Many scientists refuse to debate Creationists on the grounds that they don't want to validate their ridiculous ideas.

I agree with them. Qualified scientists have better things to do than argue with loonies.

That said, is it possible that some of us regular, reasonably-educated people could handle it for them? I'm pretty certain that I, an individual of no formal scientific training, can beat any Creationist in a structured debate. I'd be happy to do so, as well.

Is this a realistic goal? A good idea?

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It is a good idea -- just be aware of the minefield you're stepping onto.
They'll prey on your lack of experience in any area. Doesn't matter if they don't have anything higher than a high school education. If you're stumped by any angle they approach from, (even though you can be sure they don't know any more about the subject than the cherry-picked claim they're parroting) that's all they'll harp on.

My goodness, is arguing with creationists frustrating...
I think this is the only way. We can use the scientist's evidence, and we have the time and patience to devote to debate, compared to professional scientists who should be exploring the mysteries of the Universe, not wasting their time with nuts.

Also, if we can recruit more and more "average" people by being "average" people ourselves, then we have an edge. We can say, "Its not that hard, I'm not a scientist, and I understand." and talk to people on their level. Sometimes it is hard for professional scientists not to communicate in jargon or above the average level, even when they think they are writing/speaking for the everyman, and this can be intimidating. Most of the problem is that people think science is too hard or advanced, and don't really understand it. Past science classes they took didn't help probably because all they remember is memorizing tedious facts and doing silly math problems, so they never grasped the heart and passion of science.

Ultimately though, most staunch Creationists are dead-end cases. They can't see outside tunnel vision. But there are the rare few that can be convinced...
I'm sure you could hold your own, and it's fun for a while, but then you realise that these people are not convinced by evidence, so for all your efforts all you get is a lot of squirming and intellectual dishonesty. I got sucked into it on why won't god heal amputees forums, and after a year of debating theists, I can honestly say that they end up holding their ground via delusions and outright lies. Point this out, and you get more delusions and lies.

I am now of the very strong opinion that we cannot win a debate with irrational people be using reason- the "debate" is a non-starter. I'd rather have them define god, tell me what its characteristics are, or shut up. If they can't even define god, then they surely must feel a fool for arguing that they know its mind, and if they do dare to define it, any definition they give can be easily shot down.

Getting into a debate about the specifics of the beliefs is like arguing what colour Little Red Riding hood's grandmother's house really was. Creationsim is simply nonsense, and should be excluded from public debate, along with alchemy and astrology. Until they present some piece of evidence that holds up through peer review, it's just like trying to teach a pig to sing- it wastes your time and annoys the pig.

A better way to spend our time is in fighting legislation that endeavors to slip this garbage into our public schools, and our government. We've got plenty to keep us busy there, on one on one discussions, I just let them know that the rest of the world has moved on from this "debate" and they're laughing at us like the fools we are. Is that what they want the world to think of America- that we're illiterate?
Privately, yes, it almost certainly is a waste of time to debate these people. The point here, though, is to have a public debate with an audience. The hope is that they'll be smart enough to know you're right when you point out the theist's complete lack of an argument, and then help prevent the encroachment of creationism.
I think there may be some benefit in terms of convincing those in the audience that aren't already commited creationists - the ones that are open to hearing some facts.

However, I urge extreme caution - looking at what's happened to PZ time and again, these debates are nearly always set up to favour the creationists, and then the deal gets changed at the last minute to favour the creationist even more -- and then when they begin, the audience is asked to excuse the creationist's bumbling -- because things got changed at the last minute!

Many times also the people running the debates will give the creationists free reign -- give them first opportunity to talk, allow them to talk at length, to bring up a dozen bad points at a time, leaving the rationalist struggling to try to respond each time; they want to keep you on the back foot.

If you have a neutral trustworthy arbiter, and a cast-iron topic and format, you might be okay, but still be prepared for every dirty trick in the book, sneaked in through whatever means there are available. Don't debate for a purely creo audience if you can help it - a mixed audience will get you a fairer go.

If you can deal with all that, then you might manage to educate a few people with at least partly-open minds, and I think that's valuable. I think the focus should be more on explaining how things are and NOT on how they aren't - "correcting errors" does not work very well at convincing people who have misconceptions; paradoxically, recent studies show that "correcting misconceptions" actually tends to reinforce them (I can try to dig up links if you need them)! Painful, but we have to try to work within reality.

Having debated some creos privately, one-on-one, they're not interested in hearing about what's wrong with their misconceptions, or in investigating the truth of their claims. It's purely about reinforcing their own preconceptions. Even if you can convince them they're wrong on points A,B,C,D,E, they don't stop and think "whoah! maybe I should find out more before shooting my mouth off", they just move on to points F, G, H, ... and try to distract you by starting on the ad hominems and flawed logic (argument from consequences is a favourite, but they use them all). I think you need to treat the debaters themselves as completely lost causes, but if your focus is on the audience, there's some opportunity to do good.

All that said, I have spent quite a bit of time trying to learn enough about the creationist arguments so that I can prepare for them.

It's not sufficient to be moderately well-versed in evolution (though you need that too) - you really need some idea of what their playbook is. Indeed, a lot of the recent research findings are great for you because they're exciting and if you can get them in first, a number of them blow the creo out of the water, undermining their favourite arguments; if you can get them on the back foot instead, you're harder to give the runaround to. So for example, if you discuss observed speciation events (there have been several), positive mutations, rapid evolutionary change, and so on, you get to talk about real science. Rather than "that's wrong because", you can say "let me tell you about some exciting findings".
A lot of times you will indirectly reach these people through public debate with dead ends.
Educating the public is essential to the progression of scientific literacy. We should take the initiative (both as professionals and dilettantes), to actively engage the public at large, and to present (as accurately as possible), the ideas that are currently relevant in the scientific community.

We must also work to dispel any misconceptions that many individuals may have toward science. Not only should we disseminate solid, evidence-based scientific ideas (if we do manage to pique their collective interest), it's also imperative that we make a concerted effort to keep them in the proverbial loop. I know that this may seem like a Sisyphean task, but, for what it's worth, I've added my two cents.
Okay, I am sure to be labeled a troll for this, but I have to side with the skeptics on this one.

When I was a sectarian christian, I had some occasions to debate with other moderately well-informed individuals on the alledged flaws of each other's sects. It was a waste of time, in part because I am not a confrontational person. In part because I think it is uncommon to human psychology to give up a position when attacked by someone opposed to it. How many sports fans switch sides everytime their "home team" looses? Is arguing with Rush L., Anne Coulter, or Bill R. going change their minds?

I have done some reading in works by Robert Cialdini who researched the psychology of persuading people (mostly in order to sell them something). I will be researching more on the psychology of persuasion.

The one thing that comes to mind is that believing in something other than creationism does not necessarily have an obvious benefit to many people. Sure, we can say how important it is to the biological sciences and the like. But what if you are an accountant or a day-care provider or a truck driver? How does it make your personal life better to believe that the earth is 4.5 billion years old and we share some distant common ancestor with all other life on the planet? Do evolutionary atheists have a neatly packaged world view that will bring peace of mind and offer solutions to personal problems better than the dellusion of the sky fairy kingdom? In the god story world, the answers are easy. In the real world, the answers are hard or unanswered.

I think we must also consider the delusional perspective of the creationists. In their minds, they are fighting a Cosmic battle. It is not a battle of persons and ideas. It is a battle of universal good and evil. In their minds, they just have to hold out until they die and they believe they will get their reward. Being rational or logical is not part of the battle plan.




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