Thoughts on discussion strategy

That was a fantastic video, I like Reid a lot. And I think winning and losing isn’t a good way to look at it. We learned a lot of valuable things.

  1. Daniel feels very strongly he has important things to share.
  2. He’s not overly interested in what Reid has to say—but he thinks he is (what’s showing more interest than caring about someone’s eternal destiny?). His questions were an introduction to his own talking points, not an opportunity to make Reid question and think about his own position.
  3. Reid lost the initiative—which is fine—but Daniel was pretty bad at utilizing the Socratic method. He couldn’t stay focused and kept jumping from one point to another.
  4. In Reid’s closing remarks to the video, he notes what he’s learned about Daniel. I think he hit the nail on the head with “there’s a deeper idea here [than evolution]”.

Now, I’m sure Daniel thought he won here. After all, he described what they were doing as a debate, which says a lot about his mindset.

Overall I think it’s a good start to further conversations.

I find it’s just the other way around. In the law we have the analogue to this. When a judge is a bit scatterbrained, and you’ve written a devastating brief on a legal issue where you have a truly compelling argument, oral argument on the issue is where it can all go crosswise, fast. A quick turn of a phrase, a little rhetorical sleight of hand, a careful use of ambiguity, and a judge who was about to grant the victory to the party who’s in the right is suddenly not so sure, and the motion gets denied. You don’t WANT the speed, ambiguity and rhetorical “shock and awe” of oral discussion when you’re in the right; it’s only an advantage when you’re in the wrong.

Just so. And I would not distinguish those rationalizations from purposeful deceit. I suspect that quite a few of these people who are clearly purposeful liars are proceeding on exactly that basis. Stephen Meyer may well think that sooner or later some sort of evidence which actually supports his position is bound to turn up, but that in the meanwhile, he may as well try to hold the door open to oogity-boogity forces that go bump in the night by dishonestly presenting the state of the evidence we do have. I don’t think that’s any less dishonest.

A person might well have a conjecture that he knows he cannot support. I might have a deep commitment to the idea that while the other ursids are closely related to one another, the polar bear’s closest relation on this earth is a banana slug. But if I have got to put that case honestly, all I can say is that I do very sincerely believe this, and I haven’t got any particularly helpful evidence, and yes, all the evidence we do have of the phylogeny of the ursids has been running rather poorly for my hypothesis, but that I am sure that this evidence is going to get found sooner or later. A man who takes such a position may be insane, pathetic, delusional, or whatever you may wish to call him, but he is not dishonest. But a man who tries to cobble together the best argument for polar bear/banana slug closeness he can, and distorts the evidence to do so, is dishonest, and may be those other things as well. His internal rationalizations for behaving in this way are irrelevant to his character and to his argument, and a gentle whack with a 2x4 is likelier to put things right than anything else is.

When I hear something like that, my sense is that it’s a sort of petulant retort from someone who knows he’s beaten. It’s not how the speaker feels; it’s a “nyah-nyah, you lose even when you win,” and a sign to stay the course.

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As an aside, I find hitting people with a 4x4 instead of a 2x4 has considerably more effect than the doubling suggested by the abbreviations.

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How so? The guy thinks radiometric dating is based on circular reason, just to pick one of the YEC-approved talking points he regurgitated in that discussion. What do you think should happen in future conversation to change his mind on that?

Matt, your hypothesis fails miserably when it comes to abandoning rhetoric for action.

  1. For those with scientific credentials and/or experience, why do they quit doing all empirical work when they embrace IDcreationism?

  2. As a corollary to #1, how many fundamentalist universities that embrace creationism have any actual research being produced?

  3. How many young people are inspired to enter biology because of IDcreationist books aimed at laypeople?

  4. Applying this to laypeople, how many times have I challenged @lee_merrill to bet on the veracity of his objectively false claims? How many times has he taken me up on them? How many times has he even acknowledged them?

When I have what I think (at least initially) is a brilliant hypothesis, I am highly motivated to test it empirically in the most rigorous way possible. Why don’t any IDcreationists behave the same way?

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I wouldn’t even try to talk about it with him. I think I can easily say he’s not a creationist because of his views on radiometric dating. It flows in the opposite direction. He’s got powerful intuitions about how complicated life is and how none of it could have arisen by chance, and he’s also repulsed by the connection he sees between evolution and morality. I would probably explore one of those avenues.

If I had to talk to him about radiometric dating (and keep in mind I am not experienced practicing SE, I only watch it), I would stay out of the details as much as possible and focus on asking him about the concept of how we can know things about the past and go from there. Maybe work in some history of dating methods and the thought processes into the concept if I could.

“If you wanted to know how old something was, what sort of ideas would you have to find that out?”

It would be realllllly easy to get in the weeds, so I would stick to asking questions, making sure I clarify what he says, and see if I can make him get there on his own.


Yeah, I’m with you there, but with the courtroom, you need to win. The expectations and goals for these discussions should be adjusted, imo. I’ll bet you and I can count on one horribly mutilated hand the number of times we’ve won over a creationist by correcting them. My perspective is we should consider a discussion a “win” if we’ve induced some kind of self reflection, or laid the groundwork thereof.

Hahaha, I think you’re on to something with that one! I won’t push back on the dishonesty bit, but I’ll leave you with a couple questions and we can see where it goes. Would you at least agree that, were you to confront them about their dishonest behavior, this person’s defense mechanisms wouldn’t let them truly understand they’re being dishonest? And would you agree that, were you to confront them about the dishonesty of someone they look up to, this person’s defense mechanisms also wouldn’t let them understand their role model is being dishonest?

I think that’s largely because of a non-linear relationship between thickness and flexibility. Both in the lumber and in the creationist.

Well, that’s if you consider the other person in the discussion to be someone you’re trying to convince. One of the reasons I generally decline to discuss these matters privately with creationists is precisely that the real point is to make it clear to those who may be watching that creationism is a disaster. If a creationist falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear the dull, hollow, sad thud, does it really matter?

Well, you know, it’s been a while, but back when there were live discussion threads at Amazon I had a few of those. They were very gratifying. Just getting people to read actual works in actual biology sometimes was a huge victory.

But I do not think that can, in most cases, be done gently. It might be that some of my devout Christian friends might be able to make good use of a secret handshake, or that an ex-Mormon might be able to get out his magic underwear for a good cause, and earn the trust of some poor deluded bastard and bring him back to sanity. But that’s not my toolset and it’s not my skillset. In the law one learns how to charge into the room with the chainsaw, and frankly, I find it is the most productive method. People will never acknowledge being convinced BY it, but the rude awakening that comes from their discovery that they don’t know their asses from holes in the ground, and that they can’t even remember which end of a deuterostome is the ass, is an important stage on the way to awakening.

Saving people from folly isn’t gentle. I don’t think it can be. They will always wail and screech as the horrid ideas, having their names called, come out of them as demons come out of a man in some of those strange books these people are fond of. It will always be internally unpleasant and intellectually violent. But if they’re going to be saved from it, they’re going to need to decide to save themselves; and they won’t wish to be saved if they are left with the comfortable delusion that they can somehow defend it.

The latter first: I think that when they take those sorts of positions they are generally intentionally tone-trolling. I see so much rending of garments over accusations of dishonesty against people like Stephen Meyer, whose dishonesty is so clear that it’s astonishing that he doesn’t have an honorary Ph.D in Lying from Biola or some such damned place. I just cannot take that sort of thing seriously; people who act as though it is uncivil to call someone a liar invariably do that when they have nothing substantive to say to salvage his honesty: it’s a purely procedural, garbage defensive move, tone-trolling of the very worst sort.

As to the former, self-deception is a bit of a layer cake. Still, I think that as they bite into it they can tell that something isn’t right and that there’s a lot of air in that icing.

Bear in mind, too, that these people’s arguments generally bear the hallmarks of dishonesty. There are stylistic and procedural differences, in addition to the substantive ones, between telling the truth and lying. Anybody who’s done litigation knows that how he approaches presenting a solid case and how he approaches attempting to puncture a solid case (when he very much wishes he had the other fellow’s side of the case instead) are two different matters, entirely. The one is all clarity and light: explicit, demonstrative, clear in expression and proud of the evidence. The other is all shadow and movement: ambiguity, sleight of hand, innuendo, hints, and smudgy modes of expression with doses of evidence which range down to the homeopathic. And one SEES that in creationist expression. It may be that some of these people have little idea what it would look like to put a good case well – some of them have never believed a true thing in their lives – but it’s clear that they’ve spent a great deal of labor on figuring out how to put a bad case as well as they can. Who DOES that sort of thing? Lawyers do it because, well, we don’t always get to choose our clients or our battles. But it’s not the most honorable aspect of the practice.


Sorry for the delay in response! I think there’s a lot of preaching to the choir going on. You and I agree creationism is a mess, sure, but I have a strong intuition the number of folks who are able to reach this conclusion simply by reading through debunking–despite your success on Amazon (congratulations, btw, that’s impressive!)–I suspect you may agree these are few and far between.


Yes, this is a good example of one of those defense mechanisms. It’s far easier to dismiss uncomfortable ideas if you can find fault in the person proposing them (i.e., what Mike Winger does). In fact, I think this is probably the biggest piece of the puzzle.

Airy icing is often far more palatable than the bitter wormwood of a broken delusion.

Yes, you and I are of one mind, here. It’s very shady, and I think there’s often some inkling of that in their mind, if my experience is anything to go by. I just don’t think they have any meaningful capability to do otherwise.

This is a fascinating thread, and I will be sure to point it out whenever you guys gang up rudely on someone. I’m not sure you understand the different versions of creationist thinking. One of you even assumed I was a young earth creationist recently.

But this verifies what I expected. Your strategy is simply to drive away from here anyone who doesn’t agree with you. Sad, really IMO.

I endorse a more Socratic appraoch.


As Matt said,

That’s your go-to tactic, Marty. Have you ever participated in a discussion on evolution in which you didn’t employ it front-and-center?

There you go again…

Do you do so in public debates, such as the one you are touting in the other thread?

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Just in case I wasn’t clear, my success there had to do with getting people to rethink, and to read some good sources, from time to time. Whether anyone proceeded to the next step and actually figured it out is a separate question. But, yeah, I was pretty happy when that would happen! And yes, unfortunately, those are few and far between.

But drawing from my own experience in controversy in other areas, I think it’s probably a mistake to assume that because nobody ever says, “golly, I sure came into this not knowing what I was talking about, and now I see that you are clearly and completely right and I was wrong,” all the pushing back doesn’t actually help convince them. The heat of controversy tends to make people not want to do that, and it often takes people a while to process what they’ve learned, anyhow. People don’t really let you convince them, but they do convince themselves. What you can do is provide the means for them to do that, but you’ll rarely see someone actually acknowledge that you’ve helped.

No doubt, though when it comes to wormwood, I always say that Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.

Bad mental hygiene is hard to remedy. I run into a lot of forms of it. Many people do not understand that mere philosophizing from first principles isn’t a very productive way to reach insights about the real world, for example, and their attitude is very “argument-heavy.” To them, no train of thought ever starts, “what’s this weird aquatic lizard-y thing Mary Anning found in the rocks down at the beach?” It is liable instead to start with the useless and absurd: “if all events have a cause, then there must be a First Cause, because infinite regress makes me queasy.” From that kind of sludge, more sludge is made.

Part of the key is, for people like that, seeing the power of evidence almost as though it were an alternative to reason. Of course, one needs reason to organize and draw inferences from evidence, so they are not alternatives – but the excessively philosophical nattering which some of these people take for high-level thinking is such a distraction from evidence-based thinking that, as you suggest, some may have no meaningful capacity to do otherwise. I do, however, have some faith that some of them are capable of developing such a capacity.

I grew up in a household where, though education was valued, there was also a lot of nonsense afoot. My dad thought Uri Geller was the real deal, and that aliens clearly had built the pyramids. And, though no Christian, he wasn’t an atheist because he had that feeling that there certainly had to be SOMETHING even if he could say little about what it was. He thought our brains could mold reality itself in the literal faith-moving-mountains sense. And so I grew up, too, believing all these things, and I dropped them all. Undoubtedly it helped somewhat that I lived in a world where there weren’t huge organizations advocating his views, and where everyone in my community wasn’t a member of such an organization.

I think people can be saved from it. But I also acknowledge that they can’t all be saved, and that they will take different mental paths on the journey. Some may benefit from a lot of gentle hand-holding and soothing intermediate steps. Myself, lacking all subtlety, I was always more benefitted, though it never seemed so at the time, by the 2x4 over the head.


You have neatly described the standard pseudoscientist’s playbook. Finding a Gish Gallop to be ineffective in text, they have modified it to more of a Gish Galliard, leaping from topic to topic while pretending to not realize.
One problem with your suggestion is the assumption that the other side is an honest interlocutor, which is rarely the case. Meaning the goal is not to change their mind, but to make it clear to third parties that the psuedoscientist’s positions are built on dishonesty.
So my recommendation: Allow the first diversion, since mistakes happen. End the response to these diversions with a redirect to the original point with an insistence it be addressed. Then latch on to that point like an alligator in a death roll.


Yes, frequently. Have you? I have many evolutionary creationist friends (a la Biologos), and we very much enjoy batting around the ideas. We have dug in to many of the details together, recognized and discussed the philosphy of science and how it influences the debate. One of them told me he has opened to the possibility that evolution needed help, whereas previously he had never heard ideas in that direction. To me that’s the biggest problem – the indoctrination and inquisition approach. If evolution is so obvious, why do you need to be heavy handed? In some cases I think it’s a power struggle. Some scientists want to be revered, like high priests. They don’t want competition from a god for the loyalty of the people so they must squash the infidels. And, of course, there is the need for funding. Not a lot perhaps, but the most strident ID haters may be in this camp.

To everyone on this thread, I agree that some creationists who come here have some crazy ideas, but you need to find out what someone really thinks, and be open to having your mind changed on some things. If you are not here to learn as well as to speak, you are part of the problem. As it says in Proverbs, “A soft tongue will break a bone.”

No, it’s largely because one is a piece of wood, and one is a truck.


Please link to five such discussions.

I work from evidence.

Why do you assume that quaternary structure turns on enzymatic activity? Why do you reject using the scientific method to test your assumption?

Yes, I think this is ultimately the problem with the current status quo–one has to have extremely thick skin to persist in conversation, and not everybody has that (my own thick skin exists mostly in my hopes and dreams). I think the statement of yours I bolded is especially important. Assuming someone’s position does harm primarily by alienating the interlocutor and showing them they are not important enough to understand what they think and value.

I don’t think that’s their strategy, but I also think it hardly matters if it is or not, because that’s absolutely the effect. No one here can deny there are very few new faces around, and I don’t believe that’s a coincidence. What do you think, Marty? How do we get away from this dynamic and back to valuing each other? Where’s the line between correcting misinformation and simply triggering their defenses?

And another question: If you were wrong about something you cared deeply about, what would be the best way someone could reach you through that bias?

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YES!! I feel this in my bones. Change has to come from within, so to speak.

Yeah, makes sense. They’d probably need a lot of time to mull things over. It’s a thankless job. :laughing:

Assuredly so. There’s nothing like a homogenous community to rope someone in and corral them for years. Did you shed those beliefs at an early age or further into adulthood?

There’s value in multiple approaches. The father’s tough and stern love, the mother’s compassionate kisses. It seems to me there’s a balance to be struck somewhere, my sexist stereotyping notwithstanding.

Hm, yeah. I understand what you’re saying, I’m just not convinced it’s particularly effective for the target audience. It’s clear to me, but I’m already out and I don’t have the same psychological defenses anymore. It’s extremely difficult to tell someone their hero’s (for lack of a better word) positions are built on dishonesty–and I think we can see that unfolding in real time in the US.

And I often wonder to what extent the passion with which the case against the pseudoscientist is argued in part drives away third parties who take offense to that passion.


Fairly early. I was waking up from it by high school, and pretty well cured by the end of college. Longer than it should have taken, of course, but these topics weren’t constantly on my mind and so it took a while before I got around to learning more about them. I was helped along the way by witnessing other forms of nonsense on stilts: Josh McDowell came to the UW at one point, and while I didn’t see his talk I learned enough about it to see that one could have wild popularity while being completely off-the-rails batshit. That was sobering.

I think the difficulties you’re identifying here are real, but I’m not sure there are any clear ways around them. It’s hard to make creationists feel “valued” while honestly dealing with what they have got wrong, because as a rule there is nothing encouraging or positive one can honestly say to them while they are still stuck. I know some people who seem to think that one should affirm and encourage them when they get something right; it’s just that that’s so rare, in practical experience, that it’s not of much use. It isn’t as though we are dealing with a genuine discipline involving serious inquiry, which simply has its own methods and somewhat different conclusions. We’re dealing with a massive con game in which there’s no cure, ultimately, but being disabused of the idea that there’s anything in it.

And I dissent from the idea that simple confrontation is such a negative thing. I recall one conversation, from my “reality-is-shaped-by-our thoughts” period in early high school, when a classmate confronted me sharply with the point that we just don’t see that working in real life. She was herself off the deep end into Christian youth groupery/gropery, and so was hardly a critical thinker herself, but it made me really mad. Why? I think it made me really mad because I knew that she not only had the better argument, but was probably actually right.

So, you know, I was mad. But being mad forced me to think about it, and to think about the devastating response that could be crafted. But thinking about that was precisely what I needed to do: the realization that there was no such response, or not, at any rate, one that had any value outside of the art of rhetoric, was the most devastating blow to that crazy idea. She could not convince me. But she could pry the door open just a tad, and the air could get in.

Yes, in many cases people will find that their psychological defenses allow them to convince themselves that there’s nothing in the objection. It helps that, as discussions so often show, they frequently misunderstand the case against them so badly that they are incapable of grasping how compelling it is. But, as I have said, everyone can’t be saved.