Over the past several months, Christian creationist Kent Hovind and militant atheist Aron Ra held an extended YouTube debate about the evidence for evolution. (You can see Hovind’s challenge here and the first video of the debate, by Aron Ra, here.) Since I wrote before about the (in-person) evolution debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham in 2014, I wanted to analyze this one too.
Unlike many scientists, I do believe it’s useful for “evolutionists” (that is, believers in evolution) to debate creationists. No, it won’t convince die-hard creationists like Hovind, but it also does not “legitimize” a fringe position that ought to be ignored. Rather, creationism is already a legitimate viewpoint in the eyes of many Americans, 38 percent of whom believe it, and a debate does have the potential to convert (for lack of a more neutral term) people who are on the fence.
I thought the Nye-Ham debate was a productive one in that regard, where the pair debated respectfully and tried to address each other’s points, and even Christian viewers thought Bill Nye made a better argument, even if they weren’t convinced by it.
Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the Aron Ra-Kent Hovind debate. I do not believe this debate was productive or respectful, on either side. I could blame the online format, but they also debated in person earlier last year, and while I haven’t watched much of that one, it seems it didn’t go much better.
I won’t go so far as to say Ra and Hovind were debating in bad faith; I believe they were both being sincere, even if they might disagree, but I do think both of them were not taking this debate seriously. I’m being very critical of both parties here precisely because I think debating creation and evolution can be productive, and I want to try to use this debate to illustrate how it can be done better.
A couple of caveats. I am both a Christian and a believer in evolution, so I fully admit I am coming into this with strong opinions of my own. Also, I should note that the debate is not finished by the original rules, and it’s not clear where the it’s going from here since Ra has finished his Round 2 and basically called it done, while Hovind started posting his “Round 3,” which should have been his Round 2 rebuttal, before Ra even finished his videos.
The first and perhaps most obvious problem with this debate was the personal insults. Hovind insisted on calling Ra by his birth name of “Mr. Nelson,” even though he has legally changed it. In response, Ra insisted on calling Hovind by his former inmate number. (Hovind was rather infamously convicted of tax evasion in 2006.) This is not only disrespectful on both sides; on Hovind’s part, it is objectively wrong, and on Ra’s part, it is arguably an unnecessary escalation. It’s certainly starting the debate on the wrong foot.
The insults only continued from there, and in my opinion, they contributed to bad debating in general. For example, Ra made constant snide remarks about God not being real, asserted as if it were fact. Now, Ra certainly believes God doesn’t exist, but it’s off-topic when the debate is about evolution, and it comes across as flippant to me, especially the way he asserts it as if it’s not in dispute. If your opponent doesn’t accept your premises, they aren’t going to accept your argument, and you need to at least acknowledge that.
These remarks also stretched out Ra’s videos. Hovind correctly pointed out that it took Ra 15 minutes of his initial 25-minute video to get to his actual arguments for evolution, which is also not very good start for a serious debate. However, Hovind is far from blameless. He immediately undercut himself by not only responding to all of Ra’s off-topic remarks (often in equally mocking fashion), but also stretching his response to Ra’s 25-minute video to over 4 hours. If the issue is equal time or a fair debate format, Hovind didn’t do a very good job of it.
When it comes to the substance of the debate, things aren’t much better because both men spent most of the time talking past each other like a couple of political pundits. To illustrate what I mean, a typical exchange between the two (stitched together from their various videos) would run as follows:
Hovind states some badly misinterpreted claim or question from evolutionary theory, such as, “How did we get a bear from nothing?” (The theory of evolution doesn’t say we get anything from nothing. That’s abiogenesis.)
In response, Ra asserts a conclusion of evolutionary theory: “bears are closely related to both dogs and seals.” In this particular case, he defended that claim with evidence including, “we have fossil transitions for bears becoming seals,” but he doesn’t always do this. (See below.)
Hovind then dismisses Ra’s assertions without evidence solely because he thinks they’re ridiculous. In this examble (see part 4 of his response), he pauses the video after “bears are closely related to both dogs and seals,” and his offscreen staff members laugh loudly because obviously bears are not the same thing as seals, as if that’s all the evidence he needs to refute the argument. (This is spurious because he could equally say that obviously a Great Dane and a chihuahua aren’t the same thing, and it doesn’t preclude them being related.)
At this point, Ra will responds by explaining the evolutionary history of bears and seals in detail and why scientists come to this conclusion, but the debate is sort of derailed by this point. It would have been better if he’d explained it the first time, except that that comment wasn’t relevant to the debate in the first place. (Granted, it was relevant to the challenge video he was responding to at the start the debate.)
As I noted above, it gets worse when Ra doesn’t adequately defend his assertions. Hovind had a pretty good point when he said Ra’s first line of evidence for evolution “is the fact that evolution happens” is a dumb argument. To be fair, Ra did sort of back this up, but he didn’t do it very clearly. In context, he seemed to be saying that the best evidence for the theory of evolution is that we have observed the process of evolution (mostly microevolution) taking place in the wild, but he stated it in dismissive a way that was so easy to misinterpret that it almost seems deliberate. What’s more, he’s debating against someone whom he knows doesn’t believe microevolution is evidence for the theory of evolution as a whole, so it’s won’t be a convincing argument to his opponent.
My point is that Aron Ra wasn’t trying to anticipate his opponent’s criticisms and address them in advance, which is a critical skill for effective debating. Meanwhile, Kent Hovind wasn’t trying to understand his opponent’s arguments and construct a logical defense against them, which is another critical skill for effective debating. In other words, they were talking past each other and, in my opinion, not taking the debate seriously.
Both men didn’t appear to be trying at all to meet their opponent where they were and make the case on their terms. This would no doubt be difficult because of the large gap between creationism and “evolutionism,” and between militant atheism and Christian fundamentalism, but it’s extremely important for persuasive rhetoric. Perhaps they don’t believe that anything they say would convince the other side, but they really aren’t there to convince each other side; they’re there to convince the viewers. Ra presumably wants to convert the viewers to atheism, or at least to evolutionism, and Hovind wants to convert the viewers to Christianity, or at least to creationism, but neither of them will convert anyone if they can’t make their case to the other side on the other side’s terms. And that is why I believe this was not in any way a productive debate.
I want to make one more point to set up my next post. I considered writing a post talking about ways to debate creationists that are productive, but I decided I wanted to do something a little different. There’s something I always feel like evolution defenders fail to do when debating creationists: drilling down to the core of their arguments with specific questions designed to force them to defend specific fallacies in their statements. I think there are better ways to do this than I’ve seen, and I’ll try to do that in my follow-up post.