In the aftermath of the Craig-Rosenberg debate, this post seems to be getting a lot of attention. Many of the Christians showing up to comment on that post seem unable to wrap their heads around the idea that “winning” debates might often involve rather sleazy tactics.
I need to emphasize the scare quotes around “winning.” This is something I’ve written about before, but it’s worth expanding on. The simple fact is that the questions “who gave the best arguments?” and “who got the rhetorical ‘win’?” often have very little to do with each other.
An excellent example of this is Craig’s debate with Richard Carrier (on the resurrection). Craig spoke first, using his standard spiel mixed with some attempts to paint Carrier as a crackpot. Carrier responded with an absolutely first-rate opening speech that made many good points. Craig never made a serious effort to respond to Carrier’s opening statement. Instead, he continued with his “smear Carrier as a crackpot” strategy for the rest of the debate.
Based on that, I’d say Carrier clearly presented better arguments. Unfortunately… well, Carrier called Craig out on a lot of misrepresentations of his (Carrier’s) work, which sounds good in theory. The problem was that Carrier didn’t call Craig out on ignoring the actual arguments Carrier had made during the debate, or on just how slimy Craig’s tactics were. It felt like Carrier had let Craig change the topic from “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” to “Is Richard Carrier a crackpot?” That made the second half of the debate painful to listen to (for me anyway), so arguably Craig got the rhetorical win.
And the really insidious thing about the kind of dishonest tactics Craig uses is that he can be called out on misrepresenting other people’s views, but the audience will still remember the misrepresentation rather than the actual truth. It’s the Richard Nixon “I am not a crook” effect. You can see that in this post-debate comment by Carrier; Carrier blames one of Craig’s fans for lying but I think the blame rests with Craig for encouraging that kind of nonsense.
Now the connection to Duane Gish. While many Christians commenting on this seem unable to even consider the things I’ve said about Craig might be true, here’s one that actually attempted a rebuttal:
Ok, so If Craig’s arguments misrepresent/are not any good/distorts positions are all these things not refutable? If what he say is plainly wrong then the rebuttal provides opportunity to skewer him. This doesn’t seem to happen.
I would have thought given that Craig makes similar arguments in his debates it should be relatively simple to refute them. You could even anticipate his answers to challenges and prepare to deal with them.
Its not a fault of WLC that atheists don’t debate well.
There are several things wrong with this… the most obvious being that if you “win” by lying about your opponent, yes it is your fault. But another thing wrong here is that you could make the same defense of Duane Gish.
Gish, for those who don’t know, is a young earth creationist famous for debates with evolutionary biologists and in particular for the “Gish Gallop,” basically substituting quantity of arguments for quality with the effect that most of his opponents are unable to respond to everything he says. This, of course, is essentially Craig’s strategy, Craig just has a slightly more sophisticated approach designed for people who won’t fall for young earthism or Josh McDowell.
Now many of Craig’s fans won’t want to get caught defending the likes of Duane Gish. But if it’s always easy to skewer people who are wrong, then it follows that it’s not Gish’s fault if biologists have trouble responding to the Gish Gallop. Is what what Craig’s fans really want to say?
The reason that Gish’s/Craig’s tactics are effective is that it takes a lot longer to refute a bogus talking point than to state the initial bogus talking point. Or, to be somewhat more precise: yes, you can always respond to a string of empty assertions by yourself just asserting, “none of that’s true,” but that’s likely to leave the audience unsatisfied. Something about human psychology–when we hear two people making contradictory assertions, we often just believe whoever we heard first.
There’s also the problem that most of Craig’s opponents are playing with a handicap he doesn’t have, i.e. honesty. An atheist debater could adopt a mirror-image of Craig’s tactics: for example, you could respond to Craig’s cherry-picked quotes with cherry-picked quotes of you own and insist loudly that it’s your quotes that really represent the expert consensus. But I don’t think any of Craig’s opponents would want to do that, because they’re basically honest people.
This is not to say it’s impossible to counter Craig’s tactics (even on the rhetorical level). For example, even most Christians who I’ve heard comment on the debate seem to think that Craig lost his debate with Shelly Kagan. But I think the Kagan debate vindicates what I’ve said about Craig not speaking first.
Not only did Kagan speak first, the debate deviated even more significantly from Craig’s standard format by having an extensive cross-examination period. That meant that instead of Craig getting to cram as many talking points into one speech as possible before Kagan got a chance to respond, the rhythm was “Craig uses one of his standard talking points, Kagan shows why it’s nonsense, Craig moves on to another talking point, Kagan explains why it’s nonsense…” In fact, if someone wanted to really stand up to Craig, they could demand to use that format again.
Note: I haven’t found time to watch the debate yet, but now that I’ve seen one Christian complaining about Craig not being a “gentleman” I really want to.