Should we debate loons, again?


Jonny Scaramanga makes some excellent points about debates. He’s talking about his appearance on the BBC’s The Big Question, but it’s the same thing: what makes for drama is to have two sides battle it out, and you get even more dramatic drama if one side is a collection of extremists who are committed to a set of demented views.

Every time I’ve been on the show, the nutters have spoken first. This means they get to frame the terms of the debate, leaving the opposition on the back foot. The limited time allowed for each debate means that much of what they say goes unchallenged. It also means that, as a guest, the best way to get your message across is to go in knowing what you plan to say and wait for an opportunity to shoehorn in your point. It almost guarantees the panelists are not listening to each other.

Further, balancing the number of people does not guarantee that each side gets an equal hearing. Apart from getting the opportunity to speak first, the loud men opposite me on Sunday were not blessed with self-awareness. One of them, John Bird, was a man for whom the term ‘blowhard’ might have been invented. He can hold forth with equal unsubtlety on any subject, his voice never once suggesting he has ever even considered he could be wrong. He sat in the middle, both physically and rhetorically occupying the centre. When he shouted “We need to stop listening to the left and to the right,” both his location and his refusal to shut up finished the sentence for him, and listen to me.

So I get invited to debate creationist wackaloons who are so far out there in crazyland that they normally only talk to each other, and they see the debate as a way to get perspectives so ludicrous that they’re otherwise laughed off the stage on to television or youtube or a room full of people, and in situations where they are given a fixed amount of time to make their points, in an environment where they typically bus in a crowd of supporters, while framing it as a battle of equals when it’s really a distracted expert swatting annoyedly at a swarm of gnats.

I go back and forth on this issue. It really is doing a favor to a group of clowns…but then, there are also few opportunities for rational ideas to be presented to clowns. It’s not as if Fox News is giving them useful information.

Scaramanga adds another argument, though. It’s not fair to the believers.

I left feeling that The Big Questions exploits deeply religious people the same way The X Factor exploits talentless singers with delusions of genius. It serves up politics in a way that seems doomed to cloud the waters, and it gives a platform to voices which deserve to be dismissed.

I’ve felt that first bit, too: I’ve been at debates where I smack the other guy around hard, and afterwards the Christians in the audience apologize to me, partly to make excuses for the bum they had in the ring, but also because they’d been rocked back a few times, and they’re actually questioning whether the other guy had any good points to make at all. There are also moderate Christians at these events who are exasperated that their religion is always getting represented by a flaming crackpot, and they want to reassure me that they’re not all that bad.

But then shouldn’t someone expose the cranks? Aaargh, I hate debating debates, because there is no good answer.


  1. anteprepro says

    The linked article is pretty damn good. Not only does it illustrate the many ways that these public debates frame a false narrative and make it near impossible to undermine key false assumptions that have essentially become a dogma of Common Sense, but it does a damn fine job of addressing a few of these specific assumptions relevant to debates he has had. Some of the arguments in question I hadn’t even thought of myself, but when I saw him point out and then argue against the assumption, I had an “Aha” moment. Very good stuff.

  2. Rick Pikul says

    Tonight’s debate: “Are debates a waste of time?” has been cancelled. Everyone we contacted for the ‘yes’ side said they had something better to do.

  3. Brony, Social Justice Cenobite says

    Well what is debate?

    I see it as ritualized political conflict. But the debate we normally see in politics during elections is a different creature from what our political conflict usually looks like (think about two people arguing on a bus). So as you get away from the debates among the highest level of social elites you see the intense nature of how we really debate trickle in.

    We manipulate the situation around the debate for maximum advantage. We create impassioned conflict to get attention and try to direct where that attention goes. We focus on the contrast between sides and make it bigger if we can. We shore up in-group loyalties and intensify our-group enmities. We posture for group and individual advantage, we do not try to be consistent with reality (as a human rule, people around here try to do both typically but the first is the biggest emotional factor). It’s ancient programming intended to let a group win without killing.

    Debates are a group affair and to make them effective the group should step up to make them work. The debater changes with the context and they should always get strategic advice by including political strategy as an implicit part of the process. A good functional knowledge of current fallacious reasoning and good methods of shutting them down rhetorically without increasing a sense of conflict (it maintains or enhances empathy) is a minimum place to begin.

  4. says

    I watched Richard Carrier debate a christian bible scholar and pastor on Mythicism (its the one where they appear to be outdoors on a warm evening) and an older gentleman in the back row with his back to the camera can be seen to get more and more uncomfortable as the debate goes on.

    Finally during the Q&A he gets to ask a question , i’ll paraphrase

    “Neither of you used the gospels in the debate, do either of you hold any confidence in the gospels as giving any biographical information on Jesus at all!”

    Richard Carrier handled the question by saying that he felt it was more aimed at his opponent, the christian bible scholar was so evasive in his answer that it was obvious that he didn’t hold much store in the Jesus of the gospels.

    The questioner I believe had attended expecting to see a clear cut take down of Carrier and all this Jesus didn’t exist rubbish with all that meaty stuff in the gospels, and really did appear to have had his world rocked.

    I’ve often wondered since seeing the debate whether this guy followed up his question with more reading, and maybe greater understanding.

  5. David Marjanović says

    When he shouted “We need to stop listening to the left and to the right,” both his location and his refusal to shut up finished the sentence for him, and listen to me.

    …Who listens to Scaramanga? The location and the refusal? Or did Scaramanga accidentally a word or three?

  6. Michael Kimmitt says

    If one is going to “debate”, one should understand what kind of “debate” it is. Is this going to be a deal where each side attempts to show where the judgment calls the other has made exist and highlight them? Because that can be valuable, and you can totally go in all Marquis of Queensbury style.

    The other style of “debate” is where your job is to show up, not have horns, and not take any crap. This is a much more emotionally driven style of “debate,” and it’s one where your homework is not on the issues, but rather on your opponents. What are their preferred fallacies? Who did a good job of making them look the fool before? You have a bit of a balancing act; your job is to make your opponent look a complete fool without appearing cruel or condescending. It’s a very different skillset from what’s involved in other debates. And for the total blowhards, your job is simply to call out the abusiveness and refuse to back down from a single point no matter what. Nobody’s getting persuaded during a debate. What they’re getting is exposed to a reasonably persuasive point of view, from a perspective they haven’t seen before. Find where your opponent regularly trips up (the unexamined don’t learn well), give them a little rope, and then make them look extremely stupid while you look sad that they had to do that.

  7. Michael Kimmitt says

    By far the best part of the Nye vs. Hamm “debate” was having audience members hold up placards with what they thought were killer questions. A lot of good discussion came from later, when we could discuss the unexamined assumptions behind those placards.

  8. qwerty says

    I’d say don’t waste your time if the nut case is anyone like Jerry Bergman who didn’t even bother to address the main topic “Should Intelligent Design Be Taught in the Schools?”, but instead, went off on a tangent of his own that was hard to fathom for anyone in the audience.

  9. Michael Kimmitt says

    By contrast, those are the best opportunities — if you see them coming! Remember, our job is to show our opponents for the deranged fools they are. If you’re ready for some high-quality lunacy, because you’ve done your research and you know that your opponent tends to sundown or go off on a rant about whatever he hates his kids over or whatever, you can have some really funny shit that makes you look like the grownup putting up with the bizarre child.

    That shit wins hearts and minds.

  10. fulcrumx says

    I liked the Intelligence Squared debate format where the debate was in front of a fairly worthwhile audience and a vote was taken on the question before and after the debate to see if the results change.

  11. lorn says

    PZ – You nailed it with …”there is no good answer”.

    Yes, you might change some minds, or not. It could be productive, or at least neutral, or a trap. Staging, audience, pre-debate framing, and post-debate commentary can all make a big difference in how productive it is. The devil is in the details. Details that have to be hashed out, at considerable cost in time and patience, and enforced, at considerable cost in mental health when you have to either settle for them breaking the spirit of the rules or back out. Either case can be spun to make your side look weak or duplicitous.

    I suspect that the real question comes down to; do you have the time, patience, energy, and intestinal fortitude necessary to fight over the endless details with duplicitous assholes to carry it off in a favorable manner? Seeing as that you’ve done it before … your a better man than I am, Gunga Din.