Note: This is the fifth installment in the series on debating tactics and pseudoskepticism. For other posts in this series, see the index entry.
Two dark cars are parked on a dark road in the middle of nowhere on a rainy night. Suddenly, the lights are turned on and the engines roar. The cars start driving towards each other and their fierce acceleration sounds like butter frying in a pan. They are now on a head-on collision course. Will one of the drivers back out before it is too late and both cars crashing into each other?
The keen commentator Wonderist outlined a debating tactic based on this analogy. He calls it evidence chicken and it works something like this. Imagine that you are listening to someone causally promote some kind of pseudoscience, say, alternative medicine or creationism. At an appropriate time, you try to bait him or her into defending his or her position by asking an innocent-sounding questions. As I understand this tactic, this question cannot be too confrontational because that may generate retorts calling you arrogant or close-minded. It needs to be innocent enough to elicit a defense, but not too in-your-face. As the conversation goes on, escalate the difficulty of the questions, while presenting solid evidence for all of your own claims. Then the pseudoscientist will, in Wonderist words, “soon finds themselves in over their heads, unable to back up their claims with convincing evidence. They almost always leave the game having lost significant credibility in the eyes of the on-lookers who were not fully convinced either way before the game began”. This is an interesting approach and it has many benefits, but also some drawbacks. Let us look at the benefits first.
By not starting out with a confrontational approach, it should be easier to bait the person into a discussion about the topic. As long as you have the evidence to back up your claims, such as bringing the papers themselves, short summaries from science news websites or a well-rehearsed description, it should not be a problem. If you also start the conversation by applying the principle of charity and pointing out that you yourself is by no means an expert on the topic, you may appear genuine and honest to the audience. If you also add a theatrical spin, it might be entertaining to the audience as well. I think this is an overall solid method and certainly one that I will try to use as much as possible. However, I do see some potential pitfalls with the execution of this tactic.
It is easy to sound like you are lecturing the other person or talking down to him. As we all know, playing the martyr card and portraying oneself as “silenced by the establishment” is a favorite counter-tactic by pseudoscientists and pseudoskeptics alike. Another is trying to derail the argument by complaining about tone. So keep it friendly, funny and non-confrontational. Formulate arguments in the form of inquisitive questions. Roughly speaking, in stead of doing something akin to hard positional bargaining, try the softer version. The person you are debating against is not an enemy, but just an unfortunate person having been sucked into what Stephen Law calls “intellectual black hole”; a sort of spinning, vortex of splitting and emotion. The belief that irrational people can be swayed by rational arguments is a delusion. Irrational beliefs are often a source of personal identity and group cohesion. It is not processed as a conclusion, but rather as the foundation for a persons values. Attacking them is only viewed as an attack on personal identity, so it is more or less clear that it is about the audience. Engaging a entrenched pseudoscientists alone is most often not worth the effort.
Wonderist also points out another easy pitfall: making too many claims yourself that you cannot back up with evidence. Surprisingly, this is a favorite tactic of certain kinds of religious apologists, such as Greg Koukl. He advocates trying to destabilize the opponent by asking questions like “how do you mean?”, “how did you come to that conclusion?”, “have you ever considered..?” because this shifts the attention and burden of evidence to your opponent. In the case of religious apologetics, this is usually a dishonest method because it acts like a diversion, trying to conceal their own flawed position by averting the attention. Needless to say, this tactic should not be used in this way, so skeptics need to be able to, at least in principle, back up the claims with evidence.
For practical purposes, rehearsing arguments and questions as well as actually keeping articles with you may be beneficial, but since there are so many nonsensical claims out there, the marginal utility is low for reading up on and preparing to refute any specific claim, so additional motivation, such as the satisfaction of being able to refute a claim, even though the chances are low that you will ever need to do it offline is small. The chances are obviously larger online, as you can actively search out discussions.
References and Further Reading:
Koukl, G. (2009). Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions. Michigan: Zondervan.
Wonderist. (2011). Evidence Chicken. RationalResponders. Accessed: 2011-08-23.
Caritas.org. (2009). Positional Bargaining: Soft vs. Hard. Accessed: 2011-08-23.