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  • Writer's pictureJon Peters

Honest Effective Debating: beware of these errors.

Updated: Oct 26

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself —

and you are the easiest person to fool.” ~ Richard Feynman. "For the goal is not to win the debate,

but for you both to better approximate the truth."

~ Sabio Lantz


If only we all heeded those quotes above. Ideologies, closely held beliefs, arrogance, and ignorance often obstruct productive and respectful interactions on controversial subjects. It has been said that we are all born atheists and then culture and religious indoctrinations at an early age move us into certain beliefs and religions.

"Isn't it a remarkable coincidence that almost everyone has the same religion as their parents? And it always just happens to be the right religion. Religions tend to run in families. If we'd been brought up in ancient Greece we would all be worshiping Zeus and Apollo. If we had been born Vikings we would be worshiping Wotan and Thor."

~ Richard Dawkins

Yet I have noticed, living in a very secular part of a religious America, that people who abandon religion don't often gravitate to atheism (note proper definition here), but rather regularly move into other supernatural beliefs or pseudoscience such as homeopathy, astrology, New Age beliefs, etc. This can occur because we have been wired by evolution for agency detection which is vital in a social primate species and tribes - can I count on her? Will he kill me in my sleep? - and pattern detection, which is also often wrong but better to run and mistake those grasses rustling for the wind rather be lunch for a lion. Evolutionary psychology and ethology can give us insights into why people repeatedly loose money in the stock market and by gambling, or why we have trouble in developed countries losing weight and falling for diet schemes and why they always use testimonials and not outcome data. Certainly the incredible increase in the "nones" around the world still leaves most in the "spiritual but not religious" category rather than atheism.

Perhaps it is better to say instead of being born atheists, we are born attorneys. We develop worldviews and then spend the rest of our lives defending them at any cost instead of continually being skeptical of our beliefs and our life views where applicable. Instead of what evidence do I have for my views, ask what would disprove or undermine my beliefs? This is actually the direction science moves and we all know how successful that has been compared to other areas of searching for truths. In contrast there are thousands of mutually exclusive religions and spiritual beliefs because people tend to only digest things that support their views. It's more comforting and reinforcing. This particular way of approaching truths that can lead one astray has a name - confirmation bias and is a type of cognitive bias.

Often certain beliefs become so important and so foundational to us that we tend to elevate them to sacred values and these in turn become merged with our identities. That often manifests in defensive mechanisms if they are challenged because it feels to like an attack, even potentially lethal emotionally. In addition, often in debates terms and concepts are thrown around assuming we have the same definitions and we know what a person thinks without asking them. No, a scientific theory is not a guess, a scientific consensus is not based on what most scientists think, and yes evolution the way it is defined in science is a fact. If one is a creationist for example, turns out there are several types and it's important when discussing species origins that the discussion addresses the specific type of origin narrative belief. A young earth creationist may assert that the universe and all life are less than 10,000 years old whereas an old earth creationist does not need to discuss age. And a creationist who looks at Genesis as mostly all figurative narratives and metaphors may accept evolution. Assuming without asking will waste a lot of time and digital ink. No, the Noachian Flood did not supposedly occur over 40 days according to Genesis.

Some points to consider

1. Be sure to ask what a person means and what they actually believe.

2. Unfortunately, it will be necessary to often spend some time defining terms so you both are on the same page. Repeat back to them what you heard them say or write so to avoid straw man fallacies (a logical fallacy).

3. Stick to the topics and avoid personal attacks (a logical fallacy; ad hominem)

4. Be especially sensitive as soon as you pick up sacred values and their feeling that they must defend their position at any cost due to merging erroneous beliefs into their identity. You may not know why they hold what you consider irrational beliefs. A death of a child? Mistaking near death experiences for the supernatural? Their beliefs and ideologies give them meaning and purpose? Note that these issues are on both sides of whatever spectrum one is on and we all may be subject to them.

5. Realize that you are also prone to logical fallacies and cognitive biases. Familiarize yourself with many of them and monitor if you are using them. If the other person(s) are unfortunately falling into them find a compassionate way to point them out. Don't hold it over them that you are some sort of brainiac because you know about them. Yes, you know who you are. And in my case, I don't know many of them.

6. Thou shall not cherry pick only observations and facts that you like.

I admit that I often fail to adhere to my own advice. Those of you that have read some of my writings know I'm hard on philosophy (philosophy is as useful to a scientist as ornithology is for birds? - great oversimplification) and theology because they both have had thousands of years to find solutions to many ultimate questions of life and have either failed or just made up narratives that are not true. What makes us human? How, when, from where and from what did species including us get here? When we have those answers - and we have many of them -they often inform the "whys" of our lives - even if we don't like the answers. What about morality, purpose, meaning? Science did not start out looking for many of those answers but it did stumble onto answers to many ultimate questions that technically was not originally in its purview in my opinion. See for example what I think is the most important discovery by humankind and why. And I am especially hard, or try to be, on people in positions of influence who are affecting the younger generations and in powerful offices like school boards and political offices where laws can be passed. See my blog on homosexuality for example

We will be forever thankful to philosophy for several reasons. Philosophy established Natural Philosophy and from that birthed nearly all the sciences. In addition philosophy is excellent at dissecting how we go about learning truths, establishing best rules for dialog, and many other constructive principles for difficult conversations.

Errors of thinking and debating have been fleshed out by philosophy especially and common ones are shown below. We need to know many of them if we frequently engage in difficult conversations and want to respect time, brevity, and clarity.

Logical Fallacies

Cognitive Biases


My comments are certainly not meant to be definitive nor exhaustive. There are debate clubs in schools, and those who make a living debating many topics involved with religious beliefs and science for example could write a much more comprehensive review of the topics here. I'm sure most of us can name many professional debaters, and apologists have created an entire industry (and even PhDs in apologetics) around publishing defenses of their religions. But we can all start by at least recognizing logical fallacies and cognitive biases in ourselves and others when discussing sensitive and volatile topics with those we disagree with. I don't know many of these and often fail my own advice. Perhaps these graphics and how they are presented may be a good reference for us all.


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