Jul 28, 2010

debating a fool

The best part of the entire book of Proverbs, in this debate coach's opinion, comes in the 26th chapter.
4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you will be like him yourself.

5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
This, in essence, is the perfect answer to the question, "Should you debate an intellectually dishonest opponent?"

Yes and no.

Yes, because you have the chance to demolish the fallacies and point reasonable listeners toward the truth. And if you don't, someone less qualified (or capable) will try--and if they fail, they'll only make things worse.

No, because you'll fail anyway, not only because your opponent will use every trick in the book to "win" the debate (and your audience may not be able to tell the difference between a "win" and a win), but their mere presence on the stage will feed their PR efforts.

Of course, if you refuse to debate them, they'll accuse you of intellectual cowardice. Or you may come across as a bully. (Although that's subjective; I think Barney Frank is entirely appropriate dressing down a disingenuous opponent, but perhaps it's because I admire curmudgeons.)

So we're back to the paradoxical advice. Or, to paraphrase Yoda: Do, or do not. There is no win.


Peter Wall said...

I agree that there's no guaranteed win. But I think the better advice balances out differently depending on the context of the proposed debate. In a personal or private context, the advice from Proverbs seems clearly the wisest. But in a public context, where the purpose of the debate is the dissemination of information and ideas to a broad audience, and where the format is designed to create the appearance of legitimate opposing viewpoints even where one viewpoint is a sham, the advice in Proverbs is less worthy. The primary foolishness there is not the fool with the sham viewpoint, but the fool presenting him as legitimate. In that case, declining to confront the foolishness by denouncing the presentation of a sham opposing viewpoint is, in my opinion, a mistake. It allows the sham presentation, under the auspices of a public forum or broadcast, which is likely to trigger an audience heuristic to say, if nothing else, "Yes, there is a legitimate difference of opinion or interpretation here," when there is not. If it is a demonstrable fact that the opposition is a sham, that fact ought to be demonstrated.

Jim Anderson said...

I actually think the non-tongue-in-cheek reading of the Proverbs advice squares with yours, and is the reason the book's compiler juxtaposed contradictory advice. It's all about the situation / context. If you're going to succeed in airing your views, as PZ Myers notes, you're going to have to be a skilled debater, not just a smart person with the facts on your side.

The matter of "demonstrable fact" boils down to the complexity of the fact under discussion. Most "denialists" deny facts that require a whole raft of demonstrations (HIV, vaccinations, evolution, etc.). Perhaps the best advice for the would-be debater is to narrow down the question. Don't debate "Resolved, evolution is true," for that will get you racing away after the "Gish gallop."

Instead, tackle it like this: "My opponent believes that evolution is impossible. Over a century of science makes that belief laughable, and debating it a fool's errand. But if my opponent would like to debate it, I suggest we tackle the matter of shared retroviral insertions in human and ape DNA...."

Such specificity, I think, would be a debate that might actually cut through the noise, and place the denialist in an awkward position.

Peter Wall said...

"Most 'denialists' deny facts that require a whole raft of demonstrations (HIV, vaccinations, evolution, etc.)."

That is an excellent observation, which, to my recollection, has not occurred to me before. Thanks.