On the subject of debates about ID

After my speech at the University of Kansas a few weeks ago (see Kansas Citizens for Science), a number of ID supporters complained that even though both Chancellor Hemenway and I referred to the discussion as a debate, my speech just represented one side of the issue. In response to a post on a local discussion forum, I promised I would address this complaint, which I will now do here.

The complaints

In their article on the speech, The Kansas City Star wrote,

University of Kansas Chancellor Robert Hemenway opened the program, telling the audience: “If evolution is to be challenged, let the debate begin here and let it be a civil debate.”

Calvert [Managing Director of the Intelligent Design network (IDnet)] and other intelligent-design proponents criticized Krebs, who spoke alone, for not allowing both sides to participate in the presentation. “It’s curious you have a public debate, but no opposition was included in this,” Brian Sandefur [another Intelligent Design network member] told Krebs after the speech.

and the Johnson County Sun quoted Calvert as saying,

“The whole speech was full of misleading information, and because the opposition was not given an opportunity to speak, the public was not allowed to hear them.”

There are two parts to my response. First, I am using the word “debate” in a different sense than the IDnet members are, and secondly we also have different ideas as to what the topic(s) of the debate are.

What do we mean by debate?

The IDnet thinks of a debate as a formal presentation where advocates for two sides of an issue are given equal time to make their case; and based on that presentation, the audience is expected to draw conclusions as to which side is right. Furthermore, the IDnet wants the debate to be about the “science” of ID. They want to present their standard arguments, and then they want arguments for the theory of evolution and/or arguments against their points to be made in an equal amount of time.

On the other hand, I (and I presume Chancellor Hemenway) am using the word debate to refer to a broader, ongoing, multifaceted discussion that needs to take place over an extended period among many people in various venues. As I explained in my speech, the debate needs to take place in personal discussions, letters to the editor, short speeches at the state Board of Education’s monthly public open forum, speeches to other groups, and so on. This is the sense in which society debates an issue.

I and other advocates for our position will continue to make our case in various ways, including, I imagine, more speeches such as mine. I presume the IDnet will do the same, drawing whatever audience they can to hear the ID perspective. I certainly don’t expect them to always give equal time, or any time, to our side of the story. (In fact, the IDnet has given five annual Darwin, Design, and Democracy conferences since 1999, and I estimate that at most 2% of the total time at those conferences has been offered to representatives of the opposite view.)

Formal debates of the type envisioned by the IDnet are a favorite tool of the creationists, utilizing the infamous Gish Gallop technique where one assertion after another is trotted (or galloped) out. The problem is that each assertion would take hours to respond to with real science and would often require a strong background in science to evaluate.

Real scientists do not debate in this fashion. You will not find debates of this sort in college science classes nor at professional science conferences. This is not how debates (in the broader sense) are resolved in science. The type of debate envisioned by the ID movement favors a shallow presentation over depth. It is a technique suitable at times to matters of public opinion, but not to adjudicating matters of science.

The other reason that the ID movement likes debates is that it legitimizes their claim that there are two equal sides to the issue of whether ID has scientific content. They have made it explicitly clear that they understand this implication and seek such legitimization.

However, there are not two equal sides in respect to this question of whether ID has scientific content, and so a debate where each side gets equal time badly misrepresents the case. As Dr. Lawrence Krauss pointed out in the two-on-two panel presentation in Ohio in 2002, if the ID vs. mainstream science positions were properly represented, there would be 1000 people on his side instead of just two. An old saying goes, “there is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequal things,” and this is certainly the case here.

What are we debating?

I also disagree with the IDists as to what the actual topics of the debate are. (And henceforth I am referring exclusively to the broader, extended use of the word.)

If the topic is whether ID has scientific content, then the proper forum for that discussion is within the scientific community, and that is what I told Brian Sandefur at my speech. If they can’t convince the scientific community that their claims and arguments have some substantial validity, then they are not ready to be claiming equal-time debates on the subject, much less ready to have their ideas inserted into the state science standards.

However, my speech was not about the validity of the scientific content of ID, and I made that perfectly clear. My speech was about issues of many other kinds: educational, political, religious, theological, philosophical, and economical. These are the issues that I believe the public needs to be thinking about in respect to the Kansas state science standards and the activities of the Intelligent Design movement.

Calvert and Sandefur accused me of misrepresenting ID. In fact, in the question-and-answer period, Sandefur (after pointing out that he agreed with me that nothing beats an Apple laptop), said that, “I want to congratulate you on misrepresenting intelligent design perhaps better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

I don’t believe I misrepresented ID. In fact, I supported all my assertions about ID with quotes from leaders of the ID movement itself. What I did do was talk about all these other issues, and that is what the ID movement doesn’t want to talk about. These are the issues that the public needs to be thinking about, and one of my goals was to bring them up so they would become part of the public debate.

This is not the kind of debate nor the topic of debate that the ID movement wants. Of course they are free to discuss whatever they want in whatever forums they can arrange, and so if they want to have a formal debate about the validity of the scientific content of ID, they should make arrangement to do so. But I don’t think others owe this to them.

An invitation

I do think that thoughtful dialog on Internet forums is a valid component of the discussion that should take place about these issues. I am cross-posting this response on the KCFS forums here, and I am sending notice of it to Calvert and Sandefur. I invite them to engage in discussion about the subject either here or there.

Furthermore, they are welcome to open discussion on other topics on the KCFS forum. Internet forums are a good way for people to both listen and participate in the debate. I am also open to other ways, possibly more formal, of having discussions on the Internet.