The False Debate about Evolution

Last week, a creationist group held an “Origins Summit” at Michigan State University that led to a lot of controversy. Despite the false claims of scientific controversy by the local newspaper, the controversy I’m talking about is was among the evolutionary biologists at MSU about whether they should mount any kind of response to this group. The argument for engagement was that MSU, with their BEACON program, is a hotbed of evolutionary research and full of experts on evolutionary research and theory. By any measure, the group of evolutionary biologists there have more expertise in the field of biology than the adjunct pathologist, astronomer, science educator, and geneticist at the Origin Summit. This attack on science was happening in their own backyard, and silence from the faculty could be seen as consent or fear. However, the argument against engagement was that this panel is full of experts in debate techniques and public speaking and engagement, an area in which scientists do not often excel (see Randy Olsen’s Flock of Dodos film for an example). Further, engagement by the faculty and a debate on the topic of evolution would imply that the topic is one about which there is reasonable debate to be had.

I still get emails from the MSU listserv, so I followed the debate about how to handle the summit with interest. The result was a mixed reaction from the scientists at MSU. Most of the faculty chose not to comment, engage with, or even acknowledge the creationists. There is a nice piece in Slate about this reaction, which produced this quote from graduate student Carina Baskett: “We don’t debate evolution because it’s not debatable. It’s like debating the existence of Canada”. That quote also produced the funny hashtag #CanadaIsALie. However, Carina, along with a small, but empowered minority of grad students and faculty, attended the summit, not to debate the creationists, but simply to engage with audience members. Carina’s been discussing this on her blog¬†(Wandering Nature), but essentially she saw the value in putting a human face on a scientist (we’re not just robots in a lab coat) and answering any questions that audience members might have. As an added bonus, one of the scientists won the free iPad that was being given away to attract a crowd to the event.

I really have mixed feelings about this because I understand both points of view. First off, I think Carina’s approach was great and does no harm and probably opened a few people’s eyes to the facts of the situation. But the bigger question is whether scientists should engage in such debate or not. Bill Nye famously engaged in such debate recently, and although scientists readily understood his arguments, it’s not clear to me that he won the “debate”, simply because his opponent was better at convincing an uneducated audience. Some felt that the debate did more harm than good. Public opinion on whether evolution is real or not is astonishingly low (often well under 50% of the population). If fewer than 99% of respondents to a poll responded no to “Does Canada exist?” or “Does gravity work?”, you would be very very worried about education in this country. So you can understand when scientists are frustrated that people don’t “believe” in facts, especially when those facts are the very thing upon which their whole approach to science is based and supported by overwhelming evidence.

Obviously, the answer to this problem is education, but what’s the best way to achieve that? Most academics are educators. We teach evolution to students in our classrooms, but shouldn’t it also be our job to educate the general public? Most of us would agree that this would be great. However, the downside is that the creationist viewpoint is not based on fact. Religion is based on faith…and the debate between faith and reason is a different one. But the creationist argument is not faith-based either. Rather, those who present evidence against evolution, typically twist the truth into something that sounds like compelling evidence, but is actually completely wrong. Yet, they still claim the intentionally twisted fact as “reason”. You can’t have a reasonable debate when both sides’ arguments are not based on logic. Imagine trying to have a presidential debate, but one candidate believes that we actually live in Canada. How does one even begin to discuss politics when you have to first explain how geography and maps work? It takes a lot of background knowledge to explain why the creationists’ ¬†simple talking point is factually incorrect. In today’s world, debates are won by sound bites, and you simply can’t explain the whole field of biology in 60 seconds. So in that sense, public education is made much more difficult for those seeking to anti-educate.

So is it worth debating somebody who is not debating based on facts, but simply twists the truth to suit their viewpoint? One hopes that people watching the debate would see through such shenanigans and come to the same obvious conclusion as every scientist in the world. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. So then, is the solution to simply not engage in the debate? That doesn’t seem to be working either. Another solution is for scientists to become better at crafting their message for the general public. Some would argue that our job is research, not communication, but I think that’s misguided. Research that is not communicated is nearly worthless. Mendel’s groundbreaking research on genetics lay dormant for decades before it was eventually made widely known. Of course, the long-term solution is to have a general public that is better educated in science and can easily discern fact from distortion. That’s what I’m thinking about as I vote today.

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