I appreciate sincere criticism, I really do, and despite all the praise for my recent radio debate, I listened to it and mainly heard a lot of things I could have done better. So I like it when I find someone who also offers suggestions for improvement, but at the same time, I have to disagree with one (just one, the others are good) central point he makes.
However, in the future I would warn PZ against calling his opponent ignorant or berating them in a debate like this. Save that kind of stuff when you’re venting to your fellow smart people. Name calling doesn’t convince any of the audience and it gives your opponent a chance to get off the ropes through subversive rhetoric. Using the term “ignorant” allowed Simmons to take the upper hand and make PZ look like a dick even though he was right in pointing out Simmons’ lack of knowledge. Or at least, it would have allowed Simmons to take the upper hand if he didn’t suck so much. In essence, don’t attack the opponent, attack the opponent’s ideas.
This is a tough one. In all the rules a communications major might learn, in all the forensics exercises a student goes through, in most public discussions, he is absolutely right. You want to win over the listeners with your charm, you want them to like you more than your opponent, and you want to set your image as strong but respectful. That’s usually the winning strategy.
But it’s also a strategy that’s best used on a level playing field, where both sides are arguing in good faith. It fails miserably in creationist debates. I know. I’ve seen a lot of them. I’ve seen too many debates where the science guy is utterly hapless — he stands there using the same tactics he would in a discussion with a fellow scientist, and the Gish-clone or Hovindite is spinning out a phenomenal web of outright lies, making claims about geology or biology or astronomy that are simply false. It’s painful to watch, because the scientist is usually straight-jacketed by the same rules my critic just stated, but the creationist is not.
If I have one combination strength and weakness, it is that I am not an expert debater. I am not going to be smooth on the podium, I am not going to charm the audience, and I am not going to make elegant ripostes. What I’m going to do is be blunt, and when my opponent says something stupid, I’m going to say, “That’s wrong,” and then I’m going to explain why it’s wrong. If it makes me look like a dick, that’s OK — I’m not in a popularity contest.
He is absolutely right that you can’t just call your opponent ignorant and be be done with it. You also have to show why he’s ignorant, in plain and simple terms that don’t require a lecture in advanced molecular biology to get across. Simmons’ failure wasn’t just that he sucked as a debater, but that he was actually and demonstrably ignorant of a subject in which he claimed sufficient expertise to be able to write a whole book on it. Failing to point out how ignorant he was would have been a profound mistake — it would have allowed him to continue to occupy the lofty pedestal of a scientific authority, and the debate would have been about which of the two of us was nicest and friendliest and least threatening to the audience’s predispositions, and he would have won.
I say the answer is to be honest to yourself, and recognize that most scientists, including myself, are not going to be golden-tongued orators. All we can do is present the evidence and the ideas bluntly, and backed up with the authority of our knowledge. We’re going to make the communications people cringe, and we’re going to annoy all the experts who want to tell us what to say and how to frame it, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to ignore most of their advice, because it doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for years. It assumes the opponent merely has a difference of opinion and isn’t a lying faud.
Here’s a suggestion for how to think about these kinds of debates. You’re a professor. The creationist is your worst student ever, the one who skipped all the classes, never did any homework, and just bombed on the final exam. He’s in your office now, trying to scam you out of a few extra points so he can pass the course. We’ve all been in this situation; what do you do?
Call him an idiot and kick him out of the office?
Charm him with kind words and generous reassurances that no, he really asn’t failed, he’s merely made a few minor errors that require him to retake the course to get credit?
Grant him his arguments and change his grade to give him a passing C- in the course?
Lead him step by step through all of his mistakes, demolish his final exam all over again, and tell him in plain terms that he has not met the standards of the course and has failed?
The correct answer, of course, is #4. And the student always goes away thinking you are a real dick, but those are the breaks.