Thursday, September 13, 2012

Do Debates Change Minds?

Not really - at least not quickly. I know we atheists like our debates, but the question is how effective are they at getting people to apply critical thinking more often and effectively? I've come to think of reasoned arguments like a new medicine - yes, you've seen all the test results and the science behind it makes perfect sense and it should cure everyone dammit, but some people stop responding after a while, and some people never respond - so for them you have to try something else. In other words, always emphasize the effect you're trying to exert, rather than muddling on with the same method.

Examples? How about this for presidential debate data: "That presidential debates can be "game changers" is a belief almost universally held by political pundits and strategists. Political scientists, however, aren’t so sure. Indeed, scholars who have looked most carefully at the data have found that, when it comes to shifting enough votes to decide the outcome of the election, presidential debates have rarely, if ever, mattered." (More here.) When Hitchens - Hitchens - debated D'Souza at Colorado U., they did before and after questionnaires to the audience and found the opinion meter swung a measly 2% in Hitch's favor. (Why don't we always track this?). More locally for San Diego, this was brought home just last night at the Craft Beer Debates over whether there should be taxpayer funding of a new Chargers stadium.   At the end when the CEO of San Diego's own Stone Brewing (who was moderating) took a quick poll to find out if anyone (paraphrasing) hadn't necessarily changed their minds but had at least received new information that got them to reconsider the other side's argument, the answer was 5%.  5%, on a much less core-identity-threatening issue than religion.

So is reaching people through reason a lost cause? Far from it - people continue to switch from religion to atheism in unprecedented numbers. But as far as I've seen, it's just about never the result of a debate, at least not directly, and when we do debate we only rarely track the effect.


*The inaugural Craft Beer Debate was excellent. Public discourse and microbrews, what could be better?  Interested in coming to more and maybe coordinating with SDNA for future ones? Email me or comment below.

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