Yet another loaded debate topic

Via a comment from reader Curtis Cameron:

Next week (on Darwin Day), Dan Barker will debate Kyle Butt on the specific question of the existence of the God of the Bible.

And from the linked web site:

Barker will affirm, “I know the God of the Bible does not exist”…

Okay, seriously, this is getting ridiculous.  In fact, it’s rapidly becoming my number one pet peeve about theist/atheist debates.  I’m going to try to make this real simple.

Attention debaters: Stop falling for this!  Theists who challenge you to a debate are not representatives of the National Forensics League.  They are not a neutral party trying to set up an objective and fair confrontation for both sides.  They are deliberately trying to stack the deck against you.  They want you to lose the debate before you set foot in the room.

How in the world did Dan Barker fall for this?  One of the strongest tools that atheists have is attributing the burden of proof to the theist.  I don’t know that unicorns do not exist.  I don’t know that Russell’s Teapot orbiting beyond Mars does not exist.  I simply don’t have any reason to believe that they do.

By accepting this ridiculous topic, (a) Dan Barker is forced to defend a position that he probably doesn’t hold; (b) he’s now locked into a position where the theist can just spout vague pseudo-philosophy about knowledge and epistemology, and not defend the concept that a god exists at all.

This is important, guys.  Pay attention to the format and the topic before you agree to a debate. Tell your friends.  Don’t make me keep repeating it.

Will somebody please pass this friendly advice along?  This trend must be stopped.

If I were Barker, I’d try to salvage this bad situation by making a self-deprecating joke about it.  First thing you say is, “Let me tell you right away I’m going to lose this debate.  Why?  The topic is set to a position that is not mine.  I don’t ‘know’ that there is no God, any more than I know that there is no FSM.  So recognizing that I’ve already lost my case, I’m going to turn this debate into a draw by making sure my opponent loses right along with me.  He doesn’t know that God exists because…” etc.

How to manage an atheist debate

I’ve paid very close attention to all your comments on my post about developing a debate infrastructure for atheists.  There has been a lot of positive feedback, and there were some reasonable concerns brought up as well.  Some people suggested that ACA should just start hosting debates locally, and I’m taking some steps to look into that possibility (but no promises!)

Let me address the most pressing concern right here:

Why bother?  Your opponent will never change his mind.

As I hope I’ve made thoroughly clear in past discussions on this subject, I don’t care if the opponent ever changes his mind.  Likewise, I don’t care about the fact that some observers will watch the debate and conclude that the theist won simply because he is on their side.  Yes, that will happen for many people, perhaps even most.

The point is meme-spreading.  Same as the show.  If that works for you, then watch debates.  If it doesn’t, then don’t.  Simple as that.  The real questions you should ask about the debate are:

  1. Would you, personally, find it entertaining?
  2. Would it help raise awareness of the atheist movement, as in the case of books by Dawkins and Hitchens, or our other shows?
  3. Would it do any harm?  If so, then what?

For me, the answers are yes, yes, and no.  I hope that clarifies my intentions.

Now, I’ve been giving the whole matter a lot more thought.  Don’t assume that I’m writing this as a plan for the ACA, but just keep it on file as potential advice for any atheist groups that might like to debate.  If you know of such a debate coming up, please link them here.

I take Eugenie Scott’s “Debates and the Globetrotters” article very seriously, and I’ve seen my share of bad debates.  So I’d like to throw out some general bits of advice that will help in preparing any atheist debates.

Choice of venue

Many debates are hosted in a church.  This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it helps to stack the audience.  Fliers can be placed in the lobby of the church a few weeks in advance, so people who like to go there anyway are more likely to be in the audience.

Here are some ideas for a more neutral venue:

  1. A Unitarian church.
  2. A college lecture hall. (Durston vs. Sarkar happened in a lecture hall.)
  3. An outdoor stage.

Churches like to publicize things, so the unbelievers should do so as well.  Go after student organizations and professors.  Really hype it up at your local freethought club, if there is one.  Tell your friends.


This is tricky.  Many debates I have heard turn into shouting matches, where one side loses because they are too polite to talk over the opponent. Dawkins vs. Lennox was a perfect example of this.  Without clear divisions for the speaker, the pushier guy wins.  If your debater is the pushier guy, then maybe this works for you, but personally I don’t like that.

Other times, the rounds are way too long.  Some debates allow each person to speak uninterrupted for as long as 30 minutes.  That’s ridiculous, and it provides way too much opportunity for the infamous “Gish gallop” that Eugenie Scott described in her article.  Also, if you watch presidential debates, that’s unheard of.  Candidates get maybe five minutes for a question, tops (and usually much less).

When I did high school speech, there were two main categories: Lincoln-Douglas debate, which was a slower paced 1 on 1 debate that focused on philosophy and values; and Policy debate, a 2v2 debate focusing on concrete plans and encouraging complex speed presentations.  I was an LD debater myself, and prefer that format, as it can be difficult for a lay audience to follow the rules of a Policy debate.  However, I wouldn’t be opposed to pulling in some of each type, so perhaps there would be a values-style debate with teams that would double the length of a typical LD.

In either of these formats, each side has a fixed amount of time to speak in each round, generally less than ten minutes.  There are also fixed times set for direct cross-examination, and a finite buffer of preparation time for each debater between rounds.  For public debates, I also like the style of allowing a long, structured Q&A period at the end.


Let me give you some great examples of bad debate topics, and I’ll tell you why.

  1. The topic of discussion in Durston vs. Sarkar was: “What is the best explanation for biological life on this planet: Intelligent Design or Darwinian evolution?”  This topic sucks.  It immediately sets up a false dichotomy, acknowledging that one or the other must be right.  “Darwinian evolution” isn’t even the term used by scientists anymore, which means one side is now defending a position that he shouldn’t actually have.  This topic invites the theist to completely avoid even defending the implications of Intelligent Design — let alone garden-variety creationism, or God.
  2. Likewise, “Does God exist?” is a terrible topic of discussion.  Why?  Because there is no agreed-upon definition of “God.”  Just this week, the TV email box received a letter from a very earnest person telling us that the universe is God.  Suppose your opponent opens with that… then what do you say?  “Um, I don’t believe in the universe?”  Or how about “That’s stupid.  The universe isn’t God.”  You’ll spend all your time debating over whose definition is right, which I can conclusively say leads to just about the most boring debates in the world.  Most theists won’t get THAT broad with their concept of God, but they’ll still try to make their definition as vague and nonspecific as they can in order to cast the widest possible net.

The moral here is, don’t let them get away with that.  The definitions should be agreed upon BEFORE the debate.  In a comment on the previous post, “c” suggested this:

“The debates I most enjoy are ones where the theist has to specify which religion they propose and defend it. In my opinion, they are the easiest for an atheist to win (thus the most entertaining.) They are also the most honest because if the debate is generalized to simply whether some god exists, there is often a stalemate and no one can be persuaded that way. It is also disingenuous on the theist’s part because they don’t just believe in some god, they believe in a specific one, which is a far more preposterous argument.”

Great suggestion, c.  Why the heck don’t we see more debates where the topic of discussion is “Resolved: That Southern Baptism is the true religion”?  I’ll tell you why: it doesn’t work for theists, as it immediately kills off a large portion of their sympathetic audience.  Resolve that a God exists, and you have 85% of every audience rooting for you, including Jews and Muslims.  Resolve that YOUR religion is right, and suddenly they’re a lot less comfortable.

Splitting the difference, I think that the topics should not get as far as specifying which ecumenical council you prefer.  But I do think it’s eminently fair for the topics to be narrowly focused and nail down a clear implication of who wins based on their arguments.  Here are some examples of specific religious topics that seem like they would be fun to debate.

  • Resolved: That heaven exists and can be attained exclusively through faith in Jesus Christ.
  • Resolved: That Jesus died and was resurrected in the first century AD.
  • Resolved: That the Ten Commandments collectively outline a moral code that is beneficial to humanity.

You get the idea.  Now here are some other topic suggestions that don’t evidently pertain to one religion, but do force a focused debate.

  • Resolved: That the universe has existed for more than one million years. (Obviously this one can only be challenged by young earth creationists.  But OMG, imagine what fun it would be to actually pin someone down on really defending a young earth.)
  • Resolved: That the Old Testament contains prophecies which cannot be explained by any means other than divine revelation.  (Note how the burden of proof is established right there in the resolution.)
  • Resolved: That secondary school courses should introduce Intelligent Design as a scientific topic. (A policy topic that suits me fine.)
  • Resolved: That the United States Constitution was written with the intent of creating a Christian nation.  (Watch out for those definitions again!  You may want to nail down in advance what a “Christian Nation” is.)

Some theists have made a career out of debating topics that look nothing like this.  They might see this as a trap and refuse to participate.  Let them refuse.  Don’t yield to their terms and let them stack the deck.  Make it known that your opponent was offered a neutral debate topic to defend his particular beliefs, and he refused to get involved.  That’s what Bill O’Reilly would say.  Above all else, I think it’s important to set up clear standards against topics that allow a lot of weasel room for semantic games.  Ban them.

Final thought: I’d prefer to see debates held in venues where there is free wireless internet.  Use your prep time to look up and catch obvious lies.  If the debate format allows it, having a henchman behind you who can act as your Google Monkey would be ideal… and I don’t necessarily see why it shouldn’t be allowed.  Actually, this is a good argument for preferring 2v2 debates: one person researches while the other one talks.

If no internet is available, may I alternatively recommend that you download the contents of Iron Chariots in advance?

Atheist evangelism and the problem of infrastructure

Hi.  I’ve got stuff on my mind, so settle in.  This might take a while.

Yesterday I was searching through my saved media files for something to listen to, and I came across this debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox.  It’s about six months old and an hour long.  Lennox is one of those smug “academic” style theologians, saying — Ha ha — of course the universe is fourteen billion years old, nobody seriously contests that!  But philosophers and historians alike all agree on the historical resurrection of Jesus, let me name drop a few names and throw out some academic words to blind you with my erudition.  Etc.

As I listened to this discussion, something gradually dawned on me about Richard Dawkins… he’s not really very good at this.  Oh sure, Dawkins had a strong initial presentation, but in the second half, Lennox just goes steamrolling all over him, babbling about Genesis and miracles and the wonderful love of Jesus Christ, virtually uninterrupted.

A couple of times, Lennox brought up “famous scientists” (i.e., Francis Collins) who believe in God, and Dawkins responds by sounding shocked, saying something like “No, really??”  At that point I let out a big vocal “WTF???”  I’m not sure what Dawkins was sounding so shocked about… perhaps he was really trying to say “Seriously, you’re not trying to use Mr. ‘Waterfall Split Three Ways‘ to support your position, are you?”  But in the audio it came off as “Oh my goodness, I had no idea that Francis Collins was a theist!  This is a simply devastating turn of events!”

Elsewhere, Dawkins asks “You don’t honestly believe in miracles like turning water into wine, do you?”  And Lennox, in his cute little Irish accent, goes “I dyoo, and let me tell ye whae.”  Then he proceeds to ramble at length about the amazing creator of the universe and the awesome power of the miracles that are made possible through him.  PZ Myers had a positive spin on this debate.  He says: “Dawkins played it right, letting Lennox just run off at the mouth and expose the inanity of the theological position.”

I’m sorry Paul, I love your blog dearly, but in this case you’re wrong.  Dawkins did not play it right, and here’s why.  The inanity of Lennox is obvious to you and me, but a Christian audience just eats that stuff up.  Even a largely neutral audience will see Lennox as winning that point, simply because it wasn’t effectively challenged.

Meanwhile, as I listened to it, I could practically hear our own Matt Dillahunty’s voice jumping in: “Hang on… hang on… hang on…”  Most seasoned veterans of the TV show would not let Lennox go on for so long without backing up the discussion and trying to take a closer look at some of his claims.  Had Matt or I been there, Lennox would be talking about how amazing it is that the order of creation in Genesis perfectly matches what science has discovered, and we’d jump in and yell “Plants didn’t start growing before the sun existed, asshat!”

This is not an uncommon reaction for me, either.  About 90% of atheist debates I hear wind up with me grinding my teeth in frustration after a while.  There are just so many missed opportunities, so many places where I remember when the same topic came up on the show, and there’s a perfect one-liner to knock it down.  But the atheist just lets it blow right on by.

On the TV show, we regularly debate people with dissenting views, by making a point of prioritizing calls from theists and others likely to disagree.  Matt, Tracie, Don, Martin, Jen, Jeff, and I, deliberately do this on a regular basis.  (I’d also throw in many past hosts and cohosts, including Ashley and Keryn.)  The response to the Atheist Experience has been enormous since we gained a YouTube presence.  We routinely receive around 10, 20, 30 emails every day at the TV address.  The chat room on a live show day contains 200-300 people.  I think part of the reason for this is because we’re the only game in town: no one else does what we do, at least not as often.

As I said in my lecture about atheist evangelism, practice is absolutely the key to getting good at any game.  Only by doing such a thing repeatedly can you identify what your opponents are going to bring against you regularly.  You can have lots of theory behind you about what should work, but having to spit out a sound-bite within five seconds of hearing a common apologetic tactic is something that requires experience.  It’s not that we AE members have an inherent advantage over other counter-apologists; we just do it more.

If Richard Dawkins, who is a pre-eminent scientist and the author of a best-selling book on atheism, isn’t good at debating atheism in person, then who is besides us?  There aren’t that many people.  I thought the Rational Response Squad did a fairly good job against the tag team of Comfort and Cameron.  Reginald Finley occasionally hosts debates, either covering the atheism side on his own, or inviting guests like Massimo Pigliucci to act as a champion.  I can’t think of a lot of others.

I hate to keep picking on Richard Dawkins, but here’s a relevant bit of information: he has said on multiple occasions that he won’t debate creationists.  That’s certainly his prerogative.  In the linked article you’ll see plenty of perfectly valid reasons why it’s a bad idea to debate creationists: It gives them the unwarranted appearance of credibility.  Free publicity.  A spoken debate emphasizes style over substance.  These debates are attended by a stacked and biased audience.  Etc.

Dawkins is in good company.  Stephen Jay Gould wouldn’t do it either, and Eugenie Scott wrote a very persuasive article on, explaining why a scientist debating a creationist is like an unprepared team going up against the Harlem Globetrotters.  Not only do they lose the game, but they wind up looking stupid while making the opposition look good.

Yeah, that’s all well and good, but it’s simply not true that “the only winning strategy is not to play.”  If you don’t play, you don’t improve.  If you don’t improve, you can never win.  Then creationists get the upper hand anyway, because they get to crow about how “everyone is scared to debate me.”

Here’s a big problem: atheists and scientists who would be debaters have no infrastructure to back them up.  There are a lot of professional apologists, who practically have a job description of traveling around the country debating people.  William Lane Craig springs to mind.  Also, I heard that PZ Myers debated Kirk Durston over the weekend.  I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but the name of the opponent stood out for me because I’ve heard Durston debate before, years ago.  I wrote the report on it, in fact.  So Durston is a pro at this: he flies around the country, and wherever he goes, he debates people who are not professional apologists; they are local professors like Sahotra Sarkar.  Smart guys, yes, but they have day jobs and lives.  They don’t debate for a living.  Par for the course, I think.

People pay to fly William Lane Craig to a university as the champion in a debate.  It’s one of the perks of having an organization that people tithe to.  Nobody pays for regular travel for atheist champions.  They don’t offer speaker fees for a professional on the other side.

Note that I’m not necessarily saying that the Atheist Experience team are the right ones for the job.  I do think that any one of us would stack up well against most opponents.  I would love to debate Bill Dembski on the identity of the intelligent designer sometime, and I bet Matt would jump at the chance to go after Ray Comfort face-to-face.  On the other hand, the TV show offers a lot of home field advantages that we would have to do without in a live debate.  Stuff like having a hold button, for example.  Standing side by side with Ray Comfort, there is no opportunity to say “I’m sorry, you have repeated this bullshit three times now, I’m hanging up on you.”  Also, it’s certainly clear that the people whom we debate regularly are amateurs, often repeating arguments that they don’t really understand.

What I’m saying, though, is it doesn’t much matter who the professional atheist debater is; there needs to be one, and he or she needs practice on a regular basis.  And it would also be cool if there were occasional conferences with round table discussions and lectures on how to do this properly, as well as a team of diverse experts to offer serious post-mortem analysis of any debates that happen.

There are many advantages to having an established counter-apologist debater.  Local professors would not feel the pressure to do something they are bad at, thinking “If I don’t do this then no one will.”  The chosen spokesperson would get to do regular debates, which would help him or her improve and gain insight into the process which could then be passed along to others.  The spokesperson would also gain some notoriety and be a focal point for interviews for the atheist movement.  Apologists would probably jump at the chance to try and defeat this person — which effectively flips the usual equation of not wanting to grant creationists unwarranted credibility.  Atheists don’t have credibility in pop culture; theists do.  In science, the reverse is true; creationists are the outsiders.

Here’s the bottom line: it’s all too common for atheists to assume that the ridiculousness of religion should be apparent to everyone.  The facts should speak for themselves, we say.  Well, they don’t.  Facts don’t speak, people do.  Apologists use rhetorical tricks and live debates because it’s a good forum to gain media attention.  So what are we going to say — that we should abandon this medium to them?  Why?  Are atheists just inherently dumber than theists when it comes to style and charisma?  No, I don’t think so.  This is a shortcoming that needs to be corrected, and the time to start is now.

Crippled dogs and one-trick ponies

I’ve just returned from the Texas SBOE hearings on Science TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) standards, and I’m so full of disgust and dismay that I’m at a loss for words to express it with enough rancor. You can, however, expect me to go on at length anyway. The whole thing was such a goddamn farce from the outset that I’d had more than enough after only one hour, at which point I could only roll my eyes and walk out the door. If you haven’t encountered the gall and dishonesty of creationists on their own turf before, and even if you have many times, it’s always the kind of experience that leaves you feeling worse about humanity in general.

As I write this, people are still speaking, and will be for a few hours yet. I saw no point in sticking around, but for all I know there could be, at any time, a real first-rate speaker who could get across the points that needed to be gotten across, and who would call out the creos on the disingenuous rhetoric they repeatedly spewed. As it is, I left the whole charade with two key observations: 1) That the big pitch the creationists are using isn’t merely the weasel phrase “strengths and weaknesses,” but their defense of that phrase as an expression of support for “academic freedom” that the scientific community apparently opposes; and 2) that the pro-science side, at least as I saw it today, is singly unaware of how to respond to that rhetoric properly and forcefully.

This cannot be understated: Just as the anti-gay contingent of the Christian right sells its opposition to gay marriage as a “defense” of “traditional” marriage that can in no way be compared to opposition to interracial marriage or anything of that sort, so too are the creationists now abandoning the overt, lawsuit-bait language of “intelligent design” for “academic freedom” language that makes them seem like the ones encouraging students to use their minds to think about and evaluate ideas that are presented to them in class on their merits. Conversely, the pro-science side wants to shut this kind of inquiry down, and just require students to be obedient little sponges soaking up whatever the textbooks say.

Why this is a misrepresentation and gross misunderstanding of the opposition to such terms as “strengths and weaknesses” was, to his credit, appropriately explained by Texas Citizens for Science spokesman Steve Schafersman. But he didn’t make the point forcefully enough, and even he seemed taken aback when challenged by one of the creationist board members after giving his alloted three-minute address. I’ll discuss that last, because it was after Schafersman spoke that I ducked out. After all, if a veteran front-line soldier in the science education wars like Schafersman falters when some creationist puts him in the hot seat, it’s clearly time for the pro-science side to step back and understand just how dishonest the rhetoric is, and how it has to be addressed in a no-nonsense manner, calling bullshit bullshit, and stating the pro-science position with sufficient force and clarity that no sleazy creationist ideologue can sit there lying about it and sounding smug and reasonable while doing so. I don’t see that the pro-science speakers today fully appreciated the ideological scrimmage line they were going up against, nor the fact that the game plan was going to be offense all the way.

A quick rundown of some of the speakers I did see.

As I had a number of errands to run early in the day, I was worried that I may have missed a lot of the good stuff. I didn’t end up getting downtown to the Travis State Office Building until about 3:30. But as the TFN announced that the hearing itself wouldn’t start until likely after lunch, and as I recall the last set of hearings I attended in the same building five years ago went on until well into the night, I figured I hadn’t missed too much.

Turned out my timing was excellent. The hearings on the science standards started right around 3:55. That must have been some sheer pain for those folks who’d been there since 9:00 AM.

As the title of the post indicates, what ensued was the kind of dog-and-pony show where the dog has only three legs and all the pony knows how to do is turn in a circle. The first speaker was a dignified and well spoken older gentleman named Dr. Joe Bernal, who was himself an SBOE member in the 1990′s, and who spoke eloquently on the need to keep science scientific and avoid the pitfalls of allowing room for non-scientific ideas. He stated that it was the duty of parents, not schools, to determine a student’s religious instruction. He also reiterated the support among the scientific community for evolutionary theory.

Now, after a speaker has done his three minutes, board members can ask questions of that speaker if they wish. I saw it coming even before it started. The instant the bell chimed on Dr. Bernal’s address, creationist board member Terri Leo leapt out of the phone booth with her Supergirl costume on and hit the ground faster than a speeding bullet.

Her first agenda: discredit the recent survey, cited by Dr. Bernal, that showed 98% of biologists and science educators in Texas support evolution. “Who funded that study? Wasn’t that study funded by the Texas Freedom Network?” Dr. Bernal admitted it was, but stated calmly that whoever funded the study was beside the point. He actually got in a good comeback to Leo, noting that even the science teachers selected by the SBOE to review the science standards voted in the majority. But Leo wasn’t finished. “I always thought that taking polls wasn’t how you do science.” Well, of course not, and the poll wasn’t an exercise in doing science. The science is already done. The point of the poll was simply to get a show of hands among professionals in the relevant fields as to what theory is appropriate to teach in classrooms. But this is the kind of dishonest rhetoric that creationists will throw out there to get the pro-science side on the defensive.

The thing about Terri Leo is, she’s so dumb and sleazy that she cannot resist overplaying her hand. And she did it right away by using shameless creationist language while simultaneously denying any creationist agenda on her or the SBOE’s part. Note that Dr. Bernal only brought up religion in passing in his speech, pointing out that it’s a private family matter and not fit for science class. Leo leapt on this like a hungry tiger, railing that the phrase “strengths and weaknesses” was not religious language, and that the only people making a big deal about religion supposedly being shoehorned into science curricula are “militant Darwinists.”

I am not shitting you. She actually used that term, out loud, in front of a packed room, in her questioning of the very first speaker of the day.

I couldn’t stop myself. I laughed out loud, loud enough for her to hear. (“Hey…sorry, but…”) That was when I knew that the whole day was going to be a complete joke.

Dr. Bernal responded quite impressively by bringing up — and I’m so glad he was the first speaker, which is when it needed to be brought up — that the SBOE had themselves enlisted known anti-evolutionists affiliated with the Discovery Institute, who have not exactly been secretive about their own religious and creationist agendas, to be among those assigned to review science standards. Specifically he asked (to the delight of the crowd), “Why is someone from an institute in Seattle being asked to review Texas science education standards?”

And here we saw, for the first time, the depth of the SBOE’s egregious dishonesty they were going to display today. The presence of the DI’s Stephen Meyer, and creationist textbook writers Charles Garner and Ralph Seelke was brought up many time by many speakers, and no one on the board would defend or even address it. They simply were not going to justify their actions in this regard to the public, or at least, they didn’t in the hour I was there. If anyone reading this stayed through to the end, and he
ard anything from Dan McLeroy or Terri Leo about why these men, with their overt ID affiliations, were asked to review the Science TEKS standards for Texas, do let us all know in the comments.

Unlike 2003, when Terri Leo (working hand in hand with the Discotute) front-loaded that day’s speakers with creationists, I only heard one creationist speak today, some idiot who sleazily brought up the DI’s long-ridiculed “list of 700 dissenting scientists” as if it represented some kind of major controversy within science over Darwinian evolution. (As Ken Miller pointed out hilariously in his talk back in the spring at UT, this number represents barely a single-digit percentage of the total number of professionals in the relevant fields, and the list includes a number of names of non-biologists and similarly unqualified people who happen to have Ph.D.’s.) This guy then shamelessly rushed headlong into Godwin’s Law while the audience groaned, averring (after supposedly having watched Expelled too many times) that by refusing to allow ideas to be questioned in class, we were doomed to be heading down the same path those poor misguided Germans went down.

This inspired such derision from the crowd that Terri Leo — shocked, shocked at just how “rude” people were being in response to the entirely reasonable comparison that had just been drawn between themselves and Nazis — exhorted everyone to be more “respectful” of this poor man, who had taken valuable time out of his day to come down here to call everyone Nazis, and would the board please be more diligent about controlling such inconsiderate and shocking outbursts.

I can’t really put into words the atmosphere of disbelief that circulated around the room at this point. People were being calm, but among the audience and people waiting for their turn to speak (and I saw a very reassuring majority wearing “Stand Up for Science” stickers on their lapels), there was a definite vibe of “Just how much bullshit are we expected to endure?” Well, people, that’s what we all have to remember about creationists and religious ideologues: they are a Perpetual Motion Machine and Bullshit Factory all rolled into one, unleashing an unstoppable deluge of bovine feces that would even make Noah throw up his hands and say, “Fuck it, no ark is gonna save us from this one.”

Finally I come to Steven Shafersman, a man I admire and whose work in battling creationism over the years and fronting Texas Citizens for Science is unimpeachable. I had already made up my mind to disembark this ship of fools, but when I heard Shafersman’s name announced I stuck around, deciding he’d be the last guy I’d hear.

Shafersman did well, but unfortunately his talk left an opening for one of the creationist board members (a portly man whose name I didn’t catch, but who’s been identified by a commenter as Ken Mercer) to pounce on. See, Shafersman’s main point was that the reason it was inappropriate to have language like “evaluate strengths and weaknesses” in scholastic standards is that it requires activity on the part of the students they haven’t got the expertise for. Mercer tried to obfuscate this by making it seem as if Shafersman and the pro-science side didn’t even want students to be allowed to raise their hands and ask questions in class. This is emphatically not the case, of course, and Schafersman explained that, going on to say that in science, theories are critically evaluated in the field by working professionals, not by students hearing the theories for the first time and lacking the proper expertise and frame of reference to do a “critical evaluation” in the first place.

But Mercer kept hammering the false point repeatedly. What about errors and hoaxes in the past? What about Piltdown Man? What about Haeckel’s inaccurate embryo drawings, that were in textbooks for years? If people weren’t allowed to question these things, wouldn’t these errors and hoaxes have gone unexposed, and wouldn’t students be learning misinformation today? Why try to stifle the sort of open inquiry that led to these very necessary corrections?

Here is where Shafersman fumbled the ball, because there was such an easy and obvious response to this that it was all I could do to hold my tongue and not blurt it out as loudly as I could shout. I just wanted Shafersman to say one simple thing, and he never said it, because I think he was so flummoxed by the aggressiveness of Mercer’s questioning that he allowed himself to fall into the trap that had been set for him, forcing him to go on the defensive. (“Why, as a matter of fact I was one of the scientists instrumental in getting Haeckel’s drawings out of textbooks!” To which Mercer simply replied, “Right! So why then…”)

Here’s what I think Shafersman should have said in reply to Mercer:

“Sir, your examples support my point. The Piltdown Man hoax and Haeckel’s drawings were both shown to be false by working scientists, not students. It wasn’t as if some 14 year old in 9th grade biology class pointed to those drawings and said, ‘I don’t know, teacher, those just don’t look right to me.’ Because that student could not have done that. He would not have had the knowledge and expertise. And that is why requiring the analysis of ‘strengths and weaknesses’ is inappropriate language, as it requires students to do something they’re not equipped to do. Imagine a history class where you’re teaching about Alexander the Great. Then you say to your students, ‘Okay, kids, write a critical analysis of Alexander’s battle plans against the Thracians.’ How can they do this? They aren’t generals, they’re teenagers. They aren’t qualified. First, you have to teach them the facts. Then, later on, if they pursue this field as a vocation they may gain the expertise to critique ‘strengths and weaknesses.’ But for now, they just need facts. And that’s why we’re opposed to this language in the TEKS. Our opposition is not a synonym for stifling all academic inquiry or even simple questions, and to claim that it is is an extremely dishonest red herring.”

That’s how he should have shut Mercer down. And to his credit, he did make some of these points. But Shafersman was never as forceful as Mercer was. The best Shafersman could do, it seemed, was feebly try to regain control of the questioning with very weak-sounding responses (to the effect of “We don’t really need to go into the details of Haeckel right now…”, which embarrassingly sounds like an attempt at dodging the issue).

I simply could not handle any more. I bolted.

It was clear that the creationist contingent knew that the pro-science side was going to show up in force at these hearings, and they came loaded for bear with every bit of disingenuous rhetoric in their how-to-play-dirty playbook. You’ll recall in Kazim’s recent critique of the “rumble in Sydney,” in which Alan Conradi debated a minister, that Kazim made a very important point: ultimately, public debates are a matter of the performance, not the content. While these hearings were not a debate in the formal, forensic sense, they were an informal public “debate” not unlike that which goes on in The Atheist Experience and similar live venues, where topics are argued, often skillfully and often not, in an off-the-cuff manner with minimal prep.

The hearings today were that kind of thing, just an extremely farcicial parody of it. In one corner, a sincere collection of educators and science activists simply trying to ensure that the state’s educational standards aren’t diluted by trojan-horse language that, while non-inflammatory on its face, still leaves room for religious teaching to be slipped into classrooms by unscrupulous teachers (like, oh, John Freshwater); in the other, a board dominated by ideologues who aren’t the least bit interested in understanding the views presented to them (all the while hypocritically claiming to promote freedom of inquiry), and who made every effort to obfuscate, mi
srepresent, and lie about those views.

In other words, a joke. A complete and utter joke.

And they wonder why people say Texas is a laughingstock.

Two more observations before I sign off (and remember, this whole epic-length post was simply my report on viewing one hour of this rubbish today):

  1. I would have liked to have stuck around to hear the woman speak who showed up dressed (quite attractively) as if she’d stepped off the set of Little House on the Prairie. I imagine she was going to make some point about 19th century education being unsuited for a 21st century world, but there’s no way I could have endured more of Terri Leo and Ken Mercer’s verbal diarrhea while waiting. If any of you did hear her, tell us what she said, please.
  2. The pro-science side does seem to have one solid ally on the SBOE, in the person of Mary Helen Berlanga. Ms. Berlanga was very polite and thanked all of the pro-science speakers, including Steve Shafersman, for their hard work and efforts. But that just made me want to hear more from her. Why not be as aggressive with the questioning in the way Bradley and Leo were? Why not be the one to answer the repeated queries about why known ID-supporters and anti-evolutionists were allowed to review the Science TEKS this year?

Addendum: Made corrections once Ken Mercer was identified in the comments.

Debate flow

This is not about atheism, but I thought people with an interest in debating would like to see it. In response to my discussion of the Australia atheism debate, Crucifinch asked:

you mentioned debate flowing which I am unfamiliar with. Do you know of any good resources for introduction debate flowing? I found a few online about how to make a flow -better- but nothing that could serve as a good base.

I can’t find what appears to be a definitive guide to Flow online — this Wikipedia article looks like it has some good links, but it is about Policy debate. Alan and Mike did something that is a lot more similar to Lincoln/Douglas debate, which is what I did in high school. It’s centered around the notion of philosophy and values, the style is looser, and there is no specific “plan” that is being critiqued.

I’ll outline what I know about LD flowing, although it’s been quite a few years. Here’s what you do. Take a plain yellow legal pad open to a blank page. Tilt it 90 degrees counterclockwise, so that the binding is by your left hand. Draw a horizontal line across the page to divide it in half. Then, draw enough vertical lines to divide the page into as many horizontal boxes as there will be speeches. For example, in a typical LD debate, there are five separate speeches, with the first debater (arguing the “affirmative” position) speaking in the first, third, and fifth segments; and the second debater (arguing the “negative” position) getting a slightly longer amount of time in the second and fourth segments. In Alan’s debate, there were only four long sections.

So assuming we talk about Alan’s debate, you will have four sections across the page, divided into top (for Mike’s arguments) and bottom (for Alan’s). Label the upper boxes across, “1A” (first affirmative speech), “1N” (first negative), then 2A and 2N.

Now, in the first round, you will write down an outline of Mike’s speech. There isn’t a ton of room, so make sure you just write the most important Big Picture points and they fit on one or two lines each. You won’t write anything on the bottom, because Alan hasn’t spoken yet. You won’t be writing any case information in the lower left corner, but if there is a cross-examination period then feel free to write down possible questions to the other person in that space.

In the second round, you will start out writing in the bottom box under “1N”. Alan presents his own case first, so he makes original arguments. But after he has finished this, he will want to respond to Mike’s arguments at some level of detail. Draw a horizontal arrow leading from Mike’s 1A on top to Alan’s 1N on top. During preparation time, you should jot down how you plan to respond to these arguments, in the second box. Then you hit each point in turn and sit down.

On Mike’s next turn, 2A, he will respond to your original points from 1N bottom, AND attempt to counter your arguments to his 1A case. So you write more arrows, showing a continuous horizontal flow for each argument as the round goes on. If Mike fails to respond to Alan’s point, go ahead and put a big “X” next to the argument because it’s over. Remember to call attention to it later! You want everyone in the room to be aware that you made an argument which was so good that Mike tried to get away without answering it. Repeat the argument too, to remind people of what you said when you scored this hit. This process will continue all the way to the last round.

Since you already know your own case in advance, you should prepare a flow sheet ahead of time and fill in the “1A top” box or the “1N bottom” box, so that you don’t have to waste time writing your own case during the debate. Planning this outline will also help you write your case to begin with, because it focuses your attention on creating a broad structure to your argument which is easy to follow. I like to write presentations in outline format so that you make large points I, II, and III; and then you make subpoints IA, IB, IIA, IIB, and so on. Rule of thumb, if you break it down effectively then you should be writing maybe 7-15 lines per box. If your opponent’s case is well structured, then you should be able to format his box in about the same style. If not, count your blessings and prepare to take him to task for throwing out a mishmash of disorganized thoughts. :)

Constructive criticism on the rumble in Sydney

I’d like to thank Rachel Macalpine again for sending me the debate between Alan Conradi of the Sydney Atheists and minister Mike Paget. Since I recently did a lecture on evangelical atheism, this seems like a good opportunity to point out some techniques in action. I’ve asked if I can provide constructive feedback on this blog, and gotten permission. So here goes.

First of all, Alan, I applaud you for going out and doing this. There needs to be more direct confrontation between atheists and Christians, and it’s good publicity for your group.

As an atheist, of course, I am highly biased and thought that your arguments were correct and Mike’s were not. But if I were a “neutral” observer, scoring the debate purely on points won and style, I would probably wind up awarding Mike a TKO victory on that basis. I don’t think you should feel bad about this at all, because it seems to me that Mike had a few notable advantages right from the start, and you stacked up really well against him. I’m going to try to approach it from a presentation angle and see if we can get you to do even better the next time.

First of all, let me make an important point from the start. A live, face-to-face debate is not an email debate, nor is it a peer reviewed scientific paper. It might help if you think of debate more like something equivalent to stand-up comedy. In both pursuits, you live or die by what the audience thinks of you. If you’re not bringing the audience along with you, you can tell it in their faces and their audio cues. Because you are not working with a written format, the audience has to proceed at the pace you give them. They can’t stop to think about your words, they don’t always know for sure what you mean to say, and they can’t pause in the middle to fact check you.

At any given moment, they are either enjoying your performance or they aren’t. If they enjoy you, then they will laugh and clap, and that raises your spirits and you present more confidently. If you’re losing the audience, if you can practically hear the crickets chirp, then it throws you off your psychological game and you have a greater tendency to stumble. This is one of the motivations behind David Sirlin’s principle that it’s better to play offense than defense in most games. If you rush to get an early advantage, then a small edge can snowball into a large win.

Now this is where Mike has a big advantage right from the outset: Mike is a minister. He does this for a living and you don’t. He’s right there in front of a crowd every single week, working the audience and figuring out how to keep them wrapped up in his words for an hour or so. And it shows. Mike went to the podium and flattered the audience and the hosts, then loosened up the crowd with some jokes, got them laughing with him early, and then pretty much entertained as he preached.

By contrast, your opening presentation seemed light on the funny and heavy on the scientific exposition. “I intend to accurately define atheism and show you that the atheistic position on God is the most sensible stance to take. I will also explain that the Christian take does not make sense.” There’s nothing PARTICULARLY wrong with that, but it doesn’t exactly grab the attention and hold on. There is actually an important principle of comedy, which is this: Always open with your second-best joke, and always close with your best joke. I could explain this, but if you think about it for a minute I think the reasoning should be obvious.

So, what’s the best joke available to you that both captures the audience and makes them immediately understand what you want them to know? I don’t know, but as I watched Mike’s opening I tried to ad-lib what I would say if I got dropped into your position. Mike’s whole opening was an attack on atheism, and what he said was that because atheism does not make sense, God — which is the alternative to atheism, and which naturally explains the unexplainable — must logically be seen as superior. He didn’t get around to actually defending Christianity until later.

Here’s the opener I came up with: For decades people have reported unexplained disappearances of ships and planes in the Bermuda Triangle. Until now, nobody has understood the cause, but now I do: hyperdimensional space aliens from the planet Zebulon. Now you might say, “But Russell, how can you be so sure that there are any hyperdimensional space aliens from the planet Zebulon?” And I would say “Simple. Obviously any fool can see that if those aliens existed then they would have the POWER to cause those disappearances, and therefore since we don’t have another explanation, we must go with the only proposed explanation that makes sense.”

You see what I’m getting at? It probably needs some tweaking, but one of my first principles in an argument is, show don’t tell. Never simply assert that an idea is ridiculous; reframe the idea in a subtle way that is OBVIOUSLY ridiculous. It’s not just that there is no god. It’s that his argument is totally flawed, and even the religious audience might see the way it’s flawed if you entice them to come along in your reasoning.

Here’s another natural disadvantage you had: Mike went first. Traditionally in a debate, the first guy to talk is able to easily launch an offense while the second guy is on defense. So I’m curious: was this discussed before hand? Was it assumed that the minister gets to go first, and did you make any effort to push back on that rule? Might be something to think about for next time… at least insist on a coin flip if there wasn’t one.

Even going second though, you have to keep something in mind. The question as it was written is fairly balanced. There are two sides to it: Which makes more sense, atheism or Christianity? Like the joke about the two hikers fleeing from a bear, I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun YOU. Defending atheism as a reasonable position is fine, but your chief job is to press the offense and make it clear that Christianity makes no sense. Oh sure, the universe didn’t create itself. So what does that mean, that it makes sense to assume the existence of the invisible sky pixie who knows everything? On what grounds should I take that more seriously than the Zebulonians?

There is, of course, all kinds of bullshit that you can illuminate in Christianity: talking snakes, loaves and fishes, people ready to kill their children based on a voice in their head. If you throw that stuff out of context it sounds like nonsense. The notion that we don’t know FOR SURE what the origins of the universe are pales when you compare it on a ridiculousness scale to Christianity. The Christian position is: “I get to make shit up, and unless you can prove my fantasy wrong, then it wins.” Not true at all.

Don’t be afraid to point that out. You don’t want to look like you’re abusing your opponent, but you’re not under any obligation to pull your punches when you have the opportunity to score a hit. You can defuse the situation a little by calling the opponent by his name, to look a little more chummy, and soften your words with a little flattery. I.e., “Now Mike, you’re a smart guy, but do you really believe THAT?” Don’t overdo it, but using the opponent’s name is an effective tool in establishing audience rapport.

As I saw it, when it was Mike’s turn to talk, he talked about atheism. Then when it was your turn to talk, you ta
lked about atheism. Thus, without a word of discussion between the two of you, Mike declared what the terms of the debate would be, and you accepted his terms. Now, it’s completely natural for that to happen, because as I said, Mike has that advantage by going first. But you are not required to quietly accept the terms. In fact, it’s completely fair for you to challenge the definition of what Mike thinks the debate is, and even call attention to the fact that you’re doing it and why. Try this on for size:

“Mike talked a lot in his speech about what he thinks are the shortcomings of atheism. One thing you’ll notice that he did not do is provide any good reason why Christianity makes sense. As I heard it, the debate topic was to be, which makes MORE sense, atheism or Christianity? Now, I can understand why Mike would prefer not to talk very much about Christianity at all, because when you take a closer look at the principles he is trying to defend, they really don’t stand up very well. In order to win, really my opponent has to meet such-and-such obligation, and I’m sure you are all with me in seeing that he has not yet met this obligation.” etc.

Boom. You don’t just deflect his points, you totally change the terms of the debate to a setup that favors you. As I said at my lecture, when you’re playing defense, the best thing you can do is “not lose” — when you’re playing offense, you can WIN. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t defend atheism against his charges, of course. But you’ve got a limited amount of time to talk, and this is about adjusting your priorities. Make sure to make it clear that atheism is the DEFAULT position. It does not assume the existence of anything that is not already accepted by all parties: we know the universe exists, we know that people exist, and Mike even accepted some basic science up front when he declared that he accepts evolution. Take advantage of that concession and don’t waste your time “proving” anything about evolution or creationism from then on, but DO refer frequently back to the ground that he’s yielded to you. Even if there are creationists in the audience, they’ve already lost, because their side does not have a dog in this fight.

“Now Mike’s already accepted huge swaths of science as explanatory for aspects of our universe, so I’m happy to agree with my distinguished opponent on that point.” [Never pass up the chance to be gracious if it doesn't hurt your case!] “However, Mike’s the only one on this stage who is so uncomfortable with gaps in our knowledge that he feels he must assume the existence of something which, come on let’s face it, is way beyond wildly improbable when you look at it objectively.”

Okay, next point. Again, live performance is not the same as the printed word. You can assume that your audience will not be paying attention sometimes, and will miss things you say. You make them pay attention in two ways: By being forceful and hitting them in an emotional place, and by repeating your key points. Because people learn things through repetition.

Let me say that again.

People learn things through repetition.

If you’ve got a critical point to make, then make it early and make it often. The first time you make the point, you have to explain it. The next time you make the point, you merely have to refer back to it. “As I already said a minute ago, Occam’s Razor…” or “Mike’s STILL avoiding the burden of proof, you remember when I pointed that out in my last speech?”

Because you see, people learn things through repetition. On one level, you’re simply reminding them of a concept that they already learned, and driving it home. On another level, you’re giving the audience the chance to internalize this as “Wow, this point is really coming up a lot… Alan must think it’s a real winner for him!” You’ve encouraged them to see you in a winning light. And as a final benefit, if you badger your opponent a lot then he will have to respond to that point thoroughly or look bad. Remember, every minute he uses up responding to YOUR topic is a minute when he is merely “not losing” but failing to press his own case forward.

And also, people learn things through repetition.

Okay, obviously I’m trying to be funny (though I may fail). Let me go back to principles of comedy. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the humor columnist Dave Barry, but he frequently closes his essays with a sly reference back to something he already said.

Let me find you an example. Take a look at this 2001 column about taxes. Somewhere in the middle of the column, Dave writes:

Also, if you are an ostrich rancher, you can claim the depreciation on your ostriches. The IRS doesn’t give an exact amount, so let’s say for the sake of argument that your ostriches have depreciated to the tune of $4,800, or, rounding off, $17,000. If the IRS questions this figure, explain that you had to start raising ostriches because you were unable to make ends meet with just the whaling. That way your story is basically airtight.

Okay, now to start with, the idea of being an ostrich rancher is very silly all by itself, so Dave got a cheap laugh out of the visual image. But then skip down to the end of the column, which concludes:

In conclusion, I hope this tax guide has been helpful. If you follow my advice, and the IRS asks you where you got your information, remember to give them my full name, George Will. Good luck!

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to harpoon an ostrich.

Ah, see there, he didn’t have to explain what he was talking about, because if he did his job right the first time, then you’re ALREADY amused when you think about ostriches, so he’s taking advantage of previous groundwork. By doing this, he’s able to make an existing joke seem funnier, even if it was only worth a small chuckle the first time, and this also plays into the idea that you close with your best joke. It’s an okay joke, but now it’s amplified.

Case in point, suppose you had used my “Aliens from Zebulon” introduction. You can get a lot of mileage throughout the debate from repeatedly bringing them up. Even those who are against you will be able to laugh at something that is so over the top silly, which lightens the mood, and induces positive feelings about you. If you don’t overuse it early, that can even be a valuable part of a solid closer: “Remember, Christianity can’t make more sense than atheism, because Christianity makes even less sense than Zebulonians.” Okay, that’s a mediocre effort on my part, but you get what I mean… a good closing punch should make the case that YOU WON, go out with a potential laugh, and make your opponent sound ridiculous enough that people would be hesitant to side with him. All in one sentence!

As I said before, being a good debater has a lot in common with being a good comedian. (There, you see? I repeated myself. Because people learn through repetition.) Strong points become better when you drive them home. So the lesson is, if you have a point to make, do not save it for the end, because there’s no time for it to sink in. For instance, if you’re in your last five minutes, and you find you have to explain what “Occam’s Razor” means, then it’s probably already too late for that to make an impact. Throw it away if you can, and stick to amplifying arguments that you’ve already won. Or if you really think you can’t do without it, for goodness sake do it earlier next time!

Actually, on the same note, I probably wouldn’t bother using technical terms like “Occam’s Razor” at all, most of the time. First of all, Occam’s Razor isn’t even a rule or anything, it’s just a guideline. It has no authority, and if you invoke it, you risk getting bogged down in an argument about whether Occam’s Razor is really valid, or who’s meeting the conditions of O
ccam’s Razor better. Besides, using fancy-pants philosophy terms makes you sound like an egghead, and you’re ALREADY saddled with that handicap because you’re the guy who cares about “evidence” and “reason.” Describe the concept behind Occam’s Razor, or illustrate it with a clever anecdote, but don’t name the term as if you expected it to carry authority. The place for formal names of fallacies and philosophy of science terms is in a lecture hall or a textbook — not in a situation where someone like Mike is busy trying to knock you out. You can spend your time better.

In formal debates, there is a popular style of note-taking known as “flowing.” You might want to look into it, as it helps you keep track of key arguments so you can jog your memory about which points are strong for you. When you flow, you write down shorthand summaries of the major arguments for each side as you see them, and then you draw arrows across the page to more text that shows where that argument stands in each round. By glancing at this sheet, you can quickly assess which arguments are weak enough to ignore, and which arguments are important to counter. You can also nail your opponent when you say “Remember I brought up this point which made my case so strongly? He didn’t say a word about it.”

Alan, I hope you’ve taken this all in the spirit that I intended it. Some of this sounds like I’m beating up on your performance, but I thought it was a strong presentation that could be better. I want to see you and your friends do more of this, and become serious forces to be reckoned with. There were just a few choppy moments where you had long uncomfortable pauses while you tried to compose your notes, but really, I don’t need to criticize those at all. That is the kind of thing that comes to you through practice, because the more you debate, the more you move towards the horizon where you know everything.

I would like to conclude by pointing out a couple of places where I thought you did really well. It was choppier in the beginning, and as you moved toward last speech, you seemed to grow into your confidence, and you threw out a couple of zingers near the end which obviously went over really well with the audience. One was, “Using the Bible to prove the Bible is like proving the existence of Batman by reading Batman comics.” Love it. Don’t change it. I like to use comic book metaphors too, because they’re easy to grasp AND funny. Besides the laugh you got, you’ll notice that you also forced Mike to respond to this charge by saying “The Bible is so totally not like Batman!” Just think about all the constructive things that he could have been saying, during the time when instead he was forced to make the case that he is not QUITE as ridiculous as an imaginary tights-wearing crimefighter.

Also, near the end I guess Mike said something about how he shouldn’t be expected to prove God, and you said something like “It’s not our fault that you guys haven’t come up with the goods!” Outstanding. When your opponent is drowning, throw the sonofabitch an anvil. (James Carville line. I like it.)

Until you have the hang of extemporaneous speaking, consider finishing your opening speech way ahead of time and rehearsing it in front of your family. The first few minutes is when you will be most prone to stage fright — it still happens to me! — so it’s important that you know the material cold and can deliver it in your sleep, in a confident and winning manner. After that critical time period has passed, you will grow accustomed to all the people and you can ad-lib a lot easier.

Finally, let me give you another idea for a closer. Right near the end you said “Christianity makes some sense” — that is a concession you do NOT need to make. If you have to say something that sounds like a compliment, but it’s a major aspect of the subject you’re trying to discredit, then you’d be better off making it a backhanded compliment that undercuts the position, like “I admit that Christianity is appealing and may feel good to believe.” Same point made, but quite the opposite of letting people see your opponent as rational. Then you’re in a great place to declare that you won: “…but it should be OBVIOUS to everyone here that atheism, as the position that makes no such outlandish assumptions, makes more SENSE.”