Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In which an evolutionary biologist pwns the Discovery Institute!

This is just brilliant! Nick Gotelli, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Vermont got an invitation to debate someone from the Discovery Institute, that well-funded mouthpiece of the ID/creationist movement (read the invite in its entirety here). Many of us get these kinds of invitations from time to time - if not from the DI, then from various local surrogates. Sometimes even students will wonder why we don't debate them more often. My usual response is to decline, politely, because there is nothing really to "debate" (not on their terms) between evolution (well-tested science) and ID (creationism in disguise), and because scientific questions are never resolved through verbal debates anyway. Sometimes some of us will get sucked into engaging in these things, and the results are never particularly useful. But they keep coming back, especially in places like the central valley, and when we decline, they start claiming victory because biologists won't debate them because we're "afraid of losing", and spinning conspiracy theories (and even convincing some otherwise smart students) like in that Ben Stein movie. Its a despairing job to have to keep batting these nutjobs away. Now Prof. Gotelli has shown us how its done! Here's his response to the DI invitation:

Dear Dr. Klinghoffer:

Thank you for this interesting and courteous invitation to set up a debate about evolution and creationism (which includes its more recent relabeling as "intelligent design") with a speaker from the Discovery Institute. Your invitation is quite surprising, given the sneering coverage of my recent newspaper editorial that you yourself posted on the Discovery Institute's website:

However, this kind of two-faced dishonesty is what the scientific community has come to expect from the creationists.

Academic debate on controversial topics is fine, but those topics need to have a basis in reality. I would not invite a creationist to a debate on campus for the same reason that I would not invite an alchemist, a flat-earther, an astrologer, a psychic, or a Holocaust revisionist. These ideas have no scientific support, and that is why they have all been discarded by credible scholars. Creationism is in the same category.

Instead of spending time on public debates, why aren't members of your institute publishing their ideas in prominent peer-reviewed journals such as Science, Nature, or the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences? If you want to be taken seriously by scientists and scholars, this is where you need to publish. Academic publishing is an intellectual free market, where ideas that have credible empirical support are carefully and thoroughly explored. Nothing could possibly be more exciting and electrifying to biology than scientific disproof of evolutionary theory or scientific proof of the existence of a god. That would be Nobel Prize winning work, and it would be eagerly published by any of the prominent mainstream journals.

"Conspiracy" is the predictable response by Ben Stein and the frustrated creationists. But conspiracy theories are a joke, because science places a high premium on intellectual honesty and on new empirical studies that overturn previously established principles. Creationism doesn't live up to these standards, so its proponents are relegated to the sidelines, publishing in books, blogs, websites, and obscure journals that don't maintain scientific standards.

Finally, isn't it sort of pathetic that your large, well-funded institute must scrape around, panhandling for a seminar invitation at a little university in northern New England? Practicing scientists receive frequent invitations to speak in science departments around the world, often on controversial and novel topics. If creationists actually published some legitimate science, they would receive such invitations as well.

So, I hope you understand why I am declining your offer. I will wait patiently to read about the work of creationists in the pages of Nature and Science. But until it appears there, it isn't science and doesn't merit an invitation.

In closing, I do want to thank you sincerely for this invitation and for your posting on the Discovery Institute Website. As an evolutionary biologist, I can't tell you what a badge of honor this is. My colleagues will be envious.

Sincerely yours,

Nick Gotelli

P.S. I hope you will forgive me if I do not respond to any further e-mails from you or from the Discovery Institute. This has been entertaining, but it interferes with my research and teaching.

[via Pharyngula: How to respond to requests to debate creationists]

PWNED!! I believe that's how the kids would describe this. And I'll have to ask Prof. Gotelli if we can use this letter as a template for any future invitations from creationists!



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