Future Tense

“It’s Not Debatable”

Michigan State University’s perfect response to a creationist conference on campus.

The Origin Summit chimp will not listen to your science.

Screenshot from originsummit.com

Because they are utterly unmoored from science, rationality, and reality, creationists make excellent debaters. Well-versed in the “Gish Gallop”—an underhanded strategy in which the debater throws out dozens of small lies that would take too long for his opponent to correct—the typical creationist can convince an uneducated audience that, at the very least, his views have some scientific heft. That’s why creationists are always angling for public debates: While real scientists are bound by the complexities of the truth, creationists can simply spin out a shimmering web of total fantasy.

Naturally, then, when members of a creationist group organized an anti-evolution “Origin Summit” on Nov. 1 at Michigan State University, their first move was to organize—what else?—a debate. And they had an ideal target in mind: Robert T. Pennock, an MSU biology professor who testified at the famous Kitzmiller trial that intelligent design is a fundamentally “nonscientific … religious proposition.” Pennock’s extensive testimony—the riveting centerpiece of the trial—obliterated any argument that intelligent design is a valid scientific theory fit to be taught in public schools. (Judge John E. Jones’ 139-page ruling against intelligent design cited Pennock 14 times.)

Pennock’s searing rebuke of intelligent design made him an instant enemy for creationists, who had hoped to use the ersatz theory as a Trojan horse to sneak religion into science classrooms. And the leaders of the Origin Summit clearly hoped that, by hosting their conference at Pennock’s university, they could goad the professor into a debate. The summit initially pitched a debate between Pennock and Charles Jackson—a member of the “Creation Science Hall of Fame”—as the focal point of the conference. The summit’s website asks whether Pennock’s arguments can “withstand the scrutiny of debate” and suggests that he’s too cowardly to stand up for evolution.

The summit had one thing right: Pennock refused to respond to its request. But it wasn’t out of timorousness.

“Scientists have already shown that there is no substance worth debating in these old creationist challenges to evolution,” he told me. Evolution is fact, creation is fiction, and there’s just no point in pretending like there’s a real scientific debate between reality and fantasy. I asked Pennock whether he was alarmed by the conference.

“It’s a sign of how desperate creationists have become,” he said. “[T]hey have to make schoolyard bully taunts, blame evolution for Hitler, and raffle a free iPad (‘Must be present to win’) to try to create a controversy and draw an audience.”

Thwarted in their attempt to validate the conference with a debate, the summit leaders might at least have hoped for an attention-grabbing outcry among scientists at the school. There, too, they were foiled. Once MSU’s science professors caught wind of the event, they collectively decided to ignore the conference and refuse requests for comment. (Indeed, no professor would speak to me until I promised not to publish a story before the summit occurred.) The summit leaders were counting on the school’s scientists to criticize the conference and give them free publicity. So the scientists kept their mouths shut.

Privately, however, many professors were seething. Julius H. Jackson, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, described the event to me as “a faith-based assault” designed to “undermine the credibility of science.” The summit’s true goal was merely a desire “to convince a broader spectrum of people, particularly college students, to adopt a closed-minded view of science and thus reduce the positive influences of science on society.” And the potential result will be “to endanger society by creating a mistrust in science.”

Jennifer Lau, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, was similarly frustrated. “It’s a shame,” she told me, to see “misconceptions” about evolution “being propagated here at MSU, where some of the most rigorous and most exciting evolutionary biology research takes place.” Josh Nahum, a researcher in microbial and evolutionary biology, agreed, noting that while some future response might be valuable, scientists shouldn’t engage “in forums where the discussion is controlled by people who equate evolution with Nazism.” (One of the summit’s early workshops was titled “Hitler’s Worldview.”)

Despite the faculty’s general policy of nonengagement, several students did decide to set up a table near the conference explaining why evolution is not, in fact, a Nazi lie. Carina Baskett, an organizer of the outreach booth, explained to me that she wanted “some friendly scientists” present to show creationists that “we’re scientists, not demons.” Still, she said, anyone interacting with the conference participants was under strict orders not to engage in debate.

“We don’t debate evolution because it’s not debatable,” she said. “It’s like debating the existence of Canada.”

Why were MSU scientists drawn into this ridiculous situation in the first place? How did the school wind up hosting such an absurd conference? It’s not because MSU is a stronghold of creationism—actually, student involvement in the event has been minimal from the start. The trouble began roughly 10 months ago, when the conference’s creationist sponsors called Larry Woods, the director of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry. As the sponsor of a student group, Woods had the power to book rooms on campus, and the creationists asked whether the Baptist Collegiate Ministry would sponsor their event. The group agreed, but only coordinated with the creationists every few weeks, mostly about the broad outline of the conference. And the pugnacious nature of the workshops caught the ministry members by surprise.

The summit, then, is hardly a grass-roots upwell of creationist support at MSU. Nor is it a threat to the school’s scientific integrity or reputation. At worst, the conference is a sideshow, a strange and asinine attempt to validate creationist theory by linking it to an esteemed research university. The summit’s leaders were expecting an uproar, but MSU’s scientists, unlike Bill Nye, refused to take the bait. To debate creationism and evolution, they realized, was to imply that evolution is plausibly disputable. To ignore creationist calls for debate, on the other hand, relegates the theory to lowest rung of evangelical pseudoscience, where it so obviously belongs.

Ultimately, thanks to the university’s emphatic silence, the conference drew fewer than 100 attendees, according to Baskett—only about one-third of whom appeared to be younger than 30. There were no debates or shouting matches, and the creationists were, by all accounts, gracious and civil. A handful of MSU students sat in out of pure curiosity, Pennock told me, including a resolutely pro-science graduate student who studies evolutionary microbiology. At the end of the event, the student won the iPad raffle.

“Chance?” Pennock asked, “or a sign from above? You be the judge.”

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.