Sunday, March 1, 2009

Debating: Lose the Battle - Win the War

Want to formally debate the following?
9/11 Truthers
Global Warming Deniers
Moon Hoaxers

Well I take my hat off to you. You are clearly braver than I.
All those listed above have a material advantage in a debate and that is simply that they can rattle off a number of plausible sounding arguments in less than than it takes to debunk them.

Why they win.

Think about it. You enter a formal debate where each side has twenty minutes to open and say fifteen minute for the response. Those in the above category can make their simplistic case (eg Evolution is *just* a theory, as you can *clearly* see from this image the shadows are wrong, Al Gore was *discredited*) and it takes a good five minutes to refute each argument. Lets say it takes five minutes to disprove something which takes one minute to state. That's a 5:1 time advantage. This means someone can rattle off four arguments which take four minutes to state and twenty minutes to refute - going over the specified time limit for a response.

Why does it take so long?

Some may ask, why does it take so long to formulate a response? (eg. How come you can't distill a refutation of the Kalam Cosmological argument into a few sentences)

The easiest answer is that common sense is poor when it comes to truth-value, yet easy to manipulate for those who are not willing to do the leg work and actually research a topic. Confusing the common use of the term theory is an example of a case where one (who isn't a scientist or a knowledgeable person) takes use of the popular but misleading wrong definition and runs with it.

"If evolution is true, why is it just a theory?"
"You are mistaking the definition of theory. A scientific theory is powerful because it explains facts. As more facts emerge a theory is either disproved, refined or further backed up with evidence. You can never prove a theory but you can disprove it."

On the basis of word count alone, the refutation takes just over 4 times more words!

Countering Stupid with Stupid.

The success of the New Atheists when debating, in particular Christopher Hitchens, is testament to countering stupid with stupid. I'm not suggesting that Hitchens presents wrong arguments, but he does so in the same simplistic manner as his opposition. This is why he is good in debates, yet lacks thoroughness and can be seen to be simple minded by his opponents. Perhaps Hitchens in a debate gives the opposition gets a taste of their own medicine.

For example, how long might it take an atheist to formulate an argument for the "Problem of Evil" and think about how long it would take a theist to properly articulate a response. The problem of evil is a simplistic argument to make, one which can use emotional appeal to convey to the audience (eg. Why would a loving God allow suffering in the world) yet requires the theist to go into great deal. Any theist who can rattle off a simplistic answer clearly is doing a disservice to the vast amount of literature (as in books) on this subject.

What you cannot do.

Whatever you do, you cannot do the following
  • State that it has been refuted. This will then give the other person license to use the exact same argument against things which have not been refuted, but which they do not wish to address.
  • Attack the person for being stupid, simple minded or wrong without explaining why they are wrong. After all, there is a chance if there is this one stupid person you are debating there is likely at least one other stupid person like them in the audience.
  • Refuse to answer. By refusing to answer you are effectively giving up. This can be difficult when the opponent presents something you are not familiar with, and perhaps even see as being a good argument.
  • Say you don't know. There is no time for humility in debates. If you don't know, this gives your opponent ammunition that clearly they have made a valid argument if you cannot refute it.
What you can do.

All is not lost! There are a few things you can do to even the playing field. It might not make you win the battle, but it might help win the war against stupid.
  • Debate anyway. Just having a visible presence and presenting your arguments gives others the notion that there exists alternatives. It might even plant the seed of doubt in their mind.
  • Fight stupid with stupid. If its good enough for the opponent to rattle off a few one lines, its also good enough for you. It may be intellectually dishonest, but your opponent clear started it!
  • Find novel ways of answering the question instead of giving the same canned response.
  • Humour! Most Creationists/Christians/Conspiract Theoriests are deadly serious. Mixing some humour in shows a human touch.
  • Get under the skin of your opponent.
  • Stay knowledgeable about the subject area including common fallacies, common arguments and especially uncommon arguments. (Print out the friggin page on creationist arguments if need be)
Debates in General

Debates are not for determining truth value. This is something that people ought to be clear about. The format of a debate is such that a crappy defense does not make a poor argument. For example, Christianity isn't disproved if some random guy cannot defend his faith nor does Creationism become valid because a moron thinks theories are crazy ideas scientists come up with to deny God.

Debates are not won by content or the truth value of a position. It is won by the best debater, the person who strikes the right chord, the right set of words, plays to their strengths and their opponents weaknesses, and those who come across as human and approachable. Its the typical snake-oil saleman technique to get people to depart with their hard earned dollars, but in this case, to depart from their normal though process into one where they become right.

For the real argument, consult the literature, organise conferences, allow a continuous dialogue. If you look for bite-size truth, you will always end up intellectually starved.

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