When Are We Going to Stop Making Famous People Argue About Evolution?

From the Scopes trial to last night’s Nye/Ham face-off, Americans love pointless creationism debates

Nye vs Ham
Everybody is listening, but nobody is learning. YouTube

Last night, scientist advocate Bill Nye debated creationist Ken Ham. If you missed it or want to re-watch the nearly three hour debate, you can do so here. In fact, if you wanted to, you could spend your entire day watching people debate evolution. We Americans have apparently decided that these debates are a productive use of time and are somehow going to achieve something. 

Here’s Phil Donahue and Duane Gish going at it in 1986 on a show called "Feed Back."

DEBATE: Phil Donahue, Duane Gish, Evolution vs. Creation, Part 1

There’s this 1997 William F. Buckley, Jr., show, called "Firing Line," which hosted a debate between four creationists and four “evolutionists.”

Firing Line Creation And Evolution Debaten 1997

There’s this 2002 debate filmed at the International Atheist Alliance Conference.

Creation / Evolution Debate on the Fossil Record - Dr. Don Patton vs John Blanton

There’s an evolution version of "The Big Questions" from January of last year.

Is it time for all religions to accept evolution?

And if you don’t have time for any of those, Beatrice the Biologist has summed up every creation vs evolution debate ever had in just over a minute.

The Evolution Debate in a Nutshell

But really, you should just skip all of that. It probably won’t change your mind about evolution, no matter which side of the fence you’re on. That’s not just pessimism; it’s science. There’s a good body of evidence that these kinds of debates not only don’t change minds, but further entrench people into whatever side they’re on. Joe Keohane at the Boston Globe summed up some of this research in a 2010 story:

In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

Another study from 2005 gave people news stories that fell in line with their pre-set political beliefs and then revealed that the stories were false. The stories included claims that were demonstrably wrong—that there were WMDs in Iraq; that the Bush administration completely banned stem cell research; and that tax cuts increased government revenue.

But when the participants read the stories and then were given the corrected information, something surprising happened. Those who were conservative were more likely to believe in the presence of WMDs in Iraq, even after being corrected. Being given the right information not only didn’t change minds, it made people more confident that the false information was true.

This happens during presidential debates, too. One study from 1982 looked at the 1960 and 1976 presidential debates and concluded that “the debates did not, therefore, generally alter or form preferences, but, rather, reinforced existing predispositions and made voters more sure of their choice.”

Another study from 2010 took a look at the 1996 Clinton, Dole debate. The researchers asked people to watch the debate and evaluate the arguments made. Once again they found that pre-debate attitudes towards the candidate were a better predictor of how participants thought either candidate did. “Participants evaluated the arguments that confirmed their predebate attitudes as being stronger than the arguments that disconfirmed their predebate attitudes,” the authors write. 

And yet Americans love these types of debates. The idea that putting two people up against one another will help inform the public about what to think runs deep in American history. And thus we must continue to suffer through them, even though they’re not helping anybody make any decisions. 

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