The Grid of Disputation

A few days ago the world witnessed a rare and precious event: a dispute on the Internet. In this case, it was brought about by a Bloggingheads episode of Science Saturday featuring historian of science Ronald Numbers and philosopher Paul Nelson. The controversy stemmed from the fact that Nelson is a Young-Earth Creationist — someone who believes that the Earth was created by God a few thousand years ago. You can read opinions about the dialogue from PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, or for a different point of view Nelson himself.

I was one of the people who found the dialogue extremely inappropriate (especially for “Science Saturday”), and as someone who is a fan of Bloggingheads I sent a few emails back and forth with the powers that be, who are generally very reasonable people. I think they understand why scientists would not be happy with such a dialogue, and I suspect it’s not going to happen again.

But it’s worth laying out the precise source of my own unhappiness — I’ll let other scientists speak for themselves. One potential source of discomfort is the natural reluctance to give credibility to creationists, and I think that’s a legitimate concern. There is a long-running conversation within the scientific community about whether it’s better to publicly debate people who are skeptical about evolution and crush them with superior logic and evidence, or to try to cut off their oxygen by refusing to meet them on neutral ground. I don’t have strong opinions about which is the better strategy, although I suspect the answer depends on the precise circumstances being contemplated.

Rather, my concern was not for the credibility of Paul Nelson, but for the credibility of Bloggingheads TV. I’m fairly sure that no one within the hierarchy is a secret creationist, trying to score some public respect for one of their own. The idea, instead, was to engage in a dialogue with someone who held radically non-mainstream views, in order to get a better understanding of how they think.

That sounds like a noble goal, but I think that in this case it’s misguided. Engaging with radically different views is, all else being equal, a good thing. But sometimes all else isn’t equal. In particular, I think it’s important to distinguish between different views that are somehow respectable, and different views that are simply crazy. My problem with the dialogue was not that they were lending their credibility to someone who didn’t deserve it; it was that they were damaging their own credibility by featuring a discussant who nobody should be taking seriously. There is plenty of room for debate between basically sensible people who can argue in good faith, yet hold extremely different views on contentious subjects. There is no need to pollute the waters by engaging with people who simply shouldn’t be taken seriously at all. Paul Nelson may be a very nice person, but his views about evolution and cosmology are simply crackpot, and don’t belong in any Science Saturday discussion.

This thought has led me to introduce what I hope is a helpful graphical device, which I call the Grid of Disputation. It’s just a reminder that, when it comes to other people’s views on controversial issues, they should be classified within a two-dimensional parameter space, not just on a single line of “agree/disagree.” The other dimension is the all-important “sensible/crazy” axis.

The Grid of Disputation

There’s no question that there is a place for mockery in the world of discourse; sometimes we want to engage with crackpots just to make fun of them, or to boggle at their wrongness. But for me, that should be a small component of one’s overall rhetorical portfolio. If you want to play a constructive role in an ongoing cultural conversation, the sizable majority of your disputational effort should be spent engaging with the best people out there with whom you disagree — confronting the strongest possible arguments against your own view, and doing so with a respectful and sincere attitude.

This strategy is not universally accepted. One of the least pleasant aspects of the atheist/skeptical community is the widespread delight in picking out the very stupidest examples of what they disagree with, holding them up for sustained ridicule, and then patting themselves on the back for how rational they all are. It’s not the only thing that happens, but it happens an awful lot, and the joy that people get out of it can become a bit tiresome.

So I disagree a bit with Richard Dawkins, when he makes this suggestion:

I have from time to time expressed sympathy for the accommodationist tendency so ably criticized here by Jerry Coyne. I have occasionally worried that – just maybe – Eugenie Scott and the appeasers might have a point, a purely political point but one, nevertheless, that we should carefully consider. I have lately found myself moving away from that sympathy.

I suspect that most of our regular readers here would agree that ridicule, of a humorous nature, is likely to be more effective than the sort of snuggling-up and head-patting that Jerry is attacking. I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt.

Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt…

I emphatically don’t mean we should use foul-mouthed rants. Nor should we raise our voices and shout at them: let’s have no D’Souzereignty here. Instead, what we need is sarcastic, cutting wit. A good model might be Peter Medawar, who would never dream of shouting, but instead quietly wielded the rapier. …

Maybe I’m wrong. I’m only thinking aloud, among friends. Is it gloves off time? Or should we continue to go along with the appeasers and be all nice and cuddly, like Eugenie and the National Academy?

Let me first note how … reasonable Dawkins is being here. He’s saying “well, I’ve been thinking about it, and maybe we should do X rather than Y — what do you folks think?” Not quite consistent with the militant fire-breathing one might expect from hearing other people talk about Dawkins, rather than listening to Dawkins himself.

Nevertheless, I don’t agree with the suggestion. There is an empirical question, of course: if the goal is actually to change people’s minds, is that accomplished more effectively by sweetly reasoning with them, or by ridiculing their incorrect beliefs? I don’t think the answer is especially clear, but very few people actually offer empirical evidence one way or the other. Instead, they loudly proclaim that the mode to which they are personally temperamentally suited — calm discussion vs. derisive mockery — is the one that is clearly the best. So I will just go along with that fine tradition.

My own goal is not really changing people’s minds; it’s understanding the world, getting things right, and having productive conversations. My real concern in the engagement/mockery debate is that people who should be academic/scholarly/intellectual are letting themselves be seduced by the cheap thrills of making fun of people. Sure, there is a place for well-placed barbs and lampooning of fatuousness — but there are also people who are good at that. I’d rather leave the majority of that work to George Carlin and Ricky Gervais and Penn & Teller, and have the people with Ph.D.’s concentrate on honest debate with the very best that the other side has to offer. I want to be disagreeing with Ken Miller or Garry Wills and St. Augustine, not with Paul Nelson and Ann Coulter and Hugh Ross.

Dawkins and friends have done the world an enormous service — they’ve made atheism part of the accepted cultural landscape, as a reasonable perspective whose supporters must be acknowledged. Now it’s time to take a step beyond “We’re here, we’re godless, get used to it” and start making the positive case for atheists as sensible, friendly, happy people. And that case isn’t made most effectively by zooming in on the lower left corner of the Grid of Disputation; it’s made by engaging with the lower right corner, and having the better arguments.

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81 Responses to The Grid of Disputation

  1. Sean says:

    I think that writing a book has ruined me for blogging. I can’t seem to say anything at all in under a couple thousand words. Not a sustainable model.

  2. egan says:

    >>>I can’t seem to say anything at all in under a couple thousand words

    But it is always interesting!

  3. Sean says:

    egan, thanks! I am in no way impervious to positive feedback.

  4. daisyrose says:

    We are here on this planet – we live, we die yet we are spiritual creatures – Where we come from – where we go no one knows.

    I rather like Plato’s particulars just because the idea of driving a plunging team of horses – some civilized, some not seems just about right for me – sort of like I am going to be doing *something* after I die ! Who is to say ? I just hope I am up for it !

  5. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    While I’m more and more convinced that the ostensible consideration Dawkins gives the religionists belies his own bigotry, I do agree that there is little to be gained by engaging some individuals in fora that inadvertently lends the air of credibility to their deeply mistaken, even deranged, beliefs.

    I grow more and more uncomfortable with the tone of caustic derision employed by Dawkins and his ilk, regardless of their sincerity. It’s one thing to eschew debate with those who are patently incapable of engaging in substantive discourse, and quite another to heap contempt and abuse on them at every opportunity. My perception is this practice is alienating to the moderates, not convincing, and despite the fact that atheists are by far the minority, the scathingly hectoring tone employed by some leaves their religious targets appearing (perhaps quite rightly) to have been victimized. Anyone familiar with history ought to know that religions thrive under persecution if they’re constructed properly, a fact that Christianity has demonstrated quite convincingly. Conversely, the excesses of fully-empowered Christians have always led ultimately to their undoing, but often at the hands of reformers and moderators within the movement, those who could admire and be influenced by both those inside and outside of their faith. We discourage, or worse, disgust, those who might be a positive influence at our peril, I suspect.

    So, by all means, I think it’s good to avoid such no-win “opportunities” to engage in pseudo-debate, and to cite the delusory nature of the would-be debater’s stance to be the reason. But that’s probably enough, especially for public consumption.

  6. Bill says:

    You are right that this is an important question…but the key is to understand which of several audiences you are addressing. As Dawkins carves out the irremediable (irredeemable?), so there are several other audiences that require different appeals. For example, there are people who need a rational, hear-all-sides argument (and listen to NPR and subscribe to Discover), and there are people who want to know what others like them are thinking (who drive SUV’s are are worried about their infant’s eventual applications to the Ivy League.)

    Debates about science, climate, health care, and financial regulation all could use a little audience targeting.

  7. As for those with a Ph.D., as you mention, I don’t think there need to be one way that they join the discourse. When Nelson, Coulter and Ross write for the public, I suspect it is a thoroughly healthy remedy to mock (scornful, yet articulate and meaningful) their pitiful understanding of things, because people who read them might otherwise not know that that is basically what ‘the Ph.D.s’ think about them.

  8. nick herbert says:

    Regarding your “Grid of Disputation”.

    Are so-called “holocaust deniers” worthy opponents or crackpots? Think about it.

    In most European countries you will be imprisoned (Germar Rudolph, Ernst Zundel, David Irving) for attempting to present EVIDENCE that contradicts the “obvious” Exterminationist Story. What sort of science would mankind possess if we tilted the playing field in favor of “obvious” Euclidean Reality by jailing every scientist who presented evidence for a curved spacetime?

    Or, unlike criticizing Christianity which is as safe as shooting fish in a barrel, is this far too dangerous a topic today to be subjected to scientific scrutiny?

  9. Sean says:

    Okay, I’ve thought about it. They’re crackpots. Basically the paradigmatic case, in fact.

  10. Ali says:

    I think the problem with your cute little grid, Sean, is that “Crazy vs. Sensible” is itself just as subjective an axis as “Agree vs. Disagree.” What may seem “just plain crazy” to you may not seem that way to others, unless we’re talking about flat-out schizophrenics of the medically diagnosed variety.

    Not that I agree with Creationists. But what I am most interested in is not why Some People Are Just Plain F’ing Crazy, but why some human beings, who are as capable of rational thought as you or I, either relinquish that rational thought or use it to support arguments that I do not agree with or even seem to be ridiculous. Very few people do things they do not believe to be right (that’s why “sociopaths” get their own special term), and very few people reject rationality so completely that they deserve automatic ridicule without any hearing whatsoever. (You may not always like the medium of that hearing…. but sadly, you do not always have the ultimate say. I would rather encourage communication of all kinds and risk “lending credibility” than spend my time trying to censor and shut down debate when I deemed it unprofitable for my own ideas.)

    In short: your whole post assumes that people are either Sensible or Crazy, as though the world could be so easily divided into such a simplistic duality. To me, that sounds crazy. Sometimes “crazy” people have sound ideas, and sometimes even sensible people support crazy and devastating ideas (did someone mention the holocaust? what about a cultural system dedicated to consumption in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that such a lifestyle is unsustainable and likely to make the human species, along with quite a few others, extinct?). Pretending that Some People Are Just Crazy, and the corollary, that Those People Aren’t Us, leaves us wide open to make terrible mistakes out of arrogance and turning a deaf ear to the potential wisdom and insight around us. Everyone deserves respect and a fair attempt at understanding.

  11. Sam Gralla says:

    LOL @ 9.

    For that matter, what is your opinion about disagreers on global warming? What percentage fall where on the sensibility scale?

  12. John says:

    Saying “god did it” is not science; it cannot be proved or didproved.

  13. boreds says:

    Sean, I didn’t follow this BH story (yet)—but I love the grid.

    Respect the grid.

  14. Eric Wolff says:

    Yeah, I need to jump in here and totally agree with Ali. To a believer (i.e. most of the world) Dawkins is crazy and thus, by your grid, unworthy of debate. To a creationist, evolution is crazy, and thus by your grid, a specialist in evolution is unworthy of debate. Instinctively, I tend to agree that we should keep them off our airwaves whenever possible to prevent them from getting credibility.

    But these people are sometimes politically powerful. We came really, really close to having and entire state with public schools discussing the Theory of Evolution as one possible explanation for the origin of life. Really close. We have Congress people who say that Obama was born in Kenya. We have a Congress that can’t seem to recognize the dire threat of Global Warming, and so they’re defending short term business interests over the fate of the Earth. That’s why we have to keep debating wingnuts in public fora. They’re not on the margins of society. They’re either *more* representative of society then rationalist/skeptics, or they represent a politically powerful minority.

  15. David J Rust says:

    In a “Science Saturday” discussion the point should be that such a debate is not about “science” if the discussion is not about the scientific method. Those who prepare and invite those involved should have some responsibility for making certain that what is being brought forth has some merit in a scientific sense. Mr. Nelson would have been a fine guest on a Philosophy or Theology panel; as you point out, Sean, the credibility of the program is challenged by its very subject matter once it strays into the realm of Creationism.

    In the second part of your blog entry you address something of great interest to me and something I would like to ask more about: the relationships between Skeptics and non-Skeptics. I lie somewhere between, myself, being a Theist who doesn’t buy every bit of hype that comes down the line and subscribing to Science -well- pretty much everything. My religious views pretty much remain personal and in the realm of personal philosophy, not impinging on physical affairs.

    This said, there seems to be a growing rift between people who honestly want to work towards a secular, rational society (of which I consider myself a member) and the rest of the world, driven -in many ways- by how we are treating each other. True, it’s often enflamed by media, religious demagogues, and sensationalism, but I think a fair amount can be put at our own feet when snark and mockery become commonplace tools of communication.

    Or is that an oversimplification?

    What are your thoughts on this and do you feel that this is a portion of what you were saying in your blog post?

  16. NewEnglandBob says:

    I think the atheists should “start making the positive case for atheists as sensible, friendly, happy people” when Coulter and Behe and the fundamentalists, evangelicals and other religious flotsam stop lying and fabricating nonsense. Otherwise no one hears anything but the filth and lies from them.

    The positive case was made for years and years and few listened. It is Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Coyne, et al. who are making their voices heard and changing the tide.

  17. David J Rust says:

    I’ve got to partially disagree with Eric and Ali,

    I am a believer in that I am a Theist. But I also have a college degree and do not tend to ascribe to any God what Science can explain, first. I think it’s a combination of educational levels in addition to whether or not a person is a Theist that’s the issue, here. A person who is not exposed and immersed in an academic background will fall back on their holy books as the only source of reason they can get their hands on.

    This is not an excuse for them, mind you, just an attempt at an explanation.

    The majority, I fear, are just what you say: politically powerful and/or uneducated and willing to support the politically powerful.

    I know it sounds like splitting hairs, but I feel it’s an important distinction, useful for identifying the type of person we are opposing.

  18. Puck says:

    I am very glad that you posted this, Sean. I have had a wide range of experience with debate/arguing within my short life to date. I was on debate teams, have a degree in philosophy (which encompasses both formal and informal logic and which is, for all intents and purposes, the profession of arguers), and even spent some time overseas on a religious mission of conversion (I am now much more staunchly agnostic, but that is a story for another day).

    Anyway, long story short, I have seen a -lot- of argument, both heated and calm, respectful and derisive. And I have learned that two aspects of human nature are nearly universal:
    1) when a person’s closely-held opinion is challenged outright, they entrench themselves more, regardless of reason (ie – you can’t change peoples’ minds, only they can).
    2) the best way to drive a neutral party from joining your camp (at least, the kind of individual that you -want- on your team) is to ridicule and belittle your opponents’ seriously-held beliefs.

    While (1) is common knowledge, it’s your nod toward (2) that made me appreciate this post enough to comment. Dawkins doesn’t realize that he is alienating his ‘fence-sitters.’
    The only example that I can think of off the top of my head is the popular Mac vs. PC commercials. Now, I am neutral on the whole Mac/PC debate; both have their advantages and disadvantages, and I don’t foresee their niches changing any time soon. That being said, the more snarky Mac commercials that I see (in which the cool guy makes false (or, at least, one-sided) claims about the geek), the less I want to buy a Mac.

    I know it’s not the best example, but you get the picture. Sure, it’s fun to laugh at a jester (even liberals poke fun of Moore, and conservatives Colter), but there’s a reason that there is only one or two jesters per court.

  19. Sean says:

    David, I’m certainly happy to be quite public and insistent with my belief that God does not exist and that we live in a universe that runs purely according to naturalistic principles, as one may notice from reading this blog. But at the same time, I understand that there are a lot of smart and reasonable people who disagree, and I’m equally happy to work with them on shared causes, and discuss our disagreements reasonably in the meantime.

    But I don’t really have a strong opinion on “there seems to be a growing rift” etc. Those impressions are just too hard to judge objectively and apart from our local conditions. I’m more confident in what I think is true about the world and how I think reasonable discussion should proceed than I am about the state of other people’s beliefs.

  20. Joshua Macy says:

    I don’t think it’s merely an empirical question of which tactic is more effective at getting people to affirm propositions that you agree with. If you think that you’re about seeking the truth, it seems to me that you ought to care deeply about the reasons that people have for agreeing with you. Suppose we developed a pill which could get somebody to change their mind on a topic. Would you be content to slip somebody that pill in order to get them to agree? What if the pill didn’t actually change their mind, but made it so that whatever their private thoughts, they involuntarily affirmed the proposition you told them to support whenever asked about it?

    Dawkins’ approach makes me really uncomfortable because even if as an empirical matter it worked, it amounts to “Hey, I’ve found this really effective way to get people to affirm what I want them to say without all the hassle of educating and persuading them. Just use sarcastic, cutting wit on them and you can at least make them afraid to open their mouths…and with luck you can get them to parrot the party line without believing or understanding it.” Even if it weren’t dangerous, using the fact that nobody wants to be laughed at or be the butt of contempt is a morally dubious way to win an argument.

  21. David J Rust says:

    Sean, that’s cool.

    The “growing rift” I’ve seen may be merely my own subjective observation. I worry that people are getting angrier and angrier rather than talking to each other.

    What do you think the basic ground rules of reasonable discussion should be?

    I’ve proposed, in formal settings, the good ol’ “Robert’s Rules of Order” and always requiring statements of alleged fact to be backed up with something tangible or repeatable. (Mind you, I broke that rule with my non-reproducible statement, above, “seems to be a growing rift”; my apologies for that).

    In non-formal settings, I just try not to be a jerk and handle things in a more conversational tone.

    What are your thoughts?

    As you might guess, this is of great interest to me.

  22. Rob Knop says:

    NewEnglandBob — you miss Sean’s point entirely. Sure, there are the Ann Coulters and fundamentalists out there, and sure, one can rage against them with ugly rants.

    Sean is saying that that’s not what he wants to do. He wants to have a constructive discussion whereby he might convince reasonable people to his point of view.

    As a theist myself, I don’t think I’m going to be convinced– I still think that even the sane debate that comes from the “committed atheists” like Sean ends up talking past the sane theists, and vice versa, but oh well. However, I do appreciate that there can be somebody who’s not really an accomidationist (Sean is on record saying that he doesn’t think holding religious beliefs is really consistent with a scientific worldview) who is able to make his point without being downright insulting, without feeling the need to lump those who disagree with him in with Ann Coulter and the fundamentalists.

  23. Daniel Pope says:

    I agree with much of what you’re saying but the diagram itself seems misleading. When you apply it to something like religion people who have more strongly opposing viewpoints are the ones who are more delusional too – the axes are not independent.

    You do get stupid delusional people who make brain-meltingly poor arguments and you get delusional people intelligent enough to rationalise and mould their beliefs into a form that can’t be overturned by presentation of facts. But they’re both delusional in that they firmly believe their views are justified despite zero evidence. I don’t see how there can be a field of worthy opponents on a subject where there’s no grounds for one side of the argument to even start to build a case.

  24. g says:

    LMMI: “the ostensible consideration Dawkins gives the religionists” … “the tone of caustic derision employed by Dawkins and his ilk” — it seems to me that there’s some tension here, no?

  25. abb3w says:

    I don’t think the answer is especially clear, but very few people actually offer empirical evidence one way or the other.

    “How to change people’s minds” is fundamentally an engineering design problem, with the science underlying the engineering not chemistry or physics, but rather psychology. And so far as my amater poking at Google Scholar can tell, the literature of psychology does not have a lot of information on what causes people’s minds to change. The most useful model I’ve encountered seems to be the “X system vs. C system”; human thought is largely refleXive, but situations of significant novelty or triggering significant conflict within the X-system get handled by the refleCtive C-system, which can result over time in changes to how a person thinks. From this standpoint, presenting Creationists with responses that are not-so-easily given a cognitive pigeonhole as simple as “calm discussion vs. derisive mockery” would be better than either simplistic approach. (Of course, it’s therefore also more difficult.)

    However, there are additional complications; for example, Jonathan Haidt has identified significant differences between liberals and conservatives in the factors used for moral judgment; both rely on FAIR and HARM, but conservatives also consider INGROUP, AUTHORITY, and PURITY. If these differences result from inherent differences in X-system activation, changing minds becomes harder.

    The short of it is, the science isn’t well developed enough to do reliable engineering with.