Friday, April 24, 2009

*Actual Data* on Debate Conversion Rates

A few months ago, atheist rhetorical Sith Lord Christopher Hitchens debated Dinesh D'Souza at the University of Colorado. Fortunately, there was a survey (which we need more of) on audience positions before and after the debate. And what was Darth Hitchens' immediate conversion rate? Hitchens gained 1%, D'Souza lost 2%. That's it. D'Souza isn't an idiot, but he's no MLK either, as far as rhetoric goes, and still even the Hitch only got a few inches of territory, at least by the time the audience walked out. Maybe that number would go up in a month or a year, but someone has to collect that data before we know.

These posts on Overcoming Bias and Marginal Revolution were interesting for the same reason: someone collected before and after- debate data from the audience, and found a consistent advantage for the minority position. The graphs are the best.

The authors offer possibilities for the mechanism of this minority-position advantage, and to this list I would add another possibility: holders of the audience's majority position are less likely than holders of the minority position to have been previously exposed to the other side's arguments. Minority position holders already know the counterarguments, whereas majority position holders are more likely to be hearing them for the first time. Concretely – we as atheists are much more likely to have already heard Bible verse X:Y cited in argument than a Christian will have heard any Dawkins or Hume. Which is why debates are good, and public discourse is better. So get out there and expose people!

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