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Debating Dawkins

Entry 1139, on 2010-01-06 at 23:10:59 (Rating 3, Skepticism)

Skeptics are often controversial because of their criticism of other groups but the skeptical community has a few of controversies of its own. They are notoriously difficult to organise simply because they are free thinkers. I've heard the expression that organising atheists is like herding cats and I'm sure that applies to other types of skeptics too.

Before I go further I should explain what I mean by "skeptics" in this context. I don't mean those people who have taken the word and given it almost the opposite meaning such as so-called climate skeptics (who I more accurately refer to as climate deniers). And I equally don't mean a skeptic in the sense of someone who rejects the ability to ever have any real knowledge. A skeptic is someone who doesn't make any assumptions about the validity of anything but follows the evidence to the best approximation of truth available.

Skeptics tend to be atheists because if you follow the evidence you will reject religion. And they tend to be pro-science because science uses the same sort of process to arrive at its conclusions. Skeptics should be ready to change their minds on any subject if the evidence changes (of course skeptics are human and some are less amenable to change than they should be).

So getting back to the main subject of this blog entry: what are the controversies inside skepticism? One of the greatest is whether scientists, experts, and skeptics should debate people who are believers in pseudoscience and superstition. The most common manifestation of this problem is with the so-called debate between evolution and creationism (in all its forms, including intelligent design).

Many scientists won't debate creationists because it just makes it look like there is a real controversy where in reality the matter is already decided: evolution is real. If a scientist debates a creationist it not only makes the debate look real but also seems to give both sides of the debate equal status. In other words the creationist looks just as credible as the scientist because they are debating each other.

The problem with refusing debates is that it makes it look to some people as if the expert has surrendered in some way to his opponent. A fundamentalist friend recently emailed me a link to an article which stated that Richard Dawkins refused to debate a creationist. The article was at a creationism site so, of course, it was full of propaganda, but it is true that Dawkins won't debate creationists. To some people it would look like he is scared to debate, even though I'm sure he would destroy his opposition in any reasonable debate.

My personal opinion is that we should debate the crazies whenever possible. In many cases the audience will be on the side of our opponents and we will never "win" the debate from their perspective but at least it gives us an opportunity to get the real facts out there and it might help some of the believers to see that there is another side to the debate which they have probably never heard. I wouldn't expect any instant "conversions" to rationality but it might just give some of them reason to think about the scientific side of an issue they might not have been aware of.

I have discussed evolution with people who have been brought up in a totally religious environment and some of them were really surprised to hear how much evidence there really is for it. None of them said to me they were giving up creationism but I know these things do help influence long term changes in people's opinions so just maybe I might have helped some of them escape the delusion of creationism.

I'm fairly confident that if debates are controlled so that false information can't be used and that both sides are forced to stick to the topic and answer the questions then the side of rationality will win. Under these circumstances I think Dawkins could be an effective debater in the same way other evolutionist like Massimo Piggliuci are. I would like to hear a debate featuring Dawkins but unless he changes his policy I guess I never will.


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