Thoughtful reader Brett Watson takes issue with my attempt to give a charitable reading to Darwinists’ avoidance of debating with intelligent-design advocates. In fact he offers an “even more charitable interpretation,” a basically political one:
I think there’s an even more charitable interpretation of why Darwinists won’t debate: they have nothing to gain from it, politically. Presidential candidates probably wouldn’t debate either if they were sure that the majority was already on their side. Not only do Darwinists potentially have a lot to lose by entering into such a debate, they also have little to gain from it. As Richard Dawkins likes to say in relation to debating dissenting scientists (and he attributes it to someone else), “that would look great on your resume, not so much on mine.”
As an aside, I surmise that this is why Richard Dawkins prefers to debate religious leaders: it gives him an opportunity to engage in his favourite hobby of publicly ridiculing religion with little risk that he’ll be challenged scientifically. Even if he were challenged scientifically, he makes a point of being the greater scientific authority in the debate, so can simply pronounce the other party ignorant and wrong, should he dare encroach on that territory. It’s a low-risk proposition for Dawkins: the worst that’s likely to happen is that he fails to make religion look ridiculous on that occasion.
To put it another way, there is a progression usually attributed to Gandhi (perhaps incorrectly): “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” The progression works because it’s initially best to ignore or suppress dissenting ideas, rather than give them publicity, if they have any actual merit. Once this strategy fails, it’s best to lampoon and ridicule the ideas: they’re getting too much publicity on their own to ignore them, but one can encourage prejudice against the ideas through ridicule and misrepresentation. Once the ideas reach a threshold where misrepresentation becomes conspicuous, this strategy must be abandoned for a fairer and more direct confrontation. This is likely to fail, because if a direct confrontation were a likely way to win, there would have been less need for dirty pool in the first place.
So while I agree with you that debates are risky, and that this is reason to be averse to them without accusation of cowardice, it’s more important to consider the risk/reward ratio. If a Darwinist enters into debate with a Darwin-doubter, and the outcome is anything less than a one-sided slaughter of that doubter, then the Darwinist has effectively weakened his position, because he claims to have all the facts on his side. So just as a presidential candidate who is sure of his popularity has no need to debate, there won’t be any good case for a Darwinist to enter into a debate until there is a public in need of persuasion that Darwinism is true, and simple one-sided rhetoric won’t do the job.
This seems shrewd to me, perhaps more on the mark than my own earlier comments. I think, though, that it doesn’t explain the seemingly willful ignorance of people like Dawkins and Coyne when it comes to ID, as reflected in their writing.