Regarding general strategies for formal debates, this is something I posted about 4-1/2 years ago in a GQ thread. I think it’s pertinent here, and it still helps me.
I’ve been fairly successful in explaining evolution and natural selection to Christians who have bought into the ICR’s arguments. I can’t recall that I’ve ever talked to anyone who didn’t come away at least agreeing that Gish and company have misinterpreted key data. The biggest obstacle I’ve encountered with Christian arm chair creationists is that they are terribly gun-shy about discussing the topic with evolutionists who, for the most part, have come across like Libertarian Party presidential candidates, extremist zealots who make a lot of fun of other people but can’t take a joke.
We need to realize that we are not arguing against ghosts here. We are arguing against real people who have won the trust and confidence of the people we’re trying to convince. And the people we are trying to convince aren’t stupid just because they’re Christians. They know that “evolution which is so blindingly obvious that even creationists cannot deny it has taken place” is not creationist jargon but evolutionist extremist jargon. The Christians have just as much access to the ICR’s material as we do. We don’t help our cause when we do exactly what Gish et al say we do, namely, misrepresent them.
We need to follow the example of Dr. Eugenie Scott and others who debate the creationists quite successfully fair and square. Scott doesn’t stand at a podium and call her opponents “notoriously vague”. She doesn’t refer to them as “fanatics”. Instead, she uses temperate, measured language as she dispassionately addresses their points one-by-one, all the way from the Second Law flaw to observed speciation. Before she came into the picture, some evolutionists, like David Rice, had resigned themselves to avoiding a debate with creationists altogether because they had decided they could never win!
And no wonder! Look what Rice says:
“Creationists allow themselves wild speculation, baseless assertions, lies, deciet (sic), and a belief in magic to defend their dogmas.”
“Creationists discard every piece of data that does not mesh with their pre-conceived (sic) dogmas.”
“Creationists DEPEND (original emphasis) upon the ignorance of their audience. They avoid properly set up debates in front of real scientists.”
Man, when you’re reduced to nothing but ad hominem attacks, you’ve really shot the whole wad. According to Rice, not only are the ICR scientists morons, so is everybody in the audience! Is this what we expect politicians to take to their constituents in order to fight against creationism in the schools? We damn well better wake up or we’re going to find ourselves being looked upon as a bunch of science terrorists. Those are voters out there in that audience.
There are ways to debate against creationism and win. First and foremost is to become as savvy as the ones we accuse of being ignorant. Understand what is at stake here. Every debate matters. It’s hard to recover when you blow it. With that in mind, I offer Lib’s Ten Commandments for debating creationists based largely on what I’ve done and what I’ve seen Eugenie Scott do.
[ul][li] **1. First and foremost: Respect your opponent. ** You will not, repeat, will not win a debate by hurling insults at the ICR scientists. Acknowledge their credentials. This establishes that you take the argument seriously. They are mistaken, not uneducated. Nothing makes a debator look sillier than pretending that his opponent’s argument lacks any validity whatsoever. You leave your audience with the impression that you didn’t understand some of the creationist’s points. (Remember that even lurkers here are an audience.)[/li][li] 2. Don’t dodge the questions. Yes, you do have to explain how human beings can arise from hydrogen. The audience understands that there has been a continuum of sequence from the Big Bang to the present day. You can’t just act like you’re exempt from dealing with the bigger picture just because natural selection deals only with biology. Show the flaws in the probability statistics offered by creationists. Explain how “remarkable” it is that a poker player is dealt a 3S-5H-7C-JS-KD hand.[/li][li] 3. Don’t misrepresent your opponent’s position. The more you do this, the worse it gets. And it is the very thing you’re accusing them of doing. See how silly this looks to the audience? You leave them scratching their heads and going, “Gish didn’t sound vague or fanatical to me.” Their positions are a matter of public record. You’ve lost when they can replay the tape and show that they did not, in fact, define macroevolution the way you say they did.[/li][li] 4. Don’t get lost in the details. You aren’t teaching for a pop quiz. What you see as vagueness in the creationists is what you need to master. Generalize. Don’t make your audience’s eyes glaze over with post doctoral scientific jargon. Don’t spend precious time citing the particulars of twenty-seven speciation observations. Just say, “There have been more than two dozen documented observations of speciation which are detailed in the hand-outs I’ve provided to you and to Dr. Gish.” Then sit back and let Gish spend the next half-hour rebutting each of them.[/li][li] 5. Don’t act like you have a grudge. Be folksy. Gish is a master of this. Don’t seem desperate. Keep your cool and select your battles wisely. If you don’t do this, you end up looking like you are trying to settle a score. Don’t use sarcasm. Don’t glare at your opponent, physically or verbally. Don’t let the audience think that your blood pressure is high, or else you’ll end up looking like a soaked-face Nixon debating against a cool and suave Kennedy.[/li][li] 6. Respect your audience’s faith. Remember that your target audience is Christian. If it comes to a choice between their God and your science, they couldn’t give a rat’s ass about your science. This is utterly unnecessary, and guarantees you an opposing voting block in perpetuity. And be careful how you word this. Don’t say, “Evolution has nothing to do with God.” Say, “Many scientists find that evolution is compatible with their faith.” Do you see the difference? The first one sounds like Madalyn Murray O’Hair on steroids; the second one sounds deferential and respectful.[/li][li] 7. Don’t pile on. Give your audience credit to know when you’ve won a debating point. It is tempting, once you’ve caught Gish in a trap, to go in with guns blazing. DON’T DO THIS. You look like you’re kicking a man when he’s down. Instead, give him a gracious out and then let him deal with it. Say, “Dr. Gish, I’m sure you didn’t mean to say so-and-so. Given this study I’ve cited, could you clarify your point?” This makes Gish look fallible and you look gracious and merciful. Your audience will make the connection that you have taken on the attributes of Jesus, Whom they adore. Gish, having taken on the role of fallible mankind MUST now humble himself before you of his own accord, else the audience will connect him with an unrepentant Pharisee. (See how this stuff works?)[/li][li] 8. Don’t act holier than thou. This is closely related to number 1, but differs in that, even though you acknowledge your opponent is not an idiot, you act like you yourself can do no wrong. You can’t win every point. Sooner or later, Gish is going to catch you unaware, or make a point that is tough for you to refute. (Remember, not every point they make is baseless.) You’ll be in a lot better position if you can humbly laugh at yourself than if you find yourself like a deer caught in the headlights. The taller your pedestal, the further you will fall.[/li][li] 9. Don’t carry baggage. Leave your agenda at home. Don’t come in like the crusader who is trying to save the world. Don’t tell them that their children will be destroyed by creationism. History and common sense testify differently. This is simply not as important to them as it is to you. The more nonchalant and less impassioned you can be, the better. You aren’t pushing evolution on them because it is morally right; you are presenting evolution to them because it makes sense. Don’t waste time insisting that evolution is a fact while creation is a myth, unless you are prepared to pass around a fly that they can watch evolve into something else. Gish and company are absolutely delighted when you start stomping your feet and screaming, “Those are MY cigarettes, Nurse Ratchet!” Simply say calmly, “I didn’t witness the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but I can see the signatures.”[/li] 10. Know your enemy. Be prepared. There is a myth afloat that creationists are rigid dogmatists who never change their positions. Believe that at your own peril. You will be submarined when Gish calmly states that the data has convinced them that new species can come from old species and that they now hold the position that microevolution occurs within a higher order than species. Bang, you’re dead. Half of what you had prepared as argument is now out the window. Don’t let them sneak up on you by using old notes. Go straight to the horse’s mouth, the ICR. Browse their website. Read their latest press releases and papers. Don’t think you’re dealing with a bunch of fools.[/ul]