Tomorrow, as many of you know, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” will take the stage with Answers in Genesis frontman Ken Ham to debate the topic of evolution. For those of you interested, the event may be watched streaming for free, live at 7 PM Eastern on February 4, 2014.
Are such debates a good idea? As you might gather from the many divergent opinions on Nye’s choice, the answer is far from clear. Too much depends upon the circumstances, format, and participants of the “debate.” Also, it is often argued—and I tend to agree with this argument—that there are figures too cynical to be fruitfully engaged in any format. (My initial gut feeling was that Ham may not be a fair-minded opponent, and that this particular debate may not have been a wise decision for Nye for that reason—though Randy Olson has almost brought me around with this thoughtful post.)
But the wider meta-question is not a new one. I thought it might be interesting to share a decades-old argument in favor of public engagement with fringe ideas and their proponents by a pioneering voice for modern scientific skepticism: Carl Sagan. It reminds me that “debating pseudoscience” is, when you get down to it, what skeptics do.
In December of 1969, a symposium on the topic of UFOs was hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Organized by Sagan and Thornton Page, it almost didn’t happen at all. For over a year, the symposium faced passionate opposition from scientists who believed that hosting such an exchange would lend inappropriate legitimacy and stage time to the fringe, and all at the expense of the science. “A distinguished scientist once threatened to sic then Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew on me,” Sagan later recalled, “if I persisted in organizing a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in which both proponents and opponents of the extraterrestrial-spacecraft hypothesis of UFO origins would be permitted to speak.”1
So fierce and so serious were these behind-the-scenes objections that Sagan wrote a letter in September of 1969 to the scheduled symposium participants and the Board of the AAAS in which he pled the case for serious, transparent, straight-faced public confrontation. I share part of that plea as it was lightly adapted for the introduction of the 1972 book UFO’s—A Scientific Debate, in which Sagan and Page shared an editorial voice (the “we” in the passage below):
The opposition to holding this symposium, presented in part by some very distinguished scientists, was based upon the view that if such an unscientific subject as the UFO controversy is discussed, we might just as well organize symposia on astrology, the ideas of Immanuel Velikovsky, and so forth. We believe this conclusion is substantially correct, but it is not the reductio ad absurdum that its authors seem to believe it is.2
All of us who teach at colleges and universities are aware of a drift away from science. Some of the most sensitive, intelligent, and concerned young people are finding science increasingly less attractive and less relevant to their problems than was the case for previous generations. We all agree that this drift is deplorable. It must be due in part to their misunderstanding of what science is about, the scientists’ failure to communicate its power and beauty. At the same time there is a range of borderline subjects that have high popularity among these same people including UFO’s, astrology, and the writings of Velikovsky. …
But while we may deplore this trend, particularly in its extreme variant as a religious cult, it seems to us unprofitable to ignore it. To talk of ‘dignifying it by discussing it’ is to misunderstand these attitudes. They already are dignified in the sense of having widespread newspaper and magazine coverage which reaches many more Americans, both scientists and laymen, than, for example, the scientific journals that generally avoid such discussion.
There are some things we can expect of scientific symposia on such topics and other things we cannot expect. We will not convert true believers, regardless of the strength of our arguments. … But what can be done in such symposia is to confront unscientific claims and methods with the power of the scientific method. The habits of critical interrogation and of suspending judgment in the absence of adequate data are unfortunately uncommon in everyday life.
… We believe that organizations like the AAAS have a major obligation to arrange for confrontations on precisely those science-related subjects that catch the public eye. Previously such confrontations have served science well. For example, in the Huxley-Wilberforce confrontation on evolution, the novel position has stood the test of time, but the belief that the asteroid Icarus would impact the earth in 1968 has not stood the test of time. In both cases, science has been served well by demonstrations of its power and predictiveness.3
UPDATE (Feb 4, 2014, in the hours before the debate): I was down very sick all weekend, and put this post up in something of a delirious haze. Re-reading it after another day’s recovery, I feel that it might be useful to further clarify my position on “debates”—a position which amounts to “Well, that depends what you mean by ‘debate.'”
There are well-known problems with the contrived point-counterpoint formal debate format, such as the “Gish Gallop,” which I do not wish to downplay. These limitations have convinced many, including the National Center for Science Education, to adopt a no-debate policy. By and large, I think this is a wise choice.
On the other hand, I am very strongly in favor of the wider concept of “debating” with paranormal and pseudoscientific ideas and their proponents—that is, fairly and transparently engaging with and critiquing these ideas—for much the same reasons that Sagan articulated. These are topics of public interest. They impact the lives of millions of people. In my opinion, the work of studying these beliefs, engaging with the best their proponents have to offer, and making a good-faith, science-informed effort to get to the bottom of them, are all part of a valuable public service. Sagan found to his frustration that the wider scientific community was reluctant to perform this service (and as the history of the paranormal shows, scientists sometimes find themselves outside of their range of competence when they are willing). For this reason, it seems to me very useful to have a few specialist “skeptics” kicking around. Talking about this stuff—studying these claims and “debating” their merits—is what we do.
- Carl Sagan. “Night Walkers and Mystery Mongers: Sense and Nonsense At the Edge of Science.” Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 10., No. 3. Spring, 1986. p. 225 [Excerpted from Broca’s Brain]
- Sagan did indeed later organize an AAAS symposium on the radical ideas of Immanuel Velikovsky. For more on Velikovsky, see my current Junior Skeptic story “The Ping-Pong Planets of Doctor Velikovsky,” bound inside Skeptic magazine Vol. 18, No. 4. On newsstands now.
- UFO’s—A Scientific Debate. Carl Sagan and Thornton Page, eds. (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996.) pp. xii–xiv
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