Sean Carroll has a very interesting post on appropriate arguments — he illustrates it with this grid of disputation.
The context is the recent bloggingheads between Paul Nelson and Ron Numbers. It was a painful display, and the problem was that Nelson is an irredeemable kook, a young earth creationist well into the Red Zone of Crackpots in the diagram, yet none of his lunacy was engaged — he was treated as if he were a sensible person, with meritable ideas deserving serious consideration, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Sean makes a somewhat different point: that it is a bad idea for critics to engage the very worst of the opposition, and to then congratulate themselves on their success in fighting off the enemy. We should be wrestling with the Green Zone of Worthy Opponents, not wasting our time with crackpots!
There is definitely considerable truth in that. Non-crackpot arguments are more challenging and require more thought, and are ultimately more satisfying. However, there is a problem when the focus is on an issue rather than an individual. Some issues, and I would put evolution in this category, don’t match this model well. While the issue is real and red-hot in the culture, the Green Zone of Worthy Opponents is unfortunately rather underpopulated. There is no one in the green box. So what should we do? Simply ignore the mobs of people populating the red box?
As an example of a Worthy Opponent, Sean mentions Ken Miller, and I’d agree…except that he’s only a worthy opponent on the issue of tactics in science education, but on the topic of evolution, he’s solidly in the Blue Zone of Friends. An argument with Miller on evolution would be really, really boring, because we’d just sit around agreeing with each other. While Sean has offered a useful model for thinking about strategy, it leaves out a significant situation in the real world.
I just don’t feel like sitting back and twiddling my thumbs for a few years because Ken Ham is way too inane to deserve my attention. He’s too successful as a con artist.