Why scientists are good at arguing and bad at debating – 2

In an earlier posting on this topic, I argued that one reason that scientists fare poorly in public political-type debates or on TV talk shows is that the style of argumentation they encounter in those venues is very different from the style they become expert in in their academic discourses. If you are not prepared for this different style, and take steps to counter it, then you can get blind-sided and come off looking poorly. This is why while the scientific case against so-called ‘intelligent design’ (ID) is so strong as to justify the phrase ‘slam dunk’, the popular perception does not match it, because scientists who debate ID proponents often do not realize that they are no longer debating according to the rules of scientific argumentation.

This is one reason why, in the past, scientists used to not come off well in their debates with IDCs (Intelligent Design Creationists). It is no accident that one of the most visible IDC proponents is Phillip Johnson who is not a scientist at all, but a lawyer. The situation has improved recently as scientists are catching on to the strategies used by creationists and have developed better debating practices.

One of the strategies that creationists use is to base arguments on scientific theories that are so esoteric or new that the particular scientists they are debating may not be aware of these theories. In the debates about evolution, the scientists who were initially most involved were biologists, which was natural since it was their field that was under attack. But while they could deal with the biological issues involved, they often found themselves unexpectedly confronting arguments from physics and chemistry and even mathematics.

Kenneth Miller, professor of biology at Brown University is a devout practicing Catholic who has been one of the key people confronting the IDCs. In an NPR interview, he said that in the early days he was invited by a student group to take part in a debate with an ID proponent. Thinking that this would be a public service on his part and a good thing to do, he went for advice to his friend and colleague the late Stephen Jay Gould who had been writing extensively on this topic. To his surprise, Gould told him not to debate and that if he went ahead and agreed, he (Gould) would not help him in any way. Gould told him that scientists always did badly in such debates despite having the stronger case and the end result was merely to give the ID movement greater credibility. He did not want to be a party to this exercise.

Miller said he was surprised by this response but also intrigued. So he went to see another debate between a biologist and an ID advocate and immediately saw what Gould was talking about. While the biologist was knowledgeable in countering the biological arguments against evolution, most of the time he was subjected to arguments from physics, chemistry, geology, etc. for which he was unprepared. One of these arguments was the one from the second law of thermodynamics dealing with inexorably increasing entropy (the fraudulent use of which I discussed in an earlier posting). Miller said that he realized that himself did not know what entropy was and what this law was about.

As a result of watching this debate, Miller realized that he had to prepare quite differently for his own debate than what he had originally planned. He had to find out what all these non-biological arguments were, investigate all these areas outside of his specialty, and talk to colleagues in other departments about these concepts and how they should be properly used. In other words, he had to spend a considerable amount of time preparing not only the biological arguments which scientists had previously naively thought were the only ones that mattered, but also arguments in other scientific areas, and also the non-scientific ways of argument that he would likely encounter.

As a result of his careful preparation, he was able to completely rout his opponent in the debate and this has led to him being one of the people most sought-after on the anti-IDC debate circuit.

But his experience also illustrates why scientists are so reluctant to engage in this kind of public debates. If they don’t prepare carefully like Miller, they are taken by surprise by the kinds of debating tricks that a career in science does not prepare you for. To do it well requires that scientists do a lot of preparation outside their own area of research and this is time that is taken away from that research. This kind of activity does not help them in their own investigations and is not recognized as the kind of scholarly work that forms the reward structure of universities, so scientists have to do it on their own time and on their own dime, so to speak. There is no organized anti-IDC program. Opposition to IDC ideas comes from a loose collection of scientists, acting largely independently of each other, who feel a sense of obligation to counter what they see as a harmful anti-science movement.

Contrast this with the way the pro-IDC operation works. They have well-funded institutions like the Center for Science and Culture of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute (which is the prime force and funder behind the IDC movement) which hires people either full time or as consultants and provides them with abundant resources to pursue this goal single-mindedly. These people get time and money, forums for their writings, and support for their travel to give talks all over the country and to appear before school boards, legislative bodies and the like. They do not have to set up laboratories, teach courses, publish in peer-reviewed journals, supervise theses, and meet all the other demands on the time and energy of scientists in universities or research institutes. So it should not be surprising that they have been able to hone an effective message despite the weakness of their case on its scientific merits.

But as I said before, in the long run ID will lose in its struggle with evolution for the same reason that many similar anti-science movements have lost in the past despite initial successes. And that reason is that in the final analysis, science and society have no use for useless ideas.

More on this topic in future postings.


From Crawford, TX, working with and inspired by Cindy Sheehan, members of the Camp Casey (Bring The Troops Home Now) tour will present their experiences and views, and answer questions. Members include parents of soldiers killed in Iraq, families with sons or daughters in Iraq, and Iraq veterans.
There are two simultaneous and similar events, one east and one west side, both on Friday, September 9, 7:00-8:30 p.m.

East side:
Church of the Saviour, 2537 Lee Road (north of Lee and Fairmount), Cleveland Heights
For further information: 216-536-3119
West side:
Saint Joseph Center, 3430 Rocky River Drive (Rte 237, McKinley exit off I-90) West Park area, Cleveland
For further information: 216-688-3462 or 216-252-0440×423
The events are free and open to the public. Military families and those still undecided are welcome.

(Note: I will be the moderator of the East side event and will also speak briefly during the program.)

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