Declining An Invititation To Debate A Creationist

Nicholas Gotelli, a biologist at the University of Vermont, received a request to debate a representative of the creationist Discovery Institute about evolutionary biology and intelligent design. His response:

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.

Good response. For the Discovery Institute to expect someone like Dr. Gotelli to take seriously such a request for a debate would be like someone who claims 2+2=5 to expect a chance to debate a representative of the mathematics department.

Evolutionary biology is science. Intelligent design is thinly disguised religion, not science. There is no common ground for any debate between the two in an academic institution.

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6 Comments

  1. 1
    DB says:

    I loved this response so much I had to post it as well. Even entertaining the notion that creation science is on the same level as real science hurts real science. Prof. Gotelli rocks.

  2. 2
    Brett says:

    This is so cool. The university where I am going has been mentioned on my favorite blog. It’s not so often that our little, overlooked institution is talked about in the national blogs, and I’m so proud that Professor Gotelli came up with such a brilliant response to such unscientific blowhards.

    I’m not sure you heard, Ron, but President Dan Fogel of UVM actually invited Ben Stein to be the COMMENCEMENT SPEAKER at Graduation this year. Un-frigging believable. You’ll be glad to know that there was a huge uproar, and Stein quickly withdrew from the proceedings. But still, what a boneheaded decision from a university aspiring to be one of the premier small public research universities in the nation and a president who, in my opinion, has become a shadow of George W. Bush.

  3. 3
    Ron Chusid says:

    I heard about the controversy over Stein being invited to be a commencement speaker but didn’t recall which university and didn’t connect it to this post.

  4. 4
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Well, even if one entirely leaves out the scientific weaknesses of ‘creation science’ as it currently exists and the co-option of the term ‘intelligent design’ to mean something entirely different from the original meaning of the quantum physicists who devised it, there is a two-fold political reason never to publish peer-reviewed article.

    The first prong of this political reason is the trap in which their ‘academic conspiracy against the truth’ argument leaves them sitting. If they were to be published in such a fashion, they would no longer be able to make the case that conspiracy and prejudice against religion is all that opposes their theory. All it would take is one published article on the merits of irreducible complexity (which can be argued on scientific merits, though not necessarily entirely accepted on them) to destroy all credibility in their claims of prejudice and conspiracy to the mainstream population.

    The second prong is that the people to whom ‘creation scientists’ are really pitching their intended sale are fundamentally anti-scientific. By appearing to side with legitimate science, they would be casting themselves as elitists rather than ‘the scientific plebs.’

  5. 5
    Ron Chusid says:

    It would be interesting to see them try to publish in a legitimate peer reviewed journal. Beyond bogus attacks on evolution, there isn’t really any substance to intelligent design. They argue there is a designer but have to testable theories or actual scientific research to publish. At least this does keep them clear of attacks for being elitists by acting like those real elitist scientists.

  6. 6
    Eclectic Radical says:

    The basic theory of irreducible complexity negating at least some of current evolutionary theory has some degree of scientific merit. I agree that it is scientifically dubious (and by dubious I mean utterly ridiculous) to posit that Biblical creation must be (or at least may be) scientifically factual solely because of the valid questions related to irreducible complexity.

    It should be noted that ‘intelligent design’ was a catchphrase in quantum physics before it was picked up by creation ‘scientists’. It is the simple idea that there is some sort of reason that the universe develops as it does, not necessarily connected to God or religion at all, and it is worthy of serious empirical study to any degree possible. It was originally QUITE distinct from creation ‘science’. I believe THAT to be absolute bunkum, most definitely.

    It is worthwhile, however, to note that despite being co-opted (and distorted) by the religious right, neither irreducible complexity nor intelligent design were theories developed by creation ‘scientists.’ They were scientific theories co-opted and distorted by the religious right and their pseudo-scientific mouthpieces to justify their political propaganda.

    I agree that, following the principles they have used thus far, creation ‘scientists’ would not be able to publish in legitimate, peer-reviewed scientific journals. They deduce rather than induce, using simple Aristotleian Logic rather than proper scientific method. In fact, that was part of my point.

    That said, irreducible complexity and various theories of pattern engineering can and should be subjected to rigorous scientific method by impartial (as difficult as that may sound) scientists. Their tainted association with religious and political propaganda has created the notion that this is worthless, when there are merits to such a pursuit.

    I agree that creation ‘scientists’ have abandoned all pretense to scientific merit, but legitimate science has always been resistant to innovation in theory as well. In this argument, the defenders of science have failed to use the full merits of science against its attackers and have ignored interesting avenues of exploration.

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