How to respond to requests to debate creationists

Linked from Pharyngula

This is such a great response to a request from the Discovery Institute to debate a creationist that I had to post it here:

A professor at the University of Vermont, Nicholas Gotelli, got an invitation to debate one of the clowns at the Discovery Institute. Here's what they wrote.

Dear Professor Gotelli, I saw your op-ed in the Burlington Free Press and appreciated your support of free speech at UVM. In light of that, I wonder if you would be open to finding a way to provide a campus forum for a debate about evolutionary science and intelligent design. The Discovery Institute, where I work, has a local sponsor in Burlington who is enthusiastic to find a way to make this happen. But we need a partner on campus. If not the biology department, then perhaps you can suggest an alternative.

Ben Stein may not be the best person to single-handedly represent the ID side. As you're aware, he's known mainly as an entertainer. A more appropriate alternative or addition might be our senior fellows David Berlinski or Stephen Meyer, respectively a mathematician and a philosopher of science. I'll copy links to their bios below. Wherever one comes down in the Darwin debate, I think we can all agree that it is healthy for students to be exposed to different views--in precisely the spirit of inviting controversial speakers to campus, as you write in your op-ed.

I'm hoping that you would be willing to give a critique of ID at such an event, and participate in the debate in whatever role you feel comfortable with.

A good scientific backdrop to the discussion might be Dr. Meyer's book that comes out in June from HarperCollins, "Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design."

On the other hand, Dr. Belinski may be a good choice since he is a critic of both ID and Darwinian theory.

Would it be possible for us to talk more about this by phone sometime soon?

With best wishes,
David Klinghoffer
Discovery Institute

You'll enjoy Dr Gotelli's response.

Dear Dr. Klinghoffer: Thank you for this interesting and courteous invitation to set up a debate about evolution and creationism (which includes its more recent relabeling as "intelligent design") with a speaker from the Discovery Institute. Your invitation is quite surprising, given the sneering coverage of my recent newspaper editorial that you yourself posted on the Discovery Institute's website:

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2009/02/

However, this kind of two-faced dishonesty is what the scientific community has come to expect from the creationists.

Academic debate on controversial topics is fine, but those topics need to have a basis in reality. I would not invite a creationist to a debate on campus for the same reason that I would not invite an alchemist, a flat-earther, an astrologer, a psychic, or a Holocaust revisionist. These ideas have no scientific support, and that is why they have all been discarded by credible scholars. Creationism is in the same category.

Instead of spending time on public debates, why aren't members of your institute publishing their ideas in prominent peer-reviewed journals such as Science, Nature, or the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences? If you want to be taken seriously by scientists and scholars, this is where you need to publish. Academic publishing is an intellectual free market, where ideas that have credible empirical support are carefully and thoroughly explored. Nothing could possibly be more exciting and electrifying to biology than scientific disproof of evolutionary theory or scientific proof of the existence of a god. That would be Nobel Prize winning work, and it would be eagerly published by any of the prominent mainstream journals.

"Conspiracy" is the predictable response by Ben Stein and the frustrated creationists. But conspiracy theories are a joke, because science places a high premium on intellectual honesty and on new empirical studies that overturn previously established principles. Creationism doesn't live up to these standards, so its proponents are relegated to the sidelines, publishing in books, blogs, websites, and obscure journals that don't maintain scientific standards.

Finally, isn't it sort of pathetic that your large, well-funded institute must scrape around, panhandling for a seminar invitation at a little university in northern New England? Practicing scientists receive frequent invitations to speak in science departments around the world, often on controversial and novel topics. If creationists actually published some legitimate science, they would receive such invitations as well.

So, I hope you understand why I am declining your offer. I will wait patiently to read about the work of creationists in the pages of Nature and Science. But until it appears there, it isn't science and doesn't merit an invitation.

In closing, I do want to thank you sincerely for this invitation and for your posting on the Discovery Institute Website. As an evolutionary biologist, I can't tell you what a badge of honor this is. My colleagues will be envious.

Sincerely yours,

Nick Gotelli

P.S. I hope you will forgive me if I do not respond to any further e-mails from you or from the Discovery Institute. This has been entertaining, but it interferes with my research and teaching.

Views: 5

Tags: Creationism, Discovery Institute, Evolution

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Comment by Jo Jerome on October 18, 2009 at 11:39am
If it were me, I'd agree to the debate, but I would also have a few representatives of other faiths to argue on behalf of their own creation stories. If Ben Stein is willing to seriously consider, say, the Norse myth that fire and ice touched each other and created a giant cow who licked the world into existence, if he is prepared to show how Genesis is more credible than the Norse, then I would happily host such an event.
Comment by Sheryl on February 20, 2009 at 2:23pm
Thank you for posting this as I have just had the need to post an excerpt of Dr. Gotelli's response on a blog "Petition: Thank Politicians Who Say "No" to Creationists"
Check it out and leave a comment. If you sign the petition it cc's it to your reps also!
Comment by Jennifer W on February 20, 2009 at 2:55am
Wow, Gotelli really gets it. Starting unnecessary conflict is what creationists want, they don't care if they are taken seriously by any type of science.
Comment by Clarence Dember on February 19, 2009 at 8:15pm
That was a well penned rebuke of a creationist attempt at legitimacy.
Cla

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