Cotton candy. Perhaps the eighth wonder of the world. It’s neither food nor drink. It’s voluminous yet dissolves on contact. It offers a jolt of energy but nothing to really chew on. Though I’m more of a purist when it comes to sweets, enough people fancy the wispy concoction to make a market for it.
Perhaps the same could be said for snarky quips in debates. A well-timed gibe against an opponent might give a rush of pride for the home team, but the questioning observer is left with nothing to chew on.
Several months ago, a couple of high school students (Ashton M. and Logan T.) left the University of Texas at Austin Skeptics Forum wondering if they weren’t the only ones hungry for more substance than sarcasm.
Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society, was among the forum participants. While Ashton and Logan noticed Shermer is an excellent showman and clever rhetorician, they were “surprised to find simple fallacies dispersed throughout his presentation.”
I’ve heard Shermer debate before (at Chaffey College, April 1, 2008, on the topic of Science and Religion: Competitors or Companions?) and noticed he used the same approach, relying especially on diversionary humor or ridicule (injecting humor or ridicule as a means of ignoring or discrediting an opponent’s argument). When the jest fest was over, I couldn’t help but wonder if the skeptics in the audience felt a little ripped off, like they were handed a sticky wad of cotton candy that did nothing to satisfy their appetite for meaty evidence.
This trend of abandoning truth in favor of sarcasm and disrespect continues to litter legitimate forums, revealing a culture of laziness and cheap laughs, and an unwillingness to seek truth (only the desire to question and mock it).
In the film Religulous, Bill Maher uses tactics similar to Shermer’s but with even less credibility. At the film’s end, the only conclusion Maher comes up with when asked if there’s a God is “I don’t know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not.” ‘Nuff said.
It’s regrettable that Shermer, touted as “head of one of America’s leading skeptic organizations,” offers much of the same fare as that served by a comedian with an HBO talk show.
Well, that’s entertainment. For those who want a taste of a genuine panel discussion, check out the UCSB Skeptics Forum Debate, featuring Hugh Ross and Fuz Rana with Harry Nelson and Kevin Plaxco. While the latter make it clear that they disagree with RTB’s creation model, they do so with respect and kindness.
"I’m not a man of faith, of religious faith, of Judeo-Christian faith, myself, but I certainly don’t discredit other people’s faith and I don’t criticize my co-panelists for their faith. I might take exception to their hypotheses regarding specific scientific observations….There are some of them [observations] that I suspect we would shake hands and agree that we simply have to disagree because there’s no data either way…some of them I disagree with, I think there’s firm evidence that they’re wrong, and others I think that they raise interesting and important points." -Kevin Plaxco (timestamp 1:33:11)
Now that’s something to chew on.
For more on the study of logic and principles of argumentation, check out these resources by Kenneth Samples: “Faith, Reason, and Personal Persuasion,” “Attack the Argument, Not the Person,” "Logic Lessons: Keeping Your Thinking on Track,” “Integrating Argument and Virtue,” and Chapters 3 and 4 in A World of Difference.