Debating and rallying and reasoning, oh my!

Some quick updates on what some of us in the AXP camp are up to. Matt is, as you read this, getting ready to take the stage at West Texas A&M University in Amarillo for another debate. Here’s the flyer thingamajig.

Debate flyer

No, we don’t have any idea about their plans to record the debate, or post it online. Yes, we’ll embed it here the instant we find out such a thing exists.

In other news, yours truly (that would be me) just bought his plane ticket to Washington, so expect to see me at the Reason Rally in a month. I’ll be easy to spot, in that of all the godless hordes attending, I’ll be the only one who’s Martin Wagner. I don’t know about any plans from anyone else yet. As we get closer to the day, I’ll work out arrangements for an Atheist Experience meet up, perhaps the Friday night before. Maybe some of you who are attending and know DC a bit better than I do can think of some worthwhile places to hold one. Part of me is hoping that I step off the plane into the devastation of the Capital Wasteland, dodging super-mutants while Galaxy News Radio spins oldies over my ear buds. But I suspect the worst I’ll run into will be some dippy sidewalk evangelists.

Why you should argue in public and private

Greta asks a question of the FTB community today: Atheist Arguments — Public or Private?  My answer is: both.

There’s no pat answer to how you should conduct yourself in an argument, any more than you can encapsulate morality in a set of ten laws that are followed unfailingly without question.  Obviously, I’m a big fan of taking arguments public, which is why I love being on a TV show with lots of callers.  (Well, that, and I’m a big old narcissist.)  But what I generally say as a rule of thumb is that you should only have an argument if the argument is beneficial to you and your position in some way.

Argument is a performance, and a performance only has an audience.  But there are three different kinds of audience you might want to entertain, so there are basically three styles of argument you may wind up having.

  1. The audience is… someone else.  This is what happens when Greta posts an argument on her blog, or we do one of those cute “we get email” posts, or we take calls on TV, or there’s a public debate happening in an auditorium.
  2. The audience is the theist.  Bear in mind that you do not have to enter such arguments with the expectation of completely changing the theist’s mind and making him an atheist.  If a theist drifts across the spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal theist to agnostic to atheist to outspoken atheist, then you’ve done a good job.
  3. The audience is… yourself.  And that’s the most likely motivation for keeping an argument private.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the third audience, because atheists aren’t omniscient.  There are some difficult arguments that people butt up against as they learn to explore the philosophical implications of their beliefs, and sometimes you’re going to lose.  Seriously, it happens to everyone, because unless you are the single best debater in the whole world, tautologically there is somebody better than you.  So don’t fall into trap of thinking that “only stupid people disagree with me,” because that’s really not the case.

Never forget that arguing with somebody is essentially a game, and there are good players and bad players — or rather, there are better players and worse players.  You may be a pretty good chess player against your friends, but I don’t see you beating either Deep Blue or Garry Kasparov.  But the great thing about losing is that it’s a learning opportunity.  When you lose an argument, you’ve discovered a weak spot in your understanding of the issues.  Then one of two things is true: either you were wrong, in which case — hooray! — you can change your mind and now you’ll be right!  Or else, it turns out that you lost with a winning argument.

In this second case, now you have some direction to take your reading.  You should read more about this argument that beat you.  Find out what other people would say against it; find out what philosophers have said about it; find out whether it butts up against some important scientific principle that we know about.  The overall tournament doesn’t end just because you lost the game.  And once you learn exactly where you made the mistake, then the next time you run into this argument, you’re going to nail it.  That’s what arguing for yourself really does for you.

So really, there’s nothing wrong with taking an argument private.  There is always that chance that the theist is a reasonable person who will actually soften his position on some of his misconceptions.  Don’t tell me it never happens; it happens all the time.  And there’s also an equal chance that by practicing an argument in private, you will become a better player, which in turn will help you out with future public arguments.

And then those public arguments will help you sway more people who don’t have a vested interest in picking one answer… but only if you get good at it.  Don’t be so arrogant that you think you’ve won when you’ve actually lost.  That way lies victims of Dunning-Kruger.  If you’ve honed your abilities through practice, then by all means show off and win some souls.

On public arguments

Today’s email comes from Mark in Colorado.

I work in a Defense firm where everybody is either a fundamentalist Christian or Mormon. I got into a discussion with a mormon guy who is always spouting some stupid shit. Anyway, I confronted him about his ideas and after a few minutes of discussion he realized I wasn’t a pushover, so he switched tactics and started bringing up quantum physics (he feels that proves everything), psuedo science, non sequiturs, real science mixed with nonsense — usually in the same sentence. Just for an example, he said he believed in evolution but described a cartoonish if not naive version. I tried to correct him and tell him he had it wrong, but he switched scripts and said loudly, “You don’t believe in evolution”! It went on with a lot of stuff like that to muddy the waters and it seemed to have impressed people in my group.

My question is, have you ever run across anyone like that and how did you handle it?

In a situation like that, my first rule is that it’s important to keep your cool. I understand that it’s difficult in this situation, but you should calmly step back and assess what you are getting out of the argument. There are, in my mind, three reasons that you would want to argue with somebody:

  1. You think you can change that person’s mind in some way.
  2. You think you can influence the opinion of people who are observing the discussion.
  3. You are genuinely interested in the other person’s arguments, or would like practice responding to them for your own education. Or it’s fun.

These three points boil down to a question of “Who’s your audience?” The answers are, respectively, 1. the Mormon; 2. somebody else; 3. Yourself. How you answer the audience question will have a lot of influence on how you should approach the discussion.

If the Mormon is your audience, you’ve already decided that he is kind of an idiot, so obviously you’re not going to make major gains with him. Your best bet is to find the areas where he’s most badly misunderstanding mainstream science, point out what is wrong in a straightforward way, and steer him toward credible literature on how it actually works. In order to do this, you’ll have to understand the real science well enough to break it down that way, so maybe some extra reading is in order.

If a third party is your audience, you can start out winning big just by keeping your cool. If the other guy is visibly upset, and you are not, then it’s hard to side with him. You said that his rant seemed to impress people in your group, so it’s possible that they were swayed by it. Maybe you’re having your discussion with the wrong person. If you think there is somebody a bit more reasonable who is on the fence and simply doesn’t understand the issues involved, I’d look for an opportunity to talk privately with that person (or people). By expanding your influence to other people and getting them on your side, you’re less likely to find yourself alone in future discussions.

If you are your own audience, then go ahead and argue to a frustrating standstill, then evaluate the specifics of the conversation later. Toss out the points which sounded like a stupid waste of time to you, but remember the points that left you struggling. Maybe the claims about quantum physics sounded like bunk to you, but you couldn’t express why they’re bunk. In that case, it’s time to educate yourself. Go find some real information about science, preferably from a good, well-spoken popular science writer. It won’t help in the current discussion, but it will improve your broad base of knowledge the next time the discussion comes up.

If none of the above are a good audience in this situation, maybe you should check your motives again and see if it’s really worth your time to be talking to this lunkhead. I wouldn’t pick an argument with a homeless guy in the street shouting at people, and you shouldn’t waste time in a situation where nobody has anything to learn.

Whatever the case, remember that a casual debate is a skirmish, not the war. You can lose a battle and it doesn’t ruin you as a human being. Just try to bear in mind your long term goals: becoming a knowledgeable and well-rounded individual; and helping good and correct memes to spread through the general population.

More Secular Morality videos: the follow-up panel

At last, we now have the videos (thanks to Catherine Blackwell and the Secular Student Alliance) of the follow-up panel on secular morality that followed Matt’s debate with Hans Jacobse. Abridged from the SSA’s write-up, the panelists include:

  • Gregory S. Paul: Labeled religion’s “public enemy #1” by MSNBC, Greg Paul is a freelance author and researcher about the effect of religion on society, and vice versa. His work has been featured in Newsweek, Science magazine, Evolutionary Psychology, Philosophy and Theology, and numerous other journals and publications. Paul’s theory centers around the thesis that there is no “God gene” that gives people an inherent propensity for religion, and that “prosperous modernity is proving to be the nemesis of religion.” Greg is a Baltimore native and active in the Baltimore Ethical Society. Find out more about his “science of religion” writings at
  • John Shook, Ph.D. [debate moderator]: Dr. Shook is a scholar and professor living in Washington, D.C. He is Director of Education and Senior Research Fellow of the Center for Inquiry, and also is Visiting Assistant Professor of Science Education at the University at Buffalo, teaching for its online program in Science and the Public. From 2000 to 2006 he was a professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University. Shook publishes on philosophical topics about science, the mind, humanist ethics, democracy, secularism, and religion, and he has debated the existence of God with leading theologians including William Lane Craig. He has authored and edited more than a dozen books, including the new The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between). [Shook is the fellow I took to task on NPR 9.9 for a recent HuffPo article chastising his fellow atheists with a variant of the Courtier’s Reply.]
  • Matt Dillahunty [debater]: Known for his extensive private collection of meerschaum pipes and inflatable sheep, Matt Dillahunty plays a mean Jew’s harp and once shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
  • Robert Anderson, Ph.D: Dr Anderson is a UMBC psychology professor and student advisor. He teaches a number of courses, including aggression and antisocial behavior, abnormal psychology, personality study, human sexuality and clinical psychology.

Enjoy. There will be other parts. I understand you need to turn the sound up.

The Source of Human Morality debate videos

Here are the first three (of nine) video installments of the debate between Matt and Fr. Hans Jacobse at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, yesterday. According to the writeup, Fr. Jacobse “views the current world as a battle between competing moral visions of the secular and the sacred, and hopes that Christianity can restore the moral tradition of the gospels.” Whether this involves angrily killing fig trees is, I suppose, left to be clarified. (Zing!) Anyway, enjoy. (Note: I’ll be embedding the rest of the vids as they are posted to YouTube, and will offer my assessments as I watch and absorb them.)

Final addendum, 9:30 PM 11/20: All 9 parts are now embedded, using the playlist embed code provided by the lovely and multitalented Catherine Blackwell. Thanks!

Why I usually don’t argue with YouTube videos

This isn’t terribly important but I’m airing a minor grievance. People frequently email the TV crew to say “I saw this video on YouTube. Can you refute it?” Here’s why I usually refuse.

Frankly, I hate dealing with videos. Text is an asynchronous mode of communication, whereas video is synchronous. (“Synchronous” is a fancy-schmancy computer science major’s way of saying “dependent on time.”) See, when you’re arguing, the entire argument is part of an interconnected whole. Bits are presented that rely on other bits for validity. Grasping an argument is not like reading a story; you have you to bounce back and forth and cross reference things in order to understand them.

In a way, I think that’s why members of the creationist movement are so much in love with live debates, while being such miserable failures at validating their stuff through rigorous scientific publication. A weak argument is much more easily exposed when you can scroll back to an earlier part and double check for inconsistencies. In live format, once a point whizzes past, the words are lost in time and you have to rely on your memory of what was said. Obviously we do this ourselves on the Atheist Experience, discussing issues with callers in real time, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it changes the viewer’s experience, and you have to rely a little bit more on the claimed authority of the speakers since you can’t fact-check effectively in real time.

So YouTube is not quite the same as a live presentation, because you can easily move the time slider backwards and forwards to review what was said. But I still hate doing that, because there’s no effective search tool. There’s no index. Also, it is much harder to accurately quote the passage you’re responding to. Text is something I can copy and paste. With video, all I can do is hunt for approximately the right spot on the video, sit through parts of the monologue that I’m not using for a while, and then painstakingly transcribe the text while pausing frequently and scrolling back to make sure I got it right.

And finally, it’s time consuming. In text, all the words exist simultaneously on the page, and you can flip through and skim to find what you need fairly quickly. If there are large passages of obvious nonsense that don’t need to be addressed, it’s easy to detect where they begin and end. With video, all you can do is… watch the video. In a real-time debate, you can at least respond and influence the direction of the conversation in real time. Video is a flat, dead expanse of time that doesn’t listen to you.

Incidentally, this is yet another reason why I can’t stand watching Zeitgeist. I don’t so much mind responding to all those horrible arguments when they are laid out in text format. But I refuse to waste two hours of staring at a screen if there is no effective attempt to entertain.

What I’m saying is that movies are simply a terrible format for holding a serious argument, and the majority of the time if I get a link to a movie saying “Watch this” and nothing more, it’s probably getting archived and ignored. Other people on the TV list might sometimes answer it. But if you want a response to a movie-based argument from me, all I can suggest is that you either find a written version of the argument and present that, or sum up the main points that you find difficult.

And don’t even get me started on YouTube comments. Whoever tries to hold a serious discussion with people through short soundbites that are presented ten to a page and cycle off the front within minutes… all I can say is, may the FSM have mercy on your soul.

End of rant.

Attention, every atheist alive: Why aren’t we ignoring Ray?

“For frak’s sake, what’s the point?” That’s all the reaction I can muster to the news we’ve been getting from a jillion folks via email, to the effect that Ray Comfort, The World’s Stupidest Christian™, has agreed to debate noted science YouTuber thunderf00t. No disrespect to thunderf00t, whose videos are among the best I’ve seen. But really, bud, talk about tilting at windmills.

That thunderf00t will clean Ray’s clock is irrelevant, because Ray is the most egregiously dishonest person alive. What will happen will be the same thing that happened when Ray and his pal Kirk Cameron debated the Rational Response Squad on ABC some time back. Ray will make inane points, thunderf00t will decisively and unequivocally refute them, and then Ray will simply ignore everything thunderf00t said and repeat the limp arguments that were just blasted to smithereens by his opponent. Of course, Ray and Kirk looked like the dumbasses they are coming out of the RRS debate. The point is, they didn’t, and couldn’t, notice.

Ray, apart from being The World’s Stupidest Christian™, is, more succinctly, a narcissist and a liar. And as he himself, perhaps ironically, has pointed out, the only reason he has any prominence at all is due to atheists. The unplumbed depths to which he allows his fractal wrongness to sink have been red meat to us, and a lot of us have bitten. But the net result of that has been to give Ray the validation he wants. If atheists are so fierce about attacking every moronic utterance Ray spews, then, obviously, that means he’s got us scared and circling the wagons! Right? Uh-huh.

So, frankly, any “debate” with this supreme idiot will be a farcical waste of time, because Ray isn’t interested in truth (as in the “verifiable, objective facts” definition of the term), just his own brand of fundagelical truthiness. And these little charades simply pump up his ego by reinforcing his ego-gratifying need to believe that the simple fact atheists want to take him on proves he’s right. The content of the debate is irrelevant. That it’s happening at all is, to him, victory.

So can we just forget this cretin already? He ought to be relegated to the obscurity he richly deserves. Let him end up evangelizing at one of those non-denominational congregations that meet in half-empty strip malls in the dodgy part of town. It’s where he deserves to be.

How not to stage an atheist debate, part 3

I want to digress from the format of the debate to look closely at some of the content that Ross hurled out there at breakneck pace. I’m looking at a yellow piece of paper, of which a copy was left near every seat in the house. The title is “RTB Testable Creation Model Predictions.” It lists under four major sections: “Origin of the Universe,” “Origin of Life,” “Origin of Animal Species,” and “Origin of Humanity.”

I can’t find a copy on the net and I’m not interested in typing the whole thing, but let me just grab a representative example. This is just one that especially caught my eye. Under “Origin of Humanity,” prediction number 3 says: “Humanity’s origin will prove to date back to between ~40,000 to 150,000 years ago.”

All by itself, this is a perfect representation of what Hugh Ross cluelessly imagines to be a scientific prediction. First of all, because it’s absolutely non specific in what the nature of the evidence might be. How will humanity’s origin prove to date back to that point? What kind of artifacts will be uncovered that will confirm this? Where shall we attempt to look for these things?

This may be a prediction, but it is not a testable prediction, because there is no concrete plan of action to actually perform the testing. Hugh Ross is perfectly content to sit on his ass and say “Future scientists will prove that I was right” — not entirely unlike George “only future historians can judge me” Bush I might add. (Cheap shot!) There is also no time frame for this “prediction” — if it never comes true in Ross’s lifetime, oh well, we have the rest of future history to wait.

And the second thing is, it’s really not a prediction of creationism. Oh sure, it’s a prediction of this particular model of creationism, so tautologically it says “If humanity came into existence more than 150,000 years ago, then my theory that humanity came into existence more than 150,000 years ago is falsified.” Doesn’t make the slightest impact on the general proposition of whether creationism is true.

To satisfy yourself that this is the case, I want you to imagine that conclusive evidence were found indicating that humanity came into existence 150,001 years ago. Furthermore, let’s suppose that this evidence were so incredibly persuasive that Rana and Ross had no choice but to accept it. Yeah, I know this strains credibility, because there is nothing a creationist is required to accept when it comes to fact-checking, but just play along. Suppose that tomorrow Ross were genuinely convinced that humanity came into existence at least 150,001 years ago.

Now my question is: Can you honestly imagine Ross going on to say “I guess that proves that creation is wrong, then!” Because I sure can’t. At most, I can see Ross going back to his little Word document, and quietly changing it so that NOW it says “Humanity’s origin will prove to date back to between ~40,000 to 160,000 years ago.” Then he’ll claim he has updated the model, and the new model has not been falsified.

This is the problem with a theory that presumes the existence of an infinitely powerful being. It confounds all possible attempts at prediction. The god can just as easily do things one way as another. Sure, you can SAY something like “My theory predicts that life originated abruptly” (which Ross does, in the “Origin of life” section, bullet point #3). But if your god felt like creating life slowly, then he could create it slowly. Hence life originating abruptly is actually not a prediction of the theory at all, because if the prediction is wrong then it doesn’t falsify the theory.

To his credit, Michael Shermer made a good effort to drive this point home later, but here he was both helped and hindered by the extremely stacked audience. During his presentation, he yelled out “If this prediction were shown not to be true, would you all stop believing in God?” and the crowd obligingly yelled back “NO!!!!!” To people who already understood his point, Shermer drove it home again. But to the people who were actually shouting at him, it went right over their heads. I could hear them: they were PROUD of themselves for having the conviction to stand up for their faith. They obviously didn’t feel like a point had been made at their expense. In my opinion, Shermer needed to back up his showmanship with an easily understandable explanation about how none Ross’s predictions constitute falsifiability even to Ross himself. It might be the time constraints, but I didn’t feel that this came across.

Okay, this is turning into quite a marathon, but my notes are much sparser for Rana and Shermer’s presentations. I’ll get to them next time.