11.5 Learning How to Conduct Debates

Whether one thinks that such debates are about science or not, several things can be learned from this particular one. First, new theories, or any theory that seeks to displace the consensus view, will always be the subject of vigorous examination and criticism. Such debates are healthy, for they are a sign that science is still alive and growing. If established ideas are never questioned, stagnation will result and new discoveries will cease. Second, it is important to know what is actually being debated. Is it factual matters (data), methodologies, theories, interpretations, or conclusions? Is it about intellectual honesty, scientific integrity, personal qualifications, or the associations of the participants? Or, do the disputes arise because of differing world views? If so, are they therefore irresolvable? While those who differ sharply on such fundamental issues cannot be made to compromise on their world views even in the long term, they could learn to live with and honour one another. They could also learn to give and take in a vigorous and yet respectful fashion.

In the particular case discussed here, any rapprochement between modern science and most religions (especially conservative Christianity) would have to involve an acknowledgment on the one hand that science is not an entirely mechanistic process and on the other that religion does not necessarily include a rigidly fixed view of the physical universe. If each side took a friendly though surely disbelieving attitude toward the other, a great enrichment of both science and religion could take place as each sought answers to the legitimate questions raised by the other, questions that might never be asked if one of the two views absolutely dominated. One way of achieving this might be to increase the intellectual content and reduce the emotional aspect of the debate. Alas, since many people reading the last section become angry that it is even in print, and thereby gives credence to the idea there is something to debate (when they are convinced there is not), such a lowering of the temperature seems unlikely, to say the least. Perhaps there is a reason why the author picked such a provocative subject.

In an open information society, there could be a realization on the part of scientists that there is room for such debates, even with those who are not materialists. After all, science does have a tendency to overlap into important metaphysical territory and is not just a subset of logical positivism. From the ethical principles of wholeness, respect for the individual, and the promoting of the common welfare, one could conclude that there ought to be a greater tolerance of those whose views are at variance with those of the current majority. Once again, if a society can use the perception that a minority poses a threat in order to suppress that minority, the society is not truly free. Pluralism and tolerance must be real and not exclusive; they must not demand freedom exclusively for one set of views.

World view affects the science one does and it shapes the interpretation of data. If this becomes more generally realized--as it may in the information age--all scientific debates, whether seen as having world-view implications or not, would be perceived as healthy, potentially enhancing knowledge and human understanding of the universe. Such common good is an ethical goal for all seekers of truth, whatever their belief framework.

For their part, creationists--who are usually religiously motivated--must abandon any fear that conceding anything to the other side would destroy their entire belief framework. Furthermore, if they expect creationism to be evaluated seriously as a scientific study, they will need to develop testable hypotheses, for there is likely to be little future in their attempts to have evolution labelled as a religion, even if it does have such characteristics. They might not abandon their fight to have the influence of evolutionary ideas reduced, but the one to have creationism taught alongside it in science classes has apparently been lost--at least for the foreseeable future in North America.

With these considerations in mind, the following suggestions are offered for a potential ethical framework for participating in debates and discussions on issues that relate to science. They may be particularly useful for those issues that are entirely philosophical or world-view dependent, or otherwise have a high level of personal and emotional content, but they can be applied to many other situations.

o Participants in such debates need to agree on what it is they are debating. Is it science? If so, what are the testable hypotheses, what experiments have been done, and where are the repeatable results? If it is not science, then let that fact be clearly stated before the debate begins.

o Specialists who enter debates against generalists over broad world-view related topics are at some risk, for they are likely to lack the breadth of knowledge to function in such circumstances. They may also be too aware of the difficulties of supporting their position from within their own speciality and will attempt to use what they believe to be better-founded interpretations from other fields, not realizing that those abstractions too are no more substantial than their own. Models of the information age also suggest there will be fewer narrow specialists in the future, and this fact alone may make such debates more productive.

o Personal attack, innuendo, and scornful remarks concerning the opponents' world view, politics, friends, or religion should all be avoided. So should the emotional denigration of the other side's views. Anger wins nothing in a debate about science or theology; onlookers will carry away a negative impression of everything that the angry person has said. Ideas that one finds unpleasant will not go away just by shouting at them loudly enough.

o A line of argument should never be based on assumptions about an opponent's beliefs. For instance, one who attempts to discredit a creationist by referring to the Bible could be dismayed to discover the opponent to be Zoroastrian, an Animist, or a believer in some creation account other than Genesis. Comments about the irreligion of a scientist could also be quite off the mark. People often set up a stereotype (or "straw man") of opponent's beliefs and attack that. If sufficiently eloquent, such a tactic may impress a gullible audience, but it too is irrelevant to the main issues.

o Arguments from silence are useless. It cannot be assumed that someday someone will find experimental evidence for or against a particular theory when none exists today. Neither is the absence of such evidence relevant in the most general terms, even if it does appear to refute a particular aspect of some theory. For example, both evolution and creation are abstractions for describing a past reality, and they will continue to exist in some form independently of all suggested mechanisms or refutations thereof.

o Indefensible positions cannot be defended. When one group has seen fraud, wishful thinking, over-confidence, bad management, or poor experimentation, it may as well concede this when opponents point out these specific problems. If one side has not thought out a complete explanation of part of its position, this too must be acknowledged, and not covered up. It will be less difficult all the time to hide anything. Good work can stand up to any amount of public scrutiny.

o Speculation is futile. The fact that it is taking place at all may be an indication that the topic has metaphysical overtones and that it is about world view, not science. In any case, trying to fill in the gaps in a theory with speculation only displays more clearly its weakness both to opponents and to the audience. This is not to suggest that speculation in general is futile, for it leads to new abstractions and new ideas to test for theoretical consistency, coherency and practical value. There is a tendency, however, to advance such speculation as fact, especially when attempting to fill in the details of a cherished theory. Just as Ptolemy's geocentric abstraction became a doctrine, so can a modern theory. No matter how cohesive, useful, or even beautiful an abstraction about the physical world, it does not convey the thing itself; it remains an abstraction. No matter how closely a model can be made to conform with interpretations of the observable evidence, it is not absolute truth. Many models for one underlying truth may be possible; far more can be devised when not all the evidence is available.

o Arguments from consensus are invalid, even if they appear to have a facade of authority. The fact one group may well have a majority of living or dead scientists on its side does not mean that it is right. Neither does it matter if the current scientific or religious media superstars are in agreement. What does matter in science is not how many people find a particular abstraction or explanation of the phenomenon more satisfying to their world view, but which explanations best fit the experimental evidence, if indeed any experiments can be done.

o The losers of a particular debate should be gracious. It is easy to claim that one's opponents were better funded, perhaps by some shadowy conspiratorial group, and that an innocent lamb such as oneself is no match for such sophisticated tactics. This is really an excuse for not doing one's homework, or for tackling a debate one lacked the knowledge or ability to prosecute.

o No one should fear such debates. The worst that can happen is that both sides will reinforce their positions. A better outcome is that both will realize they do not have the whole truth and all the answers, not yet. The best is that both sides will be forced to abandon some bad science or incorrectly interpreted religion and find better answers.

o Most important, no one should be afraid to examine ideas, regardless of how much they may seem to be at variance with one's own views. Likewise, it ought to be possible to be free from fear of danger or ridicule in putting one's own ideas up to public scrutiny. Such fears prevent growth, foster prejudice and censorship, and impair the viability of a whole culture. It may be possible for the fourth civilization to be freer from such fears because of the openness of information, but tolerance of others' religious or scientific views is an ethical issue and not just a matter of having better information.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises