At least it only took me a few decades to learn to detest debate

It’s like looking at a history of my past misdeeds — I was that dude. My friends were all those dudes. You know, that culture that thinks we can resolve massive social conflicts with just the right debate.

Anyone who regularly expresses ideas on the Internet — especially women who express ideas critical of men — has encountered that bane of online discourse, the man who appears seemingly out of nowhere to insist on a debate. He disagrees with the sentiment expressed and is certain he can overpower the author with his superior logic and knowledge. So he takes out his metaphorical white glove and offers a slap, showing up in Twitter mentions and issuing an invitation to his YouTube channel or podcast. If you refuse, the “‘debate me’ dude,” as the journalist Miles Klee memorably dubbed him, spends the next week tweeting about how terrified you are of his massive intellect.

It’s not just women and feminists. The entire creation vs. evolution struggle has often been sidetracked by the notion that we can resolve it all with debate. So we get Bill Nye going up against Ken Ham in a massively advertised, televised debate, and afterwards we argue among ourselves about who “won”. We should have stopped ourselves before the debate, and asked ourselves who wants this debate? Because I’ll tell you who loves getting scientists to debate: it’s the creationists. Getting a godless science advocate into an uncomfortable space like a church or the Creation “Museum”, where the audience is unqualified to judge but has a prior bias against them, and then to engage them in a contest of speechifyin’ oratory? Perfect.

Cultivating a whole generation of science advocates who believe that the rhetorical skills of debate are an expression of the scientific method? Heavenly. Now it can be turned against every expert in every field that defies the podunk wisdom of what ought to be, from climate science to politics to feminism, and suddenly “evidence-based” isn’t our platform anymore. And we willingly embraced this move. I was doing it for decades.

We were Br’er Fox to the creationists Br’er Rabbit, and debate is the briar patch. Every nitwit unschooled nobody now knows they can get on YouTube, utter some tempting idiocy, and whisper “debate me”…and the people who know better will stamped over to engage them and give them a brief credibility boost, while spreading their name far and wide.

It works both ways. There are hordes of people on YouTube who have no better education than the creationists they battle, who know little about the science except the bits they skim out of pop sci magazines and books, who build reputations solely on their debating skills and praising Logic & Reason & Enlightnment Values*. “Yeah, sure, I’m the hero who argued with Kent Hovind!” As if Hovind is some fierce creature out of myth, like Humbaba the Terrible, when he’s actually just Humbug the convicted Bumblefuck, a know-nothing nobody with a cranium full of stupid ideas, and a following of gullible hicks who’ll accomplish nothing but the corruption of the country, if you give them a chance.

I’ve been there. I’ve done the debate nonsense.

We need to stop.

This stuff has derailed the atheism and skepticism movements. We’ve been distracted by the valuation of who makes the most rational argument or who can most entertainingly dismantle random callers on a phone-in show, rather than who is the best activist, who gets things done, who focuses best on engaging effectively with real issues, rather than who is ready to hare off to tangle with Dinesh D’Souza or Ben Shapiro or whoever the latest stooge elevated by the Religious Right might be. Don’t think to impress me by telling me who you’ve “destroyed” in a debate, that just leaves me cold. Those people don’t deserve a debate stage, they ought to be dealt with by pies in the face.

I know, because I’m guilty as charged.

After all, a debate isn’t a conversation — an exercise in which people generously try to understand each other’s point of view. A real conversation doesn’t have a “winner.” Debates are about scoring points and subjugating your opponent. Which means that, no matter what their opponents say, debaters have every reason to spin a confrontation as a victory. If I got angry or flustered in a debate, then I would lose by virtue of being emotional and irrational. If I used jokes or sarcasm, I’d lose by virtue of seeming unserious and smug. If I did take the debate seriously and even briefly entertained the points made by my opponent, I would seem conciliatory and weak. And no matter what, my opponent will have gotten my attention and sucked up my time. The only winning move is not to play.

Also…some people aren’t worth having a conversation with.

*Reminder: the Enlightenment Era was a complex mess of discordant ideas that may have included David Hume, but also the slave trade, colonialism, racist rationalizations for oppressing non-Europeans, and even within Europe sheltered a villainous hive of misogyny and classism. It’s not the universal praise you think it is.


  1. PaulBC says

    I figured out in early adolescence that I don’t like debate, and am bad at it, though I still enjoy controversy. The idea that an issue can be resolved one way or another by rhetoric mostly appeals to those who insist on resolving every uncertainty. It’s clearly the wrong system for arriving at scientific understanding, which is why the scientific method (applied imperfectly in practice) looks absolutely nothing like persuasive rhetoric. If the data do not support a conclusion, fudging over this with well-chosen words cannot change anything. Good scientific writing shouldn’t necessarily be boring, but it should only be as exciting as the result.

    Debate (in the general sense of making a persuasive case) continues to be appropriate in politics and in legal representation. We have an adversarial system in court cases, because unlike science, the goal is explicitly to resolve an issue if possible, often with incomplete information, and each side is expected to act in their own interests rather than as neutral truth-seekers. Politics is also not a question of truth-seeking but of interest groups fighting over policies that will inevitably favor one interest over another. Anyone who says there is a calm, reasoned policy solution that will satisfy everyone is lying and invariably going to pull a bait and switch in which the dominant interest is portrayed as the neutral voice of reason.

    Evolution debates are a sideshow and should have nothing to do with how research is conducted in evolutionary biology. It is a political issue in the US because of repeated attempts to get creationism into school textbooks. It’s important to have people with rhetorical skills who can apply them in court cases and opinion columns. The danger of a public debate like Nye and Ham is that it promotes the fictitious notion of “Darwinism” as if The Origin of Species is a sacred text for exegesis rather than a groundbreaking work that (like most scientific writing) has been supplanted by additional research that broadly agrees but sheds light on details that were unknown at the time.

    To illustrate how naive I am, I remember thinking in the early 1990s that the upcoming abundance of DNA data would at least change the entire nature of “debate” by showing very explicitly and repeatedly the relations being living species (and even some extinct species). That it has had virtually no effect at all (forget about Ken Ham, what does “amateur scientist” Forrest Mims think about it) just shows that it was never a question of science in the first place.

    I agree that we don’t need debate, but some of this may be driven more by self-promotion than by a view that it helps public discourse. E.g., when Jerry Coyne reviews Tom Wolfe’s musings on evolution, that’s an instance where persuasive writing is informative and useful. When Bill Nye answers Ken Ham’s challenge, it may be a matter of Nye seeing an opportunity to promote his brand as celebrity educator. I don’t resent Nye for doing this, but it is probably not very helpful.

  2. Owlmirror says


    From Old French debatre (“to fight, contend, debate, also literally to beat down”),

    emph mine

  3. Sonja says

    the Enlightenment Era was a complex mess of discordant ideas

    Isn’t every era? Ironic that you’ve written this today, yet in the Enlightenment era, Thomas Paine wrote, “To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.”

  4. PaulBC says

    Note: actually I don’t watch political debates either. I read a lot of commentary about them afterwards, because I think the relevant fact is how they were perceived. What am I supposed to make of the oft told tale that JFK was advantaged in his TV debate against Nixon by a better understanding of how he’d look through TV cameras and Nixon’s bad make-up job? I mean, I am happy with the outcome (several years before I was born) but it’s sad to think that our so-called republic hinges on incidental factors like this. I did not watch Joe Biden’s debates with Paul Ryan in 2012 either. I was satisfied with the perception that Biden “won” (but saddened to think of him as frontrunner right now). Debates have about as much relevance as other competitive activities, but they don’t resolve anything.

  5. robro says

    Why do I see $$ in the eyes of the “debate me” dudes. They attract attention to themselves, win some likes, perhaps a few new subscribers that didn’t already know about them, and with little risk to their existing base bump their ad dollar rate.

    As for televised political debates, I have no interest and only seen short clips as part of news articles. As PaulBC notes, Kennedy’s telegenic appeal…or Nixon’s lack therefore…helped a positive outcome but that isn’t always the case. In the Clinton/Trump debates, Trump clearly used the format to overshadow Clinton. I think we would be better off today with the candidate who cogently explained the reason for allowing late term abortions (the only few minutes I saw) rather than the scowling menace lurking behind her.

  6. davidrichardson says

    I follow Dr Ben Goldacre’s* principle:

    “You can’t reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.”

    *who wrote the Bad Science columns in The Guardian

  7. PaulBC says

    robro@5 “…helped a positive outcome but that isn’t always the case. In the Clinton/Trump debates, Trump clearly used the format to overshadow Clinton.”

    This was more visible in hindsight. In pre-election reporting, Trump was perceived as a threatening, glowering presence on the verge of losing it. Who knew that this was what his supporters love about him? (And hate about Hillary Clinton–so smug, dontcha know). Fast-forward to the Kavanaugh hearings and you see a more skilled public speaker (Brett Kavanaugh) using this consciously to his advantage and not just because it’s the only way he knows how (like Trump).

    Hopefully, none of this will help in a “debate” about evolution, though it’s interesting how the Jack-Chick-style “atheist” professor is portrayed as an intimidating masculine presence. While this should be discrediting in an academic, an authoritarian would view it as an effective and therefore threatening use of power.

    It also just shows how much “debate” is about reaching a specific audience than shining in eloquence or argumentation.

  8. PaulBC says

    Finally, conceding that my opinions are formed as least as much by sorting things into boxes as thinking deeply about them, a “Debate about Darwinism” goes in the same box as “Battle of the Bands.” (Both being piss poor ways to resolve anything, that some people apparently find entertaining.)

  9. says

    It took the loss of my oratorical abilities and smooth delivery due to an ischemic, right-side stroke to realize how powerful those skills were versus the actual qualities of any arguments I could make. I agree with you about debates as a means settling evolution vs. creation arguments.Especially considering those creationists who desire such debates (i.e. the Hovinds pere et fils) tend to be not merely unschooled, but unwilling to be schooled with regard to science (i.e. Ray “banana-man” Comfort. The loudest tend to be the most proud of their stupidity. Anyone who could have all the science explained to them word-by-word, then turn around and say, ” Nup. See, ya just proved that the Bible is all true,” not only is an idiot, but a dishonest broker as well. The Hovinds, Comfort, Ham, ten Brugencate, Behe, D’Souza, they are all dishonest brokers with whom honest debate is impossible.

  10. nomdeplume says

    Yes yes yes yes. The willingness of the enlightened team to “debate” the heathen is also a function of the “We have what it takes to change your mind” fallacy. For the likes of Hovind and Trump there is literally NO piece of evidence that will ever change their mind.

  11. stroppy says

    hm. The art of rhetorical b.s. How do you counter people who don’t give a shit about reality?

    “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”
    Attributed to Cardinal Richelieu

  12. DanDare says

    The bigger problem is the use of polemic as the alternative. Debates are about public speaking first, and about argument as a technique. To deal with content requires exploration and mulriple petspectives instead, not a single perspective being promulgated.
    Its harder work finding a fo rtmat for explorative and perception changing discussion.

  13. microraptor says

    The first question that should be asked before any debate is “what I get out of doing this?”

  14. alberteshort . says

    People often point to the Buckley/Galbraith debates from Firing Line as a high-point of civilized discourse. They were nothing of the sort. Galbraith was a major policy economist with a hand in ending the Great Depression, organizing the “Arsenal of Democracy” that won World War II, and demobilization of the same into the broadest, most prosperous middle class yet seen on earth. Buckley was an insult comic (albeit one with a thesaurus). I often liken their debates on macroeconomics to one between Don Rickles and Enrico Fermi about physics, but worse. Most people admit they know nothing about nuclear physics, everyone thinks they know something about macroeconomics. Galbraith was making complex and counter-intuitive arguments, Buckley was claiming his taxes (not mentioning that it involved returns to his inherited wealth) were too high.

    Thus about 25 years after its spectacular cratering, the Hoover/Mellon zombie of small government and free markets lurched forward, clothed in a spiffy but thoroughly undeserved new suit of respectability, and set forth to destroy the New Deal and reconcentrate wealth.

    And this is why Krugman used to bite George Will’s head off on “This Week” when Will would start off with some libertarian macro derp.

    Public intellectuals

  15. PaulBC says

    I often liken their debates on macroeconomics to one between Don Rickles and Enrico Fermi about physics, but worse.

    I’d pay to see Don Rickles turn to Enrico Fermi and say “What are you looking at, you hockey puck?”

    Buckley… uh, I’ll pass.

  16. ColeYote says

    I’ve said before that it debate were entirely about the merits of the ideas being presented, debate competitions wouldn’t be a thing.

  17. lpetrich says

    Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – Wikiquote – this remarkable Congresswoman has said something very relevant about debates.

    So the way I have conversations with people of opposing beliefs is I don’t try to convince them of anything. So that’s the first step trying to win people over. Stop trying to enter a conversation thinking that you’re gonna like aah-ha them into changing their mind. …
    So I think the thing that we have to do is try to have a good faith interaction of trying to learn more about where the other person comes from because often what I find, is that when I do win people over It’s almost never in the conversation itself that I’ve won someone over. Its that I have a conversation with someone, I asked them some critical questions and I calmly explained to them: well, this is where I’m coming from and this is why I believe what I believe why do you believe what you believe? And you kind of like leave the conversation but very often that person will sit on what you said and they will sit on the fact that you respected them and gave them space and then very often I’ve had interactions like that and I’ll run into that person again a week later a month later and they said you know what? You said something that I really thought about and I changed my mind.

    AOC has been challenged to debates by right-wingers like Ben Shapiro. When he offered to debate her, she dismissed his offer as comparable to catcalling.

  18. says

    Ipetrich: I see this approach as similar to one I’ve seen online regarding how to deal with some Creationists. I would emphasize SOME creationists, namely those who aren’t bathed in the blood, Bible thumpers who opine that anything which contradicts a literal reading of the Bible is outright heretical and may be dismissed out of hand. These people are simply beyond help. Folks like Ham and the Hovinds have too much at stake to EVER admit to being wrong or changing their minds.