On Evolutionists Debating Creationists, Wes McMichael Responds to PZ Myers

In the light of Bill Nye's routing of Ken Ham I had called for more creation vs evolution debates right here. <--- Read why I said that, please! Now along comes another creation vs evolution debate as I announced right here. PZ Myers offers a muted criticism of this debate saying:
Oh-oh. I hope these don’t become more popular. Debates are a great way to seduce a creationist audience into showing up to listen, but they’re awful for presenting a good analysis: you are publicly pitting a scientist up against a proven, expert liar, and committing to allowing lies to be told for half the time of the event. Sometimes they’ll pay off and you’ll get good exposure of the nonsense; sometimes you’ll find the slick fraud on the creation side getting more attention than he deserves.
Given that the debate will take place anyway, PZ offers a suggestion:
Just a hint, though. The title of this debate is “Creation vs. Evolution: A Debate on Origins and the Tree of Life,” which is hopelessly broad. Paul Nelson has carte blanche to babble on in a tuneless song of silliness trying to hit the one chord that will resonate with the audience, and that’s what you’re going to get, and it’s going to be really hard to pin him down on anything. Part of the art of doing these debates, I’ve learned, is to craft a decent structured framework for the discussion, so that you’ve got a clear question to answer and even an audience of biased Christian ninnies will notice when the creationist (or the evolutionist!) goes wandering off topic. I hope it’s not too late to refine the subject a bit.
I'll respond to the PZ's criticism against more debates like these, while Wes McMichael, the person putting this new debate together, responds to PZ's criticisms of this debate itself.

To scientists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers and others following their lead, who have created some degree of social pressure against evolutionists debating creationists, let me try again. I don't think they can consistently argue against debating creationists. Why? They are already doing this, that's why! Jerry Coyne, for instance, debates them in his wonderful book, Why Evolution Is True.He also debates them on his blog. Jerry links to what creationists have said and then responds to them. He seems particularly animated lately by accomodationists, for good reason. Then a creationist will respond. And Jerry will offer a rejoinder, and so on. Now someone please tell me what this is? It's a debate. And it is ongoing, almost everyday. It is a time-lapsed debate. Dawkins and Myers do this as well. They are already debating creationists, almost daily. So they should have no principled objection to participating in, or promoting live creation vs evolution debates. They cannot even say, as Myers did, that doing so is "awful for presenting a good analysis," or "pitting a scientist up against a proven, expert liar," or that the "creation side is getting more attention than he deserves." The only consistent way to do this would be for them to simply advance the evidence for evolution and ignore the creationists. Their blog posts would consist entirely of titles like these: "More Evidence for Evolution," "More Transitory Fossils Found," "More Genetic Evidence Found for Evolution," and so forth.

Now, let me share Wes McMichael's comment on PZ's blog:
I am the person responsible for putting the debate together.

I just wanted to quickly respond to a couple of things: (i) the debate topic/structure/format and (ii) public discussion of creationism/intelligent design.

As indicated, the debate title is “Creation vs. Evolution: A Debate on Origins and the Tree of Life.” The debate question is more specific, however. The question is, “Is there evidence for universal common descent?” We struggled with naming the event, because many in the general public are not familiar with the term ‘common descent.’ We needed a title that would generate interest for the general public, but be consistent with the debate question.

Paul (who, I have to say, has been an absolute pleasure to work with) will be arguing that the evidence indicates that there are divinely-caused historically discontinuous groups of organisms. Joel will be arguing that the evidence overwhelmingly supports universal common ancestry. The debate question, in fact, is so specific and narrow that a proponent of intelligent design in the vein of Michael Behe would hold a position closer to Joel’s than Paul’s!

To the worry that this gives a public forum for a position outside of the scientific mainstream, I would think that that worry would be somewhat alleviated by the fact that the debate is between two philosophers of science, not two biologists. The debate isn’t between a mainstream scientist and a creationist/proponent of intelligent design. It does not send a message that scientists should give equal voice to a position outside of the mainstream. It does not present a mainstream scientist sharing a stage with someone with a position far outside of the mainstream.

Every semester, about half the students in my classes say they lean to some kind of YEC. I feel that someone has to have this discussion somewhere. If science classes are not the place to have those discussions (this is my position), then surely it is permitted in a philosophy class, right? Philosophers, typically, do not place limits on the kinds of discussions they can have (though, I have gotten push-back from professional philosophers on this as well).

I teach critical thinking classes in which we examine homeopathic medicine, UFO abductions, ghosts, creation science, etc. We use methods of reasoning that we discuss in the first half of the semester to examine issues that intrigue people. We test hypotheses, looking for common fallacies, inappropriate methods of reason, etc. This is what our debate is about, using reason to examine opposing hyphotheses.

I appreciate PZ’s appreciation for using the tools of philosophy to examine these questions. This represents a history of appreciation between the fields. Our evolutionist presenter, Joel, is a protege of the foremost philosopher of biology in the world, Elliott Sober. The great biologist, Ernst Mayr, had extremely high praise for Sober’s book, The Nature of Selection. He wrote, “Sober has … given us what is perhaps the most careful and penetrating analysis of the concept of natural selection as it affects the process of evolution.”

I believe any biologist who reads Joel Velasco’s publications would appreciate his work as well (you can read his papers here). Joel’s dissertation, “Philosophy and the Tree of Life: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Phylogenetic Systematics” is directly related to the debate topic; I think mainstream biologists will be very happy with his contributions.

Lastly, I received an email from a local newspaper yesterday, asking if they could live-stream the debate on their website. Paul is amenable to the live-stream, and I am waiting to hear back from Joel. If both debaters have no objections, I will send information on the live-stream when I have it.

I guess I would just ask that you give us a chance to pleasantly surprise you with this debate.

Again, thanks PZ, for mentioning our event!


Wes McMichael