Griffith University Skeptics and Freethinkers

An Idiot’s Guide To Rational Debating

In Uncategorized on February 25, 2013 at 9:05 PM

Amanda Williams

~~ I was asked to provide an article for the University magazine ‘Getamungstit’. This is what I came up with – considering I had only a few hours I think I did ok!  Be nice about my first post please 🙂 ~~

By Amanda Williams – President of Griffith University Skeptics and Freethinkers

Skeptics are famous (or perhaps notorious) for meeting in pubs; it just so happens that the idea for this article was first discussed in a pub, with someone I had only just met.  I had explained that I was a skeptic but no, I didn’t believe the moon landing was a hoax.  No, I didn’t believe that aliens have visited and have abducted people (although I do think, statistically speaking, it is likely that there is a form of intelligent life in our universe – but possibly not in our Milky Way galaxy… but that’s another topic).  No, atheism is not a religion – for the record, atheism is like a religion like bald is a hair colour (or atheism is like a religion like abstinence is a sex position *snigger*).  No, I am not a climate change skeptic or a Holocaust denier or… well you get the idea.  I then explained that about the only thing all us ‘Skeptics’ can agree on, is our distaste for homeopathy.  Otherwise, we’re a mix of secularists, agnostics, humanists, atheists, and even the occasional deists.  About 2 years ago, I didn’t even know what these terms meant – so don’t worry if I’ve lost you.

The point is the next question that arose: If these people are all different, how do you get along?

The answer is simple: we have rules about how we discuss/debate our ideas. So next time you want to engage in a discussion with someone, whether it be contentious topic, politics or religion (or something less cliché, like whether naturopathy is harmless or do humans have ethereal souls) – here are some ideas to keep the conversation as mature, unheated and objective as possible.


Rule #1: No ad hominem.  (This should be a principal rule in relationships too!)

Ad hominem: attacking your opponent’s character or personal traits instead of engaging with their argument.  The ad hominem logical fallacy happens so frequently with our politicians that they should be ashamed.  When we get emotional in an argument, especially if we know the person well, it can be so tempting to disregard/dismiss what they are saying based on some character flaw.  Remember that undermining their argument, does not devalue them as a person.  Be specific; your problem is the structure or nature of their argument, and not with them as an individual.  This enables diverse people to be friends; or in some cases, meet under the common umbrella as ‘Skeptics’. has examples of this and other fallacies (some of which I discuss later) for those aspiring to be master debaters.

Rule #2: Define words during the discussion.

Those with experience in debating know there is nothing worse than the ‘definition debate’.  First year university I was subjected to several fake debates in one of my tutorials: all hail group-work… the one that sticks in my memory was the debate regarding electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).  It was clear that the group had split into teams early and had not discussed their arguments with the other team, thus: the affirmative team went on about how safe ECT is today, using pictures of hygienic hospital wards and showing results of recent studies with positive improvements in very select cases.  The negative team played a video clip from the iconic 1975 film (hint: cuckoo’s nest)… This anecdote is one of my favourites because it describes the fundamental absurdity of arguing using the same term, but each party having a different meaning in mind.  During this particular debate, it became clear that the teams actually agreed: old ECT = bad, new ECT = good in select cases.  Many times debates arise because people assume the other person understands what they’re arguing about.  Never assume.  Organised debates often start with a definition of the topic – in the real world, defining the topic is just the tip of the iceberg.  Be sure the words you are using are being understood.

Rule #3: If there is nothing (no evidence, no idea, no new information) that can change your mind; you haven’t formed an opinion you’ve formed a prejudice.

Science has few fundamental rules, for example; correlation does not imply causation, replication of experiments is essential to theory confirmation, etc.  The relevant one here is: science changes and adapts when new technology and ideas provide new evidence.  New evidence can change what we know and how we view the world; from the geocentric to heliocentric theory of planets for example.  As Skeptics, we have confidence in the process of science in seeking truth – but you don’t need to be a scientist to realise that having a discussion with someone, who insists their view is absolutely right and nothing you (or anyone) could possibly say or do could change their mind, is futile.  More futile than resisting the Borg.  Instead of being assimilated, you will simply become annoyed with them and they with you.  Opinion: A judgment or evaluation based on special knowledge and (usually) given by an expert.  Prejudice: preconceived preference or idea OR judgment or evaluation formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts.  Before you get into a discussion with someone, be clear on whether or not they know (or are willing to look at) the facts.

Rule #4: Yes, you can agree to disagree.
Opinions differ because our subjective interpretation of the facts will differ.  In many cases, Skeptics endlessly debate the ‘grey’ areas where there is ‘no right answer’.  In these cases, be prepared to agree to disagree.  You aren’t out to ‘convert’ anyone to your way of thinking; you simply want to open the dialogue.  As Skeptics, we are willing to share not just our opinion, but the process we engaged in to reach it; the ‘why’ and the ‘how’, rather than just the ‘what’.  I personally find it far more interesting to know how you reached your conclusion, than the conclusion itself.  Partly because if someone reached their conclusion without much thought or investigation, it’s technically a prejudice (as above).  Partly because I deem conclusions following rigorous application of the scientific method as more robust.  However, this one doesn’t require you to be a scientist or a Skeptic: it’s just good old common sense.

Rule #5: Be a respectful opponent.

The fallacy fallacy: Presuming that because a claim has been poorly argued, or a fallacy has been made, that it is necessarily wrong.  Some people are good at debating, and some people aren’t.  This doesn’t mean their point of view is necessarily wrong, it simply means they aren’t able to articulate it at that point in time.  For those who revel in the inability of others to explain what they mean, take heed: there will always be better and worse debaters than you.  If you are well prepared, and your opinion is based on sound evidence, how well (or poorly) they structure or articulate their argument will be irrelevant.  If you don’t find this challenging enough, feel free to apply another of science’s important tenets: actively try to prove yourself wrong.

Rule #6: Do not move the goalposts.

If you have said that you will change your opinion on X, given evidence Y; do not turn around when Y is produced and say, what I really meant was Z anyway.  This sounds silly when using XYZ but I can’t count the number of times I’ve witnessed this happening.  Be clear in your opinions, be clear when explaining yourself and above all, be humble and adult enough to accept being wrong.  When you are finished debating someone, how will you be perceived?  How will you perceive yourself?  These rules are just guidelines anyway; remember that after the debate life goes on.  If you want to discuss this topic, or another, with them in future (or even with others, word gets around), try not to burn bridges by breaking these rules.

Anyone who has read this far is either really bored, or is wanting a beer with the Skeptics.   So if I’m not in class come find me at the Unibar – Skeptics in the Pub might be a cliché, but it’s one that involves beer and bull****, so come and have a glass with me.


So who’s up for some skeptical activism at the Woodford Folk Festival?

In GUSSF Events!, Helping our community., Human Rights on December 13, 2011 at 8:07 PM

 A call to action for all Queensland Skeptics:

Sourced from the Skeptimite blog

As you have probably heard, Meryl Dorey of AVN infamy is booked to speak at the Woodford Folk Festival on Dec 29 and 30.  If you are not aware of the situation check out the @drunkenmadman blog and wiki for the facts and links.

What to do?

Step one:
Email, tweet and phone everyone involved to let them know your concerns. The wiki has links with contact details.

Comment on blogs and web articles. The Mamamia article by Peter Bowditch is a great place to start, with more info and comments.

Also spread the word to your twitter followers, facebook friends and so on.

Step two:
Get to Woodford. We need skeptics on site to record (if legally possible) Meryls talk, take notes and per haps hand out fliers.  I hope that someone very capable will be able to ask Meryl some tough questions in the Q&A.

I am thinking perhaps handing out fliers while wearing t-shirts that say “Vaccines Save Lives” or similar might be the way to go. Skeptics can then answer questions from the public in a calm and rational manner.

At this stage, I hope to be there for both days. I am happy to car pool from Brisbane northside, although I only have a two seater.

All feedback, comments and suggestions welcome.

Please get in touch @skeptimite or phil.kent at





Andrew Bolt: Smarter folk are more likely to be (climate change) sceptics

In Responses to the media, Science on October 6, 2011 at 11:40 PM

This article was originally posted at

It’s hard to ignore the heated (pardon the pun) debate regarding climate change. Whether it’s the impact humans are having on our climate (if any), whether our climate is actually changing at all, or whether the consequences (again, if any) are positive or negative overall, certain sections of the Australian media are adamant there is very, very good reason to doubt the actual experts.

While there do appear to be very clear ideological and political disparities between those of us that accept the evidence that humans are indeed causing our climate to change for the worse and at greater speed than ever before in recorded history, and those that call themselves climate sceptics, today I learned of one more important difference.

Smarter folk are more likely to be sceptics.

Shocking I know, but that was just the title of the ‘research‘ that then went on to say that

The less you know about science, the more likely you are to believe man is warming the planet dangerously.

Now I’m no scientist, and it’s hard to gauge how much I ‘know about science’ compared to the next person, but in this case the next person is Andrew Bolt, prolific media contributor with regular columns in five Australian newspapers, a heavily trafficked blog as well as duties as a talk-back radio pundit, television personality and star of the Bolt Report and, like myself, a non-scientist. Still if the above claim is true, then I guess this means that Andrew Bolt is smarter and more scientifically literate than almost every single scientist currently walking the earth!

Yet we don’t have to be scientists to read other peoples research, and Andrew has provided an abstract to back up the claim he obviously made on purely scientific grounds.

 The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: Limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones.

Now if you’re thinking that doesn’t look like an entire abstract you’re right! Andrew must of been in a rush and forgot to paste the remainder which reads:

 More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: Respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased. We suggest that this evidence reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: The individual level, which is characterized by citizens’ effective use of their knowledge and reasoning capacities to form risk perceptions that express their cultural commitments; and the collective level, which is characterized by citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare. Dispelling this, “tragedy of the risk-perception commons,” we argue, should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication.

 To me this doesn’t at all indicate that “smarter folk are more likely to be sceptics”, but then I also believe man is warming the planet dangerously so what would I know, I’m not only no scientist, but more importantly I’m no Andrew Bolt.


Jayson D Cooke