Constructively Discuss Science with a Creationist

The issue of Intelligent Design (ID) vs. Evolution has been a hot topic in the media recently. The recent decision of a Federal court in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District concluded that ID is simply old-fashioned Creationism in new clothes. Based on this ruling, ID is not a form of science that can be taught as an alternate to other theories.

This matches with the consensus of biological scientists and with the general scientific method. ID is a non-scientific idea. Many religious people have been attracted to ID because they acknowledge the power of science and wish to justify their deepest hopes in terms of the dominant paradigm. We should respect the feelings of the scientifically unsophisticated, but we do not have to admit irrational and untestable ideas as valid evidence in a debate.

Scientifically literate people should support the efforts of everyone who is trying to educate themselves about science. True, many people search out -- and bend -- facts that support their pre-conceived notions. Those who respect rational thought need more than well-supported factual responses at the ready. They also need a deep understanding of how science works. Even non-professional fans of science can learn to represent the scientific process more accurately and in terms any honest person can understand. This article explains how.

Remember, the whole point of science is to improve our understanding of how the observable universe really works. There are no real losers when science is done properly.


  1. Be very well-read. Stop by your local bookstore or library and pick up some issues of Natural History Magazine, Scientific American, Smithsonian, Skeptical Inquirer etc. or scholarly journals such as Cell and Nature (if you can understand what you read). Also be sure to read scholarly works written by scientists who are Christian adhering to creation theory. Books can also be useful, but current publications are more important in this case. Keeping abreast of current research and discoveries will put you ahead of the game and will help you catch disproved facts and obsolete studies.
  2. Remember that evolution is a theory in the scientific sense, just as relativity is a theory, and that both have their strengths and weaknesses scientifically. At the same time, the words 'evolution' and 'gravity' describe things that can be observed, as well as the theories which are our best attempts to explain the observations. Both are open to improved theories but these improved theories should fit all the facts better than the current theories.
  3. Continue to ask questions to guide the discussion into a field in which you possess a useful amount of timely knowledge. Remember that 90% of good debating is simply keeping a tight rein on the topic at hand. Don't let the other person lead you into unfamiliar territory!
  4. Keep a moderately open mind, while acknowledging that neither of you has to change your beliefs. You're just discussing not proselytizing-- but at the same time you may learn something interesting that you didn't know before.
  5. Allow the other person to fully explain his point of view before wading in. This helps keep the discussion civil and allows you to gain a better perspective on where he is coming from. When his arguments have been laid out, proceed to meticulously disassemble them one-by-one.
  6. Present one argument at a time; don't execute a "mind-dump" and try to drown the other person in facts. This will make it all too easy for him to only refute a small portion of your arguments and later claim to have "beaten" you. Make sure he acknowledges and answers each of your individual points before moving on.
  7. Be on the lookout for intellectual-sounding claims that are nothing more than vague statements based entirely on personal opinion. Check the Warnings section for several common ones.
  8. Watch for more scientific-sounding points that are nonetheless fallacious after analysis. These can be harder to catch as they are often phrased carefully to avoid sounding directly theistic and the exact presentation mutates constantly. Some common pseudo-scientific phrases are listed in the Warnings section.
  9. Question citations of papers that allegedly support creationist positions. Very often, papers cited by Creationists do not prove the point that they are alleged to make. The original papers are often available online and it's usually very easy to verify whether they actually make the claims they are supposed to make. There are a handful of papers that are frequently misrepresented by Creationists, again and again; a continually changing set that cycle in and out of popularity. They seem to be propagated via e-mail and websites so the same papers keep turning up again and again. Be prepared to rebut these citations by being able to make strong assertions about what these papers actually say.
  10. Afterwards debrief yourself and talk the discussion over with friends. Like any talent, rational debate is developed by post-game analysis of your strengths and weaknesses. What topic could you be more informed about? What religious scholar could you analyze? What arguments did the other person make that you didn't know about? Incorporate all this new information into your strategy for next time.


  • Be informative not confrontational. Overly aggressive behavior will cancel out any chance you have of making a dent. Read "How to Respond to Fundamentalists" and "How to Have a Great Conversation" and follow their advice. Focus more on swaying any other people who may be listening rather than the fundamentalist himself.
  • Also remember that people with faith will not sway in their beliefs, and it is wrong for anyone to try to get them to do so, just as it is wrong for them to tell you that your beliefs are wrong.
  • Read everything you can find from both sides of the issue! The best edge you can give yourself is to stay informed and abreast of current discoveries and studies being published. If you don't have time for a trip to the library, visit Science Daily and Discovery News websites regularly.
  • Don't apologize for having a little 'faith' in science. There are plenty of tangible bases for your confidence in the ability of science to solve current and future problems. Honor that 'faith' by really learning the scientific method, no matter your vocation. Apply it to making your life happier, richer and to sharing the benefits. That is the strongest argument you can make.
  • Books like The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins provide an excellent primer on the basic workings of evolution and many useful analogies and examples for use in a debate.
  • Read "A Very Short Introduction to the Philosophy of Science" by Samir Okasha. It is truly very short, well-written and enjoyable. If you understand the basic principles of this book, most ID arguments are paper-thin. Another great read is "Rescuing Science from Preconceived Beliefs - Religious Beliefs at the Interface of Science and Faith" by Dr. Gary Chiang, a professor of biology.
  • If you feel yourself heating up and taking things personally, go get a refill, excuse yourself to the restroom or take a walk around the block. The last thing you want to do is see red and say something irrational.
  • To ensure you know where your opponent is coming from, read a few of the foundational books about ID such as Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe and Signature in the Cell by Stephen Meyer.
  • Familiarize yourself with the jargon you'll encounter. For example, watch out for the phrase "irreducible complexity". This refers to a system which cannot, in the manner of evolution, be constructed step by step with some increased predisposition to survival at every stage. If you're well read, you may find explanations for how "irreducibly complex" systems might have evolved, allowing for a potentially fruitful exchange.
  • Be prepared to say "I don't know". When the debate ventures into a field you don't have much experience with, admitting that you don't know is better than making up answers or semi-plausible theories.


  • Don't let people get away with generalities. Watch for the phrase "There's evidence all around you" and respond with something like, "Please point out one quantifiable piece of such evidence in this room."
  • Do not be condescending, you are trying to be constructive.
  • Watch for claims that there are no transitional species in the fossil record. There are in reality numerous examples of transitional species and more are found every year.
  • Try to keep the debate on empirical matters. Watch for the phrase "We all know in our hearts" and respond with something like, "Who is truly qualified to speak for other peoples' hearts?"
  • Watch for the phrase "God asks for us to just have faith" - respond with something like, "And science asks for empirical evidence. I will not accept an idea without it."
  • Make sure that you understand evolution. Know what "random" means in the context of "random mutation" and that it doesn't mean that the eye just popped into existence by chance. Familiarize yourself with natural selection, species drift, adaptation, reproductive rates, and related principles. Remember that no sane biologist believes that structures such as the eye, brain, etc. arose by pure chance.
  • Watch for attempts to distinguish between direct and indirect observation and ask why indirect observations aren't valid. Examples of valid methods of indirect observation: microscopes, telescopes, fossil records, and DNA analysis.
  • Familiarize yourself with basic philosophy such as the concept of "burden of proof". For example, if you are making a positive statement about the creative power of evolution, it is your responsibility to prove it. If they are making a positive statement about the existence of their creator, it is their responsibility to provide the evidence. It is not your job to show that God doesn't exist.
  • Watch for the terms macro and micro evolution. Many creationists will admit to micro evolution (changes over time within a species) but claim macro evolution (the development of entirely new species) has never been directly observed in the time span of human lifetime. Macro evolution occurred over millions of years and its evidence is very strongly observed both in the fossil record, and in the DNA record.

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