How to Debate a Creationist
I received a letter from a colleague yesterday. Apparently a group of creationists are coming to his campus to talk about the age of the earth from a creationist perspective. He wanted me to offer some suggestions for how to question them on their work. The creationists are going to talk about their 'research' on geochronology and how it demonstrates an old earth. Challenging creationists on their turf is not a simple thing to do. Here was my reply to his query "What questions should I ask regarding their work?":
That's a tough call. Here's why I think it's a losing proposition:
(1) They have all the time to 'answer' any question you give them.
(2) The 'Dr.s' are bringing 'gods message' to 'gods people'. How
can you hope to best god?
(3) Any question you ask has to be simpler than their answer in
order to work. You have to think of a question that can make a
simple point that will be hard for them to give an equally simple
I have some of those questions in mind, but I want to check out
a couple of things to make sure that in phrasing the question
properly, the audience can say "Wow, what about that?" and
leave the hosts talking in an overly technical language to answer
it. The problem, even there, is that they have the last word and
they have the audience on their side. I would suggest simply not
asking anything at the church meetings, but you should
definitely go and then write a letter to the student and local
newspaper on their claims. It's always better to have a written,
rather than, verbal exchange with these people on their stage.
The University audience will also probably be loaded with their
followers so you have to tread carefully there as well. I wish
that it was possible to just stand up and say "Folks, what you
just heard is the biggest load of bullshit I've ever witnessed and
to think they are doing it in the name of your God should be
considered blasphemous". That, of course, does not go over too
well--even if it is accurate!.
Here's what I think can potentially make them a bit uncomfortable (though it won't sway many in the audience). The creationists presenting this particular seminar have all published in the secular literature. That's important because I think it's possible to bring up a series of questions along the lines of "What do you really believe". For example, I described this old earth/young earth dichotomy in the case of Dr. Ross and Dr. John Baumgardner. I think it's fair to bring up examples like Baumgardner, Ross, Snelling and John Woodmorappe (aka Jan Peczkis) and ask the question:
"Why do you write old-earth evolution articles when it appears from your talk today that you don't believe a word of it? Is it opportunism to pad your resume, a case of cognitive dissonance, flat out scientific dishonesty or is young earth creationism simply a way to make a buck? "
It's a harsh question, but also it's also a question that must be answered without using a lot of technical sounding mumbo-jumbo. I'd also encourage anyone who does ask this question to be prepared with quotes from their articles in case they try to slink away from it. More than likely they will give the cognitive dissonant response (see what Dr. Ross had to say about his dissertation), but it might get some members of the audience curious about just what the heck is going on.
Lastly, the only way to really debate a creationist is to ask that the debate be in written form (where both parties have equal input into the format). The alternative is a strictly time-controlled forum wherein the moderator can cut the speaker off if they stray from the question. Neither option is favored by young earth creationists. I asked Kent Hovind to agree to the time format and he refused. Walt Brown insists that any written debate is his way or the highway. So, the best advice that I can give to anyone wanting to challenge them is to stay away from formats where you will not get ample time for discussion and ask them questions about the scientific integrity that they lack.