When debate is pointless

Public debate is an essential ingredient of democracy. By encouraging both sides to present the most convincing argument, the facts surface and allow the rest of us to make up our minds. However, this process only works if the individuals involved are interested in making an informed assessment of the issues. At some point the facts emerge and the debate is over.

I have recently witnessed masquerades for debate whose purpose is deceit and confusion. These usually focus on hot-button topics such as global warming and evolution.

Take the “debate” of evolution versus intelligent design (ID). Evolution is a well established theory that explains a broad range of natural phenomena. Its general acceptance by the scientific community has resulted from over a century of honest debate that is chronicled by thousands of journal articles. The conclusions of these articles are based on rigorous applications of the scientific method and have passed the demanding peer review of other scientists. Not only does an overwhelming amount of evidence support the theory of evolution, but more importantly, it provides us with a unifying understanding of a broad range of biological systems and phenomena.

Based on the “debate” in the mass media, one would assume that the Theory of Evolution in not broadly accepted by scientists. To gain a better understanding of the scientific consensus, it is best to avoid blogs and go directly to the refereed scientific journals. Thomson’s Web of Science is a search engine that can be used to query hundreds of thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles. The topic of the Theory of Evolution boasts thousands of papers in just the last 30 years. From a quick scan of the abstracts, I could not find one paper that presented evidence that contradicts evolution – though I admit that I did not read all 10,000 papers. Most papers confirm evolution and use the theory to explain the results. While scientists may still debate specific details about evolution, the theory is widely accepted and useful.

Then what is intelligent design and why does it have so much traction in the media? The idea dates back hundreds of years but has been made popular in recent times by Michael Behe, who frames his argument in terms of a concept called irreducible complexity. Irreducible complexity proponents claim that certain systems are too complex to have evolved and therefore must have been created by an intelligent designer. Their argument hinges on the concept that certain systems are so complex that may simultaneous chance occurrences would be required for that system to have evolved. Since the purported chance of each of those occurrences is low, the probability of that system resulting from evolution is claimed to be minuscule.

Examples given of irreducibly complex systems include the eye and cellular flagella. ID proponents argue that, for example, small changes in the eye or the flagellum would render the organ useless, so that evolution of the organ from more primitive forms would not be possible. However, these arguments have been debunked over and over.

Take the evolution of the eye as an example. Some tiny creatures have primitive light sensing organs that warns them to swim away from large shadow-casting predators. It is not difficult to imagine how incremental refinements to such an organ could have eventually lead to an eye that sees images. Details of how scientists come to this conclusion can be found in the scientific literature. The explanations go well beyond what I can describe here. Prof. Ken Miller (see http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/), who by the way is a biologist and a practicing Catholic, has an excellent website that discusses many of these issues.

So what do scientists say about ID and irreducible complexity? A search of Thomson’s Web of Science comes up with only a couple dozen papers on the topic. Interestingly, all but one paper are critical of ID and irreducible complexity. The one supportive paper, authored by Behe himself, is his response to the scathing reviews of his book by scientists. We can safely conclude that there is no raging debate between scientists on evolution.

The scientific literature clearly shows that the Theory of Evolution is a powerful tool for understanding biology and is the basis of the biotechnology industry on which we rely. A small number of people may still cling to the concept of a flat earth, but lots of direct evidence abounds in support of a round earth, such as photos from space. Evolution is a more complex topic and is more difficult to understand because the evidence is more subtle. Add a sprinkling of religious conviction in the literal interpretation of the creation story and a general ignorance of how science works, and it becomes obvious why the average person may find it difficult to accept evolution.

While there appears to be debate on the topic of evolution, the scientific literature clearly shows a consensus that evolution is a mature and widely-held theory that has been tested over and over, and provides a basis for understanding biological diversity and processes. To say that we need to teach the controversy or debate the issue shows a clear misunderstanding of the facts. It is as pointless to debate the veracity of the theory of evolution as it is to doubt a round earth. Let’s move on and apply our resources to more worthy pursuits.

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