Debating Skeptics: A How-to Guide for the Perplexed


Dear creationist, anti-vaccine crank, astrologer, HIV/AIDS denialist or whoever you are,

Are you tired of never having intellectually productive conversations with scientific skeptics? Do you feel stressed and anxious over always being asked to provide evidence for your claims instead of the cute personal anecdotes you commonly use? Do you ever find yourself thinking “why can’t those hard-nosed and close-minded skeptics stop criticizing me?” If so, your fear is now over. This is a short guide on how to debate, more importantly, how to have intellectually productive conversations with skeptics.

A working definition of a skeptic (in this context) is someone who thinks that the strength of a conviction should be in proportion to the strength of the evidence for it, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and that “knowing how” is just as important as “knowing that”.

1. Giving a sermon is not an intellectually productive discussion

A discussion is a form of dialogue between two or more people, where each participant takes turn in making and responding to arguments. If you are primarily interested in giving a long sermon on how your position is true and that all critics are oppressing you, then you are not emotionally or intellectually ready to have a discussion with a skeptic. A sermon is a non-discussion time-waster because parties are already deeply entrenched in their positions.

Go get a blog instead. That way you can ramble on and on without drawing the people around you into your personal vortex of madness against their will.

2. Being a crank is not the same as being open-minded

To have an open-mind means accepting possibility and admitting that you could be wrong, but at the same time evaluating probability and the credibility of the source. It does not mean believing in weird things just because they are emotionally appealing, accepting everything that seems to confirm your position and calling all critics close-minded for pointing out your cognitive biases and flawed arguments or censuring science by cherry-picking or misrepresenting data.

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3. Shotgunning and changing the topic are not productive strategies

A common method is to spam so many arguments that you overwhelm your opponent that he or she does not know where to begin. If you also try to switch the topic every time you are refuted, you will achieve zero credibility. Don’t move on to other arguments or introduce additional points until the current argument has been investigated fully. If an argument is refuted, then stop using it, not only in this particular discussion, but with everyone.

4. Play by the rules

Evidence, reason and logic are valued rules to play by in a rational discussion with a skeptic. Do not suddenly spit out personal anecdotes for why your new age crystals really heal cancer or that whatever the evidence for evolution is, you have faith that fossils have been put into the ground by the devil in order to deceive us or by a benevolent deity in order to test our faith when the discussion is on the evidence for evidence-based treatments for cancer or common ancestry.

5. Being dogmatic is not the same as being humble

Is there anything that could make you reconsider your beliefs? What would have to be demonstrated for you to change your position? If you cannot set a reasonable standard by which arguments against your position will be measured against, all discussion is pointless. No one is interested in hearing you merely asserting your conclusion over and over or ignoring all counterarguments.

6. Conclusion

Establish for yourself what evidence would be required for your position to be refuted, let other people talk and listen to their arguments, stay on topic and focus and be willing to openly change your mind are some good tips when debating skeptics. It will make the discussion much more friendly and productive.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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