Science is big. Really big. Most of us who are trained in science are actually trained in a relatively narrow discipline — and as we progress through our training, our scope gets narrower and narrower. What that means is that there are a lot of questions about science that any one scientist doesn’t know the answer to, so the phrase “I don’t know” really ought to be a common part of our lexicon.
Lawrence Krauss, a physicist, got into a debate with Stephen Meyer, a creationist, as Larry Moran describes. Meyer cunningly got the debate unto the track of molecular biology and the human genome — a subject in which Krauss is far from familiar, and which Meyer doesn’t understand either (either that, or he maliciously misprepresents it). Krauss got stuff wrong and conceded some major points to Meyer.
I’ve been in these situations. I’ve mentioned before that when I get into arguments with creationists, when they discover that I’m a biologist, suddenly they switch gears and start confronting me with all this stuff about physics, or geology, or astronomy — the last thing they want to do is talk to me about stuff I know inside and out. And here’s what I do.
“I don’t know,” I’ll say. I might have some general knowledge and know a source, so if they’re asking me about, say, cosmology, I’ll add, “but I’ve read this book by Lawrence Krauss or Sean Carroll or Vic Stenger, maybe you should go read it, too.”
And then I’ll suggest that, since I know a fair bit about evolutionary biology or development or neurobiology, maybe we should focus on those areas…unless, of course, they’re conceding that they have no disagreement with the consensus in those fields.
I have my debate requirements, and I’ll refer you to point number 3:
The question to be debated must be specific: none of this “Does god exist?” crap. Come up with an addressable topic that can be adequately covered in an hour of back-and-forth.
And point number 4:
The question ought to be one I’m competent to answer: I’m a biologist, not a physicist, so don’t bother asking me to debate the implications of dark matter or the age of the earth (actually, that last one would be stupid no matter who you ask: it’s a settled issue.) Get someone else in the appropriate field.
Krauss apparently walked into a debate titled “What’s Behind It All: God, Science, and the Universe”*, which was stupid to begin with — and then he let Meyer steer it into subjects that Krauss knew little about, but which Meyer was an expert in pretending that he did.
Don’t do that.
Krauss is a good, enthusiastic speaker and I’ve found him informative and entertaining when he’s talking about his area of expertise — cosmology. He should stick to that. I have approximately zero interest in hearing him lecture about biology, or philosophy, or Russian literature, and I think any of those would be a painful experience. Unless he’s got some secret passion for Dostoevsky, maybe.
*Actually, I’d also like to know how Meyer got away with focusing on the human genome, which really isn’t exactly “the Universe”, and why he would be talking about an object, “God”, which the Discovery Institute claims to have no opinion on.