Wednesday, May 11, 2011

On public arguments

Today's email comes from Mark in Colorado.

I work in a Defense firm where everybody is either a fundamentalist Christian or Mormon. I got into a discussion with a mormon guy who is always spouting some stupid shit. Anyway, I confronted him about his ideas and after a few minutes of discussion he realized I wasn't a pushover, so he switched tactics and started bringing up quantum physics (he feels that proves everything), psuedo science, non sequiturs, real science mixed with nonsense -- usually in the same sentence. Just for an example, he said he believed in evolution but described a cartoonish if not naive version. I tried to correct him and tell him he had it wrong, but he switched scripts and said loudly, "You don't believe in evolution"! It went on with a lot of stuff like that to muddy the waters and it seemed to have impressed people in my group.
My question is, have you ever run across anyone like that and how did you handle it?

In a situation like that, my first rule is that it's important to keep your cool. I understand that it's difficult in this situation, but you should calmly step back and assess what you are getting out of the argument. There are, in my mind, three reasons that you would want to argue with somebody:

  1. You think you can change that person's mind in some way.
  2. You think you can influence the opinion of people who are observing the discussion.
  3. You are genuinely interested in the other person's arguments, or would like practice responding to them for your own education. Or it's fun.

These three points boil down to a question of "Who's your audience?" The answers are, respectively, 1. the Mormon; 2. somebody else; 3. Yourself. How you answer the audience question will have a lot of influence on how you should approach the discussion.

If the Mormon is your audience, you've already decided that he is kind of an idiot, so obviously you're not going to make major gains with him. Your best bet is to find the areas where he's most badly misunderstanding mainstream science, point out what is wrong in a straightforward way, and steer him toward credible literature on how it actually works. In order to do this, you'll have to understand the real science well enough to break it down that way, so maybe some extra reading is in order.

If a third party is your audience, you can start out winning big just by keeping your cool. If the other guy is visibly upset, and you are not, then it's hard to side with him. You said that his rant seemed to impress people in your group, so it's possible that they were swayed by it. Maybe you're having your discussion with the wrong person. If you think there is somebody a bit more reasonable who is on the fence and simply doesn't understand the issues involved, I'd look for an opportunity to talk privately with that person (or people). By expanding your influence to other people and getting them on your side, you're less likely to find yourself alone in future discussions.

If you are your own audience, then go ahead and argue to a frustrating standstill, then evaluate the specifics of the conversation later. Toss out the points which sounded like a stupid waste of time to you, but remember the points that left you struggling. Maybe the claims about quantum physics sounded like bunk to you, but you couldn't express why they're bunk. In that case, it's time to educate yourself. Go find some real information about science, preferably from a good, well-spoken popular science writer. It won't help in the current discussion, but it will improve your broad base of knowledge the next time the discussion comes up.

If none of the above are a good audience in this situation, maybe you should check your motives again and see if it's really worth your time to be talking to this lunkhead. I wouldn't pick an argument with a homeless guy in the street shouting at people, and you shouldn't waste time in a situation where nobody has anything to learn.

Whatever the case, remember that a casual debate is a skirmish, not the war. You can lose a battle and it doesn't ruin you as a human being. Just try to bear in mind your long term goals: becoming a knowledgeable and well-rounded individual; and helping good and correct memes to spread through the general population.


  1. Supposedly part 1 of 7 is here
    Although I can't load it at the moment.

    I know that everyone's interested in Matt gearing up to write a book (or several), but hypothetically, IF I were working on writing my own book right now... that's probably what the topic would be. And these sorts of posts could be a way of organizing the subjects.


  2. Sounds more like the guy Mark was arguing with was in preacher mode with no intentions on listening to what you are saying.

    Many tactics of theist seem to be say it loud enough and often enough until someone gives in. Whether it be actually changing their mind, or just saying it to shut them up to get ego boosts from their colleagues.

    Also a big problem is when talking about scientific stuff, unless readily available test are handy, it's an argument of words most people don't understand and charts. Even if you do know what you're talking about, chances are they'll think of some nonsense reason as why they think it's wrong.

  3. I dunno if I would bother debating in the workplace especially if I was outnumbered by morons....Or mormons.
    If it's out of work time though tear 'em to shreds.

  4. This is precisely why I suck at live debate. I'm way too polite.

  5. I also agree that I really like these kind of posts from Kazim and hope there are more to come.

  6. @Kazim - I like that hypothetical. Hope to see it a reality.

  7. I don't like it when your audience is other people and your opponent is winning them over with rhetoric. Facts SHOULD be the deciding factor in a debate, but often the winner is the one with the best rhetoric.

  8. In debates I try to avoid subjects I don't know much.
    Although the definition for evolution reads easy on wikipedia, there are in fact not so many people who can actually make qualified statements on that matter. On quantum theory there are even less. So the chance that I say total nonses are almost 100%.

    So if somebody brings up something like this, I would refuse any further discussion unless we go back to a field where we both have some knowledge and/or experience.

  9. "You said that his rant seemed to impress people in your group, so it's possible that they were swayed by it"

    It's also possible that they are already on the other person's side. It doesn't take much to impress people who are hearing what they want to hear.

    I don't generally debate the theists I know at work but I have debated a few. It sharpens my mind. Usually I don't need to know much about science to defeat them -- at least what I consider a defeat. I remind them that there are other religions with just as much claim to The Truth as theirs, and that if they hadn't grown up in the culture they grew up in they wouldn't be Christians. I can usually get someone to concede that, especially if they are followers.

    I have gotten a few to admit "it's a matter of faith" mainly through pointing out their logical fallacies.

    You do need to understand the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to debate a Post-Modernist, though. I've had to deal with the claim that because nothing can be known with certainty... even in science... each person's bullshit interpretation of a work of art is valid even though they know nothing about the creator's intentions... or something..... I dunno... those people make my brain explode

  10. I rarely encounter opportunities to discuss religion. Most of the people I know are religious in one way or another (or at least say that they are), but religion as a topic just does not come up.

    Around Christmas time a coworker casually asked why Christians did not know something from the bible (cannot recall the topic exactly, but I think it had something to do with the 3 wise men). I pointed out that most religious people do not read their holy books. I even added the comment, "The bible is like a Software User Agreement; most people just go to the bottom and click on I Accept' without actually reading it."

    Another co-worker that overheard this went straight to "You're both going to hell, you know?" I wish Jeff Dee was there. :)

  11. "The bible is like a Software User Agreement; most people just go to the bottom and click on I Accept' without actually reading it."

    That was brilliant!

  12. "You're both going to hell, you know?"
    No, unless you mean being subjected to rude, unasked-for opinions by people deluded by superstition.

  13. "If the Mormon is your audience, you've already decided that he is kind of an idiot"

    What an incredibly arrogant initial position. Best of luck getting anyone to listen to you when you're projecting that sort of prejudicial opinion on your audience.

    I've no problem with you thinking us Christians are horribly misguided and misinformed - but this Dawkins-esque hate-filled viewpoint that we're all of sub-normal intelligence is clearly misplaced.

    If you really want to try to shatter our faith and redirect us to what you consider to be "the light of enlightenment", you could try talking to us as equals.

    Sure, some believers (such as your colleague here) erroneously think they have a full understanding of creation and spout annoying pseudo-scientific nonsense - and there's probably little point continuing a discussion with people like that. He clearly has a closed mind (like you? ;-) ), and you're just wasting energy trying to persuade him of the errors of his ways.

    We're not all like that, though. I love keeping up with the latest in scientific understanding and would happily discuss such subjects with you (in person - not interested in yet another internet-based attempt to (dis)prove the existence of God!) and would take great care in recognizing the limits of my understanding as a subset of humanity's also-limited understanding, and would expect you to do the same in any conversation.

    I fully respect and completely understand the atheist viewpoint, even though I am fully convinced of the Christian message. I would hope that any discussion would involve mutual respect, even if you think my invisible sky wizard is a figment of my conditioned imagination and I, in turn, fear for your soul on the day of judgement.

    To other commenters - please don't waste precious electrons in an attempt to de-convert this crazy Christian venturing into the lions' den. I'm not interested in getting into a web-based (a)theist debate, and just felt led (Christian jargon) to respond to this post.

  14. "If the Mormon is your audience, you've already decided that he is kind of an idiot"

    What an incredibly arrogant initial position.

    There's no need to be such an asshole to Mark.

    Mark's the one who had the conversation with this Mormon who was saying "stupid shit," and it seems to me that it's the height of arrogance for you to assume -- just from reading this small snippet of conversation -- that the guy was actually making sense. Were you there?

  15. Dear Mark in Colorado.
    This Mormon strikes me as a bully. Now I've had a quick look at the beliefs of the Mormons and they stand out as being even dumber than ordinary Christians.Get this dick head to explain the book of Mormon to you and use his own religious teachings as a stick to beat him with. Remember despite what is often said on the show the religious are very often cowedly, stupid and deluded.I hope you intellectually kick his head in.

  16. @ Kazim

    I think Mark (above, not Colorado) took your statement "If the Mormon is your audience, . . . " to be saying that Mormon's generally, not just the specific Mormon Colorado Mark was talking with were necessarily "kind of idiot[s]."

    I'll admit, that this is how I erroneously read that sentence as well. I see now that the sentence is just acknowledging Colorado Mark's opinion of his debate opponent, but the structure of the sentence allows it to be read as "if you are talking with a Mormon, you are necessarily talking with someone is is kind of an idiot."

  17. Just ask them if they're wearing magic underwear.

  18. Perhaps, then, Mark the commenter should learn to read things more carefully, rather than jumping to conclusions and making ludicrous generalizations because he can't be bothered to do more than skim.

  19. "The bible is like a Software User Agreement; most people just go to the bottom and click on I Accept' without actually reading it."

    Brilliant. I stole this for Facebook. XD

  20. How can I respect a construction worker as an equal when he uses a potato instead of a hammer, believes that an invisible man wants him to install lead plumbing, and ultimately finishes houses by pretending they're built and walking away, leaving an empty lot with a few scattered boards?

    ...when the other guy uses nails, follows code, and builds actual real solid high-quality houses, why would I consider them equal?

    One is a competent and functional construction worker, and the other is currently doing some mime thing where he's trying to climb an invisible ladder.

  21. I can't imagine what it must be like for you guys in the States.
    Here in Australia if you spruik religion at work you soon find you always have the lunch room to yourself.

  22. Blogspot gone and went blowed up

  23. Arguing with the ignorant is very difficult *because* there's so much knowledge on our side. It's like arguing with a toddler who knows nothing but is very stubborn that they know better than you do. How can one explain how wrong they are, when they are so fractally wrong? Physics, chemistry, biology, cosmology, geology, paleontology, archaeology, and history are all standing against them. A person can't even begin to educate another in such a short frame of time.

  24. When debating a theist I always try to stay as far away from the science as I possibly can and just concentrate on logical errors. The reason being that to them anything that the Discovery Institute says carries equal if not more weight than something reported on Nature.

    They can always say "I know your science says X, but *my* science says Y". I've learned that it's futile to try to explain how science works and why the Discovery Institute doesn't practice real science. All they know is that their science is good because it jives with the bible and my science is evil because it doesn't.

  25. Carlos,

    My response to "my science says Y" is "What does your science's peer reviewed literature say?"

    Explaining how science reaches a consensus is hard; but the creationist record of getting papers published in non-creationist sources is abysmal. Discovery Institute gets downright whiny when you bring it up, quickly falling back on the old "science is a conspiracy against me" line. Ben Stein's entire shitty movie was, in a sense, an attempt to dismiss the scientific process by calling them Nazis.

    The nice thing about that, though, is that they can't BOTH claim the mantle of real science, AND dismiss real science as a hoax. It cuts off that avenue.

    The thing is, science is on your side. If you abandon science as the solid support that it is, then you are just giving up on one of the basic tools for distinguishing fantasy from reality. And that is exactly what creationists hope you will do. Don't let them get away with it. If you don't know the philosophy of science well enough to support it on a rudimentary level, go learn some more.

  26. Half of the comments appear to be missing. Do I need to repost my story that includes the "Software License Agreement" metaphor? :P

  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

    Today in the paper Stephen Hawking said this,
    A belief that heaven or an afterlife awaits us is a "fairy story" for people afraid of death.
    And there you have it coming from a man with a brain the size of a planet.


PLEASE NOTE: The Atheist Experience has moved to a new location, and this blog is now closed to comments. To participate in future discussions, please visit

This blog encourages believers who disagree with us to comment. However, anonymous comments are disallowed to weed out cowardly flamers who hide behind anonymity. Commenters will only be banned when they've demonstrated they're nothing more than trolls whose behavior is intentionally offensive to the blog's readership.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.