Another creation-evolution debate, in Pennsylvania

Uh-oh. I hope these don’t become more popular. This one is in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on 29 March, and features Paul Nelson — a young earth creationist who will hide behind Intelligent Design the whole time.


Debates are a great way to seduce a creationist audience into showing up to listen, but they’re awful for presenting a good analysis: you are publicly pitting a scientist up against a proven, expert liar, and committing to allowing lies to be told for half the time of the event. Sometimes they’ll pay off and you’ll get good exposure of the nonsense; sometimes you’ll find the slick fraud on the creation side getting more attention than he deserves.

Just a hint, though. The title of this debate is “Creation vs. Evolution: A Debate on Origins and the Tree of Life,” which is hopelessly broad. Paul Nelson has carte blanche to babble on in a tuneless song of silliness trying to hit the one chord that will resonate with the audience, and that’s what you’re going to get, and it’s going to be really hard to pin him down on anything. Part of the art of doing these debates, I’ve learned, is to craft a decent structured framework for the discussion, so that you’ve got a clear question to answer and even an audience of biased Christian ninnies will notice when the creationist (or the evolutionist!) goes wandering off topic. I hope it’s not too late to refine the subject a bit.


  1. Louis says

    March 29th? Only 9 days after that is Paul Nelson Day (7th April IIRC)! Surely this debate is where we will finally, after all these aching years of waiting, get some hint of what “ontogenetic depth” is all about and how it’s calculated.

    Isn’t 2014 the tenth anniversary too? Good time for it…


  2. hexidecima says

    pity I can’t make it since it’s only a couple of hours away. I’d be happy to ask Mr. Nelson if he honestly believed that anything else but the Christian god/Jesus was the creator. It would be fun to watch the equivocation.

  3. Trebuchet says

    I see Nelson is a “Philosopher of Biology” (whatever that is) while his opponent, Velasco, is a philosopher specializing in “Philosophy of Biology”. Meh. How about an actual, you know, biologist?

  4. ludicrous says

    I think these debates are a net gain. Everyone knows what creationism is whether they believe it or not. There are a lot of people who either don’t know much of anything about evolution, have been misinformed, and or simply not paid any attention..

    Because our culture, secular or religous, has developed for the most part pre-Darwin, the mainstream is still at the place of saying, yes to evolution but not fully incorporating it into our habits of thinking. To paraphrase the hollywood saying, there is no such thing as bad press when you’ve got the goods.

  5. Sili says

    I’d like there to be more debates between YECs and IDrs. Pit the Hamster against some old earthers, Behe and Dempski. I’d even chip in to se them deny God on stage.

  6. paulburnett says

    To clarify Louis (#1) comment: Fifteen years ago, the Dishonesty Institute’s infamous “Wedge Document” boasted:

    “Paul Nelson…CRSC Fellow will very soon have [a] book published by…The University of Chicago Press…Nelson’s book, On Common Descent, is the seventeenth book in the prestigious University of Chicago “Evolutionary Monographs” series and the first to critique neo-Darwinism.”
    Fifteen years later, Nelson’s book remains unpublished, to the point that it became a running joke among anticreationist activists of a certain vintage.” – (from Josh Rosenau of the NCSE via Pandas Thumb)

    So the opposing debater HAS to ask Nelson “So, how’s your book coming?”

  7. Rey Fox says

    There are a lot of people who either don’t know much of anything about evolution, have been misinformed, and or simply not paid any attention..

    And creationism is just the same lies over and over and over and over and over again, so there’s an advantage.

  8. says

    Don’t disparage philosophers of science. They may be better able to deal with the arguments than biologists. Nye wasn’t a biologist, remember, and did well by focusing on a passion for science rather than the details of the argument, and also remember that Nelson is by no means at all knowledgeable about biology.

  9. Louis says

    Paulburnett #6,

    It’s not just that, it’s that Nelson claimed the concept he invented (“ontogenetic depth”) could be calculated for various organisms, claimed he would show those pesky evolutionists just how it was devastating to EVILooshun, and strangely, totally out of character {cough}, completely failed to deliver. So far.

    Obviously I’m holding my breath. And I have been for nearly a decade. I’m good at it.


  10. Michael says

    At UBC, the Campus Crusade for Christ had an annual “Does god exist?” debate. At least the question was brief and to the point. Unfortunately for the few I attended when I was a student, the atheist debater often left a lot to be desired (One was a physics professor, who made some unintelligible arguments that made a few people laugh when he claimed ‘So here we have made a lot of progress.”).

  11. jnorris says

    My ideal debate would start with Creationists arguing over Genesis 1 v Genesis 2. The winner then debates the Intelligent Designer. That winner finally gets to meet up against science. I suspect rounds 1 and 2 to take years to conclude.

  12. David Marjanović says

    I was wondering if you blokes know of any good historical science books I could read?

    …What do you mean by “historical science books”?

  13. says

    This debate may well end up with two people talking past each other, or one trying to follow the other’s Gish-gush, but after Nye made bacon the other day I’ve reconsidered my “never wrestle a pig (you both get muddy; the pig likes it)” attitude WRT debating creationists. Creationists, pretty much all Republicans (there may be some further-right nutjob outliers) have influence at every level of government from school boards, municipalities to state legislature. We know this from the endless stories of curricula, textbooks and laws being subject to creationist infiltration and assault. I suspect part of the reason they keep trying is because the creationist attack on education and science isn’t well known outside the specific area that it’s happening at any one time or outside atheist/secularist circles – or, if it is, knowledge of it is pretty cursory (even discussion of Dover dropped off pretty quickly after the decision). The constant attempt to dilute education and legislate mythology needs to be publicised nationally and often or it simply won’t go away. I’m positive that most US Christians – even other creationists and ID’ers – would not subscribe to Ham’s extremism and that quite a few would have been embarrassed to have him represent the faith. Many of the faithful might not have even known just how determinedly ignorant Ham and his acolytes are – there’s an opportunity here to gain allies from among those Ham would call apostates or “not real Christians”.

    I think in order to make creationism, its political aspirations, its Constitutional illegality and its utter lack of scientific validity a concern for everyone is to make it a national issue. This debate between Nye and Ham had, on the YT stream I was watching, over half a million viewers. MSNBC interviewed Nye afterwards, the Guardian covered it and there were articles all over the place. The event, although a minor cash-cow for Ham, was even better publicity for evolution, with the internet buzzing about it all over the place. The internet gave the win to Nye overwhelmingly.

    National attention on the intellectual vacuity of creationism and especially its desire to illegally influence education is required and that’s what the Nye/Ham massacre accomplished. One-on-one debates obviously shouldn’t be the whole strategy (and they should only be entered into carefully, with topics and entrants and formats locked down and confirmed well ahead of time – because if there’s one thing creationists love to do it’s tilt the playing field), but this debate may have just started a long overdue national conversation about science education. There’s momentum and it needs to be seized.

  14. mothra says

    and also remember that Nelson is by no means at all knowledgeable about biology.

    PZ wins understatement of the year award in February. Cthulu blinks.

    Paul Nelson spoke at NDSU last February- brought in by the local Christian groups for Darwin Days. He does have is own unique variety of arguments from ignorance.

  15. robster says

    The creationist representatives deserve applause for just one thing: The fine art of lying. It is a carefully honed skill, one that takes a while to learn and perform successfully. The audience will probably be made up of used car and real estate salespeople, politicians and journalists, all due respect to those vocations. At the debate they’ll learn to avoid answering questions, telling mind numbing fibs while appearing honest and composed, dressing up nonsense to appear sort of possibly credible and all sorts of other helpful skills required when selling really dodgy products of no real value and that are often malicious. Meanwhile maybe one deluded godbot may decide to break free from the nonsense.

  16. johnharshman says

    mothra or anyone else who knows: I’m curious about Nelson’s standard spiel. Does he try to defend young-earth creationism, his actual belief, or does he go with the don’t ask/don’t tell ID line?

  17. says

    Thanks for the mention! I am the person responsible for putting the debate together.

    I just wanted to quickly respond to a couple of things: (i) the debate topic/structure/format and (ii) public discussion of creationism/intelligent design.

    As indicated, the debate title is “Creation vs. Evolution: A Debate on Origins and the Tree of Life.” The debate question is more specific, however. The question is, “Is there evidence for universal common descent?” We struggled with naming the event, because many in the general public are not familiar with the term ‘common descent.’ We needed a title that would generate interest for the general public, but be consistent with the debate question.

    Paul (who, I have to say, has been an absolute pleasure to work with) will be arguing that the evidence indicates that there are divinely-caused historically discontinuous groups of organisms. Joel will be arguing that the evidence overwhelmingly supports universal common ancestry. The debate question, in fact, is so specific and narrow that a proponent of intelligent design in the vein of Michael Behe would hold a position closer to Joel’s than Paul’s!

    To the worry that this gives a public forum for a position outside of the scientific mainstream, I would think that that worry would be somewhat alleviated by the fact that the debate is between two philosophers of science, not two biologists. The debate isn’t between a mainstream scientist and a creationist/proponent of intelligent design. It does not send a message that scientists should give equal voice to a position outside of the mainstream. It does not present a mainstream scientist sharing a stage with someone with a position far outside of the mainstream.

    Every semester, about half the students in my classes say they lean to some kind of YEC. I feel that someone has to have this discussion somewhere. If science classes are not the place to have those discussions (this is my position), then surely it is permitted in a philosophy class, right? Philosophers, typically, do not place limits on the kinds of discussions they can have (though, I have gotten push-back from professional philosophers on this as well).

    I teach critical thinking classes in which we examine homeopathic medicine, UFO abductions, ghosts, creation science, etc. We use methods of reasoning that we discuss in the first half of the semester to examine issues that intrigue people. We test hypotheses, looking for common fallacies, inappropriate methods of reason, etc. This is what our debate is about, using reason to examine opposing hyphotheses.

    I appreciate PZ’s appreciation for using the tools of philosophy to examine these questions. This represents a history of appreciation between the fields. Our evolutionist presenter, Joel, is a protege of the foremost philosopher of biology in the world, Elliott Sober. The great biologist, Ernst Mayr, had extremely high praise for Sober’s book, The Nature of Selection. He wrote, “Sober has … given us what is perhaps the most careful and penetrating analysis of the concept of natural selection as it affects the process of evolution.”

    I believe any biologist who reads Joel Velasco’s publications would appreciate his work as well (you can read his papers here). Joel’s dissertation, “Philosophy and the Tree of Life: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Phylogenetic Systematics” is directly related to the debate topic; I think mainstream biologists will be very happy with his contributions.

    Lastly, I received an email from a local newspaper yesterday, asking if they could live-stream the debate on their website. Paul is amenable to the live-stream, and I am waiting to hear back from Joel. If both debaters have no objections, I will send information on the live-stream when I have it.

    I guess I would just ask that you give us a chance to pleasantly surprise you with this debate.

    Again, thanks PZ, for mentioning our event!


    Wes McMichael

  18. paulburnett says

    Wes (#19) mentioned critical thinking class topics such as “homeopathic medicine, UFO abductions, ghosts, creation science, etc.”

    While I’m sure we all appreciate the inclusion of creationism and “creation science,” I for one hope you’re including a discussion of intelligent design creationism as well. Google the term “cdesign proponentsists” to see the depths to which these religious fanatics will stoop.

  19. says

    Hi, Paul (#20).

    Yes, in my class, I discuss YEC and ID (mind you, I devote only part of a lecture to both, but I discuss Behe’s irreducible complexity and Dempski’s specified complexity). Again, though, this discussion comes in a larger section of “pseudo-science,” and it is not one that gets a lot of time in my class.

  20. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    I for one am of the belief that by pointing out precisely how stupid some of the “designs” in nature are, we could put paid to the whole ID epidemic. The human knee. The human back. An eye with a blind spot for the optic nerve. Good lord, these are flaws that any decent freshman engineer could see and avoid. And don’t get me started on the colocation of recreational and waste disposal sites!

  21. johnharshman says

    Wes (#21) I would appreciate an update when this debate is over. Did Nelson specify any way of telling if two species belong to separate kinds or to the same kind? Did he offer any examples of separate kinds? Is there a taxonomic rank roughly equivalent to the kind, and if so what?

  22. godfreyj says

    And don’t get me started on the colocation of recreational and waste disposal sites!

    Love it!

    If this is evidence of Intelligent Design then I’m not sure I want to see what Moronic Design looks like.