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Debate will make a mockery of truth

Illustration by Cody Angell
By Caitlin Hall
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday April 24, 2003

There are essentially two types of proselytizers: those who argue with reason and those who argue with deceit. The former persuade with logic and sound premises, which they air openly and honestly. The latter persuade with trickery and misrepresentation, and attempt to undermine opposing arguments rather than seek affirmation of their own. It is this second species, the vulture of intellect, that will descend upon the McKale Center on May 10.

It is no small wonder that the event taking place that night ¸ a debate on the topic of creation vs. evolution ¸ is taking place on a university campus at all. Given the overwhelming evidence in favor of the theory of evolution ¸ tens of thousands of studies from fields as diverse as physics, chemistry, botany, ecology, zoology, physiology, biochemistry, virology, paleontology and microbiology ¸ the academic community is generally wary of giving footing to the anti-reason, anti-science crusade that masquerades as "scientific" creationism.
Illustration by Cody Angell

It was precisely that fear of inadvertently condoning a view that holds no academic legitimacy that kept many professors from responding to the wanted ad for the debate that ran on the back page of the Wildcat on Valentine's Day. The ad, run by the Calvary Chapel of Tucson in coordination with the Creation Research Society, compared the theory of evolution, unrefuted by 150 years of scientific research, to Hans Christian Anderson's story "The Emperor's New Clothes" and charged that there was "zero real evidence" to support the "╬faith' of evolution."

Given the clear bias of the event's organizers, it's no wonder that no professors volunteered for several weeks. The church was eventually contacted, however, by one willing participant: James McGaha, an astronomer and adjunct faculty member of Pima Community College. At first, the church accepted his offer, but weeks later reneged, citing a problem with McGaha's "attitude."

More likely, organizers realized they'd bitten off more than they could chew ¸ or more accurately, more than their ringer, world-renowned creation "scientist" Duane Gish, could chew. McGaha had made a hobby of studying the formulaic and skewed debating tactics of Gish, who is a faculty member at the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego.
Caitlin Hall

If transcripts of old debates are any indication, those tactics play out something like this: Gish sets up the debate by saying one must believe either in creation or evolution, but not in both. He then unleashes a torrent of contrived, disputed and ultimately false "refutations" of evolution based on faulty pseudo-science, any one of which could be easily rebutted to a lay audience, given enough time. The problem is that Gish refuses to budge from a debate format that allows more than 15 minutes for rebuttal. Thus, the audience leaves with the impression that evolution has been critically damaged, and by extension, feels that creationism has been verified.

However, McGaha's debate savvy is only part of the story. Overlooking a tenacious, avowed atheist with detailed knowledge of the "evidence" to be presented by Gish, the event organizers replaced him with someone who better fit their needs: UA professor Peter Sherman.

Sherman, who teaches ecology at the Arizona International College, feels that creationism and evolution are simply two "alternative world views" and is not eager to foist his beliefs on others. He explained that, since he didn't have very much formal training in the science of evolution, he would not try to present scientific evidence for it, but would instead argue that "evolution by natural selection has an elegant, simple logic at its core." Furthermore, according to Sherman, he signed up for the event under the assumption that it would take the form of a discussion, rather than a debate.

Sherman provided another boon for the agenda of the Calvary Chapel and what would become the official campus sponsors of the event, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes: He was a university professor. That fact allowed the FCA to approach Steve Kozachik, the assistant director of athletics, facilities and event operations for UA, as a university club sponsoring an event with a university professor. Consequently, the club was able to book McKale Center ¸ which would have otherwise cost in the range of thousands of dollars to rent ¸ without having to pay a rental fee.

Having the event at McKale inevitably drew in other campus organizations as well. Two concessions stands will be operated by the Student Union Memorial Center, advertising has already begun via the Center for Student Involvement and Leadership and university clubs have been approached to help run and promote the event.

Let's take stock of the situation: The debate that will take place at McKale in two weeks is of no significant academic value. It is, for all intents and purposes, a topic that continues to be debated only by religious fundamentalists and people ignorant of any understanding of evolution.
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The debate that will take place at McKale in two weeks is of no significant academic value.
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Having such an event on campus gives it an air of legitimacy that it does not deserve, and belittles true science by setting it on par with nothing more than wishful thinking.

Regardless, this event will take place on campus, in no less than the most visible venue imaginable, and will be advertised aggressively by the same people who advertise legitimate academic discussions. It will take place between the world's foremost advocate of "scientific" creationism ¸ a man who has dedicated his life to repeating this exact debate, in this exact format, year after year, in university after university and who has every intention of presenting "scientific evidence" against evolution ¸ and a man who intends to argue for a purely scientific theory from the standpoint of philosophy and aesthetics and who is loath to press his point too insistently, lest he offend those with differing views.

In short, this debate has been engineered to make a mockery of evolution. It will, barring some unforeseen miracle, be a massacre ¸ not because true scientific evidence does not weigh absolutely convincingly in favor of evolution, but because the deck has been manipulatively pre-stacked so far on the side of creationism that evidence, truth and science will be irrelevant to the outcome. It is unfortunate that, through naivete and luck, such religious demagoguery found a home on campus, the last place where it should ever take place.

Back to the two methods of proselytization: reason and deceit. It is troubling that the organizers of this event have invariably employed the latter in their drive to convert. More alarming, though, is the fact that they have been able to do so with such dexterity and ease that they have alienated science from its natural alliance with the former, forcing it to barter with irrationality and thus stripping it of its greatest tool.

When that happens, as it has been set up to happen in this debate, science inevitably falls silent ¸ because unlike "scientific" creationists, scientists can't argue from a place of insane hatred of evidence, method and logic.

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