The internet loves debates, and perhaps none more than the evolution – creationism debate which usually devolves into calling people morons or saying they’re going to hell. There is without a doubt more people on the Darwinian evolution side on the internet, yet polls in the US show a different picture amongst the general population. For instance, Gallup’s regular poll on evolution shows that only 15% hold a Darwinian view of evolution while 46% believe in young earth creationism. So within the general populace evolutionists are greatly outnumbered. This is further marred by the fact that many self-professed Darwinian supporters do not even understand the theory correctly. It’s clear that in the public discussion, Darwinists are at a loss despite their monopoly on the science.
There’s also plenty of advice on youtube and other places on how best to win arguments against Creationists or Climate Change deniers, or other hot-button culture war issues. The problem is that almost all of them rely on pointing to evidence to counter the other person’s views. This will almost never work. We no longer live in a world (and never really did) where wit and argumentation can settle controversies like it was some 17th century theological dialogue. People can only change their beliefs voluntarily and, (to paraphrase the famed hypnotist Emile Coue) the only type of persuasion is self-persuasion. There are many reasons people change their minds but only they can do so and no magic argument will change that.
But this is almost besides the point as the psychology of changing beliefs is far out of my intellectual range and cannot be reduced to some sort of argument flowchart. Instead let’s look at two types of attributes that combine to give 4 types of people that you might encounter in an evolution argument. First, the person could either be intelligent or dull. This distinction is important to determine your approach. A person’s overall intelligence dictates how you present an issue to them and different forms of evidence will be more appealing to people of different levels of comprehension. You would not convince a child that the Earth is round by having them calculate curvature, but you might by showing them pictures from space. Second, the person is either persuadable or stubborn. Some people will never change their opinions, others are so suggestible that they will contradict themselves within minutes. Let’s see how each of these attributes contributes to the 4 different types of opponents.
1. A dull and stubborn person – There is absolutely nothing you can say or do to change this person’s mind. The handful of arguments that might have convinced them are immediately negated by stubbornness.
2. A dull and persuadable person – We often use the term gullible to describe these people. You can convince them of things, but so can everyone else. Whoever is talking at that instance appears correct so there’s really no point in convincing this person unless you want to go the route of brainwashing.
3. An intelligent and stubborn person – This comprises the vast majority of publicly-known creationists. Often atheists and other commentators will label these people as dumb, yet they are grossly underestimated. They have a wealth of knowledge and can easily win any debate against anyone not thoroughly prepared. As an example look at Richard Dawkins’ attempt to debate Wendy Wright. Dawkins is a veteran evolutionist used to rationalizing his beliefs to all sorts, yet he is unable to make even the slightest inroads with Wright.
4. An intelligent and persuadable person – These people will hear all sides, weigh the arguments, and make a judgement. At this point it’s necessary to ask if they have an articulated belief on the subject. If you’re arguing with them then they certainly do, if they feel like they don’t have enough information then they don’t, as it’s something they haven’t given enough thought.. Once they have thoroughly articulated their view the only way to engage and possibly persuade them is to do so on their own terms. Why did they come to their conclusion and what assumptions or cultural context did they use? If they are a creationist, their view probably has a theological origin and so any fruitful argument would involve that starting point. Scientific arguments will fall flat and might be thought of as incommensurable to the creationist paradigm. A biologist trying to convince a smart creationist with scientific evidence is just as likely to succeed as a creationist trying to convince a smart scientist with quotes from the Bible. Unless you can argue with one of these creationists on their own turf you shouldn’t even begin.
But what about the intelligent and persuadable person with an unarticulated view? Indeed these are the only people that you should engage in a discussion. Plenty of people have not fully considered the issue of evolution and they might be open to hear evidence, but that’s a small percentage of people. Feel free to engage these people in a polite and respectful way.
How to actually win an argument
As I showed above, outside of a very specific scenario, you can’t, at least in the short run. Winning the public evolution controversy is not about the arguments of today, but those of tomorrow. The creationists know this and that’s why they focus so heavily on schools and promote “teaching the controversy.” It allows them to reach a young audience with unarticulated views and also puts up a front of public credibility. Children that grow up familiar with Darwinian evolution are more likely to accept it as fact and fall into one of the categories of people which with not to argue. Furthermore, while the scientific community has reached a consensus on evolution since the 1870’s, the public doesn’t believe they have. The existence of the public controversy gives the appearance of controversy over the science. Arguing with creationists only fuels this fire and their movement which is why many evolutionists simply refuse to engage in debates anymore. And this is exactly how you win an argument. Do not respond.
A controversy will only end when the public doesn’t think there’s a controversy anymore. Therefore treat creationist views as you would treat a child’s. Would you engage a child in a serious debate or would you simply ignore them and tolerate them for the time? Even if 46% of the country believes in a young Earth, their views should be ignored to give the public consensus the same appearance as the scientific consensus. The more they are engaged in debate, the more an actual controversy does exist. Children learning science will grow up conscious of the controversy and it will only serve to undermine their education; children who learn evolution free of controversy will be familiar with it as scientific fact and can continue on to more important questions.
Finally, to end on a more positive note, not all creationism should be ignored. Creationism and Intelligent Design, as much as they are just anti-Darwinian theories, have, in the past, provided relevant problems for evolutionists. When the Intelligent Design movement proposed the idea of irreducible complexity, that some organs were too complex to have formed in stages, evolutionists were challenged to explain why these tiny machines evolved. Ultimately they learned that just because a complex mechanism in an organism serves a specific purpose today, earlier in its evolution it may have served a totally different purpose. Biologist Ken Miller famously illustrated how a mouse trap might make a nice tie clip with some key parts removed. The theory of punctuated equilibrium, controversial in itself, also arose from creationist criticisms of a lack of missing links. The theory answers the question of why we don’t have a continuous catalogue of transitional forms, even though this mostly arises from a misunderstanding on the part of creationists. However, these two examples deviate from the normal phantom problems and ghost chases typical in creationist criticism. Scientists can judge the merits of the criticisms as they come, yet for arguing on the internet, it’s best to just pay them no mind.