Let’s Fight about Evolution and Climate Change

Put your money where your mouth is. That’s the message Trey Kay explores in his new Us & Them podcast. What happens when creationists and scientists put up a challenge to their foes? Trey talks with a creationist and a mainstream scientist, both of whom have put up big money to lure their enemies into a losing debate.

The two sides are represented by creationist Karl Priest and physicist Christopher Keating. Priest has offered a $10,000 Life Science Prize. Anyone who can debate Joseph Mastropaolo and can convince a judge of the evidence for evolution will win the money. Keating has put up $30,000 to anyone who can come up with scientific evidence against human-caused climate change.

For those of us interested in educational culture wars, it doesn’t get much better than this. Trey talks with both men alone, then puts them together for a culture-war conversation. What makes creationists so confident? Mainstream scientists?

As Trey concludes, both men offer their prizes in an attempt to get attention for their side. Neither really hopes to convince the other.

That’s been the case for evolution/creation debates for a long time now. Some of us remember the recent head-to-head debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. As we discussed at the time, this sort of debate tends to preach to the choir on each side. For mainstream scientists, Bill Nye’s arguments sounded iron-clad. For creationists, Ken Ham made his case.

As historian Ron Numbers has documented, these evolution-creation debates have a long and checkered history. Time and again, high-profile public figures have challenged their foes to debate the issue. Does anyone really hope to solve the issue this way?

As Trey Kay explores in this podcast, it is easy enough to talk politely to one another. But once creationists and evolutionists try to debate, we quickly end up just spinning our wheels.

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  1. Well neither of these guys is competent in the subject they’re “debating,” so that’s the main problem.

    I wasn’t familiar with Priest, but he has a ton of biographical and personal information on his website. It’s pretty clear that he has to be understood in a particular social and historical context — one that is lovingly, beautifully portrayed by Joe Bageant in Rainbow Pie.

    The way I see it, political and business leaders have not taken responsibility for how they’ve manipulated and exploited rural America, while academic and religious authorities have ignored it as well. At bottom all the problems of reactionary white, protestant, nativist cultures have to do with more or less pathological attempts to cope with sever cultural dislocation and dispossession. Obama got it right when he said “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” And when Hillary attacked him for this as an “elitist,” she was an irresponsible hypocrite. What we need again is true elites who aren’t trying to gouge people who are down but who aren’t willing to pander to their fear, ignorance, and bigotry for votes.

  2. M

     /  July 22, 2015

    I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but agree with Trey that both people are trying to draw attention to their side and know they won’t convince the other. For anyone to enter either of these contests seems like a fool’s errand to me. They are set up for people to lose. Priest and Keating don’t have to know everything there is to know about the subject in order to run the contest. They just have to be able to identify the type of evidence that is being presented, or clearly communicate to the person running the contest the type of evidence they are looking for. This is very clear cut for the Priest contest in my eyes, and possibly a little less clear cut for the Keating contest. I know less about the subject matter. Yet the principle still applies. If they put the contest out there, they know the type of evidence they are looking for. People can try to use either of these contests to prove they are right since no money has been distributed, or ever will be. But the only people they will convince are those people in their own echo chambers. This all being said, a debate gives an opportunity for people to present their side to people who are not on their side, and sometimes people will start considering what they have to say. That is the hope.

    • I am sure that qualified representatives of both sides of any controversy could have an Oxford style debate (pro/con with respect to a single proposition) where you get a “winner” by polling how much they move the audience toward their position. This show was as far away from that as you can get. It was embarrassing and counterproductive.

      It’s just a terrible idea to let a high school dropout turned lay debunker of evolution debate evolution with an academic debunker of climate change denial. Keating ended up getting upset and saying he was not an expert on evolution while Priest kept droning “you’re dodging. You’re dodging.” Keating told him he really just needs to take college courses on evolutionary biology and so forth. And that’s the simple truth.

      The problem unique to anti-evolutionary or young earth creationism is that it has no qualified representatives. Even if you can still dredge out a handful of YEC biology PhDs, their resumes and academic standing will be incommensurate to anyone they might debate, and they will be completely disconnected from research and study touching on evolution.

      You could have a real debate between equals if you were talking about “theistic evolution,” but the true “creation science” types came and went over the past 100-150 years because the scientific community works. Now you just have lay “debunkers” like Ham and Priest whose only positive value is in demonstrating how bad our educational system is, how damaged and problematic our cultural politics are, and how poorly evolution, science and religion have been presented to students and the public despite the availability of experts who can do better.

      The only reason this state of affairs exists is because rural/poor America has been systematically scorned and exploited by urban/enfranchised America. This plays out on the level of families, churches, and religious schools as a secularization/assimilation/”losing our children, community, country, and identity” narrative. It produces all kinds of reaction, including the mas majority of our domestic terrorism. Religious and secular leaders have brought this about as they exploit the (largely white) lower classes in their bids for cultural power. We are now stuck with the belligerent, irrational monster they started building in the 1930s and perfected in the Cold War.

  3. M

     /  July 23, 2015

    I listened to the podcast, and did not see the layperson / academic dynamic as a problem. I think the point was to have a conversation.

    And speaking as a layperson, I enjoy talking with academics, professionals. Some are quite enjoyable to talk with, they treat me like a person, and I love to learn from them. There is a difference for me when one acts as if they know it all and I know nothing, I have run across people like this, and I can’t figure out how what I know or think I know fits within a larger framework. When I look at experts, I evaluate the environment they create for learning. I see education as the totality of our life experiences.

    I think the point of the podcast was to provide a forum for two people who do not agree, to converse. Priest acknowledged he is a layperson and Keating is not. I think it provided an opportunity to listen to people on both sides speak, to dissect the conversation, and measure my pre and post reactions. Combine that with learning from other sources as well as more formal learning, and I think people will see a bigger picture than they would otherwise.

    • Would it seem reasonable to you if someone with little training or experience with auto mechanics demanded that the owner of an auto repair garage explain to him how we can be certain cars are not conscious and able to feel pain? Is it really the responsibility of the mechanic to kindly indulge this question and attempt to explain how cars are constructed? Would this have any possible impact on the unfalsifiable metaphysical claim of the questioner?

      The problem is that non-experts cannot represent a “side.” Keating is a “layperson” on evolution too. It’s not his field. He has a PhD in physics. He has read major general works on the subject of evolution and generally accepts the conclusions of experts in those fields. He may have had not much more than an undergraduate level education in biological sciences however. Priest has a BS in education and an MA in school administration; he was a high school math teacher. He has not undertaken any formal study in biology over the course of his second career as an anti-evolution evangelist. He clearly rejects the conclusions of experts if they seem disagreeable to him, while he is willing to embrace non-scientific sources that suit him. This an anti-intellectual position that rejects established science out of hand rather than engage it critically on its own terms.

      Two people like this cannot have a meaningful debate about science because they do not agree what it is and what standing scientific experts have. Since neither is an expert they also cannot educate each other. There is simply no way forward until you address the cultural divide that has these guys in very different universes without a relative consensus about the nature of reality and truth itself.

      • I didn’t see it as a debate. And they are not representatives of sides either. I think they said something like they just happened to be people that are willing to talk about things. I saw it as a conversation between two people that do not agree, and an example of where these types of conversations go off the rails. I don’t have any expectation of learning everything there is to know about a subject in a podcast. I took it for what it was, an informal talk.

        If the podcast is a huge problem, then we should get rid of some of the blogs out there that spread incorrect information like wildfire. There are plenty of bloggers that are not qualified to discuss what they are blogging about.

      • There’s nothing that can be done about most blogs, but that podcast is produced by professional journalists who want to bridge these kinds of cultural divides. They can and should do a better job. Priest would be great to put in conversation with a fellow West Virginian like Joe Bageant who also grew up poor, dropped out of school, joined the military, and eventually became quite comfortable with the modern world. Unfortunately he’s dead, but maybe for sheer incongruity maybe Stan Goff, a fellow West Virginian and self-taught intellectual with a longer military detour through Delta Force, Marxism, Feminism, and radical Christianity.

  4. Meant to post that as a reply.

  5. Well I can’t reply to your comment. It seems to me that what Trey is trying to accomplish and what you would like this to be are two totally different things. I think Trey is doing an excellent job, so I’ll agree to disagree about that.


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