Sunday, May 3, 2009

Let's Try Something New...

I'd like to see if I can get a discussion going on the blog. The topic is:

Should Atheists engage Theists in debate?

Here are some rough thoughts to get the ball rolling. Please weigh in in the comments. (Anonymous commenting now available.)

Yes: Not debating means your side won't be heard; Might convince some people on the fence; Can correct some common mistaken beliefs about atheism.

No: Not going to convince Theists; It's a false dichotomy--there's no "Atheist side" to represent; Atheists already handicapped in debate by cognitive biases in favor of Theism.


Seth Goldin said...

I would suggest evaluating each case separately. It depends on whether or not the opponent is known to be, at the very least, intellectually honest, polite, etc.

Steve said...

I should state upfront that I am a theist, so don't know if my opinion is appropriate here. I do agree with Seth. I think a mutually respectful dialog between two clearly opposing positions can be enlightening. I like the idea of dialog better than debate. A debate can be entertaining, but often not so enlightening because each side is trying to score points or on the defensive instead of in a learning mode.

Seth Goldin said...

Here's a relevant item.

It is a mistake to assume that you can win a debate when you have the facts on your side. Consider the "Gish gallop."

Humans are really irrational. We have all sorts of cognitive biases, and often rely on fallacious reasoning. It's sad, but true.

Steve said...

About Eugenia Scott's characterization of Gish's style in the article cited, I have been present at a Gish debate. Gish does follow a well-beaten track. As for "gallop", there is never time for either side to respond to all the points raised. You select the most relevant. Notice the comments of the reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald on the debate with Ian Pilmer and how Wikipedia spins it.

Maybe some of the limitations of a debate could be avoided by a mutually agreed format of respectful dialog with ample time for questions and answers from the audience.

OK, I'll shut up and hopefully others will comment.

Dee W said...

I'm for debates personally, if it wasn't already evident in my posts. (And the fact that I'm a law student.) I agree with Seth's point that having facts on your side are just one part of winning a debate. A debate is a test of presentation and a rhetorical sophistry as much as it is a battle of the argument on the merits.

But that's the point. You can't convince other people by saying "hey, the facts are on my side" if you can't even explain the facts for them to understand. Debating is a way to hone your arguments so they reach a bigger audience--people who don't already agree with you.

Format does matter a lot. I've read a post with some guidelines on this matter. I think that the presidential debate format is pretty solid, and if it works for something as complicated as a presidential platform, it should work for atheism v. theism debates. Basically, each side gets a quick (20 mins or less) opening statement and then has to answer a bunch of questions with opportunity to respond to one another along the way. The problem with a lot of Atheism v. Theism debates I've seen is that the intros are too long-winded and each side goes off on their own tangent without responding to one another.

(About that article on Overcoming Bias. I'm skeptical and not just because it's a Robin Hanson post. The Diamond article suggests that people were "punished" for writing about Polywater, as if someone docked their pay $13,000 to $19,000 just for their article! Even if the study showed a correlation, it certainly wouldn't prove a causation. I also don't think that the opportunity cost of "lost citations" is so easily measurable. Researchers aren't paid by how many citations they get.)

Seth Goldin said...

Here's one more point. You shouldn't avoid a debate even if you don't necessarily think you can win. Challenge yourself!

Nicole said...

I tend to shy away from debate, mostly because I suck at thinking on my feet. I prefer discussion to debate. However, find public debates on religion are important, fascinating, entertaining, and informative, when done correctly, of course. On the other hand, those done incorrectly can be also be educational!

"Researchers aren't paid by how many citations they get."

No, but "publish or perish" is a meme for a reason. Citation count is a factor in hiring and fellowship decisions for scientists, and job opportunities are scarce. How big of a factor it is, that is hard to determine, and I haven't seen any convincing numbers.

Caroline said...

The value of debate/dialog isn't in whether your side wins. It's whether anyone involved stands to learn anything from it.

So: debate is constructive when the bystanders aren't fully informed. Dialog is constructive when the interlocutors have something new to say to one another.

Otherwise, these discussions tend to generate more heat than light, and although I'm all about a good brawl, it's probably best to skip debates that are purely about scoring political points.

Bergit said...

I have to say, every debate I've ever watched between atheists and theists went something like this:
T: "How can you look at the trees and not see god?"
A: "I look at the trees and see trees. I don't see things which aren't there."
T: "How can you have meaning and morality without god!?"
A: "Morality comes from social codes, and our desire to work together in groups. Life means whatever you make it mean."
A: "Why do you believe in god? How do you know what he wants?"
T: "The trees! The first cause! The bible! .... I just have faith!"

I think discussion is great, because we should challenge each other to think about our conclusions, and question our assumptions. But I've never seen a debate which went anywhere.