Thursday, 23 November 2017

Hack's Top Tips For Debating With Sceptics.

In the spirit of my newly-launched FAQ page, I thought it might be useful to start compiling some tips for debating sceptics, because it really does get tedious dealing with the same opening gambits and discursive tactics time and time again. What it results in, more often than not, is the sceptic getting pissed off before anything of substance is even discussed. In that light, here is my non-exhaustive - and subject to revision and update - list of top tips for debating sceptics, focussing specifically on the things one might do that may seem like productive tactics. They're organised in no particular order, exactly as they occur to me as I write. I'll also add links at the bottom to posts that deal with any of the issues raised here.

So, let's dive in and deal with some depressingly common things that all sceptics encounter in discussion with believers of all stripe:

1. Don't tell me you used to think as I do.

This is, frankly, a bloody awful move. It's among the most common, and it's entirely unconvincing to anybody who's spent thirty seconds thinking about it. The thing is, of course, it's entirely irrelevant. It's difficult not to see it as a tactical move erected specifically to lend an argument some weight. What it actually does is completely the opposite, not least because it's entirely transparent.

The underlying fallacy being committed in this tactic is the genetic fallacy, specifically the appeal to authority. What sets this particular tactic apart is that it's an attempt to set oneself up as the authority in question, the assertion being 'look, I used to think exactly as you did, but I saw the light'. 

When I see 'former atheist' in somebody's bio, for example, my first thought is most definitely not 'well, I'd better pay attention to this person, because they clearly know something about atheism that I don't'. No, my first thought is that the arguer either had poor reasons for their former position or that it's simply a fabrication.

Far from lending credibility, this robs credibility.

This is also true of asserting that this or that great thinker used to share my position and had their mind changed. That assertion tells me nothing whatsoever about whether or not they were justified in changing their minds. It wouldn't matter to me if Richard Dawkins himself knocked on my door and vouchsafed to me that he'd been wrong, and that God was real, just as it wouldn't matter to me if Charles Darwin knocked on my door and announced that he'd renounced evolution via natural selection. 

The simple fact is that the list of people whose belief on any given topic is an indicator of the veracity of said belief is entirely unpopulated, ever to remain so. Truth is independent of belief, and only one of these has any value in epistemic terms. What matters is whether this belief can be demonstrated to be in accord with observation and whether it can reasonably tested.

2. Don't quote your holy text.

As discursive tactics go, this is among the silliest.

Look, I get it. You think that the [insert name of holy book here] is the best possible evidence that your mythology is true. The problem is that you have it entirely wrong. Your holy book isn't the evidence for the claim, it IS the claim.

The only situation in which quoting the text fulfils any evidential obligation is when the claim is that the text says something. The text does not and cannot stand as evidence that the text is correct. This is, once again, the genetic fallacy writ large, as well as being horribly circular.

Quoting your holy text as a means of support for your claim is exactly like flinging turds at a passing stranger and expecting them to thank you for it. Rather than making even the tiniest dent in your onus probandi, it only makes is apparent that you don't understand the nature of evidence. In fact, when you're arguing for an omnipotent, omniscient entity (setting aside the logical absurdity of such an entity), your holy text actually constitutes evidence against the veridical value of your claims regarding the existence of said entity.

3. Don't preach

Preaching at those who don't share your views isn't just silly, it's offensive. If the content of your mythology were convincing, we'd already believe as you do. If the very best you can do is to recapitulate the contents of your mythology, then you really shouldn't be attempting to debate sceptics. 

4. Know the content of your mythology

In light of the previous two points, this might seem a little odd but, in fact, it supports them. 

One of the most frustrating things that sceptics encounter with alarming frequency is being confronted with people who don't actually know what they believe. One of the reasons that many sceptics find this particularly frustrating is that, in the vast majority of cases, the person you're talking to used to believe as you do in some measure and, in many cases, it was exactly taking the time to read the text and find out exactly what it said that led to the shedding of those beliefs.

In my case, although I never believed, I did try. That trying manifest as dedicating myself to reading the bible and finding out what it actually said on a range of issues, and finding that it didn't match up to my moral or epistemological understanding.

In my experience, the sceptic is often considerably more aware of the content of the mythology and the holy books than the believer. This is borne out by many surveys and non-rigorous studies. My knowledge of the bible, for example, is demonstrably more complete than that of the majority of apologists I encounter, and I know sceptics whose understanding puts mine in the shade.

5. Don't threaten me with hell.

It's depressing how often this gets wheeled out. It often gets erected out of frustration on the part of the believer that their 'evidence' isn't being accepted.

It's a truly spectacular bit of cognitive dissonance, completely overlooking the fact that, if I don't find the entity on which this fate is predicated credible, I'm hardly going to find the fate itself credible.

Not only is threatening me with the content of your mythology sophomoric and incredibly insulting, it's as effective in persuading me of the veracity of your claims as pissing in my pocket and telling me it's raining.

Threatening an atheist with hell is exactly like threatening a clove of garlic with Dracula.

6. Don't make claims you can't support.

This is the big one, in many respects. Much of what's contained in this post touches on this in some way, but this is slightly more explicit. 

Although it's treated as a logical fallacy, the shifting of the burden of proof is actually more of a discursive principle. What it is, in essence, is the notion that unless you can demonstrate that what you say is actually true, not only am I under no obligation to accept it, I'm actually obliged as a sceptic to dismiss your claim on that basis alone, and no further justification is required. Where it actually becomes a fallacy is where it's asserted that something is true on the basis that the sceptic can't prove that it isn't.

A good sceptic always operates from the position of the null hypothesis. That is, we operate on the basis that the negation is true until such time as the affirmative is properly justified. 

As a related aside, it's well worth noting that 'you can google it' or 'research it yourself' doesn't constitute support of any kind. Expecting somebody else to do the research to support your claim is exactly as effective in making your point as simply asserting it to be true, except now you've pissed somebody off as well. All other considerations aside, if you can assert something as knowledge, you know where to find the evidence that supports your knowledge. Expecting somebody else to go and find it is not only lazy, it's insulting.

7. Don't conflate faith and knowledge

Regardless of how strongly you think you know something, you can't honestly assert it as knowledge unless you can demonstrate it to be true. Faith is not knowledge. It doesn't matter how badly you want something to be true, or how much faith you have in the truth of a proposition, the role of the sceptic is to dismiss all claims until their truth is demonstrated or evidence sufficient to warrant acceptance is forthcoming.

8. Separate yourself from the ideas you present

It's extremely common for people to feel insulted when the ideas that they present are challenged. This is a mistake, and will tend to stifle discussion. 
If you feel under attack when the attack is on your ideas, not only are you committing a glaring logical fallacy (the category error), it's generally a reasonable sign that your confidence in your position is somewhat lacking.

I attack ideas without mercy or quarter, and most sceptics do exactly the same. I try very hard, though, not to attack people at all. I'm not always successful in avoiding this, especially when the ideas being presented are ones that I see as particularly dangerous or toxic to the society in which I an those I love must live, but I do try. Sometimes, frustration will get the better of me (I'm only human, after all) and I'll call you an idiot but, in reality, this is really a more forceful way of saying that what you're presenting is idiotic. 

Ultimately, ideas are disposable entities, and bad ideas exist only to be disposed of. If I showed everybody's ideas and beliefs that respect that the holders of said ideas and beliefs think they deserve, not only would I be treasonous to my own core principles, I wouldn't be showing those people the respect they most definitely do deserve.

9. Pay attention to the argument

Among the many pieces of advice I give to people when they enter into discussions with me, always driven by obvious indications that this isn't happening, is to 'engage in the discussion with the hackenslash on the forum, as opposed to the hackenslash that only exists in your head'. 

It's worth noting that this applies equally to all participants in discourse, and is not restricted to believers. All too often, people only read an argument up to the point where they think they've found something they can object to. This is a mistake, because it's far too easy to miss the critical context that renders it trivial. 

Worse still, when you capture the beginning of somebody's argument, and then assume you know how the rest of the argument will go, you run the risk of getting it entirely wrong and raising objections to an argument that hasn't been made. It very quickly becomes obvious when this has occurred. I'll link to a post at the bottom in which I respond to an instance of somebody making precisely that mistake, with predictable results.

There's a well understood distinction in psychology, taught in decent customer service training programmes the world over, between different kinds of listening, and it's an important one to consider here. Often, when we're listening to somebody speak, what we're actually doing is picking up only on keywords while we formulate our response. This is known in the jargon as 'passive listening'. This is opposed to 'active listening' in which all our attention is on the speaker and we're absorbing what they say and parsing it for semantic content. If we're doing the latter, we won't miss any learning opportunities, which brings me to:

10. Don't set out to win the debate

This is one of the most common mistakes made in discussion. This is again not restricted to believers, and this is advice that everybody should take note of, because it's precisely the reason that so many discussions end up fruitless, often before they've even entered any interesting territory.

The target outcome of any discussion should be learning. If nobody learns anything in a discussion, then nobody has won anything. If somebody - anybody - learns something, then everybody wins.

11. Learn about logical fallacies

One of the things that you're most likely to encounter in your discussion with a sceptic is the notion of a logical fallacy. A logical fallacy is an instance of drawing a conclusion that is unjustified by the argument erected in support of it.

Fallacies come in two broad types. The first of these is a formal fallacy. This is a fallacy in which the structure of an argument is such that the conclusion doesn't properly follow from the premises. 

The second is an informal fallacy. This is a fallacy wherein the structure of the argument is fine, but where there is some other reason that the conclusion cannot be taken to have been supported. An example would be something like the fallacy of composition, in which it's asserted that the properties of the constituents of something necessarily translate to the whole having the same properties. For example, I might say that the bricks in my front wall all weigh 3.5 kilograms, therefore the wall weighs 3.5 kilograms. This is obviously nonsense. 

I've heard people argue that a fallacy being informal means that it can be dismissed, but the simple fact is that any line of reasoning that can, in any situation, lead to a faulty conclusion is a line of reasoning that can't be relied upon to arrive at a true conclusion.

Now, it isn't uncommon for apologists to assert that the word 'fallacy' is just a buzzword that allows sceptics to dismiss arguments, and it's certainly true that simply saying the name of a fallacy doesn't demonstrate anything, but where a fallacy is committed and correctly exposed and explained, it's important that you learn from them.

I'll link some sources at the bottom dealing with fallacies.

12. Be prepared to admit being wrong

What it says on the tin. If you aren't prepared to be wrong, you're doing it wrong, thus you'll always be wrong in some measure.

13. Know the arguments against your position

This is so basic, it really shouldn't require any explanation. However, and depressingly, it appears that many don't realise the importance of this. 

If you hold a position - any position, whether in faith or not - you should be able to justify your position. One of the most important elements of being able to justify your position is understanding what the objections are to your position and being able to address them. It's why, for example, sceptics of Christianity know the bible so well. It's about preparation, and this really is debate preparation 101. If you enter into a debate with a sceptic without having spent any time studying the counters to your position, I'm confident that there will be only one outcome, namely a complete waste of everybody's time.

Of course, you may encounter novel objections, and there's nothing you can do except attempt to address them on the fly, but you will always be better placed to have a meaningful discussion if you've prepared by understanding all the stock arguments against your position. 

It's a common truism that failing to prepare is exactly the same as preparing to fail, but nowhere is this more starkly realised than in a debate situation in which you haven't learned some of the common arguments against the position you're defending.

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Further reading:

On Whose Authority..? A treatment of the broad class of fallacies known collectively as the 'genetic fallacy'.
There's This Book A treatment of the issues inherent in books as a source regarding what the alleged controller of the universe wants us to know.
Onus Probandi, Assertionism and Peer-review A treatment of the shifting of the burden of proof and the role of peer-review in science.
Deduction, Induction, Abduction and Fallacy A broad but summary treatment of how logic works, and specifically how it's used in the sciences, along with a brief exposition of some common fallacies.
Patterns and the Inertia of Ideas Why it can be difficult to deal with challenges to deeply-held ideas.
The Map is not the Terrain Some common pitfalls when dealing with natural language.
What's In a Name? Some distinctions between scientific nomenclature and vernacular terms.
7 Reasons Why Apologists Should Stop Trying To Logic A response to an attempt at debunking one of my earlier posts. Very instructive in terms of the importance of paying attention to what's actually being argued.

Some external sources:

Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies Probably the best source on the web for logical fallacies. A pretty comprehensive table showing the relationships between fallacies and with some great expository examples.
Logical Fallacies Another great resource on logical fallacies. This isn't nearly as comprehensive, but much more approachable for the novice.