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.

  • James Thompson

    When I first heard a WLC debate, I didn’t even need the other side to speak. I knew many of his arguments were poor to start with.

  • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Chris,

    I agree that you are being consistent in your criticisms, but I think you’ve somewhat misrepresented my views. But first let me state that I agree with you that my statements about “this argument flows to me” were a mistake. “Flowing” an argument is debate jargon; I should not have used that jargon in the debate. I should have simply said, “I argued X and Dr. Fernandes hasn’t said anything about that.”

    You write:

    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.

    Nowhere have I said that I hold the ‘apparent’ belief you attribute to me. Also, while I did not debate in college, your two references to intercollegiate debate as “a silly extracurricular competition” kind of rubs me the wrong way.

    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.

    I agree with you that taking it to the extreme is a problem. I suspect you are not aware of just how extreme the extreme is. In high school and college debate (at least at the time for me), speaking rates of 300+ words per minute were common. That was one of the reasons I stopped debating after high school.

    So, again, we agree that it is possible to take it to the extreme. We probably just disagree about where to draw the line. The key point, a point I was responding to in the combox on my blog but a point you ignore in your post, is whether there is something unethical about using 8 arguments. Greg Gorey said he thought Craig’s use of the “Gish Gallop” was/is “extremely distasteful.” I don’t think there is anything “distasteful” about what Craig did. You may be right that the average college student might have a hard time keeping track of those arguments. If true, then so be it. But having a hard time keeping track of arguments is a very different issue from being “extremely distasteful.”

    • hf

      We probably just disagree about where to draw the line.

      Yes, but this seems like entirely the wrong way to put it. Let’s ask how we would design a debate if we wanted to maximize the chance of a random audience member leaving with true beliefs. (Even the wording of the problem may merit more thought.)

    • Chris Hallquist

      Jeff, the “apparent belief” comment was in reference to your snipe about how most people who complain about the Gish Gallop not having much debate experience (I assume you’re referring to college debate, since that’s the main place where that sort of thing is common, and then I’m told that’s only true in the US). I simply don’t think that’s relevant.

      (And additionally, your point was a non-sequitur as written. Most people don’t have much debate experience, so most people who complain about most things aren’t going to have much debate experience.)

      • http://www.infidels.org Jeffery Jay Lowder

        Chris — I was referring to ANY kind of debate experience, not just college debate experience. As I explained in my previous comment, high school debate (in its cross-examination format), at least when I was in high school, was also notorious for this same thing.
        As far as debating experience goes, I agree with Luke Muelhauser that people without debating experience are taking a big risk when debating someone like Craig for their first debate. So when I read people complaining about how many arguments Craig packs into his speeches, I think it is relevant to consider the debate experience of the person lodging the complaint.
        To make analogy, if someone with no martial arts experience were to challenge the late Bruce Lee to a fight, it would be very odd to read complaints that Bruce Lee uses a lot of attacks in rapid succession. That’s what an experienced fighter does. (For the record, I don’t want this analogy taken literally; I don’t want people think I think debates are “fights.”)

        • Chris Hallquist

          I’ve written a bit more here, but to respond to the Bruce Lee analogy:

          First, it’s not clear to me if it’s true that all experienced debaters use Gish Gallop tactics. My impression is that debate culture can be quite different outside the US. (See here, for example.) And I even think you could find counterexamples in the US–I think Dan Barker has an awful lot of debates under his belt, but doesn’t debate the way Craig does.

          But even if it were true, it’s still a bad analogy because fights don’t serve some broader purpose. A better analogy would be politics: we can find the behavior of politicians deplorable, even if there are very strong incentives pushing most experienced politicians to act that way.

  • Clare45

    I think you have a good point. A lots depends on the type and educational level of the audience. Appealing to the audience is the most important thing-more important even that scoring points off your opponent. Many people in WLC audiences are church members who do not have college educations. His style is certainly more impressive than most atheists I have seen who debated him, so the content hardly matters. He has had years of practice preaching several times a week. Performance is everything. Honesty is less important!

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