Thursday, March 15, 2012

Smith vs. Kern at OCCC

Just a few thoughts and takeaways on the debate last week between scientist Abbie Smith and pastor Steve Kern here in OKC.

This debate ostensibly centered around a policy question on what should be taught in public schools, but it immediately and perhaps inevitably came down to a contest between scientific and religious views of human origins. At this event, opposing views were not merely discussed, but physically symbolized by the opposing speakers. The age-old struggle between science and religion found itself incarnated in two persons: Science presented as forward-looking, edgy, smart, young, stylish and sexy; religion presented as the polar opposite on all points. Science rides in on a motorcycle, carrying a slide deck on a colorful MacBook, and talks excitedly of continually expanding the scope of human knowledge. Religion, by contrast, shows up in a grey-toned suit, with a sheaf of paper notes, and talks phlegmatically of how we'll never surpass the cosmogony of the Bronze Ages. At this point one might be forgiven for assuming that the debate was not merely organized, but actually choreographed.

The substantive content itself turned out to be overwhelmingly, almost sadly, one-sided. The only way for an ID-advocate to come off well in a public debate is to dive way down into the weeds using technical jargon in order to create the false impression of expertise to an audience of laypersons. For example, William Dembski can throw out a load of advanced (albeit misapplied) mathematics to back up his idea that it's virtually impossible to add useful information to complex genotypes, thereby obscuring direct evidence that this has in fact happened time and again by various processes (some of which were central to Smith's argument for common descent). Kern does not have a background in mathematics or microbiology or any other scientific field, so he is unable to avail himself of the jargon fire-hose gambit. He might could have gone for a Gish-gallop, but probably lacked the background to pull that off as well. Abbie's previous opponent was more formidable on all counts, and that is about the most damning thing I've ever written in any context.

Many people have asked me what the point is in holding debates at which the audience is already firmly in the tank for one side from the get-go and few people are lead to change their thinking significantly during the course of the evening. The answer to this is that the live audience isn't really the intended audience. The real audience is the YouTube audience, students who will hear one view in their biology classes and a different story entirely on Sunday morning, and need to see how a faith-based and reason-based stack up against each other when put head-to-head. The real audience are our children and their peers, those who will decide whether America will ultimately fulfill the theocratic vision of its Puritan forebears or the scientific vision of its Enlightenment Founders. Far more people will see this event online than in person, and with any luck it will help to tilt the balance in favor of truth, justice, and the scientific method.

Unbeliever rating: 4.5 stars
Believer rating: 1.5 stars
Overall rating: 3 stars