Debating or Discussing?

This morning I read an interesting post on Daylight Atheism about theist-atheist debates that is related to the post by Mike the Mad Biologist that was mentioned in the quickies and is also related to the idea of Irreligion by John Allen Paulos, our monthly reading selection.

(UPDATE: Here’s another interesting and related post by Greg Laden.)

The Daylight Atheism article claims that debates are useful because, although they rarely change the minds of individuals, they have an impact on the societal level. I am not sure how something can impact society without impacting individuals, but it’s definitely worth reading the entire article to pick up on the finer points of the debate, uh, discussion.

I personally find debates tedious and grating. It doesn’t matter what the subject is or who is winning. I just don’t like the format and the idea that someone has to win. I believe that story telling is much more powerful form of communication, particularly when talking to believers. That’s not to say that evidence and logic should be left to whither on the vine, but data and factual evidence should be incorporated into a personal message that has emotional as well as intellectual punch.

I see a tendency toward debating being preferred over discussion in the comments on Skepchick at times, often when a troll stumbles onto a topic that triggers them. A few people are having a discussion, throwing out different ideas about a subject, and someone comes in and tries to turn it into a debate. I don’t really understand this need to always be right and to force a friendly discussion into a form of communication that requires winners and losers. But it seems to be very popular, especially when talking about the existence of God or the validity of religious belief.

I enjoy discussions where many different viewpoints and opinions are voiced. And I don’t think it’s bad to point out where you feel someone is wrong or missing some important information about a topic. But something about the whole debate format just makes me want to leave the room, turn off the TV, or abandon the comment thread.

I’m not quite sure what makes the difference between discussion and debate, but it seems to be that when a discussion is ensuing, people feel free to state their ideas, and to comment on others’ opinions without requiring the other people to either refute or agree with every single point they make. They are content to listen to other ideas and to voice their own ideas without necessarily convincing everyone in the room that they are right and everyone else is wrong. In essence, discussion allows for opinion and disagreement, while debate forces the issue and assumes that there is one right answer. (Sometimes there is one right answer, for example 2+2=4, and I’m not sure how that should change the dynamics of dialog.)”

Here’s what I think,” says a person in a discussion, “and I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this topic, too. I probably won’t change my mind, but you never know. At any rate, it is fascinating to hear differing viewpoints.”

The debater, on the other hand, says, “Here’s what I think, and if you disagree you’d better refute every point I’ve made so I can come back again and tell you why you are wrong. I don’t want to consider changing my mind. I’m just here to make you change yours.”

Which approach do you prefer? Or do you disagree with my portrayal of debating?


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. I think part of the problem is that I, at least, want to understand where the core of the difference of viewpoint is. It is hard to do that without getting into specific details.

    If you ask someone why children starve in Africa if there is a benevolent personal god and they answer with “free will”, don’t you want to dive into that a bit?

    It doesn’t have so much to do with convincing the other person, at least for me, as it does with trying to understand the opposing argument.

    I also agree tone plays a role, though I think that perception of tone can be a tricky issue as well. Some subjects bring up hackles no matter how they are broached.

  2. I think discussion only works if folks on both sides are friendly and open-minded. It’s usually only possible if there’s some sort of common ground to agree on.

    When people with diametrically opposed views on something as personal as belief in a god start bashing at the topic, debate is inevitable. The only hope is to keep it civil.

  3. I had another thought. I’m not sure that debating doesn’t change anyone’s mind. I’m also not sure that discussion changes more minds.

    I have a suspicion that in many cases telling people that something is true in an authoritative way without any debate or discussion is actually more effective way of distributing an idea than either.

  4. While I understand that it is not always appropriate nor necessary to formally acknowledge and exchange point-by-point rebuttals, I think that your opinion on the issue is often abused by those who want to silence any criticism. How often have you argued with a crank who simply refuses to acknowledge the rebuttals you’ve made and just tries something else? That’s not meaningful discussion either.

    Like most things, there is a happy medium, although I personally lean more toward the debate side. For me what is interesting isn’t simply that there are other viewpoints, but how they were formed, and whether the logic is sound.

  5. Well, Donna, for a start I think you’re using the wrong definition of the words! We need clear, objective operational definitions in order to get anywhere, and clearly you’ve provided nothing of the sort, so allow me to correct all the mistakes you’ve made in your post about this…

  6. The debater, on the other hand, says, “Here’s what I think, and if you disagree you’d better refute every point I’ve made so I can come back again and tell you why you are wrong. I don’t want to consider changing my mind. I’m just here to make you change yours.”

    Which approach do you prefer? Or do you disagree with my portrayal of debating?

    I think that any cool/rad/awesome skeptic should be prepared to change their mind if the evidence presented proves their own assessments wrong. The debater you’re describing sounds like someone who only cares for winning, no matter what evidence or logic dictates. Of course you can have a debate where people don’t give a rats ass about logic or evidence, but what’s the fun in that? ;)

    I think a debate can be both good or bad, depending on how you and others involved conduct it.

  7. I think it’s not really an either/or situation, but a scale. I’m inclined to lean pretty far towards the “debater” end of the scale, but that’s because I look at ideas like an engineer looks at a bridge. I look for weaknesses, see how weak they might be, whether they need to be shored up or modified and how, and in the end, whether we need to scrap the whole thing and go with a different plan from the ground up.

  8. I believe that story telling is much more powerful form of communication, particularly when talking to believers.

    Probably when talking to many non-believer as well.

    I agree. Story telling, jokes and things that aren’t overtly considered structured many times are powerful ways to make points and even teach.

  9. My best hypothesis on the subject comes in part from my experience as a TA and teaching introductory physics courses: Some students are more open to new information (even when it causes cognitive dissonance) when it is put forth as part of a narrative, while others prefer to engage in the back and forth struggle with the new ideas. It behooves the teacher, atheist or skeptic to adapt his/her discourse to the audience in order to ensure proper delivery and acceptance of his/her views.

    Or, in a different way, some guys (like me) enjoy essays, with their penchant for blunt exposition (just the facts ma’am) while others prefer novels with their emphasis on the inner struggles of some characters with which they relate. These are to ways of getting the word out, and they are effective inasmuch as we use them with the right audience.

  10. Also, I usually get far more our of a debate than from a discussion: when I debate others I’m usually challenged on my assumptions and sometimes find out new interesting ways in which I’ve made mistakes or new ways to exemplify or clarify my own opinions.

    Most of the time I get called on mistakes of reasoning, of evidence and just plain ol’ bullshit and I find that very entertaining and educational. I’ve found that it really hones my skeptical, scientific edge.

  11. Debates are good places to see in person what the general theme of common arguments are, and how they play out against each other. In other words, debates are good places to learn ABOUT a particular controversy. They are unfortunately also terrible places to learn about the facts and real information about what the controversy is over.

    However, I think a real distinction needs to be drawn between staged, short debates, and long extended, primarily text debates. The latter are really far more interesting and potentially enlightening, while the former are mostly all, in the end, about showmanship.

  12. I tend to agree with you, writerdd. As a non-confrontational type persons, I prefer discussions to debates, although I’ll buy that there’s a place for debates. I’ll just leave it to more capable people.

    To me, the difference comes down to the intention to change minds. A discussion might change a mind, but that wasn’t the intention when it started. Discussions can become debates when someone perceives another’s point as needing a rebuttal, as opposed to a simple counter-view. And, of course, debates can turn into arguments when they decide they need to be proven right, and yelling starts when the sides lose respect for the others. This can happen in nigh super-human speed on the internet :)

    That’s why I usually just stay out of it.

  13. They are unfortunately also terrible places to learn about the facts and real information about what the controversy is over.

    I would make a distinction between online debates and live debates here. I think online debates have the potential (often unrealized) to be much more informative and thoughtful that in-person ones.

    In an online debate you have time to think about a response and do research. Live debates pretty much have to be opinion back and forth because you have to stick to what you have in your head at the time.

    This unfortunately isn’t generally true in message boards, but it is often true of blog debates where both sides have a chance to read papers mentioned by the other, etc.

  14. Damn! I hit a wrong button and it ate my post. I’ll try again. *sigh* I hate that. I was on a roll!


    I agree with Rystefn’s assessment of it as a scale, and it’s possible for the same conversation to slide back and forth on that scale depending on who’s talking at the moment, how heated the conversation is, and how much beer is involved. ;)

    I also think that in the case of religious discussions, people who come from strongly black-and-white backgrounds may tend toward the debate style. These are just off the top of my head so I am certainly open to discussion on them, but here are a few possible reasons that come to mind:

    a) If they’re talking about what they consider key issues, they think that if you don’t change your mind you will burn forever in the pits of hell. Not that this excuses the approach, but it does explain it somewhat — if you were having a conversation with someone whose belief system appeared to be imminently self-destructive (e.g., “I think it is good for my health to mainline heroin and have unprotected sex with my HIV-positive girlfriend”), you might tend a bit more toward the debate end of the spectrum too.

    b) They’re brought up with the absolute authority of Scripture, which tends toward the “I am right and you must agree with me” — agreeing to disagree means challenging that view of the Bible, which many Christians can’t do, so they’ll just drive the conversation straight into the ground rather than give up.

    c) If they’ve grown up in the church, they are used to sitting in church and in Sunday School, where the majority of the teaching is lecture style or VERY guided discussion. The teacher/preacher is assumed to be right, and they may unconsciously take the mental position that they are teaching you (rather than having a discussion), and your role is to gratefully absorb their teaching.

    Hmmm. Perhaps I ought to get off the comment section and go blog a bit. :P

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