Tricks and truth: Play at debate, but avoid the shut-eye

“Debate” is a parlor trick.

That doesn’t mean I don’t admire the skill, practice and dedication such showmanship requires, but I’m less impressed watching someone trained in “debate” deftly handling their arguments than I am watching, say, Ricky Jay handling a deck of cards.

Jay’s performance is better because, unlike those practiced in debate, he’s not suffering from shut-eye. He knows he’s performing a trick and — even if his patter may playfully suggest otherwise — he knows that we know it too. We watch the cards dance in his fingers, disappearing and re-appearing as if by magic, but we all know and accept that it isn’t really “magic” — just the remarkable, dazzling, entertaining execution of a clever trick.

How about a nice, friendly game of Texas hold ’em?

Any magic act would be far less entertaining — and far less impressive — if the “magician” were genuinely trying to convince us otherwise. Or if he seemed foolish enough to believe otherwise himself. We’ll play along with magical powers as the conceit of a trick, but only as a conceit. I’m amazed and delighted at the skill with which Ricky Jay manipulates a deck of cards, but that skill would be cheapened and that amazement diminished if it required either the performer or his audience to believe that something more than skillful manipulation was at work.

And that’s the problem with debate. It invites the audience — and even more so the performers themselves — to regard it as something more than simply the skillful execution of tricks. The audience is asked to believe that this prestidigitation is meaningful, that it reveals truth. And, even worse, it asks the performers themselves to believe that. It convinces them to be tricked by their own trickery. These skilled illusionists become delusionists, infected by the old shut-eye. They are tempted to believe their own patter and wind up convincing themselves that the parlor trick of debate has something to do with the open-minded, single-minded pursuit of truth.

That’s not what debate is about. Debate is about winning. That’s why they keep score — why there’s such a thing as debate teams who compete against other teams. They compete for trophies and titles, not for truth.

The rules of debate say as much, otherwise the outcome of every such competition would be predetermined by the initial assignment of sides. The whole game is a construct designed to ensure that neither side has an advantage. The only way for the contest to be fair — or to be any fun — is if it is conducted in such a manner that it doesn’t ultimately matter whether or not the side being argued is ultimately true. It is a construct designed, quite effectively, to segregate truth from winning — a way of “scoring” arguments irrespective of any necessary correlation to anything actual. The winning tactic thus may be a maneuver that effectively conceals, evades, deflects, buries or obscures any truths that might be damaging to the argument of one’s assigned side.

Such debate competition can be useful training for anyone interested in pursuing truth outside of the competitive construct of such contests. Learning to employ such tactics of deflection, concealment and obfuscation can be an excellent way of learning to recognize their use outside of the debate arena — i.e., in real life, where truth is what matters and not just scoring points. And learning to counter such tactics is eminently practical training for both the artificial setting of the arena and the actual setting of the real world.

But the value of such training is lost if those trained in debate become infected with the shut-eye — if they begin to confuse winning with reasoning, point-scoring with truth. When that happens, the performers forget they are performing. They are tricked by their own tricks.

This is why I find so much of the so-called “Christian apologetics” so disheartening. That’s true for the clumsy, botched sleight-of-hand of a Ray Comfort — aces protruding from his sleeves and a handkerchief peeking out from beneath an oversized, mismatched thumb tip as he proclaims “Ta-da!” and takes his bow. But it’s just as true for the masterful manipulation of a skilled performer like William Lane Craig. I’ll happily applaud when he opens the sealed envelope from inside the corked bottle and reveals the very playing card I had chosen at random, moments before. Bravo! Well done! Wonderful trick! But, no, it’s no reason to believe in actual magic. Expert showmanship isn’t the same as the pursuit of truth — even if the showmen themselves seem to have forgotten the difference.

When Ray Comfort challenges someone to a debate over the truth of Christianity, I wince because I am a Christian and I know that Comfort is most likely going to “lose” that debate, leading some to the mistaken conclusion that this indicates something meaningful about the truth or untruth of what I believe. When William Lane Craig challenges someone to a debate over the truth of Christianity, I wince because I am a Christian and I know that Craig is most likely going to “win” that debate, leading some to the mistaken conclusion that this indicates something meaningful about the truth or untruth of what I believe. Such winning and losing at the game of debate is as meaningful as winning or losing in a poker game with Ricky Jay. (Note: You will lose.)

This little rant was prompted by Libby Anne’s post earlier today on the “Brainwashed shock troops” of the fundamentalist homeschooling movement and by Rachel Slick’s guest post at the Friendly Atheist earlier this week, “The Atheist Daughter of a Notable Christian Apologist Shares Her Story.” Both posts are in the form of what we evangelicals call a “personal testimony” — albeit in the opposite direction.

What’s striking to me in both testimonies is the way in which trickery and truth are confused by so many fundamentalist parents. They come to confuse winning with meaning, and convince themselves to believe that their manipulation really is magic. But to quote C.S. Lewis — someone who flirted with the old shut-eye himself and later came to regret it — “reality is harsh to the feet of shadows.” Outside the artificial arena of the game of debate, there’s no panel of judges keeping score and awarding points for clever tricks. In the real world, everything will be tested. So test everything. And hold on to the good.

The good — not whatever wins or whatever scores points.

Rather than training their little fundie “shock troops” in the craft of debate, these parents would be better served — and their children would be better served — to teach them the practice of dialogue. “Debate” can carry you only until you encounter a situation in which your tricks don’t matter. Or until you encounter someone who knows better tricks than you do.

These homeschooling parents should scrap all these debate teams and replace them with something far harder but far more practical for real life in the real world: Improv.

I’m deadly serious about that. I realize improv training is trendy and that, as Ayun Halliday writes, “There’s big money in teaching corporate executives the rules of improvisation.” But even if I dread the crimes against comedy that would likely be committed by legions of fundamentalist homeschooling improv troupes, the exercise would require them all to learn and to practice and to acquire the art of listening.

And that skill better equips one to seek and to find the truth than any amount of debate trickery ever could.


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  • Nathaniel

    Aww, c’mon, there’s nothing wrong with being a master debater.

  • Alix

    Not as such, no, but there is something wrong with it when one starts looking at every situation as a formal debate. It’s the “every problem looks like a nail” thing.

  • SisterCoyote

    (It was a joke, I think, but now I am trying not to think about a person who looks at every situation as an opportunity to… er, master-debate. And failing.)

  • Alix

    It was a joke, I think

    Whoops. XD

  • Vermic

    There’s probably a joke to be made about losing your vision if you do it too much; but that accidentally sounds almost profound, so forget it.

  • flat

    I agree he must have debated so much he lost much of his vision.

  • Boidster

    Fred already noted that master debaters often tend to suffer from “the shut-eye”, e.g. blindness.

    I need to re-read the post; maybe it wasn’t about what I thought it was about. :-)

  • VMink

    My inner teenager is giggling madly. Thank you. =)

  • smrnda

    Something worth noting is that debate is not the means used to assess truth in many areas. You don’t settle questions in science by debating them, but by a relatively slow process of testing claims over and over again.

  • Aeryl

    This discussion of debate tricks takes me back to my freshman year of college. I attended a public university, but it was in a very fundigelical place, and one of the Christian groups on campus invited a Creationist to debate evolution.

    Not one science professor signed up for the debate. Eventually, after the event was almost cancelled, one of the students behind the debate went to my heathen* World Civ professor, a man who bore a disturbing likeness to Stephen King, and convinced him to do the debate.

    And he did a fantastic job playing a rigged game, which is what it was, and all the professors knew it, which was why not one science professor would do it.

    I forget who the Creationist was, but this is apparently his whole job, he goes from campus to campus “debating” Creationism.

  • Vermic

    I remember Carl Sagan commenting that scientists tend to be ill-equipped to debate creationists, because they’re trained to deal with Mother Nature, who gives up her secrets reluctantly but at least plays fair. Eloquence, rhetoric, and emotion work well in a debate format but they don’t matter much in the empirical world; you can’t change a physical law with a great argument.

  • Aeryl

    Oops forgot my asterik

    *I have no idea of his actual religious affiliation, but he was ALL ABOUT challenging organized religion, which made him somewhat of a pariah. But he was fair, which was why the student thought to ask him.

  • Chris Doggett

    The other reason why science professors don’t debate Christians on issues like evolution or creation is because scientific questions aren’t resolved by debate!

    If I say that water boils at 98 degrees Celsius, we don’t have a debate. We get a hot plate, a pot, some water, and a thermometer, and we boil water! It doesn’t matter if you can convince a panel of judges or the audience of your position if the evidence is against you.

  • Aeryl

    That’s also true, but my professor felt it was because they were cowards to scared to be openly critical of the Evangelical Christian dominance of the school.

  • Carstonio

    I had no debating experience in high school or college, partly because of my fear of speaking before a group. I have difficulty grasping the meaning of the term “truth,” partly because too many evangelicals use it to mean “Our religion is right and everyone else’s is wrong.”

    I can appreciate the point of debate in a political context, where one seeks to convince others of the merits of a particular proposal. But the idea of truth itself being up for debate sounds nebulous, like deciding by popular vote the number of moons circling Neptune. The phoniness of creationists “debating” scientists, like Aeryl mentioned, wrongly casts creationism and evolution as rival ideologies like faith versus works.

    Rachel Slick’s experience matches the impression I have of many religions – their theologies seem to have internal logic only as long as one accepts their core assumptions. I’m not sure what questions for Slick became unanswered once she no longer believed in a god.

  • aunursa

    When William Lane Craig challenges someone to a debate over the truth of Christianity, I wince because I am a Christian and I know that Craig is most likely going to “win” that debate, leading some to the mistaken conclusion that this indicates something meaningful about the truth or untruth of what I believe.

    When Craig challenges a skeptic who is as skilled and knowledgeable a debater as he to a debate over the truth of Christianity, I appreciate that. Because then it’s less likely that the debate will be decided by presentation, and more likely that the strength of the arguments themselves will be the determining factor.

  • aunursa

    For those interested, here is an entire library of debates between Christians and atheists.

  • aunursa

    I would relish a fair debate between Craig and Rabbi Tovia Singer. Alas, this brief skirmish on the question of the Trinity was moderated by a host who is a cheerleader for one of the sides.

  • Matri

    I’m sorry, but those faces in that preview creep me out.

    All three of them…

  • Vermic

    So are those three guys the Trinity, then? I think I want my money back.

  • MarkTemporis

    Fellow on top looks like David Mitchell with a toupee. If you hadn’t named the people involved I would have been quite disappointed.

  • Carstonio

    A huge reason I’m not an atheist is because such debates are really about two opposing types of evangelism. I have no interest in seeing anyone take any particular position on the existence of gods or other supernatural phenomena. My objection is when one side or the other insists that everyone accept its position as irrefutable fact. (Note that I’m talking only about the folks in the debates, and not all Christians or all atheists.)

    If I have an agenda at all, it’s for both sides to either present testable and falsifiable evidence or just leave everyone alone. And for true religious freedom, which includes doing away with the “civil religion” idea of a particular sect being a societal norm or default. When advocates claim that their position is true and everyone else’s is false, and I point out any flaws or weaknesses that I perceive, my message is not that everyone should reject the claims. Instead, I’m challenging the insistence that I should accept them as fact.

  • AnonaMiss

    I’m… not sure why that should make you not an atheist? I mean, if you want to call yourself an agnostic that’s your choice, but it sounds like atheism to me.

  • Carstonio

    I don’t know if there’s a word that accurately captures my position. I don’t know if the supernatural exists or not, so I say I have no belief either way. That’s not the same as agnosticism, which is the position that supernatural phenomena are unknowable.

    And I see the lack of belief that the supernatural exists as also a lack of belief that the supernatural doesn’t exist. From my perspective, atheism seems to include only the former, or a conclusion that the possibility of the supernatural is extremely remote, or a positive belief that the supernatural doesn’t exist. All three seem to involve different degrees of presumption in the absence of knowledge.

  • AnonaMiss

    Though personally I tend to believe that, while lack of evidence is not inherently evidence of lack, lack of evidence after centuries of investigation is, in fact, evidence of lack. Not airtight, but enough to hold a position.

  • Carstonio

    “Centuries of investigation” is not quite right. The supernatural is defined as beyond human perception, excluding even the possibility of investigation. That definition amounts to cheating, because anyone can make any assertions about things beyond perception and no one can prove the assertion wrong. It’s also possible that such things do exist on the same plane as humans, and we haven’t discovered how to detect them. We have no way to determine which assertions about the supernatural are more likely than others. So with any position, including the position that the supernatural doesn’t exist, one could be wrong and not know it.

  • AnonaMiss

    My remarks were a tangent to the link; my apologies. The link is about different degrees of atheism and yes, ‘I don’t believe in any gods but I also don’t actively disbelieve’ is what’s called “weak” or “negative” atheism.

  • dpolicar

    But isn’t this just a special case of inferring beliefs based on the absence of expected observation?

    And we do that every day.

    E.g…. I look around my desk, I don’t see my stapler, it’s possible someone took it or that I left it somewhere and forgot about it, OTOH it’s possible that it’s right there and I’m just not seeing it amid all the other clutter. So I look again, more carefully, and I still don’t see it. At some point, I reach the conclusion that there is no stapler on my desk, because I do not observe what I expect to if there were.

    Seems justified to me.

    In much the same way, I’m pretty confident that YHWH, the God of my Fathers, as depicted in the Old Testament, does not exist and never did. I’m confident of this because I don’t observe what I would expect to if he did.

    Again, seems justified to me.

    None of this is to suggest I’m infallible. Quite the contrary, it’s not uncommon for staplers to mysteriously appear on my desk that I could swear weren’t there a moment earlier.

    But the best I can do is the best I can do.

  • Carstonio

    Conclusion based on inference is sufficient for your stapler scenario, because the outcome is relatively insignificant. I would want a tougher standard with more serious outcomes, such as a person accused of deliberately stealing your stapler.

    I see claims about the supernatural as generally falling into the latter category, because of the implications they have for human existence. In your position regarding the Old Testament god, I would probably question whether my expectations for observations were incorrect.

    And even if it were proven that this god didn’t exist, that wouldn’t disprove the existence of other types of gods. Christians who debate atheists almost never acknowledge the possibility that a god exists and Christianity is mistaken about the god – they see only two possibilities, their god or no god at all.

  • dpolicar

    I agree that “proving” the nonexistence of YHWH — that is,
    accumulating overwhelming evidence in favor of that conclusion — doesn’t necessarily justify confidence in the non-existence of some other thing X. (This is equally true whether X is a god or a lobster in my living-room.)

    Of course, if X shares enough properties with Y that are relevant to how I became confident in Y’s nonexistence, I am justified in inferring X’s nonexistence as well. If I do whatever I have to do to convince myself that there isn’t a red lobster in my living-room, I don’t then have to repeat those steps to convince myself that there isn’t a blue lobster in my living-room… I am justified in saying “Were there one, I’m confident I would have observed it, which I didn’t, so I’m confident there wasn’t one; had one appeared in the meantime, I’m confident I would have noticed, which I didn’t, so I’m confident there isn’t one now.”

    And this is equally true whether X is a god or a lobster.

    And I’m all in favor of having higher standards of evidence for conclusions that entail more serious outcomes… as you say, I wouldn’t want to accuse someone of theft on the same evidence that I would decide to use tape instead of staples.

    But the thing about important questions is, sometimes I have to answer them.

    I don’t have to answer “is there a lobster in my living-room?”; I can just decide that I don’t know for sure. (In principle, anyway. Actually, if I were genuinely in doubt on this question, I suspect I would be compelled to go check.)

    But “Is there a serial killer hiding under my bed waiting for me to go to sleep?” is not quite the same thing. The answer matters more. And regardless of what I assert about my beliefs on that question, my behavior will likely reflect one belief or another.

    “Does YHWH, Blessed be He, who created the heavens and the earth and brought my ancestors out of bondage in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and if he hadn’t then I and my children and my children’s children would remain slaves, does that YHWH want me to refrain from eating bacon?” seems similar. I can say I don’t know, but when I eat bacon, that sure does seem to suggest that I believe He doesn’t.

  • Carstonio

    Do you mean that the bacon question is similar to the lobster scenario or the serial killer scenario? I could see the latter if the religion claimed that bacon-eaters would be punished in hell, or their descendants would end up back in slavery.

    My point isn’t about behavior simply reflecting beliefs, but about finding out and weighing the consequences before making decisions. That’s why many religions appear to me to game the system. They assert momentous consequences after death that are not really provable, almost daring people to either blindly reject the claims or to accept them without question.

  • dpolicar

    I meant the latter. If there’s a serial killer under my bed, that matters. If the creator of the universe prefers that I not eat bacon, that matters. I don’t believe either of those things are true, but I’m not indifferent to them; if I did believe them, I would act differently.

    (Incidentally, threats of punishment aren’t necessary for the latter claim to matter. I might care about such a creator’s preferences out of gratitude. Or out of a belief that its preferences reflect a superior understanding of right action that I would do well to incorporate in my actions. But, sure, threats of punishment are an example as well.)

    I agree that claiming overwhelming consequences without evidence is a common way of “gaming the system.” (Not unique to religions, though common to them.) Rejecting such claims and going on about my life as though they were false seems like an entirely reasonable response to claims of that sort. And it seems to me that such a response reflects disbelief in the claim.

    One might say, instead, that it merely reflects the absence of belief in the claim. That seems to me to be a distinction without a difference.

  • Carstonio

    “Going on about my life as though they were false” isn’t the same as actually concluding that they’re false. Rejecting a claim isn’t the same as accepting its opposite.

    If it weren’t for others insisting that such overwhelming consequences exist, it might not occur to us that they exist. Those claims bear the burden of proof, partly because they would matter tremendously if they were true. You post implies that actions reflect unstated beliefs, whereas I’m talking about consciously adopting positions.

  • dpolicar

    Agreed that rejecting a claim is not necessarily the same as accepting its opposite (supposing the claim even has a well-defined opposite).

    Agreed that extraordinary claims bear the burden of proof.

    Agreed that my post implies that actions can imply unstated beliefs.

  • phantomreader42

    If I had reason to believe that the creator of the universe prefers that I not eat pork, dislikes fabrics of mixed fibers, considers gay people abominations that deserve to be murdered and tortured forever, has no objection to slavery, repeatedly orders people to commit genocide, thinks a rape victim should become the property of her rapist after he pays a fine, and considers arranging the brutal torture and murder of his own son to be the best option available for him to get closer to his creations, that set of beliefs would encourage me to eat more pork and wear more blended fabrics, as I would conclude that the creator of the universe is an asshole, and deliberately flout his arbitrary rules out of spite whenever I found it convenient to do so.
    Luckily, I have no reason at all to believe the above ridiculous nonsense, nor have I ever encountered anyone who actually believes it, no matter how much they babble about biblical literalism. The people who still follow the odd, arbitrary rules about food and clothing tend not to be murderous bigots with a fetish for torture, and the murderous bigots with a fetish for torture tend to discard any rules that don’t help them in their murderous bigotry.

  • dpolicar

    Agreed that people who follow their culture’s interpretations of Biblical injunctions about food and clothing tend not to be murderous bigots with a fetish for torture.

    Agreed that murderous bigots with a fetish for torture aren’t likely to follow any particular set of cultural rules.

  • AnonymousSam

    Sounds like what I had called “nontheism” in another thread. It’s not “no”, it’s not “maybe”, it’s a shrug.

  • Mario Strada

    As far as atheism is concerned, the only question you have to answer is: “does God Exist?”

    If the answer is “yes” or even “Most likely” then you are not an atheist. If you answer “no” or “Very likely not” you are an atheist. You can be an atheist agnostic. In fact, most likely that’s what you are.

  • Carstonio

    That question excludes the possibility of supernatural beings other than the one in Abrahamic theology. One of my many frustrations with fundamentalists is that they assume that one either believes that the Christian god exists or one believes that it doesn’t exist. For all practical purposes, “God” is the name of the Abrahamic deity, or it’s a attempt to restate other belief systems in Abrahamic terms.

    I see your definition of atheism as too broad, effectively endorsing the fundamentalist assumption. I agree with critics who say that the term treats belief in gods as a norm or default. What I want is a term that means “I don’t know if gods exist or not.”

  • dpolicar

    For my own part, I do have an interest in people taking a particular position on the existence of phenomena.

    Specifically, that position is “We shouldn’t assume the existence of a phenomenon without reasons to do so, and we should be honest — with ourselves, at least, and with others when it’s practical to do so — about what our reasons are.”

    Note that I said “reasons” and not “evidence”. For example, I know many Jews who believe in the existence of YHWH because doing so makes them feel a part of a larger community and tradition. I’m perfectly OK with that.

    But if (as often happens) they then start to claim that the available evidence supports such a belief, well… I’m not really OK with that.

  • Carstonio

    Overall I agree. I doubt that I’m able to choose a belief based on an emotional reward, but I probably hold beliefs for that reason without deliberately choosing to do so.

  • Mario Strada

    These days I try to stop debates before they start, especially if they are about the existence of God.

    What I usually tell them is that no matter how much time we’ll spend arguing, we are going to find each other at a point where I am asking for evidence for god.

    You are asking me about my evidence that God doesn’t exist.

    I respond by saying that you are the one making the claim, I am simply saying “I don’t see the evidence”

    Eventually, after you have tried the “look at the trees and the sunsets” you are going to tell me that I need to have Faith, and I am going to tell you that I still need evidence I can test.

    At that point, we are at an impasse, but if we started as friends, odds are good that right now we are less than friendly to each other, so in the interest of friendship and of questions that cannot be proven or disproven, let’s just go do something else and not engage in this debate.

  • Carstonio

    Your post seems to assume that I believe in a single god. hold no belief on whether gods exist or not. I only demand evidence for either position when the person advocating it insists that it’s irrefutable fact. I have little interest in what others believe or don’t believe about gods, but I have great interest in what they believe about me and what they want me to believe.

  • Dorfl

    I think that’s going to depend a lot on what the arguments are. For example: filling the audience in on what our current knowledge about cosmology is – and the way that differs from pop cosmology – would take a lot more time than either speaker has got in a debate, which means that a debate around the cosmological argument can pretty much only be decided by the presentation.

  • flat

    well if I based my faith on winning everything, it would mean I have lost everything.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I’ve been reading the same Homeschoolers Anonymous postings as Slack, and I’ve gotten the same kinds of bad vibes. I’ve had bad experiences with former college debate team types; there is no truth, there is no right, there is no wrong, there is only Semantics, Redefinitions, and WINNING WINNING WINNING.
    The “Lady in the Green Kirtle” from Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair is a good fictional example.
    Debaters turn everything into semantics, at which point they have home-turf advantage and the words whirl until black is white, evil is good, and you are reduced to a fetal position whimpering “but there is too an Aslan”.
    Have you ever been browbeaten down by an ex-UC Berkeley debater proving through aggressive debate how the Soviet Union is so morally and intellectually superior to Racist Sexist Capitalist Imperialist Ism-ist United States? Any disagreement or dissent shot down by barrages of semantics and parsing what the meaning of “is” is? Ending with your burnout and the debater’s crow of triumph.
    I. WIN.
    And the Christian Reconstructionist types (i.e. Handmaid’s Tale for Real) encourage apologetics debate and competitive debate among their homeschooled future Chairman’s Red Guards. Once you’re trained in semantics and debate and parsing, you can justify anything with enough words. Anything.

  • Kirala

    As the great philosopher Douglas Adams postulated:

    ‘”Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
    that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black
    is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.’

  • Alix

    You’ve just described my father. :/ Even his own family’s feelings are matters of semantic debate. (“I’m angry.” “Define angry. How do you know you really are? Well, if you’re angry, then you’re irrational, and therefore by definition not thinking, so I win.” And on and on and on it goes…)

    It is, incidentally, amazing how flustered he gets when one calls him on his bullshit and refuses to let him get away with his semantic games. “No, you know exactly what I mean, stop playing word games.” Dad: O.o. It’s like he literally cannot communicate unless debating with someone.

    The reasons I never joined the debate team have nothing to do with being an introvert, and everything to do with being the child of someone who never grew out of it.

  • Shay Guy

    “No, you know exactly what I mean, stop playing word games.”

    I’ve been told that when I didn’t know what the other person meant.

    I think I have a higher tolerance for arguments over semantics than most people. It only makes sense to me that semantics is something worth debating, because it’s the study of meaning — and without meaning, literally nothing makes sense.

    I can get the idea that some terms aren’t productive to try and define, but which ones are and which aren’t seems to come down to fiat — generally the other person’s. Generally, I think the debates I most enjoy reading are the ones that give me a better idea of the axioms each side is working from.

    (I also get a little flustered when told that if I’m even seriously evaluating a particular claim, I’m doing it wrong and playing into their hands. This stuff gets confusing.)

  • Alix

    I don’t have a problem with arguing over semantics – with people who haven’t proven I can’t trust them. But there’s also, to my mind, a proper time and place for them, and, say, when someone’s really obviously distraught over something is probably not the right time to start picking at how they phrase things.

    I’ve been told that when I didn’t know what the other person meant.

    Me, too, actually. But the difference is – I know my father, and he is rarely arguing in good faith. I generally assume people are operating in good faith until they show signs they’re not, and I don’t consider asking for clarification itself a sign of bad faith – usually the opposite.

    But in context, my father isn’t asking because he doesn’t know (usually – and it’s obvious by tone and demeanor when he really is confused), he’s using it as another rhetorical tactic to try and win, which means it all ends up playing out very differently than an honest conversation.

    …Basically, there are a whole lot of patterns and non-verbal cues that he’s debating to win and playing verbal tricks, not trying to honestly communicate and relate to people. And it goes back to something I said somewhere else – the specific skills of debating aren’t innately bad – on the contrary, they’re very useful – it’s the ends to which they are used that can make them bad in context.

  • Shay Guy

    and, say, when someone’s really obviously distraught over something is probably not the right time to start picking at how they phrase things.

    No, it’s the right time to panic, because saying the wrong thing (like expressing your confusion at something they said that’s going DOES NOT COMPUTE DOES NOT COMPUTE in your brain, say, the matter of whether they were “dreading” the surprise death of their pet rabbit) could blow up horribly and it’ll be all your fault, and for all you know asking what the wrong thing is could be one of those wrong things because you’re supposed to know already, what the hell is wrong with you, how can you be so insensitive? :(

    Yeah, my social skills have historically left something to be desired.

  • Alix

    Hee. That’s pretty much why my sibs, my mom, and I sat down and had a series of really awkward talks about how we react when upset/angry/whatever and what we each find helpful and not helpful – because this stuff isn’t really all that intuitive, thanks to the fact that we’re all different.

  • Alix

    Also: This stuff gets confusing.

    That’s how I often feel about humanity in general. XD

  • Baby_Raptor

    I took debate in high school, and did *really* well. Good debates are a favoured passtime of mine.

    That said, the people you’re complaining about really freaking suck. They’re the ones who know that they have no counter to your point, so they grasp any technicality they can to try and regain the upper hand.

    I have been guilty of this myself from time to time.

  • MarkTemporis

    I despise debate, because it turns conversation — something I’m already got a hard time with if we’re not already friends — into a competition. I try very hard to avoid pretty much all forms of competition because I’m not just a sore loser, but not terribly happy about winning either. I may be happy about the externals of winning (prizes, money, etc) but the winning itself does nothing for me.

  • Mario Strada

    Same here. In my Tennis career and my Motorcycle and car racing days, I always felt really bad for the losers even though I was among them much more than I ever was with the winning side.

  • Shay Guy

    I’ll be honest, this is one of the more disturbing posts I’ve seen here at Slacktivist — all the more so because I can’t really fault the logic in it. I can’t think of many formal contexts other than debating in which the reasoning behind multiple viewpoints on an issue are presented for another’s consideration. Even knowing as I do that, say, attorneys and debate teams are often required to persuade people of a falsehood, or that persuasion skills aren’t really connected to truth-seeking skills, it’s still upsetting to see the conclusion that debating has little or nothing to do with separating truth from untruth.

  • Alix

    I suppose my response would be that debate is a tool set, and if applied appropriately – say, with an end of separating truth from untruth – it can be used well.

    Too many people don’t use that tool set well, and that’s the problem.

  • Matri

    Not true at all. They DO use that tool set.

    Granted, it’s to bludgeon other people over the head with, but it’s being used!

    (Yes, I went there :P)

  • Shay Guy

    Note: “well.” :)

  • Jakeithus

    There is a lot of truth in this post. Debate is all well and good, as long as you realize that at its core it is really a game. This is made all the more apparent to me by my work in politics. As someone who gets paid to watch debates and question period as part of my job, I find it incredibly entertaining. At its core, it is a game designed to make your side look good and the other side look bad. It’s certainly not about the truth.

    Not to say politics is all a game, but the real value comes from the discussions that take place, and discussion and debate are 2 distinct things in my mind.

  • phantomreader42

    The thing is, fundie apologists don’t CARE about the truth. Apologetics is nothing more than a fancy term for lying for jesus. The truth is not in them, never has been, never will be.

  • ChristianPinko

    I disagree; I think fundamentalists don’t see themselves as lying. I would say that the problem is that for fundamentalists (including not only Christian fundamentalists but Islamic fundamentalists, economic fundamentalists — anyone who is sure they’ve cornered the market on Truth),debate is not a means to explore and inhabit truth. For such people, debate is psychological warfare. It’s goal is to beat down the enemy’s resistance until you can conquer them. And I think it comes from a world-view that fundamentally, existence is warfare and one must either conquer or be conquered.

  • dpolicar


    I do sympathize with people who conclude that, because they already know the truth, they can provide the most value if they compellingly share that truth with others… the more compellingly, the better. And if that means sleight of hand and distracting fireworks and deceptive arguments, well, that’s what it means; it’s not the process which ultimately matters, it’s getting to the right answer.

    Mind you, I disagree with all of that, but I do sympathize with it.

    In my mind, though, that whole line of reasoning just ultimately falls apart in the face of how often I’m just wrong.

  • phantomreader42

    If you have to lie and cheat to convince people that you have the right answer, then you probably don’t have the right answer.

  • dpolicar

    Regardless of whether or not I have to lie and cheat to convince people that I have the right answer, I probably don’t have the right answer.

    In addition, if I choose to lie and cheat to convince people, it becomes far less likely that I’ll learn anything from the interaction.

    But, as I say, I do sympathize with the folks who believe they have nothing to learn from me, so listening to me is a waste of time. I often feel that way about others.

    I try not to act on those feelings, with varying success.

  • phantomreader42

    In case you didn’t understand fully, I was using “you” in a general sense.
    If the only ways a person can figure out to convince others that their answer is the right one involve lying, cheating, using dishonest tricks and arguments they know are bad, making threats, disregarding evidence, engaging in fraud, or fleeing in terror from the burden of proof, then it’s highly unlikely that said answer is actually the right one, or that said person is qualified to argue for it. One who has the truth on their side shouldn’t need to resort to lies.
    Mocking people for using shitty arguments, and calling liars on their lies, can be good tactics to discourage people from using or believing shitty arguments and lies.

  • dpolicar

    I understood that, but thanks for the clarification.

    I agree that mocking people for using shitty arguments and calling liars on their lies can effectively discourage people from using or believing shitty arguments and lies.

    I’m not sure if that’s what you meant by “good tactics,” though. If you meant not only that it’s effective, but also that it’s admirable, I’m less confident about that… though of course it sometimes can be.

  • dpolicar

    Also, now that I think about it, it’s not just about lying and cheating either.

    Sometimes what I’m most tempted to do in the situation I describe is not to lie or to cheat, but rather to yell, or browbeat, or mock, or tease. Or all kinds of things. There are lots of ways we allow broadcasting our truth to take precedence over listening to others. And most of them don’t require making false statements, or breaking the rules.

    And there are situations in which all of those things are justified, of course. But as I say, most of those justifications fall apart for me in the face of how often I’m just wrong.

  • ShifterCat

    Off-topic, but I’d like to take the opportunity to pick the Slacktivite brain.

    There was a two-panel cartoon I saw a while ago, which I’d like to get a link to. Both panels showed a tall adult, a much shorter adult, and a child all standing behind a fence. The first panel had one box underneath each person, so that the tall adult towered over everyone, the shorter adult could just see over the fence, and the child still couldn’t see over the fence. It was captioned, “A conservative’s idea of fairness”. The second panel showed the tall adult with no box, the short adult with one box, and the child with two boxes, so that everyone could see over the fence. It was captioned, “A liberal’s idea of fairness.”

  • EllieMurasaki

    Seen it, forget where (other than Tumblr, and good luck trying to find a particular post on Tumblr), sorry.

  • Aeryl

    OH, FUCKING TUMBLR. I hate Yahoo, but maybe they can make it searchable.

  • Lori

    Word. I obsessively save anything I see on Tumblr that I like because I know I’ll never find it on Tumblr again.

  • SisterCoyote

    Heh. You just have to wait another four or five months for it to reappear on your dash.

  • AnonymousSam
  • EllieMurasaki

    Yeah, that looks familiar to me.

  • ShifterCat

    That’s the one! Thanks.

  • AnonaMiss

    What exactly would you like to pick our brains about? That seems accurate, nonpartisan, and straightforward to me.

  • ShifterCat

    I wanted to find the actual picture, and AnonymousSam did.

  • MaryKaye

    I was on my highschool debate team and regard it as a positive experience. The one thing I think highschool debate really has over Christian apologetics is that in order to do well in the tournaments, *you have to be prepared to debate both sides.* And you have to do it well–you can’t debate one side passionately and clearly and the other with limp strawman arguments, or you’ll lose half your matches.

    Just being forced to find the valid arguments on both sides of a topic was really educational to my 15-year-old Libertarian self. I’m grateful for it.

    Also highschool debate tends to be on topics less polarized than “Does God exist?” That would get tired after a very short while (plus it’s unfair in a lot of ways). My year’s topic was “Resolved: The US should change its foreign trade policy.” So the proponent side had a LOT of different possible ideas to put forward, and their opponents had to be prepared to argue against any of those. (Which did lead to a brisk market in canned evidence–not my favorite part of the enterprise, but hard to avoid.)

  • Alix

    And see, in that respect I agree debate can be really valuable, especially for getting people to see other sides. But, well, like I said above, I know someone who sees all human interactions as debates and the goal being to “win”, and to him, arguing both sides is just a technique used to befuddle your opponent.

    Which is, if I read you right, not really what that aspect of debate is meant to be about. But he’s far from the only person I’ve met who misapplies that skill.

    Really stupid question for you: do debate teams emphasize that this isn’t meant to be how normal social interaction works, or do they just assume folks know that?

  • TheBCow

    I think that it depends on the culture of the particular debate team. The coach at my college team was very big on “winning the right way.” We got in trouble if we were overly snide to opponents or if we lied and that losing was preferable to winning while doing those things. We were even discouraged from using fairly popular “procedural” arguments that turn the debate away from the issue at hand and towards formalistic minutiae and told to only use them when they actually applied. From what I saw then as a competitor, and what I see now as a freelance judge is that many teams try to operate along similar lines. There are also some who do not, and many of them end up rather successful. It is pretty much the same as athletics, some view as a fun and useful supplement to education, others as a validation of their identity.

    I would also like to add that most college “debate teams” are more accurately called forensics or speech teams and compete in events other than debate. The can include various forms of dramatic interpretation, prepared speeches with various purposes and limited-preparation events where you have to come up with a speech quickly after being given a topic or a quotation around which to build it. Forensics tournaments are like track meets with way more talking.

    There also several competitive debate formats. There are formats that reward technical understanding of debate tricks and the ability to deliver arguments quickly in the hope that your opponent misses one and those that value a more conversational approach. Some require you to be able to present documented evidence at demand of the judge (which tend to be the ones that have 1 topic per year or tournament) and others that rely only on what an above-average information member of the public could be expected to know (where you typically don’t know what your topic will be until 30 minutes before the start of the round). Interestingly, the later tend to actually be better at resembling dialogue, since the former often turns into rapid-fire warring factoids.

    Some formats, that are popular globally and are starting to catch on in the U.S., use 4 teams, requiring teams to work together and build off each-others arguments and do away with the idea of a side “winning” ranking the teams 1-4 independent of side.

    tl;dr verion: It depends on what your team is like, what events you do and what format you prefer. It is a rather varied universe.

  • TheBCow

    Sorry, I didn’t sit down to write a novel, I just get excited when talking about speech. :)

  • Alix

    Ha, no problem. You should see how long I can blather on when I get going – and anyway, your comment was really helpful. I didn’t know any of that, so thank you.

  • Ross Thompson

    I would also like to add that most college “debate teams” are more accurately called forensics or speech teams

    I’ve heard this before and, not being American, the term “forensics” in this context confuses me. Surely it refers to scientific investigation of a crime? What’s the connection?

  • TheBCow

    Forensics is derived from the latin word “forensis” which means “having to do with the forum.” In English, it originally meant “involving public discourse” which is the meaning that speech and debate teams use. The scientific meaning is based on the idea that such investigation are matters of public concern. That meaning is newer and its popularity postdates many school’s founding their speech teams.

    (Oddly, despite the criminal investigation meaning being far better known now, it is still listed behind “public discourse” in every dictionary I looked at to make sure I remembered this right)

  • Ross

    I’d always assumed that “forensic science” got its name because it was “science for the purpose of arguments in court”

  • summer

    Libby Anne’s post resonated deeply. Jehovah’s Witnesses do so much challenging and countering of other religion’s beliefs, and yes, learning to do that led me directly away (okay, I wasn’t ever really with them, but I had learned the right answers). I learned respect for humans regardless of differences of race and income (the congregations I have seen in 3 states/countries have been diverse) and integrity and speaking to your beliefs, too, and those things, and some others, I have held fast to.

  • Elizabeth Coleman

    Speaking of debate and fundamentalists, here’s the trailer for the old movie, “Listen to Me,” in which Kirk Cameron’s high school debate team gets to debate abortion before the Supreme Court. They even say in the trailer, “If we can’t win this with facts, we’ll win it with drama!”

  • Gordon Duffy

    Whenever I watch William Lane Craig debate I am embarrassed for him. He could stay home and send a recording of himself from a previous debate. He never responds to his opponent, just delivers the same points over and over.

    To use your magician analogy he is a better illusionist than Ray Comfort, but only because he has two tricks he does over and over. Your card is always the three of diamonds regardless of what card his opponent showed the audience.

  • AnonaMiss

    This reminds me of the time someone tried to start a debate team at my high school. I went to the first meeting in with high hopes, spurred by my father’s stories of when he was in debate in high school. I gtfo’d in the middle of the meeting when I learned, to my horror, that in debate you had to be prepared to argue for positions that you were 100% sure were objectively wrong.

    Arguing to win is a kind of lying, and lying is a sin against truth.

  • alfgifu

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds competitive debate uncomfortable because arguing against what you believe feels like lying!

    I’m not hardline anti-lying, but I have a high respect for truth. If you’re going to deliberately mislead, you’d better have a jolly good reason for doing it. ‘Winning’ does not constitute a good enough reason (for me).

    That’s not to say that I don’t admire the skill that goes into a good competitive debate.

    [And I’m not exactly comfortable with the idea of a ‘sin against truth’ either. I’m not sure whether I think sin is a useful concept or not, but I’m positive that if it is a useful concept, it can only be sin if it’s against a person (or group of people).]

  • andrew

    I don’t follow the post’s main point; maybe the post’s author is just in unfamiliar territory. If Craig chose not to participate in debates, he would still be a respected professional philosopher, published in all the top peer-reviewed journals. The content of his debates are jam-crammed with the research and writing he is doing 95% of his work week, not the 5% of speaking/debating/etc. If deductive arguments are tricks, like pulling rabbits out of hats, then our author is right. Of course, deductive arguments are not tricks, though, no more than the scientific method.

  • JRoth95

    Holy cow, my worlds just collided. My wife adores Ayun Halliday, and has been subscribing to her zine (The East Village Inky) for over a decade now. I know more about Ayun’s family than I do about any of my cousins’.

  • Mordicai

    To miss the point of this…Derren Brown is my favorite magician– illusionist, huckster, trickster, magic-user, whatever– working these days. Check out some Youtube videos (unless you are from the UK, in which case you probably already know him.)

  • Peter Kirkpatrick

    I like the distinction between debate and dialogue. The latter is a far better image because it depicts truer communication – people who are interested in listening as well as speaking. Too often listening is the lost art.