The Grid of Disputation

By Sean Carroll | August 6, 2009 9:51 am

A few days ago the world witnessed a rare and precious event: a dispute on the Internet. In this case, it was brought about by a Bloggingheads episode of Science Saturday featuring historian of science Ronald Numbers and philosopher Paul Nelson. The controversy stemmed from the fact that Nelson is a Young-Earth Creationist — someone who believes that the Earth was created by God a few thousand years ago. You can read opinions about the dialogue from PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, or for a different point of view Nelson himself.

I was one of the people who found the dialogue extremely inappropriate (especially for “Science Saturday”), and as someone who is a fan of Bloggingheads I sent a few emails back and forth with the powers that be, who are generally very reasonable people. I think they understand why scientists would not be happy with such a dialogue, and I suspect it’s not going to happen again.

But it’s worth laying out the precise source of my own unhappiness — I’ll let other scientists speak for themselves. One potential source of discomfort is the natural reluctance to give credibility to creationists, and I think that’s a legitimate concern. There is a long-running conversation within the scientific community about whether it’s better to publicly debate people who are skeptical about evolution and crush them with superior logic and evidence, or to try to cut off their oxygen by refusing to meet them on neutral ground. I don’t have strong opinions about which is the better strategy, although I suspect the answer depends on the precise circumstances being contemplated.

Rather, my concern was not for the credibility of Paul Nelson, but for the credibility of Bloggingheads TV. I’m fairly sure that no one within the BH.tv hierarchy is a secret creationist, trying to score some public respect for one of their own. The idea, instead, was to engage in a dialogue with someone who held radically non-mainstream views, in order to get a better understanding of how they think.

That sounds like a noble goal, but I think that in this case it’s misguided. Engaging with radically different views is, all else being equal, a good thing. But sometimes all else isn’t equal. In particular, I think it’s important to distinguish between different views that are somehow respectable, and different views that are simply crazy. My problem with the BH.tv dialogue was not that they were lending their credibility to someone who didn’t deserve it; it was that they were damaging their own credibility by featuring a discussant who nobody should be taking seriously. There is plenty of room for debate between basically sensible people who can argue in good faith, yet hold extremely different views on contentious subjects. There is no need to pollute the waters by engaging with people who simply shouldn’t be taken seriously at all. Paul Nelson may be a very nice person, but his views about evolution and cosmology are simply crackpot, and don’t belong in any Science Saturday discussion.

This thought has led me to introduce what I hope is a helpful graphical device, which I call the Grid of Disputation. It’s just a reminder that, when it comes to other people’s views on controversial issues, they should be classified within a two-dimensional parameter space, not just on a single line of “agree/disagree.” The other dimension is the all-important “sensible/crazy” axis.

The Grid of Disputation

There’s no question that there is a place for mockery in the world of discourse; sometimes we want to engage with crackpots just to make fun of them, or to boggle at their wrongness. But for me, that should be a small component of one’s overall rhetorical portfolio. If you want to play a constructive role in an ongoing cultural conversation, the sizable majority of your disputational effort should be spent engaging with the best people out there with whom you disagree — confronting the strongest possible arguments against your own view, and doing so with a respectful and sincere attitude.

This strategy is not universally accepted. One of the least pleasant aspects of the atheist/skeptical community is the widespread delight in picking out the very stupidest examples of what they disagree with, holding them up for sustained ridicule, and then patting themselves on the back for how rational they all are. It’s not the only thing that happens, but it happens an awful lot, and the joy that people get out of it can become a bit tiresome.

So I disagree a bit with Richard Dawkins, when he makes this suggestion:

I have from time to time expressed sympathy for the accommodationist tendency so ably criticized here by Jerry Coyne. I have occasionally worried that – just maybe – Eugenie Scott and the appeasers might have a point, a purely political point but one, nevertheless, that we should carefully consider. I have lately found myself moving away from that sympathy.

I suspect that most of our regular readers here would agree that ridicule, of a humorous nature, is likely to be more effective than the sort of snuggling-up and head-patting that Jerry is attacking. I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt.

Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt…

I emphatically don’t mean we should use foul-mouthed rants. Nor should we raise our voices and shout at them: let’s have no D’Souzereignty here. Instead, what we need is sarcastic, cutting wit. A good model might be Peter Medawar, who would never dream of shouting, but instead quietly wielded the rapier. …

Maybe I’m wrong. I’m only thinking aloud, among friends. Is it gloves off time? Or should we continue to go along with the appeasers and be all nice and cuddly, like Eugenie and the National Academy?

Let me first note how … reasonable Dawkins is being here. He’s saying “well, I’ve been thinking about it, and maybe we should do X rather than Y — what do you folks think?” Not quite consistent with the militant fire-breathing one might expect from hearing other people talk about Dawkins, rather than listening to Dawkins himself.

Nevertheless, I don’t agree with the suggestion. There is an empirical question, of course: if the goal is actually to change people’s minds, is that accomplished more effectively by sweetly reasoning with them, or by ridiculing their incorrect beliefs? I don’t think the answer is especially clear, but very few people actually offer empirical evidence one way or the other. Instead, they loudly proclaim that the mode to which they are personally temperamentally suited — calm discussion vs. derisive mockery — is the one that is clearly the best. So I will just go along with that fine tradition.

My own goal is not really changing people’s minds; it’s understanding the world, getting things right, and having productive conversations. My real concern in the engagement/mockery debate is that people who should be academic/scholarly/intellectual are letting themselves be seduced by the cheap thrills of making fun of people. Sure, there is a place for well-placed barbs and lampooning of fatuousness — but there are also people who are good at that. I’d rather leave the majority of that work to George Carlin and Ricky Gervais and Penn & Teller, and have the people with Ph.D.’s concentrate on honest debate with the very best that the other side has to offer. I want to be disagreeing with Ken Miller or Garry Wills and St. Augustine, not with Paul Nelson and Ann Coulter and Hugh Ross.

Dawkins and friends have done the world an enormous service — they’ve made atheism part of the accepted cultural landscape, as a reasonable perspective whose supporters must be acknowledged. Now it’s time to take a step beyond “We’re here, we’re godless, get used to it” and start making the positive case for atheists as sensible, friendly, happy people. And that case isn’t made most effectively by zooming in on the lower left corner of the Grid of Disputation; it’s made by engaging with the lower right corner, and having the better arguments.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Words
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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