Too, too true: a former creationist writes about the strategies they were explicitly taught to use in debates. You won’t be surprised to learn that they’re bogus, dishonest, and only effective with people who don’t know much biology.
The main thing that they taught us was that most people don’t know a whole lot about biology. Most people just take what is taught them and they regurgitate it for a test in the classroom without ever thinking about what they’ve regurgitated. So they hammered on a lot of the various things that were taught in biology class and then they simply reframed them in a new way and asked us to think about them… really, really think about them. Of course, since we were kids, we needed to be walked through how to think about them. Of course, they were more than happy to shepherd us.
I’ve noticed that creationists don’t like to argue with anyone who is knowledgeable — with me, they constantly try to steer the discussion away from my expertise towards geology or astronomy or nuclear physics, stuff they know less about than I do, but which I’m not going to be as comfortable addressing.
But they don’t worry, even if they are talking with an expert. They’ve got another ace up their sleeve. Say stupid shit to piss off your opponent! Then you win.
The first thing they asked us to notice was that there was a dialectic (they didn’t use that word, but that’s what they pointed out). That is to say, that the argument wasn’t really about Science at all. Science, they pointed out, was a *METHOD*. It wasn’t a team or something to cheer. Heck, it wasn’t something to get emotional about at all. But look at how emotional all those scientists got when we were arguing Creationism, they pointed out. And that’s not all! Look at how emotional all of these “Evolutionists” got throughout history! They gave us one of those quotations that’s attributed to everyone from Augustine to C.S. Lewis: “The Truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend It. Get out of Its way. It can take care of Itself.”
The problem with that, and it’s a fact that scientists are often reluctant to acknowledge, is that we don’t become scientists out of dispassion. Good scientists are enthusiastic about their work, and they also care deeply about the truth. Seeing someone who is dishonest and cavalier with the facts is offensive and disturbing, and yes, we’ll be angry with someone who lies. Who lies to children. Who misleads public policy.
Also, fuck CS Lewis. Here’s another quote for you: “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on”. The truth is often hard. It takes work and knowledge and experience to defend it. Any ass with a Bible can defend a lie.
The other thing they learned was to seize upon examples where scientists were initially enthusiastic, and then found to be in error. The example he uses is Nebraska Man, an erroneous classification of a pig’s tooth as belonging to an ancient hominin.
It was the exuberance that they had us focus on. Not the fact that there was nowhere *NEAR* consensus among scientists at the time. Certainly not the fact that once it was found out that stuff was retracted appropriately. It was the enthusiasm for finding this stuff in the first place. The statements that rubbed it in the face of people who believed in The Bible. The drawings. Oh, goodness. The drawings. “They made these drawings of people after they found *A TOOTH*!” (“From an *EXTINCT* pig!”)
The author gets it wrong, still. Nebraska Man was not published in any journal; it was entirely promoted by the newspaper media of the time, the reconstructions were commissioned by the press. Even in explaining what they were taught, the author is still getting it wrong, and exaggerating the scientific response.
Think about more recent and more solid discoveries. The initial response to reports about Homo floresiensis, the hobbit was a combination of enthusiastic interest and outright dissent about the interpretation of the specimens. Look at Homo naledi. Is it significant and representative, or is it a weird relict population of doomed oddballs? Where does it fit on the family tree? Did they actually practice crude ritual burials? Scientists tend not to leap on new discoveries with the certainty the creationists attribute to us — there’s a lot of questioning and demands for more evidence.
So instead the creationists memorize lists of things they barely understand, to use as a confrontational tool.
And then, at that point, it became VITALLY important that we each learned what “really” happened. We had to learn the names and dates of the so-called hoaxes. We had to learn, by memory, the differences between (deep breath) Piltdown Man and Nebraska Man and Java Man and Peking Man and we had to have these facts at our fingertips. (Keep in mind: This was before Smartphones were a thing.) We had to be able to argue this stuff at a moment’s notice because…
Java Man and Peking Man were not hoaxes. That’s one of the dangers here — they blur fact and fiction together, because that’s a way to taint the facts.
Among the tools we were given to expose the dialectic was The Gish Gallop. Named after Duane Gish, this is when you give 12-15 “whatabouts” in a very short period of time. Again: this was before the internet. So the people we were talking to didn’t have all of human knowledge in their back pocket. The best part about the Gish Gallop is that, in a very short period of time, it communicates familiarity with the various theories and, since it’s probably impossible for anybody under the best of circumstances to deal with 12-15 “whatabouts” in a very short period of time, it communicates *GREATER* familiarity with the subject than the person with whom we were arguing. That doesn’t really help with the person you’re arguing with, but wasn’t necessarily about changing the mind of the person we were arguing with.
There have been a few satisfying incidents in my time when I’ve been arguing with a creationist who isn’t smart enough to change the subject to a field I don’t know much about, and they give me those 12-15 “whatabouts” and I’m able to answer every one. It requires a little luck, because I don’t know everything so they can stump me, but there was this time a creationist had been getting batted down with every point, so he dragged out an obscure one — a fossil bed in Peru with many whale fossils, which he argued was proof of a global flood. I’d coincidentally read the paper that morning, so I was able to tell him all about it (it was a shallow beach, the site of frequent strandings over a long period of time), and even cite the source.
Speaking of getting emotional…he was standing there with his mouth open turning purple. It was hilarious. Honestly, though, usually they succeed in bringing up something I haven’t heard of at some point, and I shrug and say, “I don’t know”, which is fine for any scientist to say, but they treat it as some kind of grand victory.
And then there’s the grand kicker, the strategy that you still see in frequent use.
Yet another tool: The Odious Conclusion. You can see this trick above in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Either this good thing is true or this odious conclusion is true. Since we want to avoid the odious conclusion, therefore, the good thing is true! How this worked for Young Earth Creationism was to invoke eugenics. If you were arguing with someone only passing familiar with the theory of evolution, it was easy to set them up and get them to argue that there was a choice between Young Earth Creationism and some particularly odious statement. “If evolution was true, doesn’t that mean that eugenics could work?” was a fun one (remember: no internet in the back pocket). You’d find that most people had never even thought about the question and it was fun to ask questions focusing on whether evolution leads to odious conclusions. Then, of course, you could point out that if God created everyone equal, you didn’t have to worry about whether or not the eugenicists had a point. Force them to choose between something pleasant and something odious.
Unfortunately, that still works on lots of people. “Do you want to die someday, or do you want to live forever” is difficult to address when the honest answer is that everyone is going to die eventually, while the Jebusite gladhander is lying and saying he has the magic formula to live forever. It’s the same con that the alt-medicine frauds use: “Do you want to suffer with chemotherapy, or take my juice cleanse and poop the tumors away?”, said as if both treatments were equally effective.