Note: This is the second installment in the series on debating tactics and pseudoskepticism. For other posts in this series, see the index entry.
In response to my previous post on The Challenge of Pseudoskepticism, the commentator Wonderist made the following poignant remark that I feel requires additional discussion. I have chopped up the comment a bit for brevity
[…] I think that if you’re dealing with an entrenched pseudo-skeptic, you have to realize that you will inevitably have much more success if you focus on how your argument sounds to the *audience* that is listening (or on the web, lurking), rather than trying to convince the pseudo-skeptic directly. […] A good dose of humour or mockery can put the debate in the right context: This is not a debate between equal positions. […] When one side continues to present fact after fact, and debunking one claim after another, and referring constantly to evidence that can be checked, all the while making fun of the fact that the other side’s argument is totally empty, it doesn’t take long before the non-entrenched audience starts to see the pattern and shift their position to be a little more wary of the pseudo-skeptic’s arguments.
I think there are many benefits to this perspective but also a few pitfalls that may merit discussion. The overarching question is regarding what sort of debate tactics proponents of scientific skepticism should take against a person who is highly intellectual, but deeply entrenched and committed to his or her viewpoint.
Now, there is probably the case that nothing you say can or will convince this person. He or she is plagued by confirmation bias and the sophistication effect to such a degree that arguments against his or her position will be subjected to much stronger criticisms than arguments that the individual puts forward to support his or her position. He or she will also be highly trained in rationalizing his or her position that he or she ultimately has come to for non-rational reasons. Perhaps an analogy can make this issue clearer.
Would you ever try to have a debate with a jukebox? To be sure, you can make it play another song by pressing some buttons, but there is fundamentally nothing you can say or do to make the jukebox “change his opinion”. In fact, it would be positively foolish to try and do so and people around you may start to glance at you like there is something wrong with your head. This analogy is not perfect and it limps a bit, but hopefully the message is clear: there are times when it is useless to try and convince someone, because no matter what, he or she will not listen. Or at least not change his or her position in real-time, although possible at a later date when it has all sunk in.
Now, if you like to debate for the sake of debate, then that is absolutely fine. Who knows, maybe it gives you additional practice with presenting your arguments as clearly as possible or learning how to reply with informative one-liners. Perhaps you are just addicted to the thrill of the debate? But entering a debate or discussion with such an entrenched pseudoskeptic with the explicit intent to try and change your his or her mind does not seem very reasonable. So why do it in the first place?
Wonderist offers one clear and important rationale: this type of debate is not about trying to convince your opponent, but to convince those in the audience that have not yet decided firmly on the issue yet. This shifts the focus somewhat, making things like satire and comedy effective tools toward this end. Whereas your opponent probably won’t appreciate the mockery, the audience probably will. As Wonderist points out, it is still vital to present rational arguments backed up by evidence, because mockery without substance would be lowering yourself to the level of pseudoscience. The bottom line is: if your goal is to spread rationality, why not focus on those that can be turned away from a rotten position?
It is possible to envision a couple of counter-arguments to position I described above, namely (1) making your opponent a martyr, (2) resorting to what strictly speaking may at the end of the day be argumentatively invalid methods, (3) the question of empirical evidence. Let us look at this in turn, starting with the martyr argument.
What if using satire and mockery puts your opponent in the position of a martyr, awarding him or her sympathy for being “harassed”? This feeds nicely into the classic debate tactic that pseudoscientists often use of being “censured” by the “dogmatic establishment”, further reinforcing the opponents belief. Perhaps it is possible to emphasize that one is ready to change one’s mind should the weight of the evidence suggest it, thereby hopefully disabling the portrayal of oneself as dogmatic? Maybe the satire should not be over-the-top, but carefully fine-tuned to the situation? Take those two things into account, makes this retort seems less persuasive. What about the supposed deviation from proper debating methods?
At a first analysis, this seems to be a conflict between principle and pragmatism. That is, should you go with principle and be cold and unemotional without satire (although this may be a too incisive wording) or go with pragmatism and do whatever it takes, within reason, to convince the audience? Now, it is strictly not the case that making claims about your opponents character is a logical fallacy per se, it only because one when you use this fact to argue that your opponent is mistaken, so pragmatism seems to win this crossing of swords as well. Perhaps there is a weaker claim that can stand against its torrents? Does the usage of satire and mockery violate proper debate etiquette? Now, this may have something to it, because it is actually something that occurs, but the value of adhering to debate etiquette (divorced from the issue of fallacies) must be balanced against the pragmatic outcomes of the method. It is not clear that debate etiquette is universal so the evaluation probably has to be done on a case-by-case basis. Overall though, this argument lacks persuasion. What about empirical evidence?
Although I know of no research on the effects of mockery and satire with regards to persuasion per se and most of the debate on accommodation is usually carried out without reference to studies but mostly on a “surely, it seems that…” basis. Now there is nothing wrong with appealing to theoretical models per se, but it is often useful to strike a good balance between theory and data.
Despite this it seems to me that the usage of satire holds up well to the counter-arguments I have discussed above and may be worth using more frequently, although with utmost care to avoid the problems of martyrdom and the accusation of deviating from proper debate etiquette.