Tag Archives: Rebuttal

The Time to Stop Debating Debate

matt_dilahuntyA while back I wrote an article called “Time to Stop Debating” that was published in American Atheists Magazine. I also posted a version in this blog (see here). In it I suggested that the Atheist Movement has moved into a phase in which it should focus on normalizing atheism, and that one important strategy to accomplish that is to  “stop debating.” Shortly after, atheist activist Matt Dillahunty (see here) posted a 25 minute rebuttal video (see here).

I thank Mr. Dillahunty for his sincere and thoughtful rebuttal in defense of continued debate. I felt that he did make a conscientious effort to be fair and even-handed while arguing that debate remains one of our most important strategies to win hearts and change minds. We do not disagree on that.

While he certainly presented a well-crafted argument, it is probably unsurprising that I do not feel he made his case and that his objections were overstated. One major problem is that he characterized my call to “stop debating” as tantamount to surrender and refusing to engage. He repeatedly paints a picture of a minority of atheists remaining silent and passive while refusing to engage in meaningful debate with a vigorous religious majority.

Clearly, I did not advocate any such complacency. I advocate engagement in all forms of discussion and persuasion. What I did say however, is that in those conversations we should take a stronger “no debate” stance on issues of belief and religion. That is, we should reject out-of-hand arguments based on faith, refuse to entertain them, and instead insist upon engaging on the basis of universal principles and evidence.

To illustrate this nuance, think of how we treat racism. We don’t “debate” racism anymore, even though a large number of people may still wish to do so. Yes, we still engage actively in social policy driven by or impeded by racist ideology. But we won’t seriously respond to discredited arguments like whether white men have superior brains. We engage in policy discussions and debate them vigorously, but we only give serious consideration to legitimate arguments. If white racists argue that they deserve special privileges purely because they are god’s chosen ones, we reject it out-of-hand without undeserved debate. To do so would “only” elevate that notion and distract from substantive debate. However, if those same white supremacists make fact-based arguments for the same policies, we should then engage honestly in that debate and be willing to be open-minded.

In public discourse, there are many topics that are “not up for debate.” We should likewise exclude religious fantasy from serious debate. If you argue that god exists or humans were created, we should dismiss those arguments as inherently invalid. If you invoke god or the Bible to justify a policy position, we should insist that you put forth legitimate arguments based upon universal principles. This should be particularly true in all government hearings and debates, but sadly it is not.

Therefore I am not advocating for refusing to engage at all. I am advocating for gradually extricating ourselves from the debate embrace that has enthralled us for millennia. It is unfair of Mr. Dillahunty to dismiss my argument by carrying it to an extreme; just as it would be unfair if I were to portray his position as advocating for the paralysis of the status quo. In the abortion debate and many others, as long as the religious Right can keep us debating on their terms, they are effectively neutralizing us. What we are willing to accept as legitimate debate is itself part of the debate and part of the persuasive process.

And as far as the persuadable middle is concerned, it is my perception that for every one person that someone like Mr. Dillahunty may rightly feel proud to have influenced for the better, there are many, many more whose uncertainty is reinforced by seemingly legitimate debate that makes it appear that “reasonable people disagree” and “there are good arguments on both sides.” Creating doubt through debate is exactly the horribly successful tactic that has been exploited by “The Merchants of Doubt” on a wide range of important issues to create intellectual and policy paralysis (see here).

Mr. Dillahunty makes some other earnest sounding arguments that are not particularly compelling. He argues that although debate has gone on essentially forever, we have new media today that could change the game in our favor. I see no historical evidence of that. Certainly the printing press did not fundamentally change the debate. In fact the Bible became the most widely printed book ever. Likewise it is not clear that the Internet will somehow make our traditional debate tactics more successful.

Mr. Dillahunty also repeatedly asserts that my strategy would only work if we atheists were in the majority. He has no basis for certainty in that assertion. There are many examples of social norms of legitimate discourse that are effectively enforced by a relatively small minority. His argument arises from his assertion that fact-based thinkers have little sway or leverage in society. That is not my assessment; we have reality on our side and the religious zealots who engage in irrational debate are in fact a minority. Finally, if we do not drive this change, if we wait for patient, deferential debate to get us there, we never will. We will be hosting the same silly debates with a Ken Ham (see here) in another thousand years, if we had that luxury of time.

So let me once more sincerely thank Mr. Dillahunty for his stimulating rebuttal. Though I am not swayed, it was entertaining and thought-provoking. I have no doubt that his efforts to educate and inform are valuable and I’m not trying to put him out of business. Quite the opposite, we need talented debaters like Mr. Dillahunty to push us out of this quagmire of eternal debates about fantasy. We should not waste talent like his rebutting long-disproved arguments rather than helping to propel the secular movement into the normalization phase.


Out of Context

Charles MurrayIn the Grey Matter section of the Sunday Review in the New York Times, Cornell Professors Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci published an article entitled “Charles Murray’s ‘Provocative’ Talk.” In it, they described a small ad hoc study that they conducted to test whether the words of Charles Murray are objectively offensive and thus deserving of the level of resistance to his lecture at Middlebury College (see here).

In their study, the authors took a transcript of Murray’s actual talk and sent it without attribution to 70 college professors with a request to rate the words on a 9 point scale from very conservative to very liberal. They found that although “American college professors are overwhelmingly liberal,” those surveyed found Murray’s words to be “middle of the road” with an average score of about 5. Williams and Ceci interpret this finding as indicating that the protest over Murray’s invitation to speak was objectively ill-informed and unjustified.

This argument is deeply and fundamentally flawed. We often see similar tricks played when someone reads an excerpt from the Constitution or Mein Kampf and asks for an opinion about it – before the gotcha reveal when they identify the authorship.

One major study flaw is the premise that words stand alone. Context matters and the meaning and intent of words can only be fully assessed with due consideration of the person making the statement. Authorship is an essential part of that greater context. If PT Barnum claimed he had a Yeti in his house, I would have received it with tremendous skepticism. If Carl Sagan made the exact same claim, I would have been very excited about the potential of an important new anthropological discovery.

The reality is that Charles Murray has a long history of promoting what many consider to be highly destructive public policy research and analysis that has undermined valuable social programs and has attacked and divided us along gender and racial differences. For example, his statement that “We believe that human happiness requires freedom and that freedom requires limited government,” may sound perfectly reasonable to 70 of our professional contacts if unattributed. Coming from a known liberal speaker, this could be meant to affirm that we should not be forced to live in an overly-policed state. However, coming from Charles Murray it is clear that his intent is to promote the dismantling of social assistance programs. The same statement might mean something even more extreme if David Duke had said it.

Based on the work of Williams and Ceci one might argue that we should remove all bias in approving speakers by using a blinded, unidentified process in which presenters are approved or rejected based solely on the text of their planned presentation. That would be extremely foolish. The reality is that the larger views and history of any speaker plays an essential role in how we should interpret their statements. Reasonable but isolated statements can conceal a larger and very different agenda that is only apparent if we know the source.

I have no doubt that the authors would respond by saying that intellectually unbiased people should be willing to hear any reasonable speaker and make this assessment for themselves, without forced censorship. However, surely they would also agree that there is some limit beyond which a speaker would not be acceptable even to them. But reasonable people can reasonably disagree about where this fuzzy boundary should lie – and that boundary must consider not only the message but the messenger as well.

Clearly a determinative number of alumni, faculty, and students at Middlebury judged that the lifetime body of work by Charles Murray, as well as his very clear lifelong mission, crossed that fuzzy line for them. Williams and Ceci may disagree on their placement of this line and that is legitimate and fair debate. But it is not legitimate and fair to conduct what amounts to a gotcha stunt under the guise of objective science to prove that these people’s determination in this instance is illegitimate and irrational.

All that Williams and Ceci may have actually shown is that, without attribution, college professors don’t assume the worst or the best. They may merely fill the void with their own middle-of-the-road interpretation of unattributed quotations.