Debating Science

January 29, 2008

I as a general rule, I don’t think that the debate format is appropriate to scientific topics. A debate necessarily has a winner, whose ascendancy is determined by their ability to make a superior argument in the eyes of some theoretically impartial adjudicator. Reality however, doesn’t really care about rhetoric or majority opinion, and neither should science. The debate format is a circus, lending equal weight to opposing views that may or may not merit such treatment and which may or may not fully encompass all of the possible views. It also presupposes that the debaters are themselves qualified to argue their points and that the adjudicating person(s) is similarly competent to impartially weigh the opposing arguments.

As a case in point, consider this debate between Christopher Hitchens and Jay Wesley Richards.

Firstly, the debate itself: Atheism vs. Theism and the Scientific Evidence of Intelligent Design. ID purports to be completely agnostic of the identity of the designing intelligence, theoretically restricting itself to the assertion that such an intelligence must have existed. It could be the Christian god. It could be Zeus. It could be the Flying Spaghetti Monster, time traveling humans or aliens. Similarly, the theory of evolution is not concerned with origins, and could easily fit within a religious framework. So starting the whole thing off as atheist evolutionists versus theistic IDers is disingenuous to say the least.

Secondly, ID also claims to be a scientific theory, and yet the debate is being conducted between: Christopher Hitchens (a journalist) and Jay Wesley Richards (a Doctor of philosophy and theology), moderated by Michael Cromartie (Vice President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, “a Washington-based think tank dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to public policy issues”) and hosted by Ben Stein (a lawyer, actor and political speech writer and star of the upcoming movie Expelled). Not a single working biologist or information theorist amongst them, and not a single person qualified to argue the merits of the science of ID at more than a layman’s level*.

There already exists a forum where scientific discovery is adjudicated, through the publishing of articles and the peer review. Science is not a popularity contest, and we do it little justice when we turn it into one.

* It is also difficult to see the impartiality of a debate that addresses the atheism versus theism when both the host and moderator are theists, but then Hitchens walked into that one.

9 Responses to “Debating Science”

  1. […] unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt […]

  2. Lucy Lowe Says:

    The debate format is certainly more a hindrance than a help. It would be nice if we were able to have discussions on issues rather than confrontational “debates” where point scoring seems to be the Prime objective.

  3. Kieran Says:

    From the link “‘If everything was designed,’ Hitchens asked, ‘what are we to make of the designer who has subjected so many generations to barbarism, misery, ignorance, slavery and early death?'”

    Yeah because stupid people hurting other people is so God’s fault.

    But all in all I agree with you Dave.

  4. rogersx Says:

    It will be interesting to see how the debate format will facilitate the Science Debate 2008 if the organizers pull it off.

  5. Kieran,
    One might make an interesting point about “natural evil”, when considering the problem of evil. So disease, natural disasters, etc. The point remains, why design a world in which natural evil, outside the bounds of free will, exists?

    Intelligent Design was never meant to be genuine. Its been an obvious front for creationists, from the beginning (ha hah!). But you are quite right. Debate as a political creature is not an appropriate venue for science. However debate backed by logic and evidence is (and at times that is just what occurs, debate). Part of the appeal of the ID cosmology is a black-or-white misconception of the universe. Naturally when faced with that, one might respond by hardening to avoid criticisms of uncertainty. But it is precisely that uncertainty that makes science so valuable, even if it seems to make it vulnerable.

  6. pmccord Says:

    I think many misunderstand where the creationist comes from. Certainly, many, if not most, come from a Judeo-Christian perspective and have that agenda—although it can be equally argued that the atheist has an equally biased agenda. But the foundational question for many others is the problem with where anything came from. No matter the scientific theory, there had to be a point where something came from nothing. That moment is the crux of the issue.

    How does one get something, no matter what it is from absolutely nothing without some ‘hand’ involved?

    Of course, that then leads to the question of where the hand came from.

    A never-ending series of questions that I doubt can ever be answered. Neither side can adequately answer the ultimate question. One must rely on chance, the other on a mysterious hand.

    Nevertheless, ultimately, the where and how is the only question worth asking. Although I have to admit, at this point, mice make as much sense as any other answer. Humm–that leaves the issue of where the mice came from.

  7. I appreciate the discussion here and would suggest that the possibility that everything came from Cincinnati is rarely discussed.

    In other news, the points about so-called “debates” are well made. I do think that there is sometimes merit in airing all the “facts” for observers to make up their own minds, yet at its deepest levels even what constitutes a “fact” is sometimes debatable. Such is the tyranny of assumption.

    And the points you have made here about the qualifications of the “debate” participants are good ones — and I say this as someone solidly on the pro-theist, evolution-isn’t-all-it’s-cracked-up-to-be side of the issue, for whom a “debate” stacked such as that one could be a real “hoot”.

    Lucy Lowe’s comment about about “scoring points” rings true. That aspect about what we call “debate” has always been a frustrating one for me. It would be nice to see two qualified people who, having come to vastly different conclusions which they hold passionately, have a discussion in which Party A/B feels completely free to say so when Party B/A has made a good point. But, it would also be nice to see free macaroni and cheese upon request, an end to starvation and poverty, and dogs and cats living together in peace.

    While, sadly, science is sometimes a popularity contest, events such as this one you’ve highlighted seem to do it no favors, and I think you bring up great points.

  8. Kieran Says:


    Your assumption is that the existence of “natural evil” was originally part of the designers intentions.

    I’m not stating a silver bullet to the question, however IMHO humans stuff up this world far more than God. Our actions in turn cause global consequences. So is the “evil” that results from natural disasters a “natural evil” or a result of “human evil” caused by our own stupidity, and neglect?

  9. pmccord Says:


    From a Judeo-Christian perspective what you refer to as “natural evil” has a most logical and consistent answer–the Fall. From an atheistic point of view there is also a logical answer–chance. Only if one postulates a perfect design by a designer who would disallow imperfection outside of free will is there a problem.

    The debate is I think insoluble simply because neither side’s conclusions are not going to be based purely on “evidence.” The presuppositions one starts with will ultimately determine whether they view the world from a creationist point of view of some sort or from a chance point of view of some sort. Ultimately, it is a philosophical debate, not an empirical debate. Even the scientists I’ve read and heard have ultimately resorted to a philosophical basis for their stand.

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