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.

  1. Woah. Just found out Griffith had a skeptic’s society. Sweet.

    Remember, skepticism isn’t a position taken on a subject – it’s an approach to claims. Therefore, I must disagree with the grouping that was made about skeptics comprising of “secularists, agnostics, humanists, atheists, and even the occasional deists…” For example, I (and some people I know) were skeptics long before they were atheists – we just hadn’t applied our skepticism (an approach) to our religious beliefs.

    Was a good read, though 😀

    I’ll definitely be getting involve with this group after my gap year (this year).Many beers will be had! (In moderation)…

  2. Excellent summary for debaters…not sure why you would limit yourself to ‘rational’ debates. Does this mean that intuitive ideas are necessarily irrational or cannot be debated.

    Doesn’t skepticism start with an intuitive feeling? That something that has been argued rationally does not feel right and therefore needs to be explored further?

    In fact, the idea of Creationism comes from poor rational thinking… the world is very complex therefore it must have been created by a higher intelligence. The scientific challenge, suggesting that Evolution is a better explanation for the complexity, is also a poor rational argument, as it explains the ‘developmental process’ but not the origin.

    You have an excellent debating style but I’m not sure that you understand what a skeptic is.
    Given, then, that you argue that terms should be defined, I have found the following definition:
    skep·tic (Noun)
    1. A person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions.
    2. A person who doubts the truth of Christianity and other religions; an atheist or agnostic.

    So, noting that, “if there is nothing that will change your mind you have formed a prejudice not an opinion” …is a skeptic someone who never forms an opinion but simply argues for the sake of arguing?

    • What do you mean evolution is a poor rational argument? Asking evolution to explain the origin of life is like asking a toaster to boil water… Evolution doesn’t pertain to the origins of life – it refers to aspects of population diversity and mechanics – which have been observed and verified.

      Google Abiogenesis. It deals with the origin of life – not evolution, which has never claimed to.

      I agree that the author of this article misconstrues what a skeptic is… Not all atheists are skeptics. As I said, being a skeptic is not a position on any topic- it’s an approach taken towards that topic which ensures critical thinking.

      “Is a skeptic someone who never forms an opinion but simply argues for the sake of arguing?” Not at all, a person who does that is a troll.

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