Saturday, February 8, 2014

Debates are okay, not great

I don't watch debates.  Mainly it's an accessibility issue--spoken word doesn't really work for me, and I'll skip it unless I have a good reason not to.

So of course I also did not watch the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate over creationism.  In fact, why am I even trying to write an opinion about it?  I would instead defer to Jason Rosenhouse, who is an expert on this issue.

A lot of people have questioned whether the debate is a good thing.  It was a fundraiser for the Creation Museum, so there's that.  It also appears to be lending legitimacy to creationism.  By pitting a creationist against a scientist we appear to be putting them on the same level.

Jason Rosenhouse rejects this particular view:
That is not the case with creationism. It is already such a socially acceptable view, even socially dominant in some areas, that I’m not so worried about making it seem more legitimate. It is evolution, and science generally, that needs to get the word out. Creationists have no trouble injecting their poison into the public discourse, and they have a lot of superficially plausible arguments to make. Scientists willing to take on the grim task of offering folks an alternative view should not automatically be excoriated for doing so.
 And I agree.  Anti-evolution, in the US, is really one of the most popular forms of anti-science around.  Rosenhouse puts anti-evolutionism around 50% of the population and young-earth creationists at 10-20%.  While some forms of antiscience are such small fries that they are best ignored, creationism is the very last thing I would call a "small fry".

Furthermore, Ken Ham is a young-earth creationist, and that particular group doesn't really feel the need for scientific legitimacy.  They believe in the Bible as a higher authority than science.  Now if Nye were debating an Intelligent Design supporter, that might have been more of an issue, since Intelligent Design tries much harder to pretend to be scientifically legitimate.

My major complaint about debates is that there's hardly any correspondence to who "wins" a debate, and who in the debate is correct.  Debates instead favor whoever is a more skilled debater.  Historically, this has often favored creationists because scientists usually have better things to do than hone their debate skills.

Debates are bad, but are other formats for arguments any better?  I think written format is far better, although it has less popular appeal.  In written format, it is much easier to provide citations, which are an indispensable part of truth-finding.  Even arguments in a court of law are better than the debate format.  US courts have mostly consistently ruled against the various forms of creationism.  I know many people have a very dim view of the court system, so here I suggest that you should have an even dimmer view of debates.

While the usual case against debating creationists is that we shouldn't give creationists attention, I see this as its main advantage.  Debates are an awful format, but many people pay attention to them.  I said at the beginning that I can't watch debates, but many people have the opposite problem--videos are fine, but they don't have the attention span to read about it.  A little extra attention to creationism can be a good thing.  Though anti-evolution is so common, it's easy for many people to ignore it.  I live in a major urban area and work at a university, so I never meet creationists.  People like me should nonetheless be aware that anti-evolution is a major issue in the US.