers in Genesis (AIG), The Atlas of Creation, the Discovery Institute, or the Institute of Creation Research (ICR). It's these very sources that will keep these folks from any actual understanding. What you will more than likely find is that they are a form of religionist, especially when cornered in their comments. After a while the fun is gone because they simply start repeating themselves. On Topix they usually head over to another thread and start their rhetoric all over again. They are not interested in any actual debate, the fun part is watching how they handle the simple dismantling of all their comments.
  • The Abusive Anti-Evolutionist/Religionist: This type is less fun to debate, because there is no debate. They state their position and then dump all over any one who disagrees with them. They never support any position and seem to be willing to say anything as long as it is a personal attack on the person who tried to engage them. The mild ones use terms like moron -- the more belligerent ones use phrases that would start an fistfight face to face. They also try and use the relative anonymity of the Internet as a weapon. If you are on a moderated forum, make sure you report these users. You might never get rid of them, but if they try and carry out their threats, they will learn that there really is no anonymity on the Internet.
  • The Earnest: Here is the king of all debaters, and also the rarest. This is a person who actually enters Topix, or similar site, with an interest in learning. While they may make frequent mis-characterizations of science, they listen to the comments in return and usually ask good questions. These are the folks that make places like Topix worthwhile! I know I have learned more about Geology from a poster named FossilBob and Microbiology form a poster named katydid than I ever got in school. The difference is Bob and Katey are actually working in the field and offer a perspective many teachers never achieve.
I have a few suggestions, at least things that have helped me:
  • What you do not really want to do is get into a religious debate. It's sort of like a chicken-egg argument, you really can't win, nor make much headway. Oh you can debate religious topics, like when someone misquotes or misrepresents the Bible, but if you get into a Urinary Olympics on the pros and cons of any particular strain of religion, you can't really reach any form of consensus, the debate will simply continue.
  • Concentrate your comments on their own words. Don't let them get away with word games, like changing definitions in mid thought (Theory vs Scientific Theory . . .) and above all don't let them get away without supporting their comments. Make them show you why they think their comment is correct. Once you have the source, you will find most arguments have little to stand on. I love it when a Creationist uses an argument that even Creationist sources say is bogus, like the Lady Hope story.
  • You should also expect them to challenge your own comments, that why using sources and links to valid source material is helpful. Oh they usually won't actually go read it, but having it there helps those who are interested in learning something.
  • You also should not allow them to digress into other scientific disciplines. I mean it's easy to mis-characterize Biology with examples form Astrophysics. It's a trap, don't fall for it. Try and keep them on topic. If nothing else others will see how vacuous their arguments are when they can't even address the concept they are arguing against. Frequently I have seen Chemistry (Abiogenesis), Geology/Physics (Radiological dating and Thermodynamics), and Astrophysics (Big Bang). Little do they realize how much support there is across multiple scientific disciplines for evolution. But if they bring up something outside of Evolution, drop a quick comment on them and try and bring them back to the topic at hand. It probably won't work, but it's fun trying.
One last thought is that if you wander these forums, have some fun with it. You can learn a lot, not just about science, but about people and personal interaction. The downside is that it's not face to face and sarcasm usually passes right by, but it's always entertaining!


  1. Three additional (minor) points:

    1) You aren't going to convince people that often. Don't expect to. If you can get someone to at least change their mind about some of their arguments you've made progress.

    2) Be civil. Being more polite is more likely to make them listen to you and is also more likely to make people reading the conversation listen to you.

    3) Don't forget that very often when people engage in fallacious reasoning or use language poorly they aren't trying to be deceptive (the professionals like Hovind are but not the run of the mill people). Often they just don't know any better. Sometimes they have a bit of Morton's Demon too.

  2. good advice, thanks!
    And thanks for the mention of Morton's Demon, the opinionated analogue of Maxwell's Demon. I had forgotten about that one!