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 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 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.

  • Sean

    I think that writing a book has ruined me for blogging. I can’t seem to say anything at all in under a couple thousand words. Not a sustainable model.

  • egan

    >>>I can’t seem to say anything at all in under a couple thousand words

    But it is always interesting!

  • Sean

    egan, thanks! I am in no way impervious to positive feedback.

  • daisyrose

    We are here on this planet – we live, we die yet we are spiritual creatures – Where we come from – where we go no one knows.

    I rather like Plato’s particulars just because the idea of driving a plunging team of horses – some civilized, some not seems just about right for me – sort of like I am going to be doing *something* after I die ! Who is to say ? I just hope I am up for it !

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    While I’m more and more convinced that the ostensible consideration Dawkins gives the religionists belies his own bigotry, I do agree that there is little to be gained by engaging some individuals in fora that inadvertently lends the air of credibility to their deeply mistaken, even deranged, beliefs.

    I grow more and more uncomfortable with the tone of caustic derision employed by Dawkins and his ilk, regardless of their sincerity. It’s one thing to eschew debate with those who are patently incapable of engaging in substantive discourse, and quite another to heap contempt and abuse on them at every opportunity. My perception is this practice is alienating to the moderates, not convincing, and despite the fact that atheists are by far the minority, the scathingly hectoring tone employed by some leaves their religious targets appearing (perhaps quite rightly) to have been victimized. Anyone familiar with history ought to know that religions thrive under persecution if they’re constructed properly, a fact that Christianity has demonstrated quite convincingly. Conversely, the excesses of fully-empowered Christians have always led ultimately to their undoing, but often at the hands of reformers and moderators within the movement, those who could admire and be influenced by both those inside and outside of their faith. We discourage, or worse, disgust, those who might be a positive influence at our peril, I suspect.

    So, by all means, I think it’s good to avoid such no-win “opportunities” to engage in pseudo-debate, and to cite the delusory nature of the would-be debater’s stance to be the reason. But that’s probably enough, especially for public consumption.

  • Bill

    You are right that this is an important question…but the key is to understand which of several audiences you are addressing. As Dawkins carves out the irremediable (irredeemable?), so there are several other audiences that require different appeals. For example, there are people who need a rational, hear-all-sides argument (and listen to NPR and subscribe to Discover), and there are people who want to know what others like them are thinking (who drive SUV’s are are worried about their infant’s eventual applications to the Ivy League.)

    Debates about science, climate, health care, and financial regulation all could use a little audience targeting.

  • Bjørn Østman

    As for those with a Ph.D., as you mention, I don’t think there need to be one way that they join the discourse. When Nelson, Coulter and Ross write for the public, I suspect it is a thoroughly healthy remedy to mock (scornful, yet articulate and meaningful) their pitiful understanding of things, because people who read them might otherwise not know that that is basically what ‘the Ph.D.s’ think about them.

  • nick herbert

    Regarding your “Grid of Disputation”.

    Are so-called “holocaust deniers” worthy opponents or crackpots? Think about it.

    In most European countries you will be imprisoned (Germar Rudolph, Ernst Zundel, David Irving) for attempting to present EVIDENCE that contradicts the “obvious” Exterminationist Story. What sort of science would mankind possess if we tilted the playing field in favor of “obvious” Euclidean Reality by jailing every scientist who presented evidence for a curved spacetime?

    Or, unlike criticizing Christianity which is as safe as shooting fish in a barrel, is this far too dangerous a topic today to be subjected to scientific scrutiny?

  • Sean

    Okay, I’ve thought about it. They’re crackpots. Basically the paradigmatic case, in fact.

  • Ali

    I think the problem with your cute little grid, Sean, is that “Crazy vs. Sensible” is itself just as subjective an axis as “Agree vs. Disagree.” What may seem “just plain crazy” to you may not seem that way to others, unless we’re talking about flat-out schizophrenics of the medically diagnosed variety.

    Not that I agree with Creationists. But what I am most interested in is not why Some People Are Just Plain F’ing Crazy, but why some human beings, who are as capable of rational thought as you or I, either relinquish that rational thought or use it to support arguments that I do not agree with or even seem to be ridiculous. Very few people do things they do not believe to be right (that’s why “sociopaths” get their own special term), and very few people reject rationality so completely that they deserve automatic ridicule without any hearing whatsoever. (You may not always like the medium of that hearing…. but sadly, you do not always have the ultimate say. I would rather encourage communication of all kinds and risk “lending credibility” than spend my time trying to censor and shut down debate when I deemed it unprofitable for my own ideas.)

    In short: your whole post assumes that people are either Sensible or Crazy, as though the world could be so easily divided into such a simplistic duality. To me, that sounds crazy. Sometimes “crazy” people have sound ideas, and sometimes even sensible people support crazy and devastating ideas (did someone mention the holocaust? what about a cultural system dedicated to consumption in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that such a lifestyle is unsustainable and likely to make the human species, along with quite a few others, extinct?). Pretending that Some People Are Just Crazy, and the corollary, that Those People Aren’t Us, leaves us wide open to make terrible mistakes out of arrogance and turning a deaf ear to the potential wisdom and insight around us. Everyone deserves respect and a fair attempt at understanding.

  • Sam Gralla

    LOL @ 9.

    For that matter, what is your opinion about disagreers on global warming? What percentage fall where on the sensibility scale?

  • John

    Saying “god did it” is not science; it cannot be proved or didproved.

  • boreds

    Sean, I didn’t follow this BH story (yet)—but I love the grid.

    Respect the grid.

  • Eric Wolff

    Yeah, I need to jump in here and totally agree with Ali. To a believer (i.e. most of the world) Dawkins is crazy and thus, by your grid, unworthy of debate. To a creationist, evolution is crazy, and thus by your grid, a specialist in evolution is unworthy of debate. Instinctively, I tend to agree that we should keep them off our airwaves whenever possible to prevent them from getting credibility.

    But these people are sometimes politically powerful. We came really, really close to having and entire state with public schools discussing the Theory of Evolution as one possible explanation for the origin of life. Really close. We have Congress people who say that Obama was born in Kenya. We have a Congress that can’t seem to recognize the dire threat of Global Warming, and so they’re defending short term business interests over the fate of the Earth. That’s why we have to keep debating wingnuts in public fora. They’re not on the margins of society. They’re either *more* representative of society then rationalist/skeptics, or they represent a politically powerful minority.

  • David J Rust

    In a “Science Saturday” discussion the point should be that such a debate is not about “science” if the discussion is not about the scientific method. Those who prepare and invite those involved should have some responsibility for making certain that what is being brought forth has some merit in a scientific sense. Mr. Nelson would have been a fine guest on a Philosophy or Theology panel; as you point out, Sean, the credibility of the program is challenged by its very subject matter once it strays into the realm of Creationism.

    In the second part of your blog entry you address something of great interest to me and something I would like to ask more about: the relationships between Skeptics and non-Skeptics. I lie somewhere between, myself, being a Theist who doesn’t buy every bit of hype that comes down the line and subscribing to Science -well- pretty much everything. My religious views pretty much remain personal and in the realm of personal philosophy, not impinging on physical affairs.

    This said, there seems to be a growing rift between people who honestly want to work towards a secular, rational society (of which I consider myself a member) and the rest of the world, driven -in many ways- by how we are treating each other. True, it’s often enflamed by media, religious demagogues, and sensationalism, but I think a fair amount can be put at our own feet when snark and mockery become commonplace tools of communication.

    Or is that an oversimplification?

    What are your thoughts on this and do you feel that this is a portion of what you were saying in your blog post?

  • NewEnglandBob

    I think the atheists should “start making the positive case for atheists as sensible, friendly, happy people” when Coulter and Behe and the fundamentalists, evangelicals and other religious flotsam stop lying and fabricating nonsense. Otherwise no one hears anything but the filth and lies from them.

    The positive case was made for years and years and few listened. It is Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Coyne, et al. who are making their voices heard and changing the tide.

  • David J Rust

    I’ve got to partially disagree with Eric and Ali,

    I am a believer in that I am a Theist. But I also have a college degree and do not tend to ascribe to any God what Science can explain, first. I think it’s a combination of educational levels in addition to whether or not a person is a Theist that’s the issue, here. A person who is not exposed and immersed in an academic background will fall back on their holy books as the only source of reason they can get their hands on.

    This is not an excuse for them, mind you, just an attempt at an explanation.

    The majority, I fear, are just what you say: politically powerful and/or uneducated and willing to support the politically powerful.

    I know it sounds like splitting hairs, but I feel it’s an important distinction, useful for identifying the type of person we are opposing.

  • Puck

    I am very glad that you posted this, Sean. I have had a wide range of experience with debate/arguing within my short life to date. I was on debate teams, have a degree in philosophy (which encompasses both formal and informal logic and which is, for all intents and purposes, the profession of arguers), and even spent some time overseas on a religious mission of conversion (I am now much more staunchly agnostic, but that is a story for another day).

    Anyway, long story short, I have seen a -lot- of argument, both heated and calm, respectful and derisive. And I have learned that two aspects of human nature are nearly universal:
    1) when a person’s closely-held opinion is challenged outright, they entrench themselves more, regardless of reason (ie – you can’t change peoples’ minds, only they can).
    2) the best way to drive a neutral party from joining your camp (at least, the kind of individual that you -want- on your team) is to ridicule and belittle your opponents’ seriously-held beliefs.

    While (1) is common knowledge, it’s your nod toward (2) that made me appreciate this post enough to comment. Dawkins doesn’t realize that he is alienating his ‘fence-sitters.’
    The only example that I can think of off the top of my head is the popular Mac vs. PC commercials. Now, I am neutral on the whole Mac/PC debate; both have their advantages and disadvantages, and I don’t foresee their niches changing any time soon. That being said, the more snarky Mac commercials that I see (in which the cool guy makes false (or, at least, one-sided) claims about the geek), the less I want to buy a Mac.

    I know it’s not the best example, but you get the picture. Sure, it’s fun to laugh at a jester (even liberals poke fun of Moore, and conservatives Colter), but there’s a reason that there is only one or two jesters per court.

  • Sean

    David, I’m certainly happy to be quite public and insistent with my belief that God does not exist and that we live in a universe that runs purely according to naturalistic principles, as one may notice from reading this blog. But at the same time, I understand that there are a lot of smart and reasonable people who disagree, and I’m equally happy to work with them on shared causes, and discuss our disagreements reasonably in the meantime.

    But I don’t really have a strong opinion on “there seems to be a growing rift” etc. Those impressions are just too hard to judge objectively and apart from our local conditions. I’m more confident in what I think is true about the world and how I think reasonable discussion should proceed than I am about the state of other people’s beliefs.

  • Joshua Macy

    I don’t think it’s merely an empirical question of which tactic is more effective at getting people to affirm propositions that you agree with. If you think that you’re about seeking the truth, it seems to me that you ought to care deeply about the reasons that people have for agreeing with you. Suppose we developed a pill which could get somebody to change their mind on a topic. Would you be content to slip somebody that pill in order to get them to agree? What if the pill didn’t actually change their mind, but made it so that whatever their private thoughts, they involuntarily affirmed the proposition you told them to support whenever asked about it?

    Dawkins’ approach makes me really uncomfortable because even if as an empirical matter it worked, it amounts to “Hey, I’ve found this really effective way to get people to affirm what I want them to say without all the hassle of educating and persuading them. Just use sarcastic, cutting wit on them and you can at least make them afraid to open their mouths…and with luck you can get them to parrot the party line without believing or understanding it.” Even if it weren’t dangerous, using the fact that nobody wants to be laughed at or be the butt of contempt is a morally dubious way to win an argument.

  • David J Rust

    Sean, that’s cool.

    The “growing rift” I’ve seen may be merely my own subjective observation. I worry that people are getting angrier and angrier rather than talking to each other.

    What do you think the basic ground rules of reasonable discussion should be?

    I’ve proposed, in formal settings, the good ol’ “Robert’s Rules of Order” and always requiring statements of alleged fact to be backed up with something tangible or repeatable. (Mind you, I broke that rule with my non-reproducible statement, above, “seems to be a growing rift”; my apologies for that).

    In non-formal settings, I just try not to be a jerk and handle things in a more conversational tone.

    What are your thoughts?

    As you might guess, this is of great interest to me.

  • Rob Knop

    NewEnglandBob — you miss Sean’s point entirely. Sure, there are the Ann Coulters and fundamentalists out there, and sure, one can rage against them with ugly rants.

    Sean is saying that that’s not what he wants to do. He wants to have a constructive discussion whereby he might convince reasonable people to his point of view.

    As a theist myself, I don’t think I’m going to be convinced– I still think that even the sane debate that comes from the “committed atheists” like Sean ends up talking past the sane theists, and vice versa, but oh well. However, I do appreciate that there can be somebody who’s not really an accomidationist (Sean is on record saying that he doesn’t think holding religious beliefs is really consistent with a scientific worldview) who is able to make his point without being downright insulting, without feeling the need to lump those who disagree with him in with Ann Coulter and the fundamentalists.

  • Daniel Pope

    I agree with much of what you’re saying but the diagram itself seems misleading. When you apply it to something like religion people who have more strongly opposing viewpoints are the ones who are more delusional too – the axes are not independent.

    You do get stupid delusional people who make brain-meltingly poor arguments and you get delusional people intelligent enough to rationalise and mould their beliefs into a form that can’t be overturned by presentation of facts. But they’re both delusional in that they firmly believe their views are justified despite zero evidence. I don’t see how there can be a field of worthy opponents on a subject where there’s no grounds for one side of the argument to even start to build a case.

  • g

    LMMI: “the ostensible consideration Dawkins gives the religionists” … “the tone of caustic derision employed by Dawkins and his ilk” — it seems to me that there’s some tension here, no?

  • abb3w

    I don’t think the answer is especially clear, but very few people actually offer empirical evidence one way or the other.

    “How to change people’s minds” is fundamentally an engineering design problem, with the science underlying the engineering not chemistry or physics, but rather psychology. And so far as my amater poking at Google Scholar can tell, the literature of psychology does not have a lot of information on what causes people’s minds to change. The most useful model I’ve encountered seems to be the “X system vs. C system”; human thought is largely refleXive, but situations of significant novelty or triggering significant conflict within the X-system get handled by the refleCtive C-system, which can result over time in changes to how a person thinks. From this standpoint, presenting Creationists with responses that are not-so-easily given a cognitive pigeonhole as simple as “calm discussion vs. derisive mockery” would be better than either simplistic approach. (Of course, it’s therefore also more difficult.)

    However, there are additional complications; for example, Jonathan Haidt has identified significant differences between liberals and conservatives in the factors used for moral judgment; both rely on FAIR and HARM, but conservatives also consider INGROUP, AUTHORITY, and PURITY. If these differences result from inherent differences in X-system activation, changing minds becomes harder.

    The short of it is, the science isn’t well developed enough to do reliable engineering with.

  • Jo

    @#10 & #14: I don’t think that ‘crazy’ vs ‘sensible’ is as relativist as you’re suggesting. A poor critical thinker is far different from a dogmatist or a denialist.

    Excellent, excellent article, Sean. Exceedingly well thought out and well written. Thank you.

  • boomer

    Crazies can be EASILY distinguished from sensible people, not from their beliefs, but from “how they arrive at their beliefs”. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with evolution or creation…what matters is the reasoning behind your position on these issues. Most creationists who believe the earth is a few thousand years old are “crazy”…not because of their particular belief, but because they have absolutely zero rational behind it…it’s “blind faith” which is inherently crazy…to believe in something as *specific* as the earth being six thousand years old, for absolutely no reason other than blind faith is CRAZY!

    So, you cannot hide behind this “crazy is in the eye of the beholder” nonsense. Crazies and crackpots can be EASILY identified based on their reasoning and logic.

  • Eugene

    Damn, I am surrounded by Embarrassing Allies.

  • Peter Beattie

    … 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 …

    Are those really the best opponents that we can find? A guy who won’t shy from blatantly misrepresenting someone he disagrees with? Isn’t there someone you can respect from top to bottom?

  • Phillip Helbig

    “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?”

    Two questions: Who is trying to convince? Whom should be convinced?

    Forget convincing the True Believers. The worthwhile targets are the uninformed and
    unsure. Scientists should usually present the evidence calmly and coolly. However,
    I think in many cases people with other professions (who might be scientists as well) such
    as comedians might score better.

    Just yesterday I was watching a German comedian ( Part of his act is debunking
    pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. On whether there are more births during
    a full moon: Scientist XYZ disproved this by a very sound statistical scientific method:
    a tally sheet. Got a lot of laughs, and made it obvious to everyone that this is a claim
    which anyone with access to the (generally easily available) data can check. Probably
    convinced more people then and there than more scholarly analyses. On homeopathy:
    If such dilute solutions can really have such effects, I wonder how many false-positive
    pregnancy tests in Ireland are the result of someone in Brazil pissing into the ocean.
    On the idea that the moon landings were faked: I can just see the photographer in the
    studio: I’ve got the spacecraft, I’ve got the flag, I’ve got the astronauts. Damn it, I left
    that backdrop with the stars in the boot of my car. Not worth the trouble to go and get it.

    If this is the type of barbed repartee Dawkins is thinking of then yes, I think it is probably
    quite effective convincing casual listeners (i.e. not True Believers): it will reach many
    more people and packs the proof in the punchline. Humour is a powerful weapon and I
    think it is much more difficult for people to claim that he isn’t right than to debate a
    scholarly article which not many people understand.

  • kj

    Perhaps you could clarify, from reading your final sentence i arrive at the conclusion that what you desire are winning arguments with intelligent “Supreme Being-ers”. Why? Atheism is a belief system. Science and its conclusions about the age of the earth are entirely separate discussion points from God vs. Nogod.

  • Ali

    David (#17), I think you misunderstand my point. I am not saying that all ideas and opinions are equally valid or valuable in terms of their truth value. What I am saying is that, as human beings, every person has some reason for believing what they do, and that it accomplishes nothing to merely declare them “crazy” and leave it at that. This is tantamount to saying they’re a little less human than we are, simply because we don’t understand them. On the other hand, philosophies like liberal democracy are founded on the notion that all human beings are capable of rational thought (otherwise, why trust the masses with a vote?). Is Sean suggesting that some people don’t have the right to participate in the processes of civil society because of their “craziness,”or what I think he really means, their stupidity? I guess I just believe in a kind of “natural selection” of ideas. Truth and reality will prevail, withstanding most blindness and irrationality. It is not so fragile that we have to waste our energy on censorship and control.

  • lee

    Sean – I’m surprised you haven’t yet noticed that you’ve got the X axis reversed. Surely “Crazy” should be going off to the right….

  • Jer

    I challenge anyone to sit through all seven parts of this Dawkins interview without wishing for a bit of ridicule. How would you deal with this kind of situation? I note that the interviewee has considerable political influence.

  • RBH

    Ali wrote

    I guess I just believe in a kind of “natural selection” of ideas. Truth and reality will prevail, withstanding most blindness and irrationality. It is not so fragile that we have to waste our energy on censorship and control.

    I doubt that “truth and reality” have much to do with the selective pressures on ideas. And withstanding blindness and irrationality is more than a little chancy in a developed Western country in which something like half of the population that depends on science for its level of life rejects the core theoretical structures of biology, physics, and geology.

    I think it is fragile; that it is not at all inconceivable that blindness and irrationality could overtake truth and rationality. Science and rationality are alien ways of thinking to most people. We who comment on science blogs are a tiny subset of the larger population and are far from representative of it. I have spent a good deal of time (see here: in the company of religious fundamentalists lately, and their views on science, on public health (e.g., contraception), and on behavioral control in society not only have no basis in fact, they are contradicted by incontrovertible facts. Were only their private behavior at stake I wouldn’t mind, but they do their damndest to incorporate their counter-factual beliefs into public policy. That deserves the strongest possible resistance.

    That said, I don’t think the false dichotomy that offers “censorship and control” as the only alternative is helpful. Declining to participate in legitimizing irrationality is not censorship; it’s self-preservation.

    There are ideas in broad circulation and widely believed in the U.S. and elsewhere that are loony enough to deserve little but derision. Hearing an Arizona state legislator matter of factly refer to a 6,000 year-old earth ( in the context of a discussion of the desirability of environmental controls on uranium mining deserves nothing but pure ridicule.

    Sorry for the Tinyurls; for some reason HTML code was not appropriately linking to them.

  • Adam Solomon

    But with George Carlin gone, who better to take his place than Sean Carroll?

  • |John R Ramsden

    @Ali [10] “In short: your whole post assumes that people are either Sensible or Crazy, as though the world could be so easily divided into such a simplistic duality.”

    That’s exactly the problem that besets creationists – They insist that the Bible must be literally correct in every particular, or else by their reasoning it must logically be completely worthless.

    Stupidity and/or poor education largely accounts for this childishly simple outlook; but I think it is also in many cases a character defect based on insecurity.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    g: The tension is entirely Dawkins’, as far as I can tell. This claim to having considered something other than the most base contempt, only to find that approach lacking the desired impact, speaks volumes, if you ask me. The honed wit with which he dishes it out is certainly of high stylistic merit, but scornful derision is still the message, and the desired impact clearly is as much to injure as to influence. Why even bother with the pretense of consideration if you’re of the sort who can dismiss the “irredeemable” with such public ease? And must he broadcast it so relentlessly? I don’t feel helped, quite frankly.

  • Victor

    Hi Everyone,

    I just wanted to point out this excellent book, relating to the topic of this post. I especially encourage Sean to read it.

  • Jim Harrison

    I think one has to proceed on two tracks:

    1. A fairly small proportion of people are ever going to understand any scientific theory even if they endorse it. I’ve spent a fair amount of time asking supporters of evolution to describe what it is they support, for example, and find that they aren’t a lot better informed than the average religiously motivated skeptic. That doesn’t mean that their pro-science stance isn’t valuable from a political point of view, however. That’s why I’ve gotten somewhat more comfortable with making fun of religious fundamentalists. It won’t really educate anybody, but it may make people feel like hicks if they support I.D. in schools. If we can’t spread truth, we can at least promote a benign form of error.

    2. While only a minority is ever going to have any genuine understanding of scientific topics, that minority can certainly be made large so that it includes a greater number of nonscientists. You hear a lot about doing a better job of teaching evolution in high schools, but I’d like to see more attention paid to biological education at the college level.

  • Ian

    My approach to dialog of any nature is to treat others as you would want them to treat you.

  • Hiranya

    I actually watched the Dawkins interview posted by Jer in 34. It is easy to advocate calm discussion with such people in theory, but the reality is not so simple. I felt profound respect for Dawkins for actually spending such a long time debating her in such an unperturbed, measured manner. I wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes before losing my cool in the face of such irrationality, and I am a person with an unaggressive temperament who hates vociferous debate. Do I think anything was accomplished in calm rational debate with this person? None whatsoever. Rational thinking is foreign to some people. I think it is often a failure of the education system rather than lack of intelligence or “craziness”.

  • Mike Merrifield

    Hi Sean —

    As a model, your space of disputation has a troubling aspect: it violates parity under some relativistic transformations. If I move from my position (at the “true origin,” obviously) to the perspective of a “crazy person” somewhere to the left of the diagram, the direction of the sensible/crazy axis flips.

    I would also suggest that the figure fails to do justice to the shear weight of craziness in the World, which should be reflected in the areas of each coloured region in an appropriately Bayesian manner: there are surely almost infinitely many crazy possibilities, but remarkably few sensible ones.

  • Lab Lemming

    “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?”

    This is a false dichotomy.

    There are many other methods. My favorite is to give people the scientific tools they need to understand things they are interested in, with the understanding that the particular tools I gave them will lead them to the correct interpretation of hard-to-accept scientific axioms. How long it takes them to do such an application is not a concern of mine; I’m a patient man.

    However, the argument over which KIND of confrontation is best ignores the reality of non-confrontational forms of education.

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  • Raymond

    Not sure that a PhD certifies an individual to enter into the reason of debate in regards to most topics, or at least most things philosophical and having little to do with “facts” or empirical statements. I am quite certain that an individual like George Carlin would have been much better in debating one of the “best” on the side of Creationism because he had an incredible ability to develop solid arguments with strong reasoning and what not. More often than not, a PhD will probably just throw around a few references to studies, quote a few numbers, and pretend that this substitutes for a strong (or even moderate) argument. So when it comes to forming arguments dealing with more practical issues in regards to daily life, no degree at all is necessary and while having a degree may help to provide evidence or even the tools for forming good, strong arguments, the relatively little piece of paper saying PhD or whatever is certainly no substitute for being able to reason well. I think this is painfully obvious in a number of your posts and as well as in various “arguments” made by people like Richard Dawkins. Once you folks wander off the highly specialized road of physics or evolutionary biology, your arguments become incredibly weak because little do you realize that you are not really forming arguments at all but simply arranging a series of points together to give it the appearance of a well formed argument, a bad habit that is no doubt picked up from how modern science is practiced.

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  • David J Rust

    Ali (#32) – Yes, indeed; it does appear I misunderstood you; thank you very much for clarifying your position! :)

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  • chemicalscum

    It is possible to be both a theist and support modern evolutionary theory. Remember Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s Ph.D. is in a field of marine biology that is essentially evolutionary biology. We children of the Enlightenment should assess who our allies are. I guess in Sean’s terms this it the sensible-crazy axis.

    I think in a sense the question of defining the sensible and crazy ends of the axis are epistemological. Those that accept that evidence based scientific methodology gives us real knowledge about the material world and is primary define the sensible end. The crazies however regard faith and revelation as being the primary source of knowledge overall.

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  • GBJ

    PZ Meyers points out this morning that unfortunately, regarding evolution, there simply isn’t anybody in the green quadrant to talk with. (

    You can ignore the nut-jobs, but as a social force they are loud and strong. There is a price to be paid by having our heads in the sand. The real choice does seem to be between ridicule or respectful conversations with crackpots. To my mind, ridicule is more appropriate.

  • davidmabus

    We have a completely different method to deal with PZ/Dawkins and their blind deluded followers:





  • Pierce R. Butler

    OK, nice guys – davidmabus @ # 54 has set you a challenge.

    Let’s see a civil, rational, edifying response to ANNIHILATION!

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  • Janus

    But Sean, what if the “best” the opposition has to offer is still really, really lousy? Have you read Ken Miller’s arguments for the existence of God? They’re ridiculous.

    Why should we treat ridiculous arguments and beliefs as if they’re not? Sure, it might make us look more friendly (and condescending), but it will also give the false impression that we think these arguments and beliefs aren’t ridiculous. And if thorough rationalists like ourselves give that impression, what do you expect religious believers to conclude?

  • Patrick

    I’m not so certain that there isn’t a sizeable niche in our political discourse for scornful derision of people with crazy views.

    Crackpot ideas tend to get their traction from a public perception that a matter is not settled, that really anything COULD be true, and that popular prejudices ought to push you towards believing the crackpot. So creationists argue that evolution can’t be completely proven, that scientists don’t know anything, and that if you want to believe the bible you have to disbelieve evolution. Global warming deniers argue that science doesn’t know everything about global warming, temperatures vary all the time, and if you don’t want to spend all kinds of money on something that might be a boondoggle you shouldn’t buy into global warming. This is the crackpot strategem, and you can see it applied to almost every crackpot idea about history or science there is- homeopathy, holocaust denialism, vaccine alarmism, etc, etc, etc.

    In the context of opponents who operate under this paradigm, scornful derision has its place. It extinguishes that aura of uncertainty that the crackpot idea inhabits.

    Look at something like the birthers. If you don’t address them, then the establishment is ignoring them and they just rally in their alternative media networks. You can’t deny them light and heat by ignoring them because they already have light and heat of their own. If you address them calmly and rationally disprove their position, they’ll just rely on sheer stupidity to dumb their way through. They’ll argue that a certificat of live birth isn’t a birth certificate, or whatever else they need to argue to keep the issue uncertain, allowing their prejudice to decide the matter for them. But if you make it clear that the birther point of view is incredibly stupid, and anyone who believes it is a stupid, stupid, gullible embarassment of a person, that can actually have an effect.

    I guess… I’m just skeptical of the “lets stop sarcastically dealing with the crackpots and nicely deal with the reasonable opponents” as a tactic when there are a lot of crackpots out there, and they’re perfectly capable of spreading their ideas whether you ignore them or not.

  • MAG

    Pleeease make a T-shirt with the Grid of Disputation on it…

  • Sean

    Ah, our T-shirt operation is a shambles, which we’ve been meaning to upgrade. But that’s a good idea.

  • Deen

    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?

    But isn’t it clear from the quote that Dawkins is considering using ridicule to convince the fence-sitters, not to convince the (fundamentalists) believers themselves?

    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.

    Not true. Many will tell you that both strategies are useful and necessary. And you will often find both strategies in the same person, where they would use one or the other strategy depending on context.

  • Aaron Baker

    Richard Dawkins wrote: “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.”

    Unfortunately, that political point seems to me to be incontrovertible. If you want to promote science education in a country as religious as the United States, head-on assaults on religion are unlikely to help you in reaching your goal. Tarring a good politician like Eugenie Scott as an “appeaser” doesn’t change the brute facts on the ground one bit. She would, I’m sure, prefer never to have to discuss religion at all. But when religion raises its ugly head, “no necessary conflict” is a convenient way of turning the discussion elsewhere (toward what Scott really cares about), and, given religion’s wonderful capacity for refutation-evasion, it may even be true.

    You go on to state: “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.”

    I fully agree. And, after a more than ordinarily tiresome back-and-forth with some of P.Z. Myers’ sycophants–on the subject of his “crackergate” stunt–I found myself reminded that atheism is no guarantee of that purported rationality.

  • Aaron Baker

    After reading the post by davidmabus, I’m reminded that there’s irrationality, and then there are some things even dumber.

  • Deen

    @64 Aaron Baker: be careful not to insult the more moderate believers in Nostradamus or believers in prophecies in general ;)

  • Aaron Baker


    I had a look at your blog. It seems interesting; but, sadly, I read hardly a word of Dutch (I can handle German (with some help from a dictionary); not close enough, though).

  • Aaron Baker

    Patrick wrote: “I guess… I’m just skeptical of the “lets stop sarcastically dealing with the crackpots and nicely deal with the reasonable opponents” as a tactic when there are a lot of crackpots out there, and they’re perfectly capable of spreading their ideas whether you ignore them or not.”

    It may sound as if I’m contradicting my earlier post, but I’m not: I’m inclined to agree with this, too. One problem with crackpots is that their ideas don’t always stay restricted to whatever tiny fringe they started in. The alarming recent statistic for the number of Republicans taking the birther nonsense seriously comes to mind. Lots of people rejecting the legitimacy of a democratically elected president could lead to ugly consequences. So by all means, crackpot notions need to be debunked, and sometimes in no pleasant terms. It helps, though, if you can do it with a minimum of self-congratulation.

  • Mike from Ottawa

    When Ken Miller is your enemy, Sean, you should be clear that you’re bearing the cudgel for atheism v religion, not science/evolution versus creationism. Pretending it’s about evolution v creationism is sailing under false colours.

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  • D

    “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”

    I think this well-meaning and oft-repeated guideline is fundamentally mistaken. Argument isn’t just about abstract disputation and debate; it is also about conflict, winning over minds and achieving victory over the other side. When you enter into a debate with a reasonable prior expectation of changing your mind by the end of it, then yes, you expose yourself to the best arguments against your views. When instead you have a sufficiently high prior confidence in your views (say on creationism, homeopathy, global warming and the like), the point isn’t to try and formulate a harmonious meeting of the best possible minds. It is to isolate, marginalize and render impotent the other side.

    Where the conflict model applies, you defend against the weapons your opponents actually use, not what they would use were they making their best possible case. You wouldn’t fight against people with boxcutters by making bomb shelters. If ninety percent of your adversaries go around calling fortuitous coincidences miracles and unfortunate ones evidence for the inscrutability of God, if they think praying to said God is a clever way of ensuring longevity and health, then these are positions worth debunking, whether or not they meet with the approval of the best theologians. Leave to your opponents the R&D question of which arguments are best supports for their view, intellectually and politically, and set to the opposition’s theologians the task of understanding why their sophisticated views are so suasively inert. If for whatever reason Godel’s modal argument for theism doesn’t convince the Answers in Genesis crowd, so much the worse for it. Divine watchmaker is what must be confronted then…

  • Glenn Bradford

    “My problem with the 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.”

    Hmm. I don’t think this is a fair criticism of this dialogue. I’d never heard of Nelson before and maybe he has a history as a crackpot that I don’t know about, but I thought he didn’t come off as one here, except in admitting that he was a young earther (when Numbers asked him). Numbers did not press him too much on this conviction, and the discussion veered toward topics in the philosophy of science. I found the discussion interesting and enjoyable in spite of the fact that I learned he was a young earther. Nelson was quite engaging and articulate, and I think this is the real source of worry: if fence sitters on the evolution debate are favorably impressed by how Nelson comports himself on a number of other matters, then maybe his stance on the age of the Earth deserves another look. And in fact THIS is the real reason so many people don’t want him back on

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  • George McIlvaine

    The grid of disputation oversimplifies. There are always more dimensions than depicted by only two skewed and arbitrary axes. The Meyers-Briggs personality grid is another example. Anyway, whether to be “nice” as a strategy is well-studied. Game theorists have not found a better strategy than T4T, (tit for tat). This strategy is to be nice unless you are disrespected, and only then deploy the cold disdain and mockery from your arsenal.
    Don’t know whether to be nice or nasty? Rationality requires the best strategy – T4T (be nice until disrespected). Also, Christian theism requires the best behavior – the Golden Rule (always be nice). So a T4T-Golden Rule debate would always travel the high road. And really, why take the low road? It’s demeaning and unpleasant and usually devolves into ad hominum attacks and name-calling (e.g. “crackpots”). Moreover, it’s a distraction from the real issue of the debate. Keep it civil and don’t go there.

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  • Netcob

    Great article! Really liked the “Grid of Disputation”.

    I agree that mockery should be left to comedians – but changing people’s minds might be more important than you think. Sure, it feels cheap and unproductive to explain simple facts and implications to people who believe whatever people they trust (because of shared opinions, social/religious backgrounds and so on) tell them to believe.
    But look at all these “artificial grass-roots movements” in the USA right now. Like what seems to be happening at these “town-hall meetings” concerning the health-care reform. A few pundits started saying that the reform will introduce “death panels” and “(mandatory) euthanasia for old people”. It’s pretty clever actually, because A) It’s a very clear message that anyone can understand (and be outraged about), B) Rational people (or anyone who knows what’s in the bill) will simply dismiss it as crackpots rambling about nonsense – maybe they’ll make a humorous comment or two that only they will really get and C) when someone eventually understands that yes, a considerable fraction of the population actually believes this bullshit, the insanity will be so big and deep-rooted that there’s nothing you can do.
    Now imagine this actually leads to the health-care reform being canceled. It’s not that funny anymore, is it?
    So while we are above manipulating the crazies or the “passionate, well-meaning but gullible” there are those who are willing to do it for selfish reasons. I don’t think we should do the same, but I do think the gloves need to come off. Not by mocking, but by listening and educating.

  • MarkD

    We really need to stop debating science facts to people that don’t want facts. If they wanted facts, they wouldn’t be creationists, and they certainly wouldn’t be young earthers.

    Point out that even the Pope and Vatican (they don’t want a scientist’s opinion) thinks they are crackpots (easy to find on a search), young earth “theory” got it’s start in a church basement in 1960, and let them fume.

  • chousaru

    perhaps an angle for addressing the ‘crazies’ (as subjective as that term may be) would be a move away from the them and us stance, away from the specifics of atheism vs. faith, or science/evolution vs. creationism, etc. and try a blanket argument where the promotion of questioning of one’s ‘belief-system’ is the goal.

    if people would just critically self-analyze their own reasons for believing this, that or the other, there might be a move towards the rational. or is that just wishful thinking..? it is the matter of questioning everything and allowing people choice that’s the important.

    ideally parents would teach their children how to think rather than what to think, what better gift for a child?

    i recall a discussion with a theist that revealed the underlying point i am making. we discussed the idea of how children should be brought up and it came down to this, my own up bringing meant i valued the freedom and security that autonomous thought gave me and so i would give my children the choice to come to any conclusion about belief they think is appropriate. He on the other hand said he could (indeed must) teach his children that the word of god was the truth and that any questioning of that premise would only undermine and damage his children. in other words his belief did not allow for choice.

    that is a form of oppression, and more importantly, oppression of a child(ren).

    to get back to the point, lets pursue argument promoting the questioning your own convictions and belief and in so doing allow people to reach their own conclusions about what seems more reasonable.

    the irredeemably faithful will not be swayed, but perhaps the fence-sitters and unthinkers could be jolted into rational thought… i live in hope…

  • Mike McCants

    “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?”

    Dawkins already said that the creationists cannot be reasoned with. So ridicule is appropriate. Now if it’s polite ridicule, will a “fence sitter” be influenced? Or will a “fence sitter” be offended by the lack of “respect” for a creationist’s nonsense?

    “My own goal is not really changing people’s minds; it’s understanding the world, getting things right, and having productive conversations.”

    This post is “productive” if you have said something reasonable. But, as far as creationists are concerned, there are no worthwhile opponents and your post is useless.

  • Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth

    Janus knows advanced theology: it is as ridiculous as fundamentalist theology! McGrath advised Miller to take the birth and Resurrection stories of that cult leader Yeshua as emphasizing his message. What the divine protection racket? Oh, no , the one he reads onto Yeshua’s silly and destructive advice- the message of hope. Walter Kaufmann in ” Critique of philosophy and Religion” and ‘Faith of a Heretic” skewed in a friendly manner advanced theology. Eisegesis is exegesis.
    Keith Ward, states that as a born-again, he is so much better off. That betterment is due to his own mental states and initiative.His religious experience is as all religious experience that action of ones own mind; to find God behind it is to beg the question as is the theologians way.
    Haughty John Haught faults us naturalists for not accepting other venues of knowledge but he doth beg the question of those venues; why should he provide evidence, when faith , the we just say so of credulity, is a given as Alvin Platinga maintains: both thereby beg the question.
    Dawkins won’t mock these silly people, but skeptic griggsy is ever doing so to illustrate that indeed the advanced theology is no better based on evidence than anything any Nelson might state! Google skeptic griggsy to see him blasting Sky Pappy and the Buy-bull or more elegantly the Ground of Being and the Scriptures.
    Steven Schafersman in 1996, relying on pioneers George Gaylord Simpson and Ernst Mayr, found that the weight of evidence illustrates no cosmic teleology against what the accommodations aver.
    The weight of evidence presents no cosmic teleology, so that to postulate such teleology is to contradict natural selection or any other natural cause and explanation; so, God isn’t compatible with natural causes! Thus notes the teleonomic argument. [Teleonomy- Mayr]. So from the side of science, accommodationitsts deny reality to cater to the religious; but from the side of religion, they carry the truth.
    Janus, we rationalists do rock!
    Dawkins- mild critic!

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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] .


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