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Debating Crazies

Entry 1082, on 2009-09-02 at 21:29:46 (Rating 3, Skepticism)

One of the biggest areas of discussion in the skeptical community is whether its a good idea to debate the people who believe in pseudoscience and other forms of fake and fallacious beliefs. On one side there is the argument that unless we tell people what the science actually says we can hardly expect them to believe it and reject nonsense. On the other side is the idea that by debating with "crazies" we effectively admit that their ideas are worth debating and have similar credibility to real science.

Of course no one is suggesting that debate on genuine controversies should stop. If debate between scientists ever ended for example we might as well forget about the scientific process all together. But many people would say that debating creationists is a waste of time because they have such a strong attachment to their belief that the facts have no effect on them at all.

An important point here is that there are a lot of examples of belief systems between these two extremes. For example, some natural medicines can be effective even though a lot of them do nothing. On the other hand there's little point in genuine debate on creationism because it has been proven wrong beyond any reasonable doubt many years ago.

So many people say debating crazies is a waste of time but I think that is a rather defeatist attitude. I certainly wouldn't expect to debate a creationist and have everyone in the audience immediately reject that belief and believe evolution instead. But I would expect that some of the people watching the debate might become just a little bit more doubtful about what they previously thought and maybe for a few that might lead them on a path where they ultimately saw the truth.

I know I have met several people (both in person and virtually) who genuinely didn't know about all of the evidence supporting evolution. They really did think that scientists believed a theory just because they were deluded in some way (its like Isaac Asmiov said: some people think a theory is just something a scientist dreamed up over a few beers at a bar). I also know some of those might have been lead significantly down the path of rejecting creationism because of what they learned from me.

So there are certainly some situations where debating crazies is worthwhile. Maybe the ultimate conclusion here is that skeptics need to choose the debating conditions carefully. For example, debating creationists in an audience of fully committed creationist crazies with an equally committed reporter is only going to result in a report of how the poor evolutionist was overcome by the pure weight of the opposition.

Its also important to have debating rules where its impossible to present totally unsubstantiated claims and where the believers in pseudoscience can't continually change the subject when they are cornered (both common tactics). I've heard debates where the rational side scores a major point against the opposition but then the subject is changed as if nothing had happened. Before that can happen the person who has had their idea disproved should concede the point.

So I support the idea of debating crazies but only when the conditions are reasonable and when the expected outcome is realistic, and there is one other thing too: debating crazies can be fun!

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Comment 6 (2488) by SBFL on 2009-09-06 at 18:52:13: (view earlier comments)

You see that's my point, I did not say nor imply anything!!! I just gave you an article that when I came across it earlier in the week, I thought to myself "OJB might be interested in this."

Unbelievable!

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Comment 7 (2489) by OJB on 2009-09-06 at 20:25:43:

Well you must have thought there was something there I would find unusual or controversial or something. I mean, sheesh, I appreciate any new material you send but I just wanted to know what you thought was the particular point of interest there. Sorry if you find that problematic in some way!

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Comment 8 (2490) by SBFL on 2009-09-06 at 22:15:59:

I thought you might find it interesting, possibly unusual or controversial. It appeared to be a new line of thought. That's why I posted it. So yes to your first sentence.

If you just wanted to know what I thought was the particular point of interest there then you could have asked. And asked straight (something like "What are your views on this piece?"). Instead I got the nonsense that was comment 3.

If I do provide a link and want to use it to make a point, then the link will be preceded by a comment alerting you to that fact.

And for the record I don't have an opinion on this. I don't know enough about studies in this area to have yet formed a view of my own. It was an interesting read though and since you often blog about creationism/evolution I thought you might like it too.

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Comment 9 (2491) by OJB on 2009-09-07 at 12:25:12:

OK, fine. Thanks for sending me the link. I still maintain that all I said was: "if you think this then I think you're wrong". And now you have corrected me because you don't think that. Anyone else reading this (is there anyone else?) seeing that will know my thoughts on it now because I do think lot of religious people would interpret it that way. Really the while thing doesn't seem like a big deal to me.

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Comment 10 (2492) by SBFL on 2009-09-09 at 07:31:55:

Maybe I misinterpreted your intent, or maybe you didn't choose the best collection of words, or maybe it was a bit of both. Anyway, meaningless squabble ended!

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