An Atheist and a Fundamentalist Walk into a Bar…

Can skeptics and believers talk civilly to one another? Can creationists and mainstream scientists ever have a constructive dialogue?

Most of the time, the best efforts at culture-war mediation leave everyone only more bitter and more convinced of the “extremism” and “irrationality” of the other side.

Thanks to coverage from the Texas Freedom Network, we recently caught up with an illuminating intellectual exchange between a leading creationist advocate and a witty, informed science skeptic.  Neither one seems to have been “converted” by the argument, but the civil yet heated discussion demonstrated the possibilities of creation-evolution dialogue.

Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptics Society, interviewed Texas creation activist Don McLeroy last month.  You can hear the full interview on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast.  Also fascinating, you can follow the post-interview back-and-forth on Novella’s NeurologicaBlog.

As we’ve argued here before, trying to understand Don McLeroy is a great way to begin making sense of conservatism in American education more broadly.  As the chairman of the Texas State Board of Education in 2010, McLeroy spearheaded a campaign to overhaul Texas’ influential textbook guidelines.  In that fight, McLeroy cared about more than evolution.  He also promoted an emphasis on such disparate themes as the Christianity of the founding fathers, the beneficence of the National Rifle Association, and the civic value of country music.

In the May 8, 2013 interview, Novella and his colleagues asked mainly about McLeroy’s position on evolution education.

During the interview, McLeroy makes his case for teaching the scientific alternatives to mainstream evolution theory.  As Novella and his associates point out, McLeroy carefully avoids making a case for teaching creationism or any religious ideas in public schools. Instead, McLeroy consistently advocates only for teaching the scientific criticisms of evolutionary theory.  Most of the discussion consists of a back-and-forth on the merits and weight of those criticisms.

Are there enough real scientific challenges to evolutionary theory to merit their inclusion in public-school science curricula?

One of the most intriguing points of the exchange was McLeroy’s insistence that religious thinkers are free to be more open-minded about the scientific claims of evolution.  Since religious intellectuals are open to the idea of both materialistic and supernatural explanations, McLeroy claimed, they have greater ability to weigh the evidence. This argument did not sit well with Novella and his colleagues.

Another fascinating discussion resulted from McLeroy’s defense of his anti-expert position.  During the 2010 school fight in Texas, as captured so movingly in Scott Thurman’s Revisionaries documentary, McLeroy argued that educators needed to seize control from “experts.”  Novella and his associates explained to McLeroy why this claim seemed preposterous to them.  Why should science curricula ignore the thinking of mainstream scientists—the real experts—and instead follow the inclinations of one dentist from Texas?

I was surprised to hear McLeroy’s willingness to waffle.  As I’ve argued before, McLeroy’s indictment of “experts” has a storied history, of which Novella and his colleagues seemed unaware.  For many anti-evolution activists, indeed for many conservative educational activists on a range of issues, the baleful influence of educational experts has long been assumed.  The recent trashing of CSCOPE in Texas demonstrated only the most recent emergence of this anti-expert sentiment.  I wished Dr. McLeroy had tried to articulate some of this broader anti-expert tradition.

More important than the details of the transcript, however, was the tone of the interview and post-interview exchange.  Neither Novella nor McLeroy apologized for their beliefs.  Neither held back from pointed and fundamental criticisms of the other, though as guest McLeroy tended to be more polite.  Yet the two sides managed to speak politely to one another.  McLeroy called Novella a “scholar and a gentleman.”

For his part, Novella called McLeroy

an exemplary guest. He stayed polite throughout, and did not bristle even when directly confronted on his position. He also did something I find extremely rare in such interviews – occasionally acknowledging a point on the other side or a weakness in his own position. He also had clearly made a genuine effort to read pro-evolution material and criticisms of his position.

I came away with the impression that he is genuinely trying to understand the creation/evolution debate and to rely on only valid arguments.

Did either side walk away from this exchange converted?  Definitely not.  But was the exchange worthwhile?  Certainly yes, for several reasons.

First of all, for interested observers, this back-and-forth gave both sides a chance to make their own arguments.  Readers and listeners can see what intelligent advocates might say on some basic stumpers of the creation/evolution debate.

Second, in any tense culture-war standoff, elaborate courtesy and face-to-face meetings help defuse the tendency to demonize the opposition.  For evolution believers like me, the contours of the debate change when I hear a friendly, seemingly well-intentioned leader of the creationist cause, if only to prove that both sides can include people of good will.