The goal of science is to build knowledge. The goal of a debate is to win. While these can sometimes look very similar, they are not the same. Online media have created platforms where superficial debates can flourish at the expense of scientific understanding. Skeptical communities who advocate the scientific worldview already promote a widely known collection of rules for debate. They should also consider articulating “best practices” for constructive discussion, recognizing that most discussions do not need to become debates.
Science concerns itself with analysis, observation, demonstration and refutation with the goal of building knowledge. While scientific discussions often involve the juxtaposition of arguments, they rarely proceed in the manner of formal debates unless the occasion calls for an immediate decision or action — as in a peer review decision or the adoption of a research agenda. When debate happens, it requires extensive preparation by the participants and is usually moderated by a decision maker, such as a journal editor, program manager or committee chair.
The internet has always been known for its endless rounds of virtual debate on every conceivable topic, and there have always been voices asserting the futility of online debate. I believe that online discussion can be quite fruitful. People really do change their minds as a result of productive discussion. But debate is something else. The objective of debate is to win. In internet debates, we often see a weakly moderated hash of N participants, each one generating arguments and rebuttals, appealing to supposed rules of informal logic, usually investing more energy into attacking “opponents” rather than articulating their own sound position. Since it is very difficult to construct a sound position, one can establish a prolific debating career by repeatedly savaging the casual opinions of unwary participants. While it isn’t really possible to “win” with this strategy, it is certainly possible to make everyone else lose.
Members of the Skeptical community tend to entertain visions of themselves as cultural warriors, fighting for the interests of science and human progress. That’s great. But it’s very easy for Skeptical groups to become trapped in an attack! mentality that makes discussions superficial and unpleasant for everyone. It is a serious mistake to imagine you are promoting science through this kind of behavior. To be an attack artist you need only understand a basic menu of logical fallacies and argumentative tactics. This doesn’t really help anyone acquire better beliefs.
There are a number of good sites that promote constructive dialogue — Jerry Coyne’s “living room” standard for comments is a good example; I also approve of the general themes in Jack Vance’s Rational Skeptic’s Manifesto series (the most recent in that series is A Skeptic is Charitable). Although it may be redundant, I’ll now contribute a few recommendations of my own for those who want to pursue constructive, enlightening and persuasive discussions:
- A comment is usually not a case for debate. In a structured debate, opposing sides usually prepare cases comprised of some logical structure together with a carefully curated evidential basis. A case invites point-for-point criticism, hence providing a foundation for debate. A comment, by contrast, is more likely to be a casual remark left by an unprepared user, offering ad hoc logic supported by evidence drawn from memory. It doesn’t matter if the comment was left by a high-school student or a Nobel prize winner — you will probably be able to find some flaws. It is too easy to pounce on a casual remark and try to turn it into a surprise debate. This is a cheap tactic that may make someone look bad, and it may drive them away from your online territory; but that doesn’t mean that you’ve won something.
- People are allowed to be wrong. It’s okay. Even our best beliefs are wrong, naive or incomplete in some way. If you think someone is wrong, offer polite correction, and try to stick to one or two points. Ask for clarifications, and make sure that you’re correctly interpreting them. Don’t be too excited to display your debating skills, since you can easily screw it all up. Consider, for example, this upside-down version of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy:
Nancy: “Scotsmen are not murderers.”
Bob: “Aha, but there’s a gang who call themselves ‘the Scotsmen’, and you have to kill someone in order to join. So Scotsmen really are murderers.”
Nancy: “That gang just happens to also be called ‘Scotsmen,’ but the true definition of a Scotsman is someone from Scotland.”
Bob: “You just said no true Scotsman would be a murderer! That’s the NTS fallacy! You’re busted!”
Nancy: “Bob, that’s not what I’m saying and —”
Bob: “Whatever Nancy. You are exposed and debunked. Now get lost!”
Obviously Bob is the moron in this exchange. There are lots of Bobs circulating on the internet. Don’t be Bob, and be nice to Nancy since she might have something useful to tell you.
- People can learn and change. The online community is more transparent than it used to be. Many people get themselves in trouble by making remarks or jokes that they shouldn’t. This has been especially true in discussions about feminism and sexual abuse. Those who make unfortunate comments can now be mass-shamed on multiple platforms (and they can hit back in really nasty ways too). With services like Twitter and Facebook, the shame can spread at an explosive pace. Since Twitter and Facebook encourage a habit of casual, superficial throw-away remarks, it is very easy for someone to say something stupid, and very easy for others to make them suffer for it. The shame status can persist indefinitely, perhaps permanently. I’m not sure how I feel about electronic shame tactics; sometimes they backfire on everyone involved. But we need to give space for reconciliation so that verbal offenders have a chance to learn from their mistakes, become better people, and restore their credibility. I’ve often seen people remark that “we need to better educate the next generation,” as though any adult is a lost cause once we judge them as thought-criminals. There’s no reason to give up on any generation. Everyone is capable of improving and rehabilitating themselves from past errors.
- People are allowed to do their own reasoning and make their own judgements. To me one of the saddest features of the skeptical movement is that it tends to advise people against theorizing and philosophizing for themselves. Instead, we should defer every judgement to expert specialists and to something called “consensus.” When an expert is unavailable, I guess we’re supposed to sit down in a corner and have an existential crisis. That is a pretty hollow philosophy. While there are certainly big issues where this message is important — climate change, vaccinations, evolution — some skeptics go too far and chastise people for naive reasoning on less important topics. Instead of telling people that they’re just going to screw everything up, let’s steer people toward resources that allow them to participate in the broad project of scientific understanding. People want to understand their world and their place in it, and they should be encouraged. Perhaps seriously interested but under-trained persons can be directed to Citizen Science opportunities like those listed by the Citizen Science Alliance. Although the value of citizen science projects may be debatable, it is important to channel peoples’ interests into constructive opportunities that will help them develop a better understanding of science.
In conclusion, I think that what skeptics really want to do is educate people (and ourselves). The world is extraordinarily complex and even the best scholars can only understand a narrowly specialized piece of it. Many of us want to see a bigger picture. That is what science is about. We are not here to debate, to fight or to win. We are here to cultivate understanding.