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Saladin's Assessment of the Debate

[Assessment of the debate from Creation/Evolution Newsletter 8(6) : 11,14 (Nov/Dec 1988).]

THE DEBATE CIRCUIT

Saladin-Gish Debate
May 10, 1988, at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama
Reported by Kenneth S. Saladin
Georgia College, Milledgeville, GA 31060

My second debate with Duane Gish took place before an audience of about 800 last spring at Auburn University. It differed only in detail from our 1984 debate (see C/E N 4(4): 11-12), and Gish was utterly predictable.

In my 45-minute opening, I discussed the philosophy of science and contrasting attributes of creationism, age of the cosmos, origin of life, fossil stratigraphy, transitional fossils, and evidentiary examples from embryology and atavisms. I finished with a stern critique of creationist credibility, with slides and quoted passages on Gish's fire-breathing dinosaurs, Morris's non-living plants, a Creation Research Society Quarterly article on the theology of radioactivity, Gish's misquotation of authority, and creationist "arkeology."

My fundamental format and technique were similar to 1984. I change slides about every 40 seconds, but keep my graphics simple. Many were no more than a color photograph of a grizzly bear or a solar flare, for example -- something attractive to keep the audience alert and form a visual association with an organism or concept under discussion. I used one of my students as a projectionist and we rehearsed in advance so he could change slides at the appropriate moments without my calling for them. In 1984 some audience members commented that this created a notably smooth and effective presentation (one was "almost mystified" at how appropriate pictures kept coming up without my saying anything). My principal improvement in 1988 was probably in speaking style. I was more experienced and comfortable before a large audience and, I felt, gave a smoother presentation.

One new tactic I introduced to this debate was to gig Gish with tape recordings of his statements in previous debates. When the NCSE met in Los Angeles in 1985, Fred Edwords debated Gish on a KABC radio talk show. A caller asked Gish about the quest for Noah's ark, and while Gish denied that any evidence of the ark had been found, he also denied that ICR sponsors expeditions to look for it. The next evening Karl Fezer and I visited the ICR and were entrusted by a secretary to roam their creationist museum after hours alone. (She asked us to lock up the ICR when we left! See our report of this foray in C/E N 5(3):16-17.) We listened to a sound-slide program on Noah's ark which proudly affirmed that the ICR does sponsor these expeditions. In 1986, Gish debated David Schwimmer at the University of Georgia, and in the Q/A period I confronted Gish with this contradiction. He sarcastically accused me of fabricating it and again denied ICR involvement.

So I entered our debate this year prepared to repay him for his sarcasm, armed with a microcassette onto which I had dubbed the seminal portions of the Gish-Edwords and Gish-Schwimmer debates. I played Gish's twofold denial over the PA system, then showed slides of several Acts & Facts accounts of these expeditions, culminating with an unequivocal affirmation of sponsorship in the November 1986 issue. In his rebuttal, Gish seemed a bit flustered and claimed he couldn't hear the tape I played, but notwithstanding the slides I had just shown, he stood up and denied sponsorship once again. Auburn is a university with a conspicuous contingent of faculty creationists, but perhaps because of statements like this, Gish seemed to enjoy little credibility or support that evening. I was told several of his supporters got up and walked out during his presentation, and with statements like this it was little wonder why.

Another element in my presentation was to reveal, more assiduously than before, Gish's misquotations of the scientific literature. Knowing that Gish rests much of his cause on "plausible deniability," I came armed with a veritable library of books and periodicals he commonly cites. Gish cites Romer (Vertebrate Paleontology, p. 338) to the effect that bats appear fully developed in the middle of Eocene with no trace of ancestry. I held up Romer's book and read from an earlier chapter (p. 212), where he says that, while bats appear fully developed by the middle Eocene, in the early Eocene their insectivore ancestors. I also attacked Gish's misrepresentation of Gavin de Beer (Homology: An Unsolved Problem). I had this paper with me in the original as well, and read passages diametrically opposite from what Gish avows that de Beer wrote. My concluding slide was the cover cartoon from Creation/Evolution No. XI.

Gish gave his usual fossilized opening statement, but he and his audience partisans struck me as surprisingly subdued compared to the other debates of his that I've attended. He discussed the Big Bang and Cosmic Chicken, the hydrogen-to-humans scenario, thermodynamics, the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe statistical argument, fossil transitions, human origins, and the Oxnard-Zuckerman argument. There were only two new features of his presentation: he dwelt at length on the supposed inexplicability of metamorphosis in the monarch butterfly, and he gave a juvenile gloss on Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Apparently he never read any further than the flap of the dust jacket, and he reminded me of a fifth-grade student trying to fake a report on a book he'd never read.

In 1984, I worked frantically during the intermission to prepare my first rebuttal. This year, I had a prepared rebuttal in advance from Gish's 1984 statement, and a card file to cover anything new. Gish was so true to form I had no need to prepare during the Intermission, so while he prepared his notes I went down and mingled with the audience, distributed NCSE literature, and basked in audience adulation.

Rebuttals were quite straightforward, and I especially enjoyed taking apart the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe's other biological beliefs: insects smarter than humans and not letting on, flu epidemics from outer space, and Wickramasinghe's trial testimony that Gish's views on evolution are "claptrap" and could not be supported by any rational scientist.

In the question/answer period the audience was surprisingly hostile toward Gish. Questions put to me were no more challenging than "Do you think evolution can be harmonized with belief in God?" and "What if they did find Noah's ark?" The only one for which I had no ready answer is why organisms now use only the L-isomer of amino acids. Gish was piqued when the first questioner, Georgia State University biologist Fred Parrish, addressed him as Reverend Gish and questioned his integrity as a Christian. Others attacked his statistical "proof" of the impossibility of things which in fact do happen, his abuse of thermodynamics, and his reliance on popularized rather than refereed scientific literature. In contrast to the 1984 audience, who came in yellow buses and thumped bibles on their knees, this audience impressed me as relatively savvy.

To anticipate and defuse the secular humanist attack, my closing statement focused on anticreationist opinion of clerics ranging from John Paul II to Baptist and Episcopal leaders in Georgia. I described and displayed the compilation in which the Fransiscan physician Ed Friedlander has photocopied statements from Gish's literature alongside photocopies of the sources cited by Gish to demonstrate Gish's habit of distortion.

Gish had the last word and retorted, "Sure there's a lot of liberal theologians on the side of evolution. Why wouldn't they be? All these liberal theologians are for ordaining homosexual ministers, for legalized abortion... Of course they're for evolution!" The debate format did not allow me an opportunity to come back and ask if the had meant to include John Paul II among these "liberal theologians."

Following the debate I was surrounded by well-wishers and chagrined creationist students. They were especially interested in comparing Gish's writing with the Romer and de Beer literature, and seeing Ed Friedlander's paper, which some people subsequently requested from me by mail. The creationists at my table seemed as disappointed with Gish's performance as Democrats reviewing the last Bush-Dukakis debate. The student organizer seemed almost grudgingly to present me with the check for my expenses and honorarium. He had written to me in advance, "We will do our best to publicize to supporters of both sides. However, it must be realized that Auburn is a small town in the Deep South [and probably will have] a bias toward Dr. Gish's theory." As it turned out, I had no complaints about this audience, but I think Gish and the organizers were a bit chagrined by it.

The debate is recorded on a videotape of so-so quality, a pair of good 90-minute cassettes, and a verbatim transcript of 90+ pages. The transcript includes both post-debate annotations and research into Gish's literature citations. I will send a four-page, detailed outline of the debate (the table of the contents of the transcript) free to anyone who requests it, but I regrettably do not have the time to honor individual requests for copies of the tapes or entire manuscript. I expect to have these available for distribution through the NCSE by January, and presumably their availability and price will be announced in this newsletter.

I wish to express my appreciation to Auburn University philosophy professor Delos McKown, who was originally invited to confront Gish and recommended me in his stead; and to my students who helped with literature distribution and recording the debate. If I can extend any wishes to Dr. Gish, they are for good health and a long life, so my colleagues and I will have many more opportunities to publicly reveal the mendacity of America's most capable exponent of "scientific" creationism.

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