Should Scientists Debate?

It is natural to think that if a scientific theory (e.g., evolutionary biology or climate science) is indeed well-supported by evidence, then a public debate would be a great forum for the scientists to defend their views against creationists or climate-change deniers.

After all, isn’t science all about presenting evidence and letting the people decide?

But in reality, science doesn’t work that way.

1. Science is a deliberately slow and unamusing enterprise. What matters is long-term, careful, informed evaluation.
Debates are won using rhetoric and theatrics. Immediate, unreflective agreement is the goal.

2. Science evaluates claims based on the best evidence available.
Debates are won merely with the appearance of evidence.

3. Science needs to deal with counterarguments and contrary evidence.
In debates, one can pile up “evidence” for one side while ignoring all the evidence that undermines that side.

4. Science is difficult to explain and to understand. Years of study are often required.
Anti-science debaters do not need to get their audiences to understand difficult and subtle scientific points.

Following up on this last point, the deck is stacked in favor of the anti-science denialist for several reasons:

  1. It takes very little time to throw out a bunch of half truths and fallacies; it takes much more time to respond to these claims and explain why they aren’t true, and why they’re fallacies.
  2. Typically, the denier “wins” if the audience is left with the impression that the science is not very well supported. This means that the deniers doesn’t have to convince the audience of everything they say. If the listeners are left confused they are all too often going to conclude that the scientific questions are up in the air, controversial, so why not “teach the controversy”?
  3. The deniers are only trying to find “gaps” in the theory, which means that they can attack pretty much any feature of the theory, no matter how big or small, to show that the “theory doesn’t work.” The pro-science side finds itself with the burden of defending the whole structure of the theory. If the scientist says “this part works” and the denier says “this part doesn’t work,” then the audience comes away with the impression that there really are problems with the theory.
  4. Science is often difficult and counterintuitive. It’s easy for a denier to say, “This is obviously wrong.” It’s harder for a scientist to explain the right way to think about the situation. (E.g.: co2 can’t cause dangerous warming because it’s only 0.04% of the atmosphere, and each fall rotting leaves pump more co2 into the atmosphere than cars and factories do.)

Then there’s the fact that those debating on the denialist team are often experience showmen. They know how to entertain and persuade in a debate context. Scientists rarely have these skills, since they aren’t taught or selected for in an academic context.

Even if there is a good pro-science debater, what will win the debate is usually not the science itself.

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