Why are people so uptight about science-religion debates?

There are two science-religion debates coming up. One is tomorrow (February 4) between ‘Science Guy’ Bill Nye and Answers in Genesis young-Earth creationist Ken Ham. The other is on February 21 between cosmologist Sean Carroll and theologian William Lane Craig. Serious concerns have been expressed by both sides about the usefulness or even the desirability of these debates.

I can understand the argument that religious fundamentalists like Ken Ham, knowing that they are looked at askance by the intelligentsia, are trying to gain credibility by debating scientists and so one should avoid giving them that platform.

But there is another concern that is often expressed and that is that if the science side ‘loses’ the debate, then the cause of science is damaged in some way. This puzzles me. As a former debater, I know that winning and losing debates says almost nothing about which side is right. George Bernard Shaw, a quick wit and a formidable debater, used to say that he could take either side of an argument and usually win a debate, irrespective of what he believed or the merits of the case. In fact debaters are like lawyers, trained to be able to argue both sides by being arbitrarily assigned the stance to be taken.

So in going into a debate, one should first decide what one seeks to do. If one’s goal is to ‘win’, then you study the opponent and likely arguments carefully and be ready to pounce with counter-arguments and crowd-pleasing jokes and other ‘zingers’. Such debates are really a form of entertainment, a gladiatorial contest where each side cheers their own and few minds are changed. Winning and losing are constructs in the mind of each observer.

But you can also take a different approach and that is to decide to largely ignore your opponent or try to ‘win’, and instead aim your remarks at the people in the audience who are there to really learn something. Such people are more likely to be swayed by thoughtful insights delivered in a calm and rational manner than by debating theatrics.

A recent blog post by Carroll suggests that he is taking the latter approach against Craig and I think he is wise to do so. Carroll seems to have the right perspective about the value of these debates.

Just so we’re clear: my goal here is not to win the debate. It is to say things that are true and understandable, and establish a reasonable case for naturalism, especially focusing on issues related to cosmology. I will prepare, of course, but I’m not going to watch hours of previous debates, nor buy a small library of books so that I may anticipate all of WLC’s possible responses to my arguments. I have a day job, and frankly I’d rather spend my time thinking about quantum cosmology than about the cosmological argument for God’s existence. If this event were the Final Contest to Establish the One True Worldview, I might drop everything to focus on it. But it’s not; it’s an opportunity to make my point of view a little clearer to a group of people who don’t already agree with me.

The guy is a very polished public speaker, and he is certainly an expert in this format. But I have the overwhelming advantage of being right. If I thought WLC were right, I would just change my views. Since I don’t, my goal is to explain why not, as clearly as possible.

Having read his books and a lot of his other writings, attended his seminars, and seen him discuss science-religion issues in various places, I think Carroll will achieve his goals. This kind of argumentation is what he is good at and it is always best to play to one’s strengths. Also the audience that is likely to listen to a Carroll-Craig debate will contain many of the kinds of more thoughtful people that Carroll is targeting.

Nye does not have the scientific depth of knowledge that Carroll has. But Ham is no Craig either and young-Earth creationism is so silly that one hardly knows where to begin in trying to counter those views. It is almost impossible to have a thoughtful scientific discussion with a young Earth creationist because there is an absence of the common ground necessary for an exchange of ideas. The worldviews are just too far apart and fundamentally incompatible. They live in an alternate reality.

I don’t know what Nye is going to do but in his case he would be best advised to go for the other lower-brow debate approach consisting of jokes, put-downs, and zingers. This is not because he is lowbrow (I know very little about Nye except that he is an enthusiastic supporter and advocate of science) but because his opponent is.

So I expect that the Nye-Ham debate to be of lower quality in terms of the content than the Carroll-Craig one. It is purely entertainment, more like a reality show in which the characters play to type. The best preparation for Nye would be to have a team of comedy writers, like those in The Daily Show, to give him material. If Nye ‘loses’, all that means is that Ham had the better crowd-pleasers. There really is no consequence other than giving Ham’s fans short-term bragging rights, like the supporters of a winning sports team.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    As a former debater, I know that winning and losing debates says almost nothing about which side is right.

    Of course not. But do most members of the audience understand that?

  2. colnago80 says

    Well, one could also take the approach that Ken Miller did when his students inveigled him into a debate with Henry Morris. Miller prepared for the debate by reading everything that he could find that Morris had written and viewing any recordings of Morris presentations that he could find, aided by his students. He then was able to prepare short responses to anything that Morris might bring up. This was an act of self sacrifice on his part because Miller, like most active scientists, is a busy man, teaching his courses, running his laboratory, supervising his graduate students, and updating his high school biology textbook with his co-author Joe Levine.

  3. colnago80 says

    One could also take the approach of the late John Maynard Smith in his debate with the late and unlamented Duane Gish and go after his opponent in an aggressive manner, as related by Richard Dawkins.

  4. says

    I always thought a good tack to take would be to start off by explaining that “a debate like this is rousing entertainment and a great chance to influence people’s opinions, but the topic we’re discussing is a matter of FACT. If my opponent does a good job of attacking the theory of gravitation with debaters’ tricks and cherry-picked quotes it doesn’t mean you’re going to float out of your chairs any more than it proves that one particular god is real. Because that’s the line of argument you’re most likely to hear from my opponent tonight: nitpicking at evolution, therefore GOD! Why won’t my opponent actually make and defend his case that god is real? Because believers and theologians have been doing that for 2000 years and the ‘progress’ they have made is more tortured versions of sleight-of-hand logic like the “ontological argument” which has been refuted over and over by logicians for hundreds of years. So while they are attacking evoution as “only a theory” they want you to forget that they’re offering you a bunch of arguments that have been being shown to be outright wrong for hundreds of years. I’m not going to stand here and try to defend evolution; if you want to understand what we currently know of evolution, you should start with a fee biology textbooks. If you prefer it in a prettier, more digestible form, try reading some introductory bits about evolution on the internet and then watch some of BBC/David Attenborough’s amazing documentaries about life and nature – what you won’t see is any evidence of the hand of god, you’ll see wonderful complex processes resulting from NOT undirected randomness, but the search for survival. My opponent is going to try to slip past you a claim that because we don’t know something with certainty, that therefore something else is true. In logic that’s called a “false dichotomy” and in debating that’s called “fooling your audience”. Please don’t let him do that. Every time he attacks science, ask yourself how it would prove his religion, even if it were the case that his attacks were true, which they very likely aren’t. When my opponent claims that something being unexplained by science means his god is real, remember that argument would work just as well for space aliens or any of the thousands of gods humans have invented in their short history on Earth. Not to be too polite about it, my opponent’s agenda here today is to fool you, to stampede you into making basic mistakes of logic – mistakes my opponent knows are mistakes because he has crafted his arguments to hide the fact that they are mistakes, and that if he even bothers to argue FOR god’s existence he’ll be trotting out old arguments that have been refuted over and over by philosophers for hundreds of years. Plato’s Socrates was demolishing the arguments of religion hundreds of years before the invention of christianity, and Epicurus punctured every claim of divine justice from every religion that has ever been created. If you want to understand where my opponent is coming from, study Epicurus, don’t waste your time listening to puffery about flaws in evolution. If you want to understand evolution, educate yourself about that subject to the level of a college undergraduate, and you’ll be able to figure it out for yourself. Now, let me turn the microphone over to my opponent who will tell you his conclusive arguments for why his god is real and isn’t “just a theory”

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    Here’s a strategy I would be tempted to take, which might be a bad idea and fell free to point out why:

    After my opponent goes through his opening statement “Gish gallop,” I would want to tell the audience: “He has a great number of arguments m but they are bad arguments. He thinks he should get a point for every argument I cannot find time to answer, and the ones I do answer count for nothing.
    I don’t care for that. Instead I would prefer to concentrate on quality, not quantity of arguments. I will take a few of his bad arguments, explain to you why they are bad, and why myu opponent knows they are bad. Since he is deliberately using inferior arguments to you, I think there should be a cost. I think he should get points off for every argument that is demonstrably weak. Moreover, when it is established that my opponent thinks so little of your intellect that he will use arguments that he knows are bad, you should cease to trust any argument he offers.

  6. Trebuchet says

    The problem with the Nye/Ham (Ham on Nye? Bet I’m not the first to make that joke!) debate is that the deck is stacked. No one in the audience will be there to learn anything because the “public” ticket sale was a sham, “sold out” the minute it supposedly went live. It’s being held on Ham’s turf and, as far as I know, he’s in complete control of the video to be released afterwards. Nye will be seen to lose, no matter what actually happens.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Such people are more likely to be swayed by thoughtful insights delivered in a calm and rational manner than by debating theatrics.

    Has anyone here ever been swayed by a debate, or met someone who has? I haven’t. Changing one’s mind requires learning, thought and time. Debates on topics like this are always gladiatorial and partisan, regardless of one’s approach. People attend to cheer for their champion. It’s all strictly pro forma.

  8. Chiroptera says

    Rob Grigjanis, #9: Has anyone here ever been swayed by a debate, or met someone who has?

    If you include internet battles with formal debates, then I have occassionally been swayed, although in every one of those cases what swayed me was the terrible arguments that the proponents of what was then “my” side were using. Often got me to think deeply enough about the issues to decide the other side was actually correct.

    That said, even if the vast majority of debates don’t sway me, I almost always learn something from a good debate. Even a good presentation from the other side is often informative — if it’s good enough, it will get me thinking deeper about the issue even if I still conclude that it’s wrong.

  9. says

    People attend to cheer for their champion. It’s all strictly pro forma.

    It’s probably worse than useless for changing minds.

    Here’s a hypothesis: someone goes to a debate. Perhaps they have a tiny shred of doubt about the issue that is being debated. Then they find themselves in a room full of other people, perhaps half or so of which agree with them. This further cements their view that their opinion may be correct. They walk out of the debate with the belief that the issue is closer to undecided than it actually is; I mean, gravity is just a theory after all about 50% of the people there agree with that proposition!

    Whenever I see nonbelivers get into it with believers, we spend way too much time defending science and nowhere near enough time attacking their epistemology. Never mind making fun of the dusty old book – religion simply cannot defend its basis for knowledge. Science can. We keep playing to their strengths (their ability to make up bullshit about scientific theories) and not attacking their weaknesses.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    doublereed, I have no doubt that some debates can sway people. That’s why I wrote ‘topics like this’, by which I mean ones in which people are emotionally heavily invested. The faith nut is a tough one to crack.

  11. doublereed says


    My impression is that people who are going to be swayed in religious arguments are generally more moderate already. They’re more of the reasonable “agnostic”-ish people.

    But also I feel like we have a tendency to demand that people change their mind immediately when presented with evidence/arguments against their position. In my experience, people tend to change more gradually, whether it be a couple days or a couple months.

    I doubt a debate would make somebody immediately flip their religious position. But it could play a role in the larger story of their road of religious beliefs. For a lot of people, this is going to be where the conversation starts.

  12. mnb0 says

    @7 RS: I would adopt a strategy with elements of yours and of Sean Carroll’s: pick two Craig’s arguments (my choice would be the cosmological argument and the moral argument, but any choice is good), show their flaws and then show why science is vastly superior but still fallible. Perhaps I would add Herman Philipse’s psychological argument (how is an immaterial being supposed to interact with our material reality?).
    If SC totally neglects WLC some people might conclude he’s a bit of a jerk.

  13. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    I think you’re right here Mano Singham – spot on.

    I’ve heard quite a bit on the Nye-Ham debate most of it very criticial of Nye for taking part. I don’t agree with those critics for a few reasons firstly because I don’t think it matters as much as they say it does and secondly because even if Nye “loses” on the night he may have made some in the audience even if they are creationists think and more informed about the issue than they used to be. Thirdly, if as it seems the Nye-Ham debate is rigged then I think that rigging will itself be obvious enough to show people how desperate the creationists are and if you can only win by rigging a debate that itself is really more of a loss and reveal of the strength or otherwise of your case.

    I hadn’t even heard of the debate between cosmologist Sean Carroll and theologian William Lane Craig till now and that sounds entertaining and interesting too. I perhaps I’m odd but I find the debates can often be fun and informative although I don’t think they can ever really be conclusive or from evidence in any meaningful way. They produce a few opportunities for good quotable lines raising awareness and understanding – Thomas Huxley vs Bishop Wilberforce in Oxford 1860, the Great Debate between Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis on the nature of the “spiral nebulae” (now called spiral galaxies) and the size of the cosmos in 1920 and so on.

    There’ve been lots for debates that have been noteworthy events such as the one Q&A had with a theist whose name I now forget (George Pell?) and on the issue of Global Overheating Tim Lambert and others have taken on various Climate Deniers. See for instance here :


    Where Lambert debated Monckton which is on youtube as well and think that’s an example where Lambert did well and could be emulated.

    Debating is really just a specialised forum and method for talking about and communicating ideas. In general, I’ve no problem with scientists doing that reasonably often and with anyone although sometimes the specifics will be more productive and fairer and better than others.

  14. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @6.Marcus Ranum : No worries far as I’m concerned – but it would be nice if you’d broken it into a few paragraphs for ease of reading!

  15. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    BTW. One thing I wouldn’t mind seeing more of with debates generally – whether political, cultural, scientific or whatever – is objective fact checkers and logicians umpiring by noting :

    a) the number of false or misleading statements made by each side

    b) the number of logical fallacies eg. ad hom, strawman, non-sequiteurs, missing premises, etc …


    c) Then summing up the relative strength of each case on the basis of those points i.e. the side that’s made the most accurate statements and had the least fallacies wins. (As opposed to the usual audience response is the be and ends all verdict idea.)

  16. doublereed says

    @19 StevoR

    There’s no way to make sense of that in a debate.

    First of all, people will disagree with what’s a fallacy and what’s not (just look at the silly fact-checkers at Politifact and boggle at what they consider a ‘half-truth’).

    Secondly, summing up the relative strength of each on the basis of those points is the fallacy fallacy, which is hopelessly ironic.

    Thirdly, getting around those fallacies would frankly, make things boring, less snappy, and less humorous. In my opinion you want a more relaxed atmosphere.

    Honestly, I think you only need like a moderator to keep people on topic and to avoid any egregious lying.

  17. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Scientists that refuse to debate Creationists in front of a public audience have no standing to stand in front of a city council or state committee and demand Creationism not be taught.

    We should not be afraid of debate. Or how can we be afraid to debate!? Is Science and reason and evidence that weak?

    And why on earth should we be in some sort of superior position where we insist Creationism not be taught but insist we will not debate the issue?

    That said, it doesn’t mean we cannot discuss proper forums, admission policies, moderation, voting, or format of the debate.

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