‘Let’s ignore them: debating with them would only legitimize their view.’

I first heard the words in the title of this post in connection with deniers of the Nazi holocaust. Shortly thereafter, I heard them used to justify not engaging in dialogue with a man who claimed his research proved that black people are innately less intelligent than whites. More recently, I’ve seen a similar line urged against global warming deniers and free market libertarians. A few days ago, I read a suggestion that Bill Nye should not debate with Ken Ham (the young-earth creationist).

I’ve always felt a little torn on these matters. On the one hand, I have an unshakeable sense that it is never legitimate to hold a person or view as beneath the level of dialectic. To do so seems to me almost tantamount to denying the person’s humanity; worse, such an arrogant attitude will almost certainly make one a less intelligent, and more bigoted person. Then again, I can appreciate that many of these views are genuinely awful and I can’t deny the very real possibility that those untutored in reasoning might come away with the wrong impression as a result.

So, what to do?

This is what I’ve come up with so far: Bill Nye was right to debate Ken Ham, and it’s generally the case that, barring very special circumstances, we should engage dialectically with these interlocutors.

If intelligent, intellectually honest, debate-savvy and relevantly informed people refuse on principle to debate with people of this sort, then the latter will win and retain the hearts and minds of everyone their sphere of influence touches, hands down. We won’t even be contesting that influence. True, a very tiny fraction of people who hear that message might happen to come across the right information somewhere on their own, but that won’t make much of an impact. Even when they bring it up with their misinformed friends and relatives, the reply will be, “Oh, really? Then why do evolutionists/climate change believers/level-headed economists/etc. refuse to debate with us? Why are they ducking our challenges, if they’ve got anything to say for themselves?” That can’t be good.

On the other hand, what’s the worst thing that could have happened when Nye debated Ham, for instance? Ham could have packed the creation museum with his followers; he could have tried to rig the debate; he could have used sneaky rhetorical moves to try to make the weaker side of the issue appear stronger; he could have had the audience vote on who won the debate by an applause-o-meter after rigging the audience; and so on. And then he could go around boasting about having ‘beaten’ evolutionists in a fair debate, and he can now sell videotapes of the debate on a website or put them on Youtube, and win a bunch of converts that way.

OK, those things are bad. But are they worse than the alternative? Even if all correctly-informed people refuse en masse to debate with Ham and his pals, it’s not going to shut them down. It won’t even come close, actually. They’ll still have just as many public brainwashing events at the creation museum, post just as many things on Youtube, pressure school boards just as much, and sell just as many videos knavishly promoting their ideologies. The only difference will be that there will be absolutely no voices from the other side. Why is that an advantage? I’m not seeing it. Is it because now Ham will be able to present himself as having defeated Bill Nye, and that there might be some people out there who don’t know anything about the issue but think highly of Bill Nye and yet will still think that Ham won the debate and so, because they already thought that Nye was pretty great, will have come away thinking that Ham was even better than they would otherwise have thought? Well, that’s possible (though I don’t think we’re talking about a very big subset of the viewers here); but if Nye had to debate Ham, then Ham could have just claimed that Nye ducked him and prove it, which really seems just as bad.

Or is the worry that Ham might release doctored videos of the debate that dishonestly represent him as winning by cutting out the great responses made by Nye, etc.? Well, I wouldn’t put it past Ham, but I also wouldn’t put it past him to lie to his followers and say that he had defeated Nye in a debate at some point and make up a bunch of crap that never happened. These people do that all the time. At least if there’s a debate that both sides have on video, the evolutionists can call them on the doctoring of their videotape: that would be a pretty good smoking gun to use to convince gulled creationists that there’s something wrong with the spin machine that’s feeding them this junk.

Another possible worry is that, because Nye is a celebrity, creationism will gain more publicity than it otherwise would. I think this line of reasoning might pull some weight in the event of stupid views that more or less nobody has ever heard of, but trying it with creationism would be a case of rushing to shut the barn gate when the animals have already escaped. I’m not sure how many people who might hear about the debate have never even heard of the view that evolution is false and the Bible is true, but it seems to me we’re talking about very small numbers here.

Yet another concern: perhaps, by debating Ham, Nye gave the public the impression that the issue is somehow unresolved among rational and well-informed people — that the two sides of the debate deserve equal consideration. But that need not follow from his having agreed to debate the guy. One can make very clear from the start that creationism (particularly young-earth creationism!) is taken seriously by absolutely nobody; that even those creationists who have modified their views the most to make them fit with current science (i.e. Michael Behe and his fellow travelers in ID) have never published any such arguments in peer-reviewed journals and, in fact, have never accepted a standing invitation from the American Biological Association to take the mike at an ABA conference and defend their claims against the arguments of serious biologists working in the field. So nobody attending the debate need walk away with the feeling that both sides are considered equal by the great minds of our day, etc.

Or perhaps the concern is that people who don’t attend the debate but hear about it somehow, or who see an ignorant newscaster say “Creation or Evolution: the age-old debate continues in Kentucky!”, might falsely conclude that both views are equally viable. Again, that’s a risk: but the fault there lies with idiotic newscasters who for some reason think that both sides of any debate, no matter how obviously resolved those in the know think it is, deserve equal consideration. If these debates never happened, those dull-witted newscasters would still say the same kind of junk when another round of creationist assaults on the school boards take place or when they receive news-ready ‘press releases’ on the global warming ‘controversy’ from denialists.

There’s also the question of whether Nye in particular should have debated Ham, given that Nye isn’t a biology professor. I really don’t think that should have stopped him. There are many professors out there who know their facts but can’t handle a live debate, and there are many well-informed people who are great in debates but don’t have the right credentials. I think that anyone should feel free to debate anyone on any topic whatsoever. We should just mellow out about that. Even if my five-year-old nephew wanted to debate Ken Ham and then lost in public, so what? Ham and his minions would gloat to everyone about it, and then the evolutionists could point out that he shouldn’t be so proud because, well, five year olds, dude! That isn’t to say that there’s no point having a brilliant professor with a PhD square off against Ham. That would be great also, and viewers would be right to put more stock in the results of that debate than in one against an amateur. But I don’t see why that precludes other people from having debates, too. The problem now is not that too many people are debating and discussing these things: it’s that too few are.

That being said, I think there are some people who should be advised not to debate — and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are two of them. One’s aim in going into one of these debates should be to win over people on the other side or plant the seeds of doubt. The worst thing one can do to that end is to spend all one’s time preaching to the choir, trying to toss off funny one-liners that one’s fans will love, personally insulting the audience members on the other side by saying or implying that they’re stupid, and so on. Harris and Dawkins do this sort of thing as a matter of course, and then they bemoan the fact that more people aren’t persuaded by their rational arguments. Personally, I think now that we’d have a much easier time with the creationists if Dawkins, Harris and the like gave it a rest.

No doubt, it’s very disappointing to go up against people who are clearly in the wrong with all you’ve got and still fail to persuade them. I’ve felt it before in dealing with them. Importantly, they think the same thing about us. True, we have the facts on our side; but that very seldom gets to settle the debate for either of us (when was the last time you got into a debate with a creationist or global warming denier and were genuinely open to being refuted? They’re the same way).

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind explains this important side of it extremely well and should be required reading for anyone interested in these debates (though I’m somewhat less pessimistic than he is).

All in all, I think it’s a cop out — and a harmful one — to consider believers in any popular view to be not worth debating. We lose a measure of our humanity by saying and thinking that, as well as our ability to resolve anything with them without resorting, essentially, to force or the threat of force (political, legal, or physical). Perhaps in some really extreme cases  we have no other choice, but on principle we should always consider a refusal to debate to be the last resort.

3 thoughts on “‘Let’s ignore them: debating with them would only legitimize their view.’

  1. One of the most scariest books I have ever come across re how the fundamentalist Christian mind works is Between Jesus And The Market Place The Emotions That Matter in Right-Wing America by Linda Kintz.
    All the usual right-wing suspects and propaganda outfits are discussed in the book.
    No amount of well reasoned Oxford inspired rational argument can come anywhere near to changing these deep-seated EMOTIONS. Indeed the best of these right-wing propaganda hacks use the same kind of Oxford inspired philosophy in their arguments, simultaneously using all kinds of emotionally laden code words which the true-believers unconsciously respond to.

  2. I agree, in principle, with this: “… it’s generally the case that, barring very special circumstances, we should engage dialectically with these interlocutors.”

    If you amend that to “we should engage dialectically with these interlocutors *in public*”, I’m a little more doubtful. I don’t think that follows any longer from accepting the humanity of those interlocutors alone; in a public context, someone like Nye has to take into account the effects of his speech and Ham’s on listeners other than him and Ham, and on the wider state of public opinion. That said, I’m happy to accept your arguments that the pros of public engagement outweigh the cons in this case. In fact, I’d add that, since Nye can’t stop other non-creationists from debating Ham, nor stop Ham from putting up a stooge of some kind, as long as Nye thinks he can debate Ham better than the average non-creationist, he’d probably only be helping Ham by refusing to debate him.

    However, as far as I can see, Nye wasn’t just debating Ham in public – he was doing in front of a live audience in Ham’s own museum. Isn’t that just helping Ham to put on an event that makes him money (either directly or as a form of advertising)? If Ham wanted to put, say, some dinosaur fossils on display, which he would use to attract paying visitors while misleading them about the nature of the fossils, I doubt Nye would volunteer to provide the fossils. If they’re going to be visible to the public, they should be in the hands of a curator who can display them without misleading the public. So, when what Ham wants to put on display is instead a debate, which he will again use to attract and mislead visitors, why should Nye agree to help?

    I also think that the acceptance of formal debate as the go-to method for engaging someone like Ham needs to be questioned. As far as I can tell, the format is designed to test the ability of the debaters to recall facts and express them persuasively under pressure. That makes it a good way to help school kids gain confidence in public speaking, but a bad way to eliminate misapprehensions about science. (I always feel a kind of vicarious embarrassment at watching adults debate. Aren’t the typical mannerisms of debate basically those of unusually clever children?) Admittedly, Ham might not have agreed to engage on any other basis, but that very fact ought to lead us to think that he believes (and I would trust his judgement on this point) that a formal debate isn’t going to change the minds of the people he wants to keep ignorant. I suspect that public debates are popular because people are entertained by conflict and by glib tongues. (As you point out, Harris and Dawkins aren’t much good at persuading people, but they are very popular debaters – that suggests that providing opportunities to be persuaded isn’t one of the strong points of debate as a format for discussion.) Holding a debate probably appeals to Ham mostly as a way of putting on a show that will earn him fame and money. I hope that engaging with Ham doesn’t have to mean helping him put on that show.

    I should acknowledge that I’m not in the US and haven’t watched the debate in question. Any errors of fact in the above are probably down to one of those two states of affairs; I have no ready excuse for any errors of judgement.

  3. I have two comments on this matter:

    1. “Don’t debate them,” is the alibi of the intellectually lazy, almost always. Not debating someone is the intellectual equivalent of forfeiting a match. Incidentally, forfeiting a match to young earth creationists is pathetic.

    2. While I will debate you, if you hold certain views you forfeit my respect.

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