How to deal with the ‘Craig Con’: Part 2

In yesterday’s Part 1 of this three-part series, I wrote about how in debating sophisticated religious people, atheists have the disadvantage in that science impacts religion in many ways and that atheists, even if they are scientists, cannot know about all developments everywhere and so can be blindsided by arguments based on science that they have little knowledge about. I have labeled this the ‘Craig Con’, in contrast to the older and cruder ‘Gish Gallop’, because some theologians are now more sophisticated than the ones who came before and use information from cutting-edge science to give the same old and tired arguments for god a patina of freshness and credibility. William Lane Craig is the smoothest practitioner of this debating tactic, though by no means the only one.

For example, some years ago I was on a panel debating so-called intelligent design (ID) with its advocates Michael Behe, Jonathan Wells, and a theologian. In the course of the debate, the theologian made an assertion about cosmology that he felt supported the ID case. Since I was the only scientist on the panel opposing ID and am not a cosmologist, he may have felt safe doing so. But it just so happened that I was well aware of this particular issue and, despite the fact that the moderator was also an ID supporter and tried to keep me from responding by saying that he wanted to move on to the next topic, I insisted on revisiting the issue and showed how that cosmological example, rather than being an argument in favor of god, was in fact an argument against ID.

But it was luck that I happened to know that particular issue. There are many areas of science (actually almost all of it) where I do not have the kind of detailed information where I can offer a pointed and authoritative rebuttal. But it did illustrate to me one important point and that is that if one agrees to such a debate, one needs to prepare very carefully and be aware, at least in general terms, of what arguments your opponents are likely to present and in particular what arguments your immediate opponent likes to use and his or her rhetorical style. You should not try to wing it, based on your general knowledge and the confidence that you are right. The lay audience often is not in a position to judge the substance of scientific arguments and can be swayed by rhetorical style and debating tricks. Fortunately in the internet age, one has access to a lot of written and visual information that one can exploit to prepare carefully.

A second point is that one should try and debate in the written, asynchronous form where one has the time to look into surprising science-based arguments. An example of the benefits of that involves intelligent design advocate William Dembski, who seems to have kept an unusually low profile the last few years after the spectacular fiasco in 2010 concerning his theory of Adam and Eve and the dinosaurs. (See here, here, and here for that fascinating saga that led to his being dressed down by his religious bosses and maybe led to him having to find a new job.)

Dembski keeps coming up with new and esoteric arguments based on highly mathematical aspects of science. In 2006, he claimed to have proved something called the ‘conservation of information’, an argument based on information theory that used a theorem by MIT professor of mechanical engineering Seth Lloyd (author of the 2007 book Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos) on the upper limit of computational operations of information that could have occurred since the beginning of the universe. Dembski claimed that the amount of information that currently exists in the universe is currently greater than that limit. His predictable conclusion is that the only way this is possible is if god inserted that extra information at no cost. (You can see a simplified version of his argument here.)

I am not in a position to judge the validity of this but found that others with the required knowledge have analyzed Dembski’s argument and claimed to find major flaws that invalidate his conclusions, leading to some back and forth. I did contact Lloyd directly and asked him if it was true that the amount of information currently in the universe violated his upper bound and he seemed surprised that anyone would make that claim based on his research and even more that they would use it as an argument for a god.

For another example, see how rabbi Moshe Averick distorted Nobel-prize winning biologist Jack Szostak’s words to make the case for god and the brutal comeuppance that he received.

The point is that such rejoinders were possible because the debates were taking place in a written, asynchronous form, allowing for careful and detailed responses. If such arguments had suddenly appeared in a verbal debate, the opponent may not have the expertise to judge them and respond properly and might well be nonplussed (if not actually minused) by them and thus ‘lose’ the debate in the audience’s eyes. After all, who among us has expert and detailed knowledge of all aspects of information theory and of biology?

Note also that these theologians are especially fond of using scientific arguments that are associated with people who are either famous or at elite institutions, since that adds credibility to their case in the audience’s eyes, even as they distort what the people actually said.

In the third and last post in this series, I will look at Craig’s attempt to use the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin singularity theorem to argue for god and how to respond to that argument.

But despite the best preparation, one can still be surprised in a verbal debate by supposedly scientific arguments that appear out of the blue that one was unprepared for and I will also discuss about how one might respond to them.


  1. trina says

    Good point. I was pretty keen for this post but I think ‘don’t debate on person’ is good advice. I was solemnly informed the other day that the human race must have originated from a single couple, since I have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents (etc etc) and therefore that’s too many people if y you go back far enough generations. I thought that was funny on its own and then he added that the population of the earth would need to be a quintillion or more for it to work.

  2. slc1 says

    Re trina @ #1

    Good point. I was pretty keen for this post but I think ‘don’t debate on person’ is good advice.

    I think that refusing to debate creationists is probably the best course (this was the advice given by Stephen Jay Gould to Richard Dawkins when the latter was challenged to a debate during a US book tour by, I believe, Duane Gish), unless one is prepared to undertake the type of preparation that Brown biology professor Ken Miller did when inveigled by his students in an undergraduate biology course in to agreeing to debate Henry Morris. Miller read everything he could find that Morris had written and watched every video clip that he could find of Morris presentations and debates, in that way, preparing sound bite arguments to refute Morris’ Gish gallop sound bite arguments. Fortunately, Morris usually stuck to a menu of sound bites and rarely deviated from them from lecture to lecture and article to article. However, how many busy working scientists are prepared to undertake such a task? Not many.

  3. says

    I’ve found this very interesting. I’ve been studying and writing about debates between freethinkers and “religionists” in the nineteenth century (Dr. Charles Knowlton, Charles Bradlaugh, Robert Ingersoll, etc.). They obviously didn’t face opponents who spent their time trolling through the most abstruse corners of physics or biology. But they did face people who called attention to the huge gaps in science’s understanding of nature.

    I’m not sure that their experience is any guide for present debaters, but I wonder if people who decide they are going to do live debates could use some of their techniques. Often, I think they were able to boil an opponent’s argument down to its core. Then they might respond, “well, that’s basically the argument from design, and we know how to address that.” Definitely, doing your homework and knowing what arguments a particular debater has used in the past, is key.

  4. says

    “Debates” are mere theater, designed to do nothing except entertain.

    Hitchens was really, really good at it — because he always went straight for the jugular and never let go.

    I’ll be interested to see part 3…it’s my understanding that folks actually contacted Borde, Guth, and Valenkin with regard to Craig and each of them has firmly stated that Craig is misusing their science in the service of his theology.

    In short, Craig is doing to physicists what creationists have done to Darwin — lied and cherry picked.

  5. says

    Kevin’s point about theater is a good one. But people LIKE theater. Is there a close-to-live venue like YouTube that might allow more prepared responses, but capture some of the drama of hearing a speaker rather than reading a page of text?

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    … on a panel debating so-called intelligent design (ID) with its advocates Michael Behe, Jonathan Wells, and a theologian. … I was the only scientist on the panel opposing ID … the moderator was also an ID supporter …

    Why the hell did you agree to play such a rigged game in the first place?

  7. Mano Singham says

    In general, I am not opposed to such debates and tend to accept invitations if proper conditions are met. They can be a good means of enlightening at least some of the people who listen to them and I actually enjoy talking to religious audience members and engaging with them. This was also way back when I was young and innocent (actually just innocent) and not fully aware of the pitfalls of such debates. In addition, this was not a debate about god per se but about whether ID should be taught in public school science classes, a much less tricky topic.

    On our side we had an excellent constitutional lawyer (Stephen Gey) and a science educator in addition to me. Gey spoke about why teaching ID violated the Establishment Clause and the science educator spoke about the philosophy of science.

    It turned out that we did pretty well, according to observers who were there. This was because I was aware of the ID arguments of Behe and Wells, having read their stuff. The theologian was the only unknown quantity.

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