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Debate Is Not Inquiry

Ophelia brings news that those of us who have participated in a particular hashtag are not really skeptics:

What a joke #UpForDebate is. Skeptics should be willing to revise any and all of their beliefs given sufficient reason, argument, evidence.

No idea who said it, because Twitter is finally hiding posts by people you’ve blocked on the search function as well as in your mentions. Well, no, that’s not quite true. That alone gives me some ideas.

For example, I can be pretty sure that this is someone who would have been demanding that the feminist women in the atheist and skeptical movements debate their rights to bodily autonomy over the last couple of years. I can be pretty sure this same person tried to play the “bad skeptic” card then too, saying that things like, oh, blocking them on Twitter constituted an “unskeptical” refusal to address argument.

I can’t tell you whether this person followed along when I participated in the dialogue that Mick Nugent set up a year ago, but I can tell that they should have if they really thought every good skeptic has an obligation to interact with the people they oppose. And if they did that, they really should go running around confusing debate and inquiry like that, because I addressed it at the time. Nor is that the first time I’ve addressed the difference. Either someone isn’t paying attention to me the way they think I should pay attention to them, or they’re ignoring what I’ve said to restate their own premise again (which isn’t exactly good skepticism either). Either way, it’s time to say this again:

Debate is not inquiry. Argument is not skepticism. Fetishizing debate makes us less knowledgeable as a culture and even as a movement, not more.

This shouldn’t be a difficult idea. We spend a lot of time talking about debates: debates on evolution, debates on the existence of god, debates on “alternative medicine”, presidential debates. We talk about whether they’re wise. We talk about who gets tickets to these events. We analyze debaters tactics and strong and weak points. We talk about their “hits” and “misses” whether they “won”.

What do we not talk about in all that? We don’t talk about whether the people debating educated each other. That’s not what “schooled” means in this context.

We also don’t talk about debates as a tool for critical thinking, and with good reason. Debate is not about sorting through the evidence and coming up with the best conclusion. Take a debate class, and you’ll be taught the opposite–how to find the evidence that best suits any pre-existing conclusion. That’s why a standard practice in teaching debate is to give students a topic but not tell them which side they’ll need to argue until they get to the debate.

Then there are all the surrounding variables that can help a person win a debate that have nothing to do with the truth of a proposition. Bill Nye was criticized for letting Ken Ham stack the audience with creationists, because how the audience reacts affects which debaters are seen as more reasonable. Debaters learn how to stand, how to look like they’re making eye contact with the audience, how to lower the pitch of their voices, how to inject emotion into their voices and their messages, how to undermine their opponents’ personal credibility, how to dress and enunciate to play on class consciousness, how to de-emphasize the weaknesses in their own arguments. A few of these don’t apply to written debate, but you should get the point.

All of those make for very effective rhetoric. They make for terrible skepticism.

It’s possible to get people to a state of understanding that closely approximates reality through debate, but it’s anything but guaranteed. Depending on where they start, it may even be likely that presenting them with good reasons to change their minds about a deeply held belief will reinforce that belief.

So why do atheists and skeptics agree to debates? Well, often they don’t. The reasons for that include an unwillingness to legitimize some ideas by declaring them important enough to debate, distrust that their opponents will obey the terms agreed to, or the simple recognition that the skills of a scientist or a teacher are not the skills of a debater and an unwillingness to lose on something unrelated to the merits of an argument.

When we do debate, however, we usually do it for one simple reason: access. Religion puts butts in seats. Bigfoot and UFO conferences gather believers in one place. If we have debates in churches or other celebrations of credulity, we gain access to audiences we usually have trouble reaching. Sometimes a debate is worthwhile if it gets your message to people who have never heard it in its unskewed form. Sometimes it’s not, even for that.

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When we actually want to pass on the best information to a group of people we already have access to, we use education, not debate. Those people who call us “bad skeptics” when we educate people about things they don’t like? We don’t thank them for their “corrections”. We mock them with “Teach the Controversy.” Yes, even when it’s procreation they’re nattering about. We don’t let that stop us from making sure the best information possible is presented in a way that maximized the likelihood of it being absorbed.

When we want to find consensus on the best knowledge about a topic, rather than simply pass it on, we also don’t turn to debate. The scientific process uses multiple constraints to check as many of the sources of bias present in a debate as possible. It strongly favors deep familiarity with a topic, reliance on data, testing of alternative scenarios, expert review and challenge, and building on established consensus, among other things.

It isn’t perfect at any of those by any stretch of the imagination, but compared to open debate, it’s a machine for cranking out knowledge. Progress may be slow, but science is not, for example, still rehashing the 1850s. Scientists may come back to a question from those days, but only with new information. Debaters still study Lincoln-Douglas as something other than history.

To quote myself from last year’s dialogue: “The elevation of nonexpert debate as a means of discovering truth is cargo cult skepticism, lacking the empiricism and rigor required to produce useful results.” Someone telling you you’re a bad skeptic because you won’t debate with them or whatever random, nonexpert person they point to is doing skeptic advocacy wrong.

So if you happen to see whoever is saying this sort of thing because you didn’t block them when “freeze peach” was their argument behind “Pay attention to meeeee!”, feel free to hold them up a mirror. They need it more than you do.

Comments

  1. says

    What a joke #UpForDebate is. Skeptics should be willing to revise any and all of their beliefs given sufficient reason, argument, evidence.

    I’ll simply out myself as a bad skeptic and bold believer: There cannot be any argument, reason or evidence that would convince me that I am not a complete human being entitled to human rights.

  2. Adamo says

    This is why I hated high school debate. I was told which side to support, and I personally backed the other one. Thanks for helping me clarify.

  3. says

    Plus, usually the sort of “debate” people want is actually no such thing. They want an audience for their views, even an unwilling audience will do. They also want to look down their noses at other people. And sometimes they are just being terrible people and pretending that when someone objects to abuse it is because they are afraid of debate.

    And even under sort of “normal” debate structures, it is often two or more people talking past each other and to the people who already agree with them. What purpose does that serve?

  4. says

    Vacula is technically correct: Skeptics SHOULD be willing to revise any and all of their beliefs given sufficient reason, argument, and evidence.

    But, as he has not done so despite repeated attempts to educate him, he displays himself as a terrible skeptic. And human being, too, but we already had ample evidence of that.

  5. says

    I’m surprised that the “I try to question everything including your right to exist and follow all of skepticism” crowd doesn’t seem to be aware of Bayes. One of the most important tools of skepticism is NOT having to reinvent the wheel and make use of prior results, which can include moral arguments.

  6. A. Noyd says

    They want to take a vehicle someone else invented, chain it to a utility pole, spin the wheels in place, and claim that’s how you get somewhere.

  7. says

    My own transition from religious to non-religious had much more to do with hearing and learning that having doubt doesn’t make me a bad person than being told doubt of everything is a moral imperative and I’m a bad person if I don’t.

  8. A Hermit says

    I wonder how these super skeptics get thorough the day when they have to re-examine every assumption about the world every time they encounter a familiar situation…

    “Does that ringing sound really mean it’s time to get up? Am I still employed in the same place? Better call the office and check…But first a shower. Or maybe not…it was once believed that bathing makes you sick…better investigate this before going any further… “

  9. doubtthat says

    Not that this needs an analogy, it’s been articulated perfectly by Stephanie, Ophelia, Greta and others, but I encountered a subject this morning to which I had a visceral reaction similar, I would imagine, to how a lot of folks feel about the resurrection of silly anti-choice nonsense.

    Someone on a different topic referenced 9-11 conspiracy theories. There was a good 8-10 years where the debate over that was fairly fierce even though there was a decided lack of substance from one side. I hadn’t really encountered any Truthers in a while, and after reading “government theory” in print, a wave of emotion composed of vexation, anger, and hopeless exhaustion washed over me.

    That theory is ten years old and it’s entirely frivolous; no one is impacted by goofy 9-11 nonsense like women are impacted by anti-choice politics. I can only imagine how people who have been dealing with abortion feel after 40 years of crap since Roe v. Wade and decades more leading to it.

    Is Justin Vacula going to be calling for a new 9-11 commission in 2045? Or can we call that one settled without losing our skeptic card?

  10. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    Improbable Joe wrote:

    Plus, usually the sort of “debate” people want is actually no such thing. They want an audience for their views, even an unwilling audience will do. They also want to look down their noses at other people. And sometimes they are just being terrible people and pretending that when someone objects to abuse it is because they are afraid of debate.

    And let’s not forget that claiming to be willing to ‘debate’ is nothing more than a stalling tactic when that person is someone who benefits from the status quo remaining such while the ‘debate’ takes place. Harassment policies at cons being a good example.

    A Hermit wrote:

    I wonder how these super skeptics get thorough the day when they have to re-examine every assumption about the world every time they encounter a familiar situation…

    Indeed. I’ve noted before that if these so-called ‘skeptics’ applied the level of skepticism to their everyday lives as they demand we apply to things like accepting that women are actual people, they’d never cross the road at a traffic light for fear that the drivers might be inattentive, or their brakes defective, or the lights malfunctioning or so on, ad infinitum.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Debate Is Not Inquiry » Almost Diamonds Having a Reasonable Debate About Abortion » Greta Christina’s Blog Abortion is not a debate. » Biodork Should “potential fathers” have any say in abortion? | Consider the Tea Cosy Dear friend: Words have meanings. | perry street palace These posts are about the fetishisation of debate as the one true way to convince others to revise beliefs – I wrote about it too recently. […]

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