The other day I listened to a young earth creationist debate on “Unbelievable”. I was not impressed by the representative of young earth creationism. Not only did he challenge his Christian interlocutor by suggesting he had a sinful reading of Genesis, but he engaged in an old young earth creationist tactic called the “Gish Gallop” in honour of Duane Gish who pioneered the technique. (Props to Michael Roberts who reminded me of the term. I haven’t used the term “Gish Gallop” in some years!) According to that technique, the young earth creationist raises a series of scattershot objections to the age of the earth, the age of the universe, the dating of fossils and geologic strata, the common descent of organisms, the rate of evolutionary change, and who knows what else, all as a way to hammer on the questionable nature of the “evolutionary paradigm”.
The logic behind the Gish Gallop is threefold. The first two depend on time limitations, and the third on limitations of expertise:
First, it is typically easier to raise doubts/questions than to address those doubts/questions. Thus, if the YECer raises seven or eight half-baked objections in a few minutes, he can be confident that his interlocutor will likely only be able to address one or two at most before time runs out.
Second, to the extent that the advocate for evolution is forced to play defense, she is not making a positive case for evolution. Thus, far from creating a balanced discussion in which one weighs the respective strengths and weaknesses of different positions, one often ends up with a lopsided discussion that focuses on some outstanding questions within an evolutionary framework.
Third, by raising a series of objections on everything from fossils to the Big Bang, the young earth creationist can count on establishing at least a few objections beyond the expertise of their interlocutor. Thus, even if she can address an objection on fossils, she will have failed to address a range of other objections.
If you’d like a good overview of young earth creationist strategies, watch the 2014 documentary Merchants of Doubt. The documentary addresses the strategies of various special interest groups to question scientific consensus on topics like climate change and tobacco. While young earth creationism is not mentioned in the documentary, you will find similar strategies being employed to sow seeds of doubt in various forms of scientific consensus.
All this has contributed to my growing skepticism concerning the value of engaging young earth creationists in debate which I expressed in this tweet:
Because stifling debate is likely to promote edifying dialogue…?
— Mark Teter (@manalivegkc) October 17, 2017
So is Mr. Teter correct? Is it “stifling debate” to suggest it is not worthwhile to engage young earth creationists?
Of course not. Indeed, the charge is absurd. To stifle means to restrain. By choosing not to engage an individual in debate, one is not thereby restraining that individual. They’re still free to share their views with any who are interested.
And while Teter is free to suggest that Unbelievable should keep hosting young earth creationists like John Mackay, I am free to defend the contrary view.
I will say, however, that Teter’s attempt to couch my suggestion in the terms of intellectual suppression provides yet one more reason why I think young earth creationists are not worth debating.