rules of rational debate

By Alison Campbell 20/01/2011


In my idle moments (haha) I visit a number of different science blogs – both the posts and the comments threads can be educational and entertaining as well. Sometimes, for particular topics (vaccination being one, but anything to do with ‘natural health products’ can almost be guaranteed to set things off as well), the discussion can be derailed by one or two commenters who seem unwilling or unable to follow the normal rules of a rational debate. This can make it really hard to keep a discussion on track & must be frustrating for others trying to follow the thread of ideas.

Anyway, while browsing Peter Bowditch’s Millenium Project I came across a poster encapsulating those rules. I thought I’d share it here, not least because these rules can apply to debate in a classroom just as much as they can to a face-to-face, one-on-one discussion and an internet forum or comments thread. (Click on the graphic for a higher-quality image.) I can see myself applying some of these statements in some of the threads I visit :)

 


0 Responses to “rules of rational debate”

  • I have to say, I’ve come across many, many scientists and “rationalists” that would not get past the first step regarding the topic of origins. They would say that the jury is out and it’s so proven that nothing will ever come to light that will prove otherwise.

    I think that a willingness to listen to another person’s point of view, with a view to trying to understanding it and meet the discussion points head on, however much either participant is convinced that they are right; that is a fair debate or discussion.

    Most people would have trouble starting a debate admitting that it’s possible you are wrong. It just doesn’t work that way in people’s minds. A collaborative discussion is different from a debate though.

    I see the main purpose of a debate to be a means of informing people of both sides of the issue. For complex issues, e.g. politics, ethics, “fringe” areas of science, it is also a means of highlighting a path to explore the issue further.

  • They would say that the jury is out and it’s so proven that nothing will ever come to light that will prove otherwise.

    Could you clarify? I can’t make sense of what you’re trying to say here, sorry. (It’s self-contradictory so I’m left confused. While I’m writing: you’d also want to be more explicit and define just what you mean by ‘origins’ as there are several meanings.)

    Perhaps you are confusing what the first step is asking? It’s asking that you put up a finding that, if shown to be correct, would change your mind, not a general statement what you think the ‘state of play’ of a subject is.

    (It occurs to be that one possible—and slight—weakness of this flowchart is that you might discuss why something is unlikely to be shown to be wrong, as opposed to if it is or not—?)

    Debates—in the stand-up presentation sense at least—often aren’t that informative IMO, but more about something akin to showmanship, and trying to win, than presenting content per se.

  • “I’ve come across many, many scientists and “rationalists” that would not get past the first step regarding the topic of origins. They would say that the jury is out and it’s so proven that nothing will ever come to light that will prove otherwise.”

    It seems to me this is a reasonable position, so far as if new evidence does come to light the position has to change.

    Alison’s guide is for rational debate, but I see no value in the continuous debating of subjects that are firmly established e.g. evolution, unless substantial evidence to the contrary becomes available.
    After all each more I don’t debate whether gravity still exists and therefore debate whether I can walk or fly to work. Unless of course my cat floats past the window, at which point I have some evidence which requires I investigate further and possibly change my position on the constancy of gravity.

    Best to save rational debate for subjects where a beneficial exchange of information might result in one or both sides changing or modifying their position(s).

    Perhaps the first box might better read “If shown good verifiable evidence that conflicts with your current position, would you change your position?”

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