Debating Creationists

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Science  20 Dec 1996:
Vol. 274, Issue 5295, pp. 1993-1997
DOI: 10.1126/science.274.5295.1993b

Paul R. Gross (Letters, 6 Sept., p. 1321), Michael J. Erpino (Letters, 8 Nov., p. 904), and David Edge (Letters, 8 Nov., p. 904) all take issue with my position against formal debates with creationists. I find the “duty to defend science” argument pales next to that of “above all else, do no harm.”

Our goal in such debates is quite different from creationists' goal to inspire their adherents to proselytize teachers about how evolution is a “theory in crisis” and how it would be great if we could introduce this new “science” of creationism into our schools. More people will come to a debate than to a lecture in a church basement so, of course, creationists will try to get a scientist to oppose them. After the debate, citizens influenced by the creationist position proceed to write letters to the editor, talk to their kids' teachers, and so forth. This intimidates many teachers, who then may be tempted to “skip evolution this year.” Hardly our side's goal.

My position is not to ignore creation science, but to confront these ideas in the proper forum, which is not a formal debate.

I have had many productive exchanges with creationists on radio, television, or panels, where it is possible to stop my opponent and correct errors before they pile up uncontrollably. This accomplishes Erpino's goal of educating the general public in science and evolution, but a formal debate does not. The vast, vast majority of formal debates decrease public support for evolution, which discourages teachers from teaching it. I suggest that we put our egos aside and, above else, do no harm.

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