When are debates worthwhile?
Every time that a prominent science advocate takes the stage to debate a creationist, there is an inevitable wave of hang-wringing from the scientific and skeptical communities about unduly elevating the evolution/creation controversy to make it seem like it is a debateable issue scientifically, rather than merely socially or politically. For some reason, though, one rarely hears such complaints when atheists debate theists about whether God exists. I assume that the difference here is that scientists are generally taken to be authoritative on scientific matters (such as the age of the Earth and how complex organisms arose from fewer and simpler lifeforms) whereas theologians, apologists, and pastors are generally taken to be authoritative on matters dealing with the divine and the numinous. Accordingly, if a scientist takes the stage with an anti-scientist (e.g. a young-Earth creationist) to talk about whether science is true, it is thought that the former runs the risk of undermining the authority and deference which society generally grants to scientists on scientific matters. On the other hand, if an evangelist or theologian takes the stage with an anti-theist to debate whether theism is true, it runs the risk of undermining the authority and deference which society generally grants to men of the cloth on questions of theology.
Since atheists and agnostics remain a fairly small minority here in America, there can be little harm in fostering the impression that theism is indeed the sort of topic which ought to be opened to public debate. With so many theists in the audience, even if William Lane Craig puts the rhetorical thumbscrews to an arrogantly underprepared counterapologist, as he so often does, the event as a whole still runs a strong risk of opening more minds on the theist side of the ledger, where young people are unlikely to have ever asked themselves whether their worldview can be evidentially supported.
As a debater, you want to start off with an audience which does not believe what you are saying, because that gives you the greastest opportunity to change minds, or at least open a few people to the possibilty that they need to go home and do some more homework on the topic under consideration. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of evolution, if we can just get people motivated to studiously research the problem who’ve never done so before we are probably going to win a few people over. My ideal audience for debating evolution would be composed entirely of high-school or college-age kids who have been home-schooled or faith-schooled or otherwise protected from scientific thinking on this topic. With such an audience, all you’d need to do is stimulate them enough that they want to go home and read up on the best arguments from both sides. The ones capable of scientific reasoning will come over to your side eventually.
With all that as prelude, here are the general conditions that I would like to see in place before organizing a debate:
- An audience mostly wrong about the topic under consideration. The more lopsided, the better. I’d rather debate against theism in a church than anywhere else, and I’d rather debate against creationism at a creationist museum than anywhere else. Debates in university lecture halls run more risk of giving an unwarranted academic gloss to issues which may be well settled within academia.
- Speakers who are experienced in the topic under consideration. Ideally, I want to put an expert on my side against a mere demagogue on theirs, but that isn’t exactly fighting fair. In the best case scenario, the speakers are close to equally matched, for the sake of vigorous and insightful cross-examination.
- Speakers who are relatively experienced in the art of debate itself. This is usually too much to ask for, but it is very nice to have. Avoid setting up a debate newbie against a jedi master like WLC, no matter how good they are in their specialty field.
When I look at the upcoming Nye/Ham debate, I am much more sanguine about it than our resident skeptical smilodon. My only concern is on the third point: Nye is far more experienced as a presenter/educator than he is as a debater, and might not know how to effectively beat back a ballistic barrage of bombastic bullshit.