Should we bother with debate between evolution and creationism?

The Guardian today carried a piece titled ‘Bill Nye v Ken Ham: should scientists bother to debate creationism?‘ 

I don’t wish to get into the rights and wrongs of either theory here. I am not going to spend any time defending either position. Nevertheless, I couldn’t disagree more with the article.

The piece states “creationism is not science”. Theistic Science, within which creationism falls, may be many things. One may wish to argue it is a false interpretation of the facts. However, to argue that it, by definition, is not science is hard to maintain. An incorrect interpretation of observable facts does not make something non-scientific. Its overall explanation may be wrong, its interpretation of the facts as we have them may be incorrect, but its interpretive stance does not, of itself, make it unscientific.

The article goes on to state creationism is “a religious belief”. Again, we may want to argue, in many cases, it is motivated by religious texts and principles. We may suggest it is an interpretation of observable evidence that is filtered through a religious framework. However, to claim creationism is itself a “religious belief” is strictly untrue. Certainly, some non-scientists may accept creationism based on their own religious texts without reference to science. That would certainly be nothing more than a “religious belief”. However, creationism itself is an appeal to science. We may want to argue such an appeal is entirely unjustified but that is another matter.

The writer seems perturbed, not only by the possibility of creationism being taught in science classrooms, but at the theory getting a hearing at all. Surely good science is about observing, testing, predicting and reviewing. If creationism is errant, it stands to reason that good science will win the day through such a peer review process. To simply disallow creationism, refusing it a platform lest it gain any credibility, can only be described as censorship. Science has a long history of competing models and interpretations vying for broad acceptance within the scientific community. Through careful review and better predictions coming from superior models, one theory advances above another. Rarely was censorship the answer but good scientific research leading to better predictive models.

The article argues “by standing on a stage alongside [Bill] Nye, [Ken] Ham [president of Kentucky’s creation museum] appears to have a legitimate and equally opposing viewpoint to him, suggesting that evolution is somehow controversial and poorly evidenced”. Well, there is no denying evolution is controversial (and it is hardly controversial to accept that point). This has absolutely no bearing on its validity but is a brute fact evidence by the article itself and the plethora of books dedicated to the subject from both sides. 

However, giving a platform to a creationist does not suggests evolution is poorly evidenced merely by virtue of their standing next to each other. What will call into question a poor theory is the weight of argument provided by both sides. If evolution is found to be overwhelmingly convincing, and creationism flounders under the challenge, it strikes me evolution is strengthened, rather than weakened, by such an exchange. If the concern is that creationism may prove to be more convincing, it strikes me as thoroughly bad science to censor its place in a debate simply because it may prove more compelling on the evidence. In truth, the platform offers no credibility to a credulous view.

Like it or not, there are scientists in respected academic institutions who accept creationism (many more than just Prof. Stuart Burgess). Of course, there is no doubting creationism is a minority view. Nevertheless, such men and women are making scientific advances, in a variety of fields, alongside their evolutionist counterparts. To censor the view, and remove it from scientific debate, ill behooves science itself. If creationism is a theory destined to be disproved, then each scientific advance will disprove it beyond doubt. If it is a theory of value, then it is nothing short of scandalous that some are seeking its censorship.

No historian fears the holocaust denier because the view is so patently errant. Were the outcome not so emotionally charged and culturally sensitive, I am sure such debates would take place and holocaust denial would be clearly and openly shown to be the hollow lie it so evidently is. If such is so clearly the case using the historical method, on which a greater number of facts can be questioned on subjective grounds, how much more will the scientific method – in which  observable phenomena are largely agreed upon by competing theories; debate centering around interpretation – show up absurdity and false evidence. 

The bottom line is this: what does the truth have to fear from evidence-based research and debate? 

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