Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Constructive criticism on the rumble in Sydney

I'd like to thank Rachel Macalpine again for sending me the debate between Alan Conradi of the Sydney Atheists and minister Mike Paget. Since I recently did a lecture on evangelical atheism, this seems like a good opportunity to point out some techniques in action. I've asked if I can provide constructive feedback on this blog, and gotten permission. So here goes.

First of all, Alan, I applaud you for going out and doing this. There needs to be more direct confrontation between atheists and Christians, and it's good publicity for your group.

As an atheist, of course, I am highly biased and thought that your arguments were correct and Mike's were not. But if I were a "neutral" observer, scoring the debate purely on points won and style, I would probably wind up awarding Mike a TKO victory on that basis. I don't think you should feel bad about this at all, because it seems to me that Mike had a few notable advantages right from the start, and you stacked up really well against him. I'm going to try to approach it from a presentation angle and see if we can get you to do even better the next time.

First of all, let me make an important point from the start. A live, face-to-face debate is not an email debate, nor is it a peer reviewed scientific paper. It might help if you think of debate more like something equivalent to stand-up comedy. In both pursuits, you live or die by what the audience thinks of you. If you're not bringing the audience along with you, you can tell it in their faces and their audio cues.
Because you are not working with a written format, the audience has to proceed at the pace you give them. They can't stop to think about your words, they don't always know for sure what you mean to say, and they can't pause in the middle to fact check you.

At any given moment, they are either enjoying your performance or they aren't. If they enjoy you, then they will laugh and clap, and that raises your spirits and you present more confidently. If you're losing the audience, if you can practically hear the crickets chirp, then it throws you off your psychological game and you have a greater tendency to stumble. This is one of the motivations behind David Sirlin's principle that it's better to play offense than defense in most games.
If you rush to get an early advantage, then a small edge can snowball into a large win.

Now this is where Mike has a big advantage right from the outset: Mike is a minister. He does this for a living and you don't. He's right there in front of a crowd every single week, working the audience and figuring out how to keep them wrapped up in his words for an hour or so. And it shows. Mike went to the podium and flattered the audience and the hosts, then loosened up the crowd with some jokes, got them laughing with him early, and then pretty much entertained as he preached.

By contrast, your opening presentation seemed light on the funny and heavy on the scientific exposition. "I intend to accurately define atheism and show you that the atheistic position on God is the most sensible stance to take. I will also explain that the Christian take does not make sense." There's nothing PARTICULARLY wrong with that, but it doesn't exactly grab the attention and hold on. There is actually an important principle of comedy, which is this: Always open with your second-best joke, and always close with your best joke. I could explain this, but if you think about it for a minute I think the reasoning should be obvious.

So, what's the best joke available to you that both captures the audience and makes them immediately understand what you want them to know? I don't know, but as I watched Mike's opening I tried to ad-lib what I would say if I got dropped into your position. Mike's whole opening was an attack on atheism, and what he said was that because atheism does not make sense, God -- which is the alternative to atheism, and which naturally explains the unexplainable -- must logically be seen as superior. He didn't get around to actually defending Christianity until later.

Here's the opener I came up with: For decades people have reported unexplained disappearances of ships and planes in the Bermuda Triangle. Until now, nobody has understood the cause, but now I do: hyperdimensional space aliens from the planet Zebulon. Now you might say, "But Russell, how can you be so sure that there are any hyperdimensional space aliens from the planet Zebulon?" And I would say "Simple. Obviously any fool can see that if those aliens existed then they would have the POWER to cause those disappearances, and therefore since we don't have another explanation, we must go with the only proposed explanation that makes sense."

You see what I'm getting at? It probably needs some tweaking, but one of my first principles in an argument is, show don't tell. Never simply assert that an idea is ridiculous; reframe the idea in a subtle way that is OBVIOUSLY ridiculous. It's not just that there is no god. It's that his argument is totally flawed, and even the religious audience might see the way it's flawed if you entice them to come along in your reasoning.

Here's another natural disadvantage you had: Mike went first. Traditionally in a debate, the first guy to talk is able to easily launch an offense while the second guy is on defense. So I'm curious: was this discussed before hand? Was it assumed that the minister gets to go first, and did you make any effort to push back on that rule? Might be something to think about for next time... at least insist on a coin flip if there wasn't one.

Even going second though, you have to keep something in mind. The question as it was written is fairly balanced. There are two sides to it: Which makes more sense, atheism or Christianity? Like the joke about the two hikers fleeing from a bear, I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun YOU. Defending atheism as a reasonable position is fine, but your chief job is to press the offense and make it clear that Christianity makes no sense. Oh sure, the universe didn't create itself. So what does that mean, that it makes sense to assume the existence of the invisible sky pixie who knows everything? On what grounds should I take that more seriously than the Zebulonians?

There is, of course, all kinds of bullshit that you can illuminate in Christianity: talking snakes, loaves and fishes, people ready to kill their children based on a voice in their head. If you throw that stuff out of context it sounds like nonsense. The notion that we don't know FOR SURE what the origins of the universe are pales when you compare it on a ridiculousness scale to Christianity. The Christian position is: "I get to make shit up, and unless you can prove my fantasy wrong, then it wins." Not true at all.

Don't be afraid to point that out. You don't want to look like you're abusing your opponent, but you're not under any obligation to pull your punches when you have the opportunity to score a hit. You can defuse the situation a little by calling the opponent by his name, to look a little more chummy, and soften your words with a little flattery. I.e., "Now Mike, you're a smart guy, but do you really believe THAT?" Don't overdo it, but using the opponent's name is an effective tool in establishing audience rapport.

As I saw it, when it was Mike's turn to talk, he talked about atheism. Then when it was your turn to talk, you talked about atheism. Thus, without a word of discussion between the two of you, Mike declared what the terms of the debate would be, and you accepted his terms. Now, it's completely natural for that to happen, because as I said, Mike has that advantage by going first. But you are not required to quietly accept the terms. In fact, it's completely fair for you to challenge the definition of what Mike thinks the debate is, and even call attention to the fact that you're doing it and why. Try this on for size:

"Mike talked a lot in his speech about what he thinks are the shortcomings of atheism. One thing you'll notice that he did not do is provide any good reason why Christianity makes sense. As I heard it, the debate topic was to be, which makes MORE sense, atheism or Christianity? Now, I can understand why Mike would prefer not to talk very much about Christianity at all, because when you take a closer look at the principles he is trying to defend, they really don't stand up very well. In order to win, really my opponent has to meet such-and-such obligation, and I'm sure you are all with me in seeing that he has not yet met this obligation." etc.

Boom. You don't just deflect his points, you totally change the terms of the debate to a setup that favors you. As I said at my lecture, when you're playing defense, the best thing you can do is "not lose" -- when you're playing offense, you can WIN. I'm not saying that you shouldn't defend atheism against his charges, of course. But you've got a limited amount of time to talk, and this is about adjusting your priorities. Make sure to make it clear that atheism is the DEFAULT position. It does not assume the existence of anything that is not already accepted by all parties: we know the universe exists, we know that people exist, and Mike even accepted some basic science up front when he declared that he accepts evolution. Take advantage of that concession and don't waste your time "proving" anything about evolution or creationism from then on, but DO refer frequently back to the ground that he's yielded to you. Even if there are creationists in the audience, they've already lost, because their side does not have a dog in this fight.

"Now Mike's already accepted huge swaths of science as explanatory for aspects of our universe, so I'm happy to agree with my distinguished opponent on that point." [Never pass up the chance to be gracious if it doesn't hurt your case!] "However, Mike's the only one on this stage who is so uncomfortable with gaps in our knowledge that he feels he must assume the existence of something which, come on let's face it, is way beyond wildly improbable when you look at it objectively."

Okay, next point. Again, live performance is not the same as the printed word. You can assume that your audience will not be paying attention sometimes, and will miss things you say. You make them pay attention in two ways: By being forceful and hitting them in an emotional place, and by repeating your key points. Because people learn things through repetition.

Let me say that again.

People learn things through repetition.

If you've got a critical point to make, then make it early and make it often. The first time you make the point, you have to explain it. The next time you make the point, you merely have to refer back to it. "As I already said a minute ago, Occam's Razor..." or "Mike's STILL avoiding the burden of proof, you remember when I pointed that out in my last speech?"

Because you see, people learn things through repetition. On one level, you're simply reminding them of a concept that they already learned, and driving it home. On another level, you're giving the audience the chance to internalize this as "Wow, this point is really coming up a lot... Alan must think it's a real winner for him!" You've encouraged them to see you in a winning light. And as a final benefit, if you badger your opponent a lot then he will have to respond to that point thoroughly or look bad. Remember, every minute he uses up responding to YOUR topic is a minute when he is merely "not losing" but failing to press his own case forward.

And also, people learn things through repetition.

Okay, obviously I'm trying to be funny (though I may fail). Let me go back to principles of comedy. I don't know if you're familiar with the humor columnist Dave Barry, but he frequently closes his essays with a sly reference back to something he already said.

Let me find you an example. Take a look at this 2001 column about taxes. Somewhere in the middle of the column, Dave writes:

Also, if you are an ostrich rancher, you can claim the depreciation on your ostriches. The IRS doesn't give an exact amount, so let's say for the sake of argument that your ostriches have depreciated to the tune of $4,800, or, rounding off, $17,000. If the IRS questions this figure, explain that you had to start raising ostriches because you were unable to make ends meet with just the whaling. That way your story is basically airtight.

Okay, now to start with, the idea of being an ostrich rancher is very silly all by itself, so Dave got a cheap laugh out of the visual image. But then skip down to the end of the column, which concludes:

In conclusion, I hope this tax guide has been helpful. If you follow my advice, and the IRS asks you where you got your information, remember to give them my full name, George Will. Good luck!

And now, if you'll excuse me, I need to harpoon an ostrich.

Ah, see there, he didn't have to explain what he was talking about, because if he did his job right the first time, then you're ALREADY amused when you think about ostriches, so he's taking advantage of previous groundwork. By doing this, he's able to make an existing joke seem funnier, even if it was only worth a small chuckle the first time, and this also plays into the idea that you close with your best joke. It's an okay joke, but now it's amplified.

Case in point, suppose you had used my "Aliens from Zebulon" introduction. You can get a lot of mileage throughout the debate from repeatedly bringing them up. Even those who are against you will be able to laugh at something that is so over the top silly, which lightens the mood, and induces positive feelings about you. If you don't overuse it early, that can even be a valuable part of a solid closer: "Remember, Christianity can't make more sense than atheism, because Christianity makes even less sense than Zebulonians." Okay, that's a mediocre effort on my part, but you get what I mean... a good closing punch should make the case that YOU WON, go out with a potential laugh, and make your opponent sound ridiculous enough that people would be hesitant to side with him. All in one sentence!

As I said before, being a good debater has a lot in common with being a good comedian. (There, you see? I repeated myself. Because people learn through repetition.) Strong points become better when you drive them home. So the lesson is, if you have a point to make, do not save it for the end, because there's no time for it to sink in. For instance, if you're in your last five minutes, and you find you have to explain what "Occam's Razor" means, then it's probably already too late for that to make an impact. Throw it away if you can, and stick to amplifying arguments that you've already won. Or if you really think you can't do without it, for goodness sake do it earlier next time!

Actually, on the same note, I probably wouldn't bother using technical terms like "Occam's Razor" at all, most of the time. First of all, Occam's Razor isn't even a rule or anything, it's just a guideline. It has no authority, and if you invoke it, you risk getting bogged down in an argument about whether Occam's Razor is really valid, or who's meeting the conditions of Occam's Razor better. Besides, using fancy-pants philosophy terms makes you sound like an egghead, and you're ALREADY saddled with that handicap because you're the guy who cares about "evidence" and "reason." Describe the concept behind Occam's Razor, or illustrate it with a clever anecdote, but don't name the term as if you expected it to carry authority. The place for formal names of fallacies and philosophy of science terms is in a lecture hall or a textbook -- not in a situation where someone like Mike is busy trying to knock you out. You can spend your time better.

In formal debates, there is a popular style of note-taking known as "flowing." You might want to look into it, as it helps you keep track of key arguments so you can jog your memory about which points are strong for you. When you flow, you write down shorthand summaries of the major arguments for each side as you see them, and then you draw arrows across the page to more text that shows where that argument stands in each round. By glancing at this sheet, you can quickly assess which arguments are weak enough to ignore, and which arguments are important to counter. You can also nail your opponent when you say "Remember I brought up this point which made my case so strongly? He didn't say a word about it."

Alan, I hope you've taken this all in the spirit that I intended it. Some of this sounds like I'm beating up on your performance, but I thought it was a strong presentation that could be better. I want to see you and your friends do more of this, and become serious forces to be reckoned with. There were just a few choppy moments where you had long uncomfortable pauses while you tried to compose your notes, but really, I don't need to criticize those at all. That is the kind of thing that comes to you through practice, because the more you debate, the more you move towards the horizon where you know everything.

I would like to conclude by pointing out a couple of places where I thought you did really well. It was choppier in the beginning, and as you moved toward last speech, you seemed to grow into your confidence, and you threw out a couple of zingers near the end which obviously went over really well with the audience. One was, "Using the Bible to prove the Bible is like proving the existence of Batman by reading Batman comics." Love it. Don't change it. I like to use comic book metaphors too, because they're easy to grasp AND funny. Besides the laugh you got, you'll notice that you also forced Mike to respond to this charge by saying "The Bible is so totally not like Batman!" Just think about all the constructive things that he could have been saying, during the time when instead he was forced to make the case that he is not QUITE as ridiculous as an imaginary tights-wearing crimefighter.

Also, near the end I guess Mike said something about how he shouldn't be expected to prove God, and you said something like "It's not our fault that you guys haven't come up with the goods!" Outstanding. When your opponent is drowning, throw the sonofabitch an anvil. (James Carville line. I like it.)

Until you have the hang of extemporaneous speaking, consider finishing your opening speech way ahead of time and rehearsing it in front of your family. The first few minutes is when you will be most prone to stage fright -- it still happens to me! -- so it's important that you know the material cold and can deliver it in your sleep, in a confident and winning manner. After that critical time period has passed, you will grow accustomed to all the people and you can ad-lib a lot easier.

Finally, let me give you another idea for a closer. Right near the end you said "Christianity makes some sense" -- that is a concession you do NOT need to make. If you have to say something that sounds like a compliment, but it's a major aspect of the subject you're trying to discredit, then you'd be better off making it a backhanded compliment that undercuts the position, like "I admit that Christianity is appealing and may feel good to believe." Same point made, but quite the opposite of letting people see your opponent as rational. Then you're in a great place to declare that you won: "...but it should be OBVIOUS to everyone here that atheism, as the position that makes no such outlandish assumptions, makes more SENSE."


  1. Love love love these types of posts, Kazim. Same with your Evangelizing lecture. This talk of how to properly get messages across in a debate/conversation is something that is incredibly important.

    One thing though - you mentioned debate flowing which I am unfamiliar with. Do you know of any good resources for introduction debate flowing? I found a few online about how to make a flow -better- but nothing that could serve as a good base.

  2. Thanks Kazim.

    Good advice perhpas you could consider writing a training resource?

  3. I think this is a great friendly criticism of how Alan did. I think you're right in pointing out that the only advantage Mike had was that he was working the crowd a little better. be honest I recall quite a few moments where more people than just the ones filming were it seemed like people were laughing AT Mike, rather than with him, but I could be wrong on that.

    Honestly, Alan, I think you should have jumped on him a lot harder for NOT understanding what atheism actually is...and then just blowing it off as if it weren't relevant to the debate. No...if the debate is about whether or not atheism makes more has to be defined. I would have drilled him a bit harder on that point...made him to look like someone who was afraid to actually debate the real issue. I agree with Russell should NOT feel bad at all about your performance. You did better, you just could have stood to be a bit more affable and a lot more aggressive. Remember, when you attack Mike's're not attacking Mike himself, so don't be afraid to sink your teeth in a bit.

  4. Wouldn't it be nice if, for once, someone held a debate where (1) the participants interact directly with each other instead of making speeches, and (2) there is no time limit? The format used in this debate seems to be taken from high school and college debating societies (where the participants are assigned a topic and position shortly before the debate begins). That format is designed to showcase debating skills, and is ill-suited to get at the truth. Sadly, almost every atheism/theism debate I have heard uses some variation of that format.

    If I were to debate an issue with a group of friends or family, we would not dream of imposing a format where participants make time-limited speeches ... we would just talk about the issue and, if all parties are open-minded and intellectually honest (sadly, a rarity), hopefully come to a consensus. So why is it that more formal debates are never like that?

    I am in no way criticizing Alan or Russell. Atheists should take whatever opportunities present themselves to get their message out. I just think that when it comes to debating, we can do much better.

  5. @eric

    Maybe over the phone on an internet radio show would be a better format? Might be harder to get someone from the theist side, but the time could be virtually unlimited. As it is, an actual real-world debate like this one, hosted in a physical location...I think it'd be hard to (a) get the venue that long and (b) get enough people willing to come to an "endless" debate to make it worthwhile enough. Now if only we knew anyone with an online radio show of some sort...hmmmm.

  6. Who says we don't argue with people live and without rules? Nobody's stopping you, I'm just saying that it's a little harder to get a broad audience for a random street fight that you pick. :)

    Do people argue informally without rules in a prominent public setting? Sure they do; they're called Sunday talk shows, and you're free to give them a try... in my opinion they're completely godawful. I'm just saying, there are reasons to have formal, structured debates. There's a time for a rigid timed format, and a time for shouting matches, and I don't think you should dismiss the value of either one out of hand.

    Personally, I do prefer at least a little bit of cross-examination period in my debates, which Alan's debate was lacking.


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