Saturday, September 26, 2009

never wrestle with a pig - you just get dirty and the pig enjoys it

What's so fascinating about this lengthy YouTube debate is not so much the content (though it has its moments) but the way it illustrates the difficulties in having a meaningful debate between the reality-based community and the religious one. There are those who say that such debates are futile and self-defeating and refuse to get involved: Richard Dawkins to name but one.

Certainly there is a sense in which engaging with people at all legitimises their point of view to some extent - just to offer a reductio ad absurdum if some bloke demanded a televised debate with a celebrated historian, Simon Schama say, because he was convinced that he was Napoleon and wanted to challenge Schama to refute him, he wouldn't get much of a response. Similarly people aren't queueing up to debate the TimeCube guy, massively entertaining though it would undoubtedly be. So by wanting to be seen to be even-handed and not just dismiss things out of hand there's a danger of legitimising the whole pernicious "teach the controversy" thing.

There's another problem, and it's a presentational one, illustrated very well by the protagonists here:
  • Firstly, seasoned YouTube campaigner Thunderf00t, whose channel is full of good and interesting stuff and is well worth a visit. I don't want to make unwarranted assumptions based on nerdy stereotypes, but my guess would be that he is an academic of some sort. And in keeping with those who work in academia, and scientific academia in particular, his appearance is somewhat hairy and dishevelled, and he ums and ahs a lot in response to questions. Now of course this is a good thing, as it shows that he's actually expending some thought, but it's not very showbiz. Nor is his insistence on reiterating the conditional nature of scientific knowledge, the openness to something coming along in the future which forces us to completely re-evaluate the laws by which we think the universe operates, and the absolute acceptability of "I don't know" as an answer to a question.
  • Secondly, evangelical Christian, banana fetishist and certifiable maniac Ray Comfort. Now Ray is a proper old school street-corner evangelical huckster; it is Ray's business to be able to just turn the mouth on and let it run. The absence of any necessity to engage the brain is a positive advantage here - it's like a reflex, brain involvement would just slow the whole thing down. So Ray comes across as very sure of himself, easily able to marshal his arguments - like most evangelical types he's very clean-cut, preppily dressed and well-presented as well.
So one can see how it might be possible for a disinterested observer who knew nothing about the subjects being discussed to conclude: well, the nice smiley man with the moustache seems very sure of himself, while the hairy guy seems a bit stuttering in his responses - and he's all slumped in his chair, look. Also, the moustache guy is appealing to stuff that I think I know about, like common sense, right? While the hairy tramp guy is all supercilious and sciencey, like he's cleverer than me or something.

The terms of the debate, once agreed after some initial wrangling, seemed to include posting the whole thing, uncut, so it's quite long, over an hour. I'm not sure I'd recommend watching it all the way through unless you're really keen (I didn't), but dipping in here and there is quite educational, just to get a flavour of the debate. Thunderf00t's post-debate reflections can be found here.

It's a tricky balancing act and I'm not sure I know what the answer is. I'm inclined to think debating with these fools plays into their hands, and that, just as a close reading of the bible is one of the best methods of provoking a conversion to atheism, just letting these guys blaze away at their own feet by producing things like the banana video probably changes more minds than engaging in debate does.

No comments: