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Discussions with Creationists
  • exchemist June 2012
    After the most recent encounter, I've had a go at analysing why it might have degenerated irretrievably. I've drawn up a list of the main things that it seems to me need to be put on the table BEFORE it is worth going into any more specific discussion. These seem to be the more common things that derail these discussions and cause tempers to fray if they are not identified up front. I'd welcome any comments on whether this could be useful and on how to improve it:-

    Debating with Creationists


       Debate between scientists and creationists seems to be repeatedly hobbled by a failure to reach a common understanding on the same small core of central scientific ideas, and/or on a couple of key aspects of  debating technique. The writer believes these basic principles need to be tabled in advance and any disagreement smoked out and either settled or parked, before it is worth engaging in more specific discussions.

    Matters of Science

    1) Nature of Scientific Theories
    a) In natural science, all theories are mere models of the reality of nature. As such they are always provisional and subject to revision if observations are found that do not fit them. An observation that fits serves to confirm the theory but can never “prove” it, as science is always open to the possibility that a future observation may be found that does not fit and thus calls some aspect of it into question. Indeed, most theories do have aspects that are in question. This is a normal state and does not generally mean the theory needs to be overturned. 
     
    b) Valid scientific theories must not only account for current observations but must enable testable predictions to be made, i.e. it must be possible to envisage what further observations would test whether it works. 
    2) Distinction between Evolution and the Origins of Life
     
    While evolution is a theory to explain the origin of species, it does not purport to explain the origin of life itself. This is another, more speculative, topic called “abiogenesis”. The theory of evolution does not depend on any particular theory of abiogenesis.
    3) Predictions of Evolution
    Like other scientific theories, evolution makes testable predictions. Examples would be where in the geological column fossils of related lineages should be found, and that the similarity in the DNA of organisms should depend on how far they are from a common ancestor.

    Matters of Debating Technique

    4) Intellectual Honesty
    Refrain from misrepresenting authorities by quoting them out of context (so-called “quote mining”).  
    5) Disciplined Argument
    Address points made in debate and counterarguments raised, before introducing new ones.

  • SimonSimon June 2012
    Hi exchemist - I used to be a lot more tolerant over the issue, but after many years of online debating have now decided that it is a waste of time, certainly as far as debating the science is concerned. I'm a bit more willing to discuss the theology/philosophy of the issue because it seems that this is where the real disagreement lies. Meanwhile trying to debate science with a YEC/IDer is like trying to reason with my three year old son - occasionally you think you've made progress only to find them scribbling on the walls again the next day...

  • exchemist June 2012
    Thanks Simon, that's where I was also heading. I still can't work out whether most of these people simply don't know enough about science, or whether they have been taught but choose to "unlearn" it again for religious reasons. Thus one tends to be caught between taking as read things that turn out not to be understood, or seeming patronising. My idea was if I table the "non-negotiable" basic science ideas upfront, maybe I can get the interlocutor to either agree with them, in which case we can have a discussion, or if not I can decline to get involved, without exhausting my limited stock of courtesy. 

    Maybe I can road-test this idea with the next one and we'll see what happens.
  • I'd agree with Simon that online debating is generally a waste of time - with the exception of this forum, of course! It's not easy to think that someone who believes something completely crazy could actually be a reasonable human being, from whom you might expect actually to learn something. In the current debate that is hard for both sides - for the creationist who finds someone who believes the apparently crazy idea of evolution, or for the evolutionist who finds someone who believes the apparently crazy idea that earth is 6000 years old.

    Your point (1) is very important, I think. It makes it reasonable to listen to what someone has to say, even if the scientific model they are advocating seems highly questionable. The question hopefully becomes "What aspects of the truth does this model contain?" rather than "How can I prove that this model is wrong?"
  • exchemist June 2012
    Thanks Anthony. Agree it is important for us to be a bit humble about the theories we use. It's too easy to fall into the BBC-type trap of describing a theory as a "fact". Of course, as Simon would say, it's all about perceived probabilities: the closer a theory is to direct perception and the more times it has proved reliable, the closer it becomes to a "fact" and we may even treat it as one for shorthand, but we shouldn't forget we are always - strictly speaking - dealing with models. 

    But where you won't be surprised to find me bridling a bit is any implication that, by focusing on (1), it might be thought that all theories need to be considered equal, regardless of provenance. This I would strongly contest of course. We do have be careful of cultural relativism. One bon mot of Dawkins I do agree with (one of two only) is: "Show me a cultural relativist at 30,00ft and I'll show you a hypocrite." I think I may need to add a new (2) on the subject of discriminating between theories, to avoid this danger. How about the following:

    2) Choice Between Rival Theories
    Where there are competing scientific theories, the one that is preferred is the one with superior explanatory power (accounts for a wider range of observations, has superior fit with other theories) and, explanatory power being equal, is simpler (the “Occam’s Razor” principle). 

    Of course this evaluation can lead to preferences changing over time, as new phenomena come to light.

    P.S. When it comes to creationism itself, as you probably know by now my 2 main objections are the "non-science" issue (God did it = science stopper) and Simon's "charlatan" (intellectual dishonesty) issue. But these are things that emerge more clearly if the above issues don't keep muddying the discussion.     


  • exchemist - that's helpful. I agree on the criteria for rival theories - sounds very good and Bayesian. The difficulty comes when the observations are allowed to include observations about what the Bible says, and any implications that are (correctly or incorrectly) drawn from that. Then a model might apparently fit the natural data very well but the biblical data very badly, or vice versa.

    That might sound subjective, but I don't think it is. If we put our prior beliefs on the table at the start of the discussion, that makes mutual understanding a bit more possible. People can then agree about how well the data from biology and geology fit the evolutionary model, but disagree about whether the evolutionary model is true, because of their differing beliefs about how the biblical data ought to be understood.