Dialectic, not debate


I am learning to hate debate.

Really hate debate. It’s everywhere, and it’s bad and wrong, and I think it’s contributing to our social ills — all of social media is soaking in this ridiculous debate culture, and it’s stunting and poisoning our interactions.

Sounds like hyperbole, I know, but I can’t help it — my eyes cross and steam trickles out of my ears at just the word “debate”. And I’m not alone: here’s an article from a scientist who won’t debate science.

In fact, as a general rule, I refuse to debate basic science in public. There are two reasons for this: first, I’m a terrible debater and would almost certainly lose. The skills necessary to be a good scientist (coding, caring about things like “moist static energy”, drinking massive amounts of coffee) aren’t necessarily the same skills that will convince an audience in a debate format. It is very fortunate that things like the atomic model of matter do not rest on my ability to be charming or persuasive.

But second, and maybe more importantly: once you put facts about the world up for debate, you’ve already lost. Science isn’t a popularity contest; if it were, I’d definitely vote to eliminate quantum mechanics, set π to 1, and put radium back in toothpaste. I really, really don’t want sea levels to rise, rainfall patterns to shift, and heat waves to intensify. Climate change is definitely not my first choice. But physics and chemistry don’t care what I, or anyone else, wants.

On the first point: I agree, debate is a very specific skill, and it takes practice to do well. It’s not something that is part of scientific training. Maybe it’s used more in law, but law ain’t reality. There are useful skills involved in debating, like logic and rhetoric, and maybe it’s good for kids to do some of it in high school…but after that, it’s not relevant to most real world interactions, which are an order of magnitude more complex than anything dealt with in debating.

On the second point: YES. This is the cardinal sin of the debate mentality, that you reduce the problems of the world to two sides, and you settle the issue with rhetoric and a popularity contest. That’s not how anything works. It’s a garbage strategy for simultaneously avoiding dealing with the real issues, elevating the two artificially simplified positions to an equal standing, and allowing the most golden-tongued babbler to come away with a sense of accomplishment. So you’ve got hacks like William Lane Craig acquiring a reputation as a great debater, when all he is is someone who recites horseshit with great confidence.

This attitude that debate, no matter how bogus the subject, is healthy has permeated everything. So the media, instead of explaining a subject with sufficient depth that the consumer comes away having learned something, instead takes the lazy approach of pitting experts against assholes, putting them on panels and letting them yell it out, and allowing the audience on both sides feel like they won. This is why Kellyanne Conway still gets invited on talk shows — she’s a lying crapnugget, but the media munerators who organize these spectacles just want the conflict. This applies to Jack Kingston, Corey Lewandowski, any of that mob of demented liars who do the talk show circuit. Why? It’s not as if you’re going to receive any insight from them…but the media just keeps on booking the same ol’ goofballs and wasting our time.

This is why people are playing games with that flat earth nonsense. Being a contrarian gets you a platform, automatically, and the wrongness gets amplified.

So lately I’ve said on my youtube hangouts that I’m not going to bother with the creationists who beg me to invite them on — they have nothing of value to contribute. They’ve been getting a bit irate, like this flaming nutcase who calls himself seeksmostprophecy, or something goofy like that.

You like to talk about creationists, slandering them, calling them names and you don’t allow them to participate. No honest discourse there. You disqualify yourself as a scientist.

Yes, I call myself a scientist, which means I understand and accept the evidence that says the earth is old, and organisms evolved. Arguing otherwise disqualifies them from rational discourse — there are more interesting things to discuss than their ignorance. What really annoys them is when you tell them they don’t get to freeload off your expertise, and they’re not going to get equal billing with even a mediocre, unknown scientist.

But still, it’s incessant: every time you point out some failure of reason or knowledge by some guy on the internet, his defenders will rush in with their ploy to salvage his reputation: debate! Debate him now!

My God, your a professor! LOL,

Your dimwitted almost child like analysis of doctor Jordans immense knowledge wisdom and expertise is almost comical to the degree of being woefully sad and pathetic.

Id love to see this brainwashed tepid clown debate the professor.

He would chew what little you have to offer up and spit it out like the diseased refuse it is..

You could have just shown that he was wrong about the sum of 2 + 2, and they’ll whine at you that you have to resolve this great conflict with a debate. No, I don’t. I’ve just explained why he’s wrong, given you the correct answer, and you don’t get to prolong your time in the spotlight with more clueless yammering.

So, no, fuck off. Sometimes that’s all you can say.

Or you can be more, umm, smooth about it, like Jay Smooth. He’s suggesting that you don’t give the trolls air to breathe.

Note that this does not mean you ignore the trolls, but that you use whatever platform you’ve got to express yourself and your disagreement, and you don’t let them commandeer your platform to promote nonsense. Discuss and disagree, but don’t enable further promotion of bad ideas. Dialectic, not debate.



You might also check out a pair of philosophers arguing about “Is Debate Useful?” over tea, or whatever stronger stuff ContraPoints is drinking. They’re not quite as dismissive as I am, but still, they think it’s a question worth pondering.

I’ve come to my conclusion.

No, you’re not going to change my mind by debating me. But maybe if you can put together a coherent, constructive argument otherwise, I might consider it.

Comments

  1. mythogen says

    I’m a pretty good debater and believed in its value for a long time, and I completely agree. Debate is garbage, the ideology of resolving disagreement through argument is bad for society, the fact that politics and the law are built on winning is atrociously bad.

    Collaboration, respect, shared exploration of truth, hippy shit like that is what we need. Debate makes discovering facts into a power play.

  2. rpjohnston says

    This is largely what I feel about argument in general now. I used to argue alllll the time. People would joke that I should be a lawyer when I grew up, since I loved to argue and was adept at teasing out hypocrisies and logical chains and loopholes.

    But winning an argument isn’t about being right or having facts on your side or even being able to use solid logic or flawless reason. It’s about power. There are various forms that power can take – authority, charisma, dependancy, emotional fulfillment – but in the end, everyone is always on their own side, and the only way to “win” an argument is to make it more worth it to them to side with you than with themselves. If they decide to do so, then you have some kind of power over them.

    Which is ultimately why debate* is worse than useless. You won’t have any PERSONAL power – certainly not over your opponent, and not over your opponents’ camp in the audience, either. They simply will not give a shit what you personally think. But people WILL read the meta – “oh, Nazism is a legitimate thing to debate? Hmmmmm.” Before the debate, you had the SOCIETAL power of access to your platform, and through it access to the public sphere and its hegemony – and that’s power that you gave to the Nazi by letting a Nazi use your platform as a mouthpiece. So by letting the Nazi debate, you weaken the public sphere’s anti-Nazi hegemony…and they use that power they got to gain converts.

    The tl;dr of that is that debates will always favor the underdog because they lure the hegemony into compromising itself and expanding the platform of the underdog.

    *A debate between morally neutral subjects – such as the relative importance of geographical segregation vs sexual segregation in the evolution of a species – can still be a useful tool for exchanging ideas, I think.

  3. Artor says

    I have a winning debate methodology. It’s not flashy, and it won’t convince the willfully ignorant, but really, nothing will. It goes like this:
    Master Debater: “What exactly is the evidence to support your position?”
    Opponent: “Blah blah blah, Gish gallop, unfounded assertion, ad-hominem, non-sequitur, blah blah blah!”
    Master Debater: “So I didn’t hear a single bit of evidence in there. It looks to me like you’ve got nothing.”

  4. Akira MacKenzie says

    We still suffer under this delusion that there exists a ”Marketplace of Ideas” where everyone submits there opinions for rational discourse where good ideas will be embraced and bad ideas rejected. Unfortunately, that’s not how marketplaces and people work. The only thing the market cares about is whether a product is popular (i.e. profitable ); you can sell an inferior product but if you got a good advertising campaign or the dice roll in your favor, you can drive superior competitors out of businesses. The same goes with debate, you can have all the facts on your side, but if you are saying something people don’t want to hear (e.g. Climate Change is caused by human activity, a lack of taxation and regulation adversely affects the quality of society, humans are another species of ape that are the product of millions of years of evolution) dumb and even evil ideas will be best sellers in the intellectual marketplace everytime.

    Also, in civilized societies, there exist government institution that regulate the market to make sure that at least the products sold aren’t fraudulent or harmful. However, there is no SEC, FDA, or FTC for ideas and beliefs, and any suggestion that there ought to be is an anathema to liberal thought despite the rise of the ”post-truth” era.

  5. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Your dimwitted almost child like analysis of doctor Jordans immense knowledge wisdom and expertise is almost comical to the degree of being woefully sad and pathetic.

    I’m willing to be that “doctor Jordans” is a reference to Jordan Peterson. Who wants to take me up on it?

    What’s more ambiguous and thus more interesting is this:

    Id love to see this brainwashed tepid clown debate the professor.

    He would chew what little you have to offer up and spit it out like the diseased refuse it is.

    I was previously unaware that Jordan Peterson regularly chews and spews diseased refuse.

  6. bcwebb says

    I like to respond with the science is like accounting analogy, especially about global warming – global warming is about adding up the heat coming in and the heat going out and when you make the first bigger things will get hotter. Accounting is not something you debate. If your accountant says more money is going out than in you are going bankrupt and no amount of testimonials will change that – can you show me the math?

  7. asclepias says

    I really wish people would teach stuff like that in high school, and that the kids would pay attention. Last night my cousin posted some nutty meme on FaceBook equating what’s happening on the southern border right now with kids’ parents having to deploy (kids being ripped away from their parents by the U.S. government), and I’m having a really hard time not posting FALSE EQUIVALENCY on his page.

  8. DanDare says

    There are several stages to thinking things through.
    Fact gathering. Finding evidence.
    Perceptual work. Lateral thinking.
    Application of logic and reasoning.
    Refining solutions and conclusions.
    It can be a messy soup that has lots of feedback loops and missteps.
    Debate is something of a perceptual tool but its crude and requires shoehorning everything into a pro and con framework. It doesn’t allow detail exploration instead setting up an adversarial position.

  9. fentex says

    I reached the same conclusion nearly forty years ago when I watched a debate at university, saw one side clearly assert the truth logically and lose to the other side (as explained by the judge) for not being sufficiently skilled in their rhetoric.

    A nice compact demonstration that debate is not seeking truth but victory in competition regardless of the truth.

    I already knew that because I had earlier seen debaters tell outright lies in support of their position that went unchallenged by insufficiently knowledgeable opponents

  10. hemidactylus says

    I shouldn’t admit this but I often enjoy reruns of Boston Legal. I never watched it back when it was actually running. It has it’s issues with sexist and philandering womanizer tropes. But there have been strong female characters and Shirley Schmidt could put bad boys Shore and Crane in their place any day.

    All Shatner’s character seemed to do was just mention his name “Denny Crane” as if that was an argument. Alan Shore could win the most unlikely of cases by sheer force of his argument. It was often impressive and entertaining to watch him pull that crap off, but worrisome as something of a not too fictional window of our society.

  11. chigau (違う) says

    This is real debate.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Debaters

    The Debaters is a Canadian radio comedy show hosted by Steve Patterson. It airs on CBC Radio One Saturdays at 1:30PM and Wednesdays at 11:30AM (both Eastern time, half an hour later in Newfoundland).

    During each episode, two debates take place between two sets of two contestants. The topics are deliberately comedic, including “Apples are better than oranges” and “Darth Vader was a bad father”. The winner is chosen by audience reaction at the end of the debate.

  12. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I love The Debaters. So does Little #1.

  13. says

    I’ve had enough “don’t feed the trolls” responses in various parts of the internet to make me think that people mistake what I do for debate. It’s not debate, it’s hunting. I already know they are wrong, I wouldn’t be wasting the mental energy on them otherwise. It’s about pulling out the awfulness in their reasoning and logic so other people won’t think it’s a good idea to believe, think or act like them.
    Sometimes it’s about showing that there is no reasoning or logic, it’s just assertions that functionally form gossip in society. Things that only survive because they have enough people to agree to accept and respond in kind, but they can never objectively explain.

    I’m working on the problem of looking like I’m taking them seriously. Burn out is a problem at the moment though.

  14. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    This attitude that debate, no matter how bogus the subject, is healthy has permeated everything.

    I think that it’s vitally important that everyone knows what they believe and why they believe it. I think it’s vitally important to have a good grasp on many basic scientific facts and basic facts about reality, and to know why they’re true. I think this is part of what it means to be a skeptic and critical thinker, and I think that everyone should strive towards having these skills. In other words, if you actually cannot defend what you believe, then it should be time to consider looking into why you believe it. For clarity – “being able to defend” is not the same thing as “being morally required to defend”. For more clarity, read on please.

    So the media, instead of explaining a subject with sufficient depth that the consumer comes away having learned something, instead takes the lazy approach of pitting experts against assholes, putting them on panels and letting them yell it out, and allowing the audience on both sides feel like they won. This is why Kellyanne Conway still gets invited on talk shows — she’s a lying crapnugget, but the media munerators who organize these spectacles just want the conflict.

    I totally agree with you there. I hate American news media for precisely this purpose. The purpose of the news is to do the research and figure out what’s true (and to explain why it’s true) so I don’t have to do that research. If they don’t do that, then they’re almost useless. I think American news media have lost their way. My understanding is that earlier, American news media used to do their damn jobs.

    More broadly, I have no problem with your position that you won’t engage in a formal debate with creationists. I think it’s important that some of us do engage and debate them in some context, but not necessarily on a stage with an audience. I think that there has to be some kind of honest good-faith engagement, even if we should expect none in return.

    Note that this does not mean you ignore the trolls, but that you use whatever platform you’ve got to express yourself and your disagreement, and you don’t let them commandeer your platform to promote nonsense. Discuss and disagree, but don’t enable further promotion of bad ideas. Dialectic, not debate.

    Agreed.

  15. chigau (違う) says

    CD #12
    re: The Debaters
    There was one about maple syrup that made us pull over to the side of the road

  16. ridana says

    @5

    Id love to see this brainwashed tepid clown debate the professor.

    Are we sure that the “brainwashed tepid clown” here isn’t Peterson? Note that they earlier emphasize that PZ is a professor, while immediately after refer to “Jordan” as “doctor.” So obviously the clown is Peterson and PZ is the professor they expect will chew him up in a debate. I mean, that’s what they wrote; whether it’s what they meant…probably not.

  17. emergence says

    ridana @16

    Well, we know that a brainwashed tepid clown wrote that comment, at least. In the first part, he was pretty much just kissing peterson’s feet.

    Given the bullshit that Peterson has pushed about lobsters, it’s reasonable to think that any knowledgeable biologist would be able to tear him to shreds.

  18. KG says

    Given the bullshit that Peterson has pushed about lobsters, it’s reasonable to think that any knowledgeable biologist would be able to tear him to shreds. – emergence@17

    Or any uncooked lobster!

  19. rq says

    I wonder if Peterson ever regrets mentioning lobsters in the first place. They seem to be running away with him, and I don’t mean that in a romantic context.
    (Whenever I have to hear about how smart he is or how some of his ideas have merit, I think ‘lobsters’ and the spell is broken. It’s a wonderful defense.)

  20. anchor says

    @#14: “I think that it’s vitally important that everyone knows what they believe and why they believe it.”

    I think it might be even more important that everyone eschew ‘belief’, and know why. It’s a basic source of the problem. An expressed belief in this or that is more than a statement of personal opinion. Opinion is fine until people personally identify with it. It then becomes ‘belief’ – an opinion to which one pledges some measure of allegiance, and a position that requires constant effort to preserve and defend, whether it matches reality or not. Belief doesn’t much inspire the habit of logical reasoning or introspection either. once declared, it owns the holder.

  21. says

    Back in the PreCambrian, when I was in high school, our English prof required us to study and participate in debates. I don’t know if this was a common technique, but she insisted that we take the side that we disagreed with, and prepare and debate that side, so that the emphasis was on skill rather than conviction.
    Sure, I learned organization, presentation skills, note-taking, etc. but the biggest take-away was this: the most dishonest debater has the advantage, not being constrained by the boundaries of fact.

  22. Mrdead Inmypocket says

    #9 fentex

    A nice compact demonstration that debate is not seeking truth but victory in competition regardless of the truth.

    That’s precisely it, nail on head.
    Which brought THIS video to mind. I cued it to the pertinent time index.

  23. mickll says

    I remember when the Gamergate goons first stuck their fetid heads out of the swamps of the internet, the easiest way to deal with them when they tried to debate you was “I don’t debate Gators, I’m here to mock you!” Drove the little shits crazy.

  24. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I think it might be even more important that everyone eschew ‘belief’, and know why. It’s a basic source of the problem. An expressed belief in this or that is more than a statement of personal opinion.

    You’re using a particular esoteric definition of “belief, and seemingly demanding that I also use that definition. No. The word “belief” is simply the word for describing when someone accepts something is true, or is convinced that something is true, or knows something is true, etc. One might say that it’s an emotional state – the mental state of acceptance of the truth of some claim. Someone can believe something for good reasons or bad reasons, but that’s a separate question from what they believe. Hence why Matt Dillahunty suggests opening with “what do you believe, and why do you believe it?”.

  25. wontbehere4long says

    When people opine about stuff that shouldn’t even matter to begin with, it just pisses me of to no end.

    I’m suddenly reminded of the Tomodachi Life incident.

  26. KG says

    Since I happen to be here, and often find myself on the opposite side of fairly rancorous arguments with Enlightenment Liberal, I’ll note that he is absolutely right @24. The attempt to redefine everyday words such as “belief” for atheo-rhetorical purposes is just tiresome and silly.

  27. wontbehere4long says

    To clear up what I just said, everyone knows about #Miiquality, right?

  28. Curt Sampson says

    Laurie Penny has just written an article “No, I Will Not Debate You” that I think does an excellent job of explaining at length why one shouldn’t debate fascists, the alt-right and similar nasties.

    It starts,

    There are some stupid mistakes that only very smart people make, and one of them is the notion that a sensible argument seriously presented can compete with a really good piece of theatre.

    And later continues,

    Steve Bannon, like the howling monster from the id he ushered into the White House, exploits the values of the liberal establishment by offering an impossible choice: betray their stated principles (free, open debate) or dignify fascism and white supremacy. This weaponizes tolerance to legitimize intolerance. If we deny racists a platform, they feed off the appearance of censorship, but if we give them a platform, they’ve also won by being respectfully invited into the penumbra of mainstream legitimacy. Either way, what matters to them is not debate, but airtime and attention. They have no interest in winning on the issues. Their image of a better world is one with their face on every television screen.

    The marketplace of ideas is just as full of con artists, scammers, and Ponzi schemes as any other marketplace, and as always, when the whole thing comes crashing down, it’s ordinary marks who lose everything. Bannon is that rare thing: a true Gordon Gekko in the attention economy, a man who is both troll and true believer, a man whose lack of integrity is part of the ideology: win at all costs and screw the other guy, because fools and their morals are easily parted. There is no deeper truth to be divined from “holding him to account,” no point at which his racism and xenophobia will somehow become unacceptable to a public that has already bought its penny stocks in neo-nationalism.

    The arguments about what freedom of speech actually means are endlessly reheated because they’re the last piece of real philosophical meat moderate conservatives have in their cupboard. It’s a mistake to think that the far right cares about the free speech debate as anything other than a way of confusing the enemy. The far right doesn’t have a profound philosophy, it has a media strategy.

    But there is hope:

    The first time that white supremacists are denied a formal public platform, they get to plead martyrdom, to call the opposition cowards. And the second time. And the third time. But there’s only so many times you can whine that people aren’t paying you enough attention before those same people get bored and lose interest. Milo Yiannopoulos, who spent much of 2017 thrashing around in a self-ordained orgy of far-right martyrdom, recently complained on Facebook:

    My events almost never happen. It’s protests, or sabotage from Republican competitors or social media outcries. Every time, it costs me tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. And when I get dumped from conferences, BARELY ANYONE makes a sound about it — not my fellow conservative media figures and not even, in many cases, you guys. When was the last time any of you protested in the street at the treatment meted out to me or Pamela Gellar or Mike Cernovich or Alex Jones?… For my trouble, I have lost everything standing up for the truth in America, spent all my savings, destroyed all my friendships, and ruined my whole life.

    Cry me a river of blood. What stopped Yiannopoulos was neither formal debate nor the dubious disinfectant of a spotlight. What stopped him was progressives collectively refusing to put up with his horseshit.

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