On the Gish Gallop and related matters: a reply to Jeffery Jay Lowder

In a comment in a thread on the Craig-Rosenberg debate, Jeffery Jay Lowder writes:

In my experience, people who whine about the “Gish Gallup” typically don’t have debating experience. If Craig is guilty of it, then so am I. In my debate with Phil Fernandes, I used eight (8) arguments for naturalism. But I don’t think there is a problem with using many arguments. It simply forces the debaters to be well organized and concise in their rebuttals. So what?

To show that I’ve had a consistent position on this, I’m going to quote something I wrote when I reviewed the debate Jeff refers to more than six years ago:

First, two words: fourteen arguments. Yikes. This was a 90 minute debate, so we’re talking about just over 6 minutes per argument. Both Lowder and Fernandes could have strengthened their presentations by cutting arguments. Fernandes’ claim about the failure of naturalism was not defended at all, so it was a mere assertion. In Lowders’ case, I had trouble remembering what all his arguments were even after listening to the debate multiple times. Lowder would have done beter organizing his debate under four headings: physical dependence of minds, evolution, evil, nonbelief/religious confusion. He could have kept most of his material while organizing it better and making it easier to follow.

A related problem was that the delivery often felt unnatural. I understand that reading statements is often necessary to make sure that every word counts, but both speakers should have tried to make the delivery better… maybe by memorizing their opening statements so they could at least make eyecontact.

I wonder who their presentation was aimed at. Both of these things might not have mattered if their audience were just forensic judges. However, it seems their audience was a mix of college students and academics who had come for a conference. If I couldn’t keep track of all the arguments after multiple listenings, I doubt other students would be able to keep track after one. There’s even better reason to cut down the number of arguments for academics: most have heard the arguments, so the best approach is to develop one or two in detail.

Another thing that irked me is that Lowder began scoring his own debate while it was in progress, saying “this argument would flow to me.” Pointing out that an argument hasn’t been refuted isn’t a bad strategy, but using technical forensic terms sounds weird to laypersons, and I’m not sure professional debate judges would appreciate it either.

Now I thought Jeff did a great job of responding to Fernandes’ arguments in that debate… but I still think his apparent belief that a debate conducted in front of an audience for their benefit should be conducted in the same way as a silly extracurricular competition for college students bizarre.

Being concise is all well and good, the problem is that when you take that to the extreme, debates become a contest to see who can cram the most talking points into their allotted time. Maybe some college students find that fun, but for a debate in front of an audience it’s not going to be the most enlightening experience for them.

And I need to emphasize I don’t even have a problem with one-liners (bumper stickers, billboards, internet memes…) in the right time and place… but when you’ve got a 90 minute debate, there are better ways of spending that time. At least from the point of view of enlightening the audience, if not from the point of view of scoring rhetorical victories at all costs.

To give an example of what I mean, consider Craig’s moral argument. Jeff agrees with me about how awful Craig’s argument is, but complains that Craig’s opponents have done an awful job rebutting the argument. I disagree. As I’ve explained here and here, I think the real issue is that Craig’s moral argument is basically just a grab back of talking points, so an opponent can give a perfectly devastating rebuttal to one talking point, and Craig just pulls out a new one.

As long as you’re judging the debate as judging the debate as if it were a silly college extracurricular activity, there’s no way to counter that kind of tactics. Whoever spews talking points better will “win.” The only solution is to start judging debaters on more sensible standards.


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