Soap Box:  The Lost Art of Debate

February 7, 2006

Have you ever had to write a term paper? I still remember the basic formula I use to follow from high school. The term paper would start off with an introduction paragraph giving a brief summary of the book I read and an introduction of my theme. The very last sentence would generally list three points that support my theme. The rest of the paper addressed each point, giving quotes and proofs that supported my statements. The paper concluded with a summary paragraph that wrapped it all up. The same methodology is used in forums of debate and discussion. You present your idea or point, followed by reasons and proof why it is valid. Well, that's the way it should be. Unfortunately, in almost every forum I visit, no one is following the proper protocol of logical debate. What happened? Did everyone forget the knowledge of term paper writing? Did these people somehow miss out on writing papers in school? What ever the cause, the lost art of debate is an exercise in frustration for those of us that follow the scientific method, which is having proof and evidence of claims made.

To express this in a nutshell, if you make a claim or statement, be prepared to provide evidence of your claim if someone challenges it. It really is that simple. If you cannot prove what you claim, and someone challenges it, then you should withdraw that particular claim from the discussion. Of course, there are boundaries that must be recognized on both sides. The first one is knowing when to challenge a claim, or even possessing the desire to challenge a claim. Consider this statement, "the Republicans are against abortions". Should this statement be challenged? No, not generally. Of course you could demand someone prove that Republicans feel this way, but it is accepted, public knowledge that the Republican party generally opposes anything that favors abortion rights. Of course to prove it, you could just reference a few issue votes here and there. But there is no need for that, because it's a point that shouldn't be challenged. Likewise, if I claim that gravity keeps us on the planet, I shouldn't have to prove that statement before continuing on with the debate. It should be accepted.

Now, if someone makes a statement or claim that is not generally accepted, or is known to be controversial and contested, then the claim can be rightfully challenged and the burden of proof is upon the person making the claim. If I claim the Loch Ness monster exists, I can reasonably expect someone to not believe me and demand I provide proof. If I refuse to provide proof, debate protocol demands that I withdraw my claim. Additionally, even if I provide what I think is valid evidence, there is the chance that my challenger could reject my proof and claim. For example, I could point to photographs, video, and witness statements that the Loch Ness monster is real. A challenger could label the photographs and video as too blurry, too subjective to interpretation, and possibly faked. Likewise, witness statements could be false testimony or just plain wrong (i.e. what the witness thought was a monster was really just a seaweed covered log). However, my proof not being accepted does not mean I have to withdraw my claim. It just means that this point will remain in contention. The bottom line is everyone is required to provide proof of their claims if the validity of them is challenged. The only exception is if a claim is challenged as a diversion or evasion tactic. If someone challenges you to prove gravity, you can reasonably assume they are not sincere in their request, but rather have an ulterior motive. Generally I have seen this when a challenger has a weak argument, or lacks the proof to back up their own claims.

So why, you may ask, have we lost the art of logical, intelligent debate? There are many reasons, ranging from ignorance, to personality types, to downright nastiness. Some people have not been exposed to the proper protocol of debate. For what ever reason, they never were taught the rules of discussion during their education process, or in their day to day encounters. They are of the frame of mind that if they make a claim, everyone will automatically believe them, no matter how controversial or whimsical the claim might be. They have not been trained or taught that some claims will be challenged, and that they will have to provide proof.

Some people are so arrogant and opinionated, that they think no one has the right to question their claims or demand they provide evidence that supports their point. They assume they are always right, and are very close minded. These types tend to have already made up their mind on the issue, and will not be swayed by evidence contrary to their opinion. It will be difficult to impossible to carry on a civil, intelligent debate with them. They will use stalling tactics, such as a request for you to prove every little point you make, will still failing to provide proof for their own claims. While they may actually believe their own claims, it is a sign that they don't actually have any supporting evidence. These types will also often resort to semantics in order to frustrate you, quoting literal definitions of words when the general consensus is a more liberal acceptance.

Then you have those kind of people that are just downright mean and nasty. Not only are they arrogant and opinionated, but they insist on always being right. If that means they must resort to deception, so be it. They will lie and cheat in order to be perceived as being right. And it's not always the uneducated that behave this way. I have debated people that had masters and doctorate degrees, that outright lied and fabricated so-called evidence in order to give the appearance of validity. There is no possible way you can have a logical debate in this type of scenario. Once the truth is sacrificed, there is no value to the debate or discussion.

Given that email and the Internet is now widely available to just about everyone with a computer, sadly, the odds of you having a proper, logical, and intelligent debate is greatly diminished. You are more likely to encounter those that not only lack the skills to have a decent discussion, but also actively sabotage the effort with either their refusal to provide proof of their claims, or outright deception. But in case you do find yourself in a discussion that has the possibility of being fruitful, here's some simple, yet require rules to follow:

1) State your claim, and the reasons why you believe it to be true.

2) If your claim is legitimately challenged, then you must provide evidence or proof, or else withdraw your claim.

3) Only challenge claims that you honestly doubt to be valid (i.e. never as a stalling or evasion tactic), and state your reasons for challenging the claim.

4) Address and answer all legitimate and relevant questions

5) Always tell the truth.

Of course, keeping the discussion civil and a few other things should be in there too, but these are the basic rules to follow. But if you find yourself in a debate where people refuse to back up their claims with evidence, or use semantic word play, or request you to provide proof for generally accepted claims (all while not providing their own proof), rest assured you're in a discussion that will go nowhere. While it might be emotionally entertaining to participate, it is an intellectual wasteland. Your time is better spent writing articles such as this one, in hopes that it will help foster true, fruitful discussion, and bring back the lost art of debate.

Jeff Polston

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