Monday, June 30, 2008


... is not de ding you use to catch de fish.

Oyaji gyagu aside, I'm not an experienced debater myself, so do take what I have to say here with a pinch of salt.

It seems to me that there's something fundamentally flawed about the art of debate. In the sciences, the strength of hypothesis is ultimately tested through observation. Evidence decides all, though in some fields, particularly archaeology, a scarcity of physical evidence means one has to base one's conclusions on very little indeed. Still, the scientific method has been the truest engine of building knowledge upon knowledge since the meme rose to it's present place in human evolution. There is discussion, there is exchange of ideas, and experimentation and observation, but things will have come to a pretty pass indeed if knowledge was based merely on the oratorical skill of whoever put forward an idea.

Which brings me to the matter of debate. On the face of it, a debate pits two opposing viewpoints against each other, each represented by one or more people to present their cases. It seems reasonable enough in theory, but having witnessed a fair number of debates on and the RDF forums the reality of it seems so very, very far removed from the purity of the scientific method.

In debate we will see all manner of trickery to press home one's argument and undermine the opposition's. There will be straw man and weak man arguments, ad hominem attacks, plain old ignoring of the other's questions and, what I find most annoying of all, mismatched semantic frameworks. In the event that the debate is carried out in person, i.e. with both parties face-to-face, as opposed to a written debate on a Net forum, we also find that the party with the fundamentally weaker argument will resort to use of humour, ridicule or even shouting to win over the audience. And the thing is, none of these tactics, considered part and parcel of debate, necessarily have anything to do with the quality of information being brought to the table. And so it just seems to me, as a true blue empiricist, that debate is just a lot of hot air.

And one other thing about debate: It gives the impression to those ignorant of the subject matter that the viewpoints being presented stand on an equal footing. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't. There's a painfully absurd myth among those not versed in basic evolutionary biology that there is an ongoing Creation Vs Evolution debate - there ISN'T. It's been about 150 years since Darwin first laid out the basic theory. It takes very, very little evidence to bring it all crashing to the ground. In 150 years, no solid evidence whatsoever has been brought forward, and yet we still find that such debates take place. And for complete and utter lack of evidence on the Creationist front, the faithful resort to the petty tricks mentioned above. Especially shouting. I find that those lacking in any solid basis for their arguments with a little too much pride are especially prone to shouting fits. Dawkins gets shouted at a lot, poor devil.

So that's my tuppence on debate. Sometimes it's a good way to hear to opposing viewpoints, other times it's just an ugly mess of linguistic mucking about. And it certainly doesn't have a place in the scientific method.

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