Thoughts on discussion strategy

I’ve been noticing a pattern in the way discussions are conducted here on Peaceful Science. Often this is what I see:

  1. Claim made by OP, introducing mole into PS countryside
  2. Detailed response, mole whacked
  3. OP inserts several other moles
  4. Other moles whacked
  5. More moles introduced
  6. Entire human population coopted into pest control
  7. Original mole is resurrected somehow, what?!?
  8. Rinse and repeat until exhaustion

Don’t get me wrong, here. I appreciate the effort that goes into a lot of these responses. Personally, I often get a lot of catharsis from this kind of interaction, and I’m sure others do, too. However, when it comes to productivity, I currently believe that effort to be largely wasted. It’s wasted on the poster, and it’s wasted on the lurkers and fence-sitters as well. Too many weeds, too little focus, too much frustration.

I think this happens for a lot of reasons, but the main issue I see is a lack of a more Socratic approach. What do you mean by x? or If you see process y happen, would you be convinced of z? or What markers do you have that would change your mind about z? In my opinion, this keeps the discussion high level until absolutely necessary, and helps keep readers and interlocuters on-track.

My impression over the past year or so is many of the scientists/academics are meticulously answering the wrong questions. Sure, they engage with what’s been asked, but these are often a bit of a smokescreen. We see that clearly when goalposts begin to circumnavigate the globe.

TDLR: we should focus more on finding a clear understanding of our interlocuter’s position (and establish agreed upon hypothetical counterfactuals) through Socratic methods before dealing with specifics. It makes the trajectory of a conversation far simpler to follow.

I’d appreciate everyone’s input on this, whether it’s to expand on my points or to tell me it’s no use and it’ll never work.


I don’t think there is any mystery here.

The interlocutor’s position is clear: God did it, and that’s that.


Not bad in principle. Unfortunately, in practice, cautious, Socratic-style questioning has a way of merely encouraging mole reproduction, because no matter how much the inquirer tries to keep the topic centered, it can’t if everyone doesn’t agree. And when nobody is hammering the little fellers one by one, all that does is allow the original mountebank to disappear behind a screen of his own carefully brewed bio-smoke, with just a hint of hydrogen sulfide to make it that much more pleasant.

I sort of think the mole-whacking actually works pretty well. The overall impression is one of the hilarious, mind-roastingly awful futility of creationism. What’s not to like? It is always possible that some lurker is merely confused by all the blood and brains splattered everywhere, but really, I suspect most of 'em aren’t and that the comprehensive failure of creationism is obvious to all but the willfully witless.


I need to learn to stop responding to people who’s ideas have been debunked fifty times already. As you say, it’s wasted effort. Everyone who was capable of getting the point already got it long ago. I think many of us need to do this.


This is usually impossible, as the interlocutor has no clear understanding his own position.


They typically run from that:

This is how I would expect intelligently designed protein complexes to work, Marty. It is not how I would expect ones that evolved by the known mechanisms of variation, selection, and drift to work.

Let’s check out whether your hypothesis (which you presented as fact) applies to muscle myosin, which catalyzes the hydrolysis of ATP.

Are you up for that?

Marty would like you to know that he is not “up for that.”


Here’s a perfect example of step 7:

John Harshman:

I have pointed out previously that none of these are identified as basic types. I have also pointed out previously that Avalon isn’t even a taxon; it’s a location. Similarly, Ordovician is a time period, Odontodes are teeth, and none of them is a family, which you have previously said is what basic types are. And I have further pointed out that many of these supposed basic types are nested within each other, so at most one of those nested groups can be a basic type. This is you once again reposting an incoherent claim without ever addressing previous criticisms.

Yet here’s @Meerkat_SK5, several months later:

Absolutely no recognition that anyone has even commented on that list, let alone pointed out gaping holes in it.

Against such obliviousness, even a god would strive in vain.


It also sometimes encourages the addressee to think that they are the more knowledgeable one, and adopt a (pseudo)-Socratic approach themselves.


Step 7 is the real problem.

If some-one is willing to ignore or forget or otherwise disregard counterarguments and refutation and resurrect ‘points’ that have been inhumed five, ten or fifty times before without even any attempt to address any previous deluge of sods, then there is no hope whatsoever of getting them to change. So it’s futile to try, and the only appropriate approach is to reinter their ‘points’ in as devastatingly and amusingly as manageable, while making their dishonesty abundantly clear to anyone who might be interested.


On that, I picked this sign up at an antique shop in Gort (Klaatu was not there, alas) which you may find useful on such topics.


Yes. I think there’s value in whittling things down to that. And if that’s the hang-up for them, then diving into the intricacies of evolutionary processes isn’t meeting them where there’s at.

@Puck_Mendelssohn It takes some effort to stay focused sometimes, especially when particularly egregious distractions come up, but I don’t really see how it proliferates moles in principle. Perhaps you can say a bit more on that? Speaking of distractions, I think I’ll indulge in this one really quick: as far as “willfully witless” goes, I think there are very strong defense mechanisms (often curated over decades, often instilled in upbringing) protecting their hope, meaning, and purpose that explain why it can seem that way, and I think these mechanisms thrive on getting mired in details. I’m not sure “willfully” has a whole lot of meaning in this context, tbh.

At least stop doing the same ones with the same people! :rofl:

I agree with you 1000%, and I think there’s a lot a value in uncovering this fact. IMO there’s a phenomenon in which people maintain a sort of self confusion that allows them to experience less cognitive dissonance about what they believe.

Yeah, that saves time, for sure.


I wasn’t saying it did in principle; I was saying that it does in practice. I think the reason for that is fairly straightforward: when one is lying, and is called upon to defend the lie, the best defense is often another, related lie. And so if you don’t hammer down the first mole, soon he has brothers, and pretty soon you are in a confusing landscape where somebody ought to have been hammering them down but now there is a sufficient distraction from all the chittering that it’s impossible to get anything done. Your interlocutor thinks that moles 3 through 70 may now all be taken as given, which tends to validate the chittering from moles 1 and 2. The man with a mallet will get more done.

Now, given your remarks on “willfully,” you probably think that they aren’t defending a “lie” as such, but are just backed into a self-defense position where they’re so committed to the answers that they are incapable of examining the process for getting to them. I think that actually is lying; it may be that they lie to themselves first, and then to others, but I don’t think a person who has every reason to understand that he doesn’t have a real argument, but makes it anyway, can be given a lot of credit there. I’m sure there are other ways to describe it, but “willfully witless” seems to me to capture well the particular toxic blend of dishonesty and foolishness.

As a lawyer one does that sort of thing, in time of extreme need; but that might be one reason why we aren’t well-liked. Sometimes King Canute can’t hold back the tide but he can slow down others recognizing that the tide’s already come in, and that can be a real tactical advantage in litigation. But as a strategy in pure discussion of what conclusions can be drawn from evidence, in the real world rather than in a courtroom, it’s garbage. When a lawyer does it he knows it is garbage; and I suspect that most creationists know it, too.

Bear in mind that these discussions contain a certain amount of argument for the sake of convincing, but also a certain amount of theater. Experience teaches that the kind of willful ignorance which actually leads one to give voice to creationist arguments is a tough sort; some say that type is cast out only by prayer and fasting, but I’m still in favor of malleting. But the whole purpose of arguing THAT side is to create the false impression that there’s an argument worth having. There is a role for patient dissection of it, especially if anaesthesia can be dispensed with, but the usefulness of answering such people is not in convincing them to abandon their dishonesty: it’s to make their dishonesty clear.


Been following this stuff for decades.


Whack-a-mole is indeed a pretty good analogy. However, I remain partial to the Nigel Tufnel model, first proposed bt @Mercer if I am not mistaken, as it makes explicit the moment when the creationist seems to realize there is something amiss with his argument, experiences momentary perplexity, then escapes by simply reasserting “These go to 11.”

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A very good point. In our eagerness to whack the mole we often fail to define the central question clearly, allowing multiple goalposts over the course of discussion. We spend an awful lot of time defending well established science (or math) that doesn’t need to be defended - it is proven to work. We would do well to establish the plausibility of the criticism before rushing to answer bad questions.


Kinda like ‘Oh yeah? What about deez nuts?’

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I guess it would help to clearly define our goals here.

Are we expecting that, if we do something different, creationists will ask better questions? Understand science better? Think more clearly? I am not sure what, if anything, we would be hoping to accomplish.

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I often share your pessimism, but every once in a while, I wonder if there isn’t another option. :man_shrugging:

Ok, I can see how that happens, and a text conversation would be especially susceptible to that, given it doesn’t have the same limits on it as a face-to-face. What I had in mind is street epistemology–I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it is usually conducted in person, and is generally a pretty straightforward process. But it is dependent on the other person not playing pigeon chess.

Sort of… I think of it like an OS. When a incompatible file type is introduced, it just doesn’t compute. It can’t. The system errors that come up are the defense mechanism. While it can be toxic and dishonest and foolish, I can’t bring myself to moralize that overly much, because I think it tends to come from a subconscious place (my opinion). I’m sure parts of it is purposeful, but there are plenty of rationalizations to assuage the conscience when one thinks they are ultimately right.

Yeah, a little, but it’s all for a good cause, right? :wink:

It’s clear to some, but I suspect the degree to which theater is involved is also the degree to which clarity is not achieved. Case in point, Mike Winger (a YT apologist) once said in a discussion with a scientist that when people treat him derisively for believing in a young earth, it makes him think he’s actually right. A bewildering way to come to the truth, but them’s the breaks.

Here’s an example of street epistemology tried out on a creationist. (Spoiler alert: The pigeon wins.)


I must say it was gratifying to hear Nigel get a shout out on this morning’s reveal by NASA of the first images from the Webb Space Telescope.