Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Debating, Darwin, Devolution

This week my husband decided to get involved in a friendly Facebook debate with a friend of his who is a creationist. Being new to skepticism (as in active skepticism as opposed to driving his wife around to do skeptical things) and not a seasoned debater, he did his best to hold his own but made some rookie mistakes. He tried to address every red herring thrown at him and within 9 comments the discussion went from Evolution vs. Creationism to murder, morality, Hitler, 9/11, the existence of God and war. I felt dizzy from watching the debate whip around and devolve into what I can only imagine Facebook would look like if Ben Stein’s brain barfed on my friend feed.

What could have been a calm discussion about science and a chance to teach someone the difference between propaganda and fact ended with two friends walking away happily disagreeing on philosophy. And it made me sad. But he had asked me to stay out of it because he wanted to see how he could fare on his own, and I did.

I don’t blame my lover face, though. Years of skepticism and active discussions on the topic of evolution and studying the tactics and talking points of the ID crowd have taught me how to deal with these people, and I don’t even do it particularly well compared to most.

What advice would you give an unseasoned debater or a fledgling skeptic for when they unexpectedly encounter The Opposition® in conversation? How would you have handled the situation in Brian’s shoes? And, if you were me, would you have been able to resist the temptation to jump in?

(In the interest of full disclosure, I actually had to unfriend my husband for 12 hours to stop myself from getting involved.)

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. I’m not much of a debater anymore, but I did get into a lot of political debates in college.

    First, he should get the Creationist Claims app if he’s going to be doing this more often. It has lists of counter-arguments that are easy to look up.

    He should also check out the skeptical blogs because they will go over the latest arguments. Plus the good ones will help to improve his knowledge of the current state of science.

    Your husband should also understand that it’s OK not to know the answer. If he’s debating on an Internet forum, he doesn’t need to reply instantaneously. He can take the time to do research.

    I’m not the best at face to face debates, because it can take me awhile to phrase something, while opponent will make stuff up. ;) Plus I can get angry if the person is really out of line. It’s why I use humor stories to make my point. They keep me calm and focused.

    If he really wants to be a full time debater, then he needs to go to the creationist sites, and learn their arguments first hand. I don’t have the stomach for that, but in a debate, you have to know your enemy.

  2. Like any challenging conversation, focus on yourself and your beliefs rather than trying to point out flaws in theirs. Describing how you think and how you’ve reached your conclusions can get them to think a bit, even though they might resist it. It’ll lead to future conversations.

    Also, don’t be PZ Myers. People make the mistake of thinking that since PZ is erudite, vitriolic, and clever in his blog posts that that’s a good way to engage your intellectual opponents. It’s absolutely not — on Pharyngula, he’s a firebrand, cheerleader, and choir-preacher. There’s nothing wrong with those roles per se, but they have their place. It’s a question of goals: a blog is a public performance, and the perfect place to rally the troops. When dialogue and learning is the goal, though, that sort of approach will fail.

  3. As far as creationists go, pointing out that Social Darwinism and Natural Selection are two separate things is key. Cite Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid as an example of a social philosophy equally inspired by Natural Selection but with entirely different conclusions than Social Darwinism. Then point out that both make the same mistake and neither automatically follow from the science. This doesn’t stop the line of attack, but tends to steer the conversation in a more interesting direction. The creationist will usually try to return to Social Darwinism, so this becomes a lather, rinse, repeat operation.

    This at least keeps the discussion down to refuting creationist canards, or it becomes a more interesting discussion of the disconnect between physical facts and desired outcomes. It could even become a discussion about the source of ethics, which is a more honest version of what the debate actually is.

    I have no idea why people are looking for ethical guidance from squirrels to begin with, however.

  4. Thank you, Elyse, you know Creationism is my favorite form of crazy!

    Talk.Origins ( is a fantastic site for finding arguments against almost any of the Creationist nonsense. The good news is the Creationists only have a handful of arguments (no transitional forms, radiometric dating doesn’t work, you can’t be moral w/o a god, etc.), so once you are familiar with them, you will know the proper arguments to use.

    The bad news is, they only have a handful of arguments, and they never, ever stop using them, no matter how many times they have been refuted. It gets to be exhausting.

    Good luck Brian! And remember, there is EXACTLY the same amount of evidence for Christian creationism as there is for Norse creationism (none), so TEACH THE CONTROVERSY!

  5. On facebook or on-line debates I use the tactic of “one”. I will tell them that I am a simple person and I can only address one subject at a time. If they can help me with this, then we can discuss. If they bring in a new topic – like Hitler…I ask them if they would now like to change the subject or stick with the currenet topic. If they say – current topic – then we can continue.

    My experience is that they will stray. You must force them back to the ONE subject or end the discussion. Then… Take your time. If they make a good point ask for a few minutes and find what you need.
    Good luck.

  6. I would say that their biggest way of manipulation is derailing the conversation into something else, or throw a strawman that is a distraction. So the best way to hold one’s own would be to be aware of where the conversation is and to stick with it, and not allowing the opponent to avoid answering the pressing questions. Oh, and don’t let them move the goalpost.

  7. I never debate them. I feel too sorry for them. I dont want to be the one to burst their happy, delusional bubble. I tell my daughter to respect the religious/creationist beliefs of others because they need it to feel safe and not alone. I am too much of a softie to be the one to rip away their lovie.

    Besides I dont care what they think really.

  8. Debating against someone you are convinced is wrong very quixotic. Debating people here is a much better use of time in my opinion. You/I stand a much better chance of learning something.

  9. I almost wonder if you’d have more luck convincing somebody if you weren’t even trying to convince them of anything. Like if you just made your goal trying figure out what makes this person tick, you’d end up just organically having some good conversations that make both of you think.

    Not that I’ve ever tried this. Just a thought.

  10. Stay patient, stay calm, and work to educate. If a red herring is brought up, quickly shoot it down, but return to the main point. If you can’t shoot it down quickly, ignore it and focus on the main point. When fallacies are brought up, quickly point out that it is fallacious (preferably while saying how and why) and move on.

  11. @Circe of the Godless:

    I think that’s unfair and a bit condescending. Not everyone is familiar with the tools of logic and reason that we are. And many skeptics, me included, weren’t skeptics to begin with… we were taught.

    It’s incredibly arrogant to think that we have some kind of priority on reason and if you’re not here already you’re a doomed cause, stupid even. Everyone deserves to understand where they’ve been mislead.

  12. @davew:

    But if a friend comes up to you and starts spewing off crap, do you just say, “oh I’m sorry, we’re not like minded and on Skepchick so I can’t discuss this with you.” Or do you engage them and hope to point them in the right direction?

    I’m not talking about seeking Creationists out here. I’m talking about debating people you know.

  13. My sister is planning to become a nun in the next couple of years. I love her very much and respect her decision. She is Anglican so she does respect science and that makes me happy.

  14. My only advice would be: don’t debate evolution if you don’t know a ton about the ongoing debate, and especially if you’re not particularly well educated about the nuances of evolutionary theory. There are plenty of people who buy into the scientific consensus on evolution who are definitely not equipped to debate a creationist. They may assume they are because on the surface the creationist seems to be dumb as a rake, but they are notoriously difficult to pin down in a debate as they are very good at memorizing the fallacies printed on their favorite websites.

  15. The first thing I do is define the subject as well as possible. Then I tell the other person what evidence it would take to convince me to change my opinion, then I ask them what kind of evidence it would take to change their opinion. If they can’t think of any, there is no point in discussing the issue because it always turns out they are just into their dogma and will never consider the other side.

  16. Out of character, but my advice would be don’t debate.

    Discuss. As in “This is why I think evolution is true.”

    If you don’t have good reasons for why you think evolution is true, you’re in trouble. But in that case you probably should be debating/discussing some other topic.

    I used to agree with DaveW, and think that it was worthwhile to debate with Skeptics. But I don’t anymore. I haven’t seen any evidence that it’s worthwhile to engage in oppositional debate with anyone outside of a formal competition. And that’s a fairly loose definition of worthwhile.

  17. Others seem to have covered this pretty well, so I just have a couple of tips which could come in handy.
    1- If the person is the owner of a traveling creation museum or a higher-up at your place of work, do not engage. The first is only dangerous for your sanity while the second can have much worse repercussions, especially in an “at will” state. Should someone fit both of these qualifications, you have my sympathy.
    2- Keep it friendly and, in explaining your position, try to use examples which the person can relate to or find interesting. Ring species are good for piquing interest, covering such animals as Ensatina salamanders and Greenish Warblers.

  18. @frisbeetarian: “Then I tell the other person what evidence it would take to convince me to change my opinion, then I ask them what kind of evidence it would take to change their opinion. If they can’t think of any, there is no point in discussing the issue because it always turns out they are just into their dogma and will never consider the other side.”

    That is some excellent advice. Write this one on your hand with permanent ink, kids.

  19. I usually just tell them that I’m not a scientist, so I’m not qualified to debate the issue. I point to the scientific consensus and tell them that they need to start with an alternative and equally plausible theory for the origins of life, then go get their theory published.

    I remind them that their theory has to be testable, and falsifiable, and that they then have, oh about 150 years of research and evidence to over turn, and I wish them luck.

  20. But if a friend comes up to you and starts spewing off crap, do you just say, “oh I’m sorry, we’re not like minded and on Skepchick so I can’t discuss this with you.” Or do you engage them and hope to point them in the right direction?

    I won’t shy away from debate with people who can think. I just don’t seek out confrontation like I used to.

    To be more precise I like debating people here who don’t agree with me. It’s not group-think I am looking for, rather people who will think about what I am saying for a few minutes just as I think about what they are saying. I presume that most folks who read Skepchick embrace the thinking part of critical thinking.

    The lack of group-think is what elevates this blog far about Pharyngula. You guys post questions that don’t have easy answers and we talk about them and frequently disagree. Yummy! (This is just one of the reasons scaling back on the AI made me very sad. I also think it is a little strange to take the poll at face value when based on number of comments the AI’s are one of the most popular posts here.) Pharyngula is vitriolic preacher, and extremely large choir, and a few masochistic dissenters. Boring times two.

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