Science Talk

Arguing with Non-Skeptics, Part 1 of 2

A panel discussion on arguing with non-skeptics at the recent Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism in New York City featured James Randi, George Hrab, D. J. Grothe and podcast host Steve Mirsky. Julia Galef moderated. Part 1 of 2. Web sites related to content of this podcast include and

A panel discussion on arguing with non-skeptics at the recent Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism in New York City featured James Randi, George Hrab, D. J. Grothe and podcast host Steve Mirsky (pictured). Julia Galef moderated. Part 1 of 2. Web sites related to content of this podcast include and

Podcast Transcription

Steve:          Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on July 27th, 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky. And I've been saving something for awhile. Back in April, the Northeast conference on Science and Skepticism took place here in New York City. It featured a panel discussion titled "Arguing with Non-Skeptics". The panelists were James Randi...

Randi:          That attracted all the cuckoos.

Mirsky:           ...George Hrab...

Hrab:          Not falling into the trap of thinking the person you're talking to is an idiot.

Mirsky:           ...D. J. Grothe...

Grothe:          No questions should off limits, no issues are taboo for the skeptic.

Mirsky:           ...and me. Julia Galef, cohost of Rationally Speaking, the podcast of the New York City Skeptics Group moderated it. Here's part 1.

Galef:          First up, we have Steve Mirsky, and--give it up, Steve Mirsky!!! Next up, George Hrab, come on up George Hrab. George is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, skeptic, podcaster, producer, composer and heliocentrist. He's been asked multiple times to be a featured performer at James Randi's The Amazing Meeting in Vegas. He also produces a weekly award-winning podcast called, The Geologic Podcast, which features humorous skeptics, music and skeptical free-thinking commentary. He wrote the theme song to the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast and his Occasional Songs with the Periodic Table, a 118-part song cycle featuring a song for each element, has been described as the first true geek symphony. George is considered one of the preeminent skeptic, science, atheist, geek culture music icons currently living in his apartment. Well [done] George! It was a tight race that one. And our remaining two panelists, are come on out, D. J. Grothe, D. J.!!! And James Randi (loud applause).  So as Jamie mentioned, the topic of the panel is "Arguing with Non-Skeptics", and I chose this topic because I suspect that many of us, most of us here today, have found ourselves mired in these debates in which logic and reason and truth are all on our side, and it's not doing us a bit of good. You guys know these debates, you know what they're like, you lay out your arguments, it's perfectly clear, you go from A to B to C, it's just so clear than the person you're talking to is just completely unmoved. So we're lucky enough to have on stage here some of the best and the brightest, not just in skeptical thinking, but in skeptical communication; in engaging with the public and convincing people of the skeptic viewpoint. So, I'd like to take advantage of these seasoned veterans and talk about what they learned over the years in arguing with non-skeptics: what tactics they use--what tactics the non-skeptics use--and how to cope with those tactics, traps you've fallen into the past, and how you actually change someone's mind. So to start off, I'd like to know are there any topics that you actually prefer not to debate, that you'd just as soon avoid, whether that's because they're debating them would be pointless or possibly even harmful.

Hrab:          Kirk versus Picard is a very, very touchy thing. I try to avoid. See already! Already, it's already starting. [No, sorry!]. I don't think there should be any subjects that, I know, religion tends to be kind of the elephant in the room very often, and when you start debating those kinds of things, but I'm always up for a conversation; which I think is the most important thing to remember, when you're having a discussion--with gigantic ironic quotes around it, a "conversation with someone"--is to make it a conversation, not falling into the trap of thinking the person you're talking to is an idiot, because they might believe something idiotic. The most idiotic topic in our mind, and in your mind, and in one's mind can be discussed on [some level] I'd think, and I can't think of some[thing] [I] wouldn't want to talk about.

Randi:          I agree. I think no question shouldn't be asked, in that no issues are taboo for the skeptic. But a further point, I'm not sure, and maybe you'll and maybe I'm anticipating some further conversation in our panel, but I'm not sure the goal should always be to argue with our cultural competitors; instead may be our target market is the people they're talking to, the people they're trying to persuade. We can talk to those people and try to persuade them as well. And so even at a skeptics meeting, at lunch we were discussing that at one skeptics group, there are a few taboo topics, global warming, politics and religion. Now those are three of my favorite things to talk about, right? That said, I think, from an organizational standpoint, it makes sense to say, look here's our focus, lets talk about these topics, that's why we're coming together. But if you're talking about challenging the credulous, nothing should be taboo, nothing.

Randi:          I agree with that and I think that's exactly what I would have said, had I thought of it and gotten to speak before you did James.

Grothe:          Yeah. And you'll notice I looked to you in deference and ...

Randi:          I noticed but your idea of deference, I don't know, I have to argue with that. No, I don't think there should be anything off limits for a discussion of this nature. I think we would stifle ourselves. There would be some topics that won't be as amenable to discussion in that respect, but I don't think there is any subject that should be off limits.

Mirsky:           I disagree just a little bit in that, I think it depends on how you feel on a particular day. I mean, if I go to a picnic and I meet new people and turns out that they don't accept the fact of evolution, I got to ask myself, do I really feel like getting into this? You know, it might not be worth it on that particular day. But if you're in a feisty mood, sure, go for it, have fun.

Galef:          So that actually does anticipate my follow-up question, which is: what about contexts? Are there any contexts or maybe debate formats that you just think are better avoided? I've heard some people say that TV is just, that's not our comparative advantage in talking about these things, but then of course it does reach a wide audience. So what do you think?

Mirsky:           I would never debate a creationist; I just wouldn't get on the stage with a creationist. I think that the visual of the science person and the creationist on the stage together means you've already lost. I understand that Michael Shermer does it a lot, and he must enjoy it at some level. But when I give advice to academics who might be faced with a possibility of doing a debate, I just tell them not to do it. The person you're debating is an expert debater, an expert at rhetoric, they're not an expert in the science because there is no science and you'll lose that debate because you only have an hour or two hours. So just don't do it.

Randi:          And you validate the creationist by arguing with the creationist, I think. I think that gives them, him or her, a prestige that they wouldn't normally have.

Hrab:          But does it build in an excuse then, is it worth them having the ability to say, "Well they won't even talk to us?" Is that worth the weight of being, sort of, losing?

Randi:          That's the rub on that thing [in the] first place.

Grothe:          I think it may make sense for distinguished scientists, not to debate these cultural questions or these questions with our cultural competitors. But their charge, of course, is that the scientists are unelected elite who close off these important issues from debate. So I'd probably disagree with some of the other panelists. If you're talking about the context of a formal debate in front of an audience, I would love someone steeped in evolution to be able to have a conversation. Now if it's going to be a debate as opposed to a discussion, where people are earnestly inquiring after the truth, then maybe you shy away from that because the deck is stacked against you. But I've been involved with a number of debates on many of these important questions, where the opposition, they're not just looking for the -gotcha moment, they actually want to engage. You know, they're not at all going to pull dirty tricks. So I think it gets to the question of context--formal debates, I like them. I, even in the biology classroom, I want little Johnny to come with his best creationist arguments. And when that unit of the curriculum is up, you know, when that's happening I want Johnny to say, "Here's what I believe" and I want the teacher to say, "Here's what we think the best evidence in science says" and let that kid go home and say, "Mom and Dad, I really stuck it to him" because that kind of conversation I think is important. Otherwise, they have every right to say, "We're being stifled. We're not even allowed to talk about what we know is the truth." I think that, maybe I'm overly optimistic, but I think the best idea is rise to [the] top and I have maybe some faith in public debate.

Hrab:          There is a construct of a public debate that can be difficult to deal with, where someone knows how to debate, and it doesn't matter what the issue is, they can sort of push their point. I think most people don't get in put into that kind of a context. Most of you sitting out there, when you deal with a question of debating with a creationist, it's maybe at a holiday, a family gathering, or maybe on a street corner or whatever it would be; where it's not in the guise of ["You have] 10 minutes and then you have 2 minutes to respond and then". It's very rarely set up that way, and I think those are very important to be able to open up and talk, have very different ideas. So maybe you, the cards do tend to be stacked, the deck tends to be stacked against you in a debate setting, but I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from thinking, well, you know, "You're [a] creationist, I'm not going to talk to you."

Mirsky:           Because the real debate has been going for 150 years. It's in all the scientific journals. But you can't gather that information in this kind of a context, so that's why I'm just very leery of this.

Hrab:          Kind of that stuff.

Galef:          So clearly, they do have plenty of dirty tricks that they can pull out, but what if a scientist were actually trained in debate? Are these dirty tricks just completely unwinnable against, or is there some way to actual counter them and thereby take advantage of this platform to get the truth out?

Randi:          It also depends very much on the quality of the audience and the background the audience. You can walk out in front of an audience who will agree with everything you say and disagree with everything that the other person says. So you have to find out, how do I select it? For example, years ago, I did a program for Granada TV, James Randi: Psychic Investigator; that didn't mean that I was psychic, it meant that I was an investigator of psychics, but they chose to phrase it that way. And I wondered why the audience, the studio audience hardly this size, probably about 45 to 50 people in the audience, studio audience again, and it was being taped with what they call live taping, no editing being done. And I wondered why they were so antagonistic to me. They were, you could tell from the body language, is mostly this kind of a thing and you knew that they were not going to accept very happily what you said. But then I found out how they had chosen the audience. There is a magazine similar to one published in this country called Time Out and they ran an ad in there saying, "Are you interested in truth psychic phenomena? Then apply to be a member of the audience [when] Granada TV tapes James Randi: Psychic Investigator." That attracted all the cuckoos. They all showed up. They were outside the studio in [droves], most of them with the passes, the tickets that they had, most of them without them, [a] lot of them without them pardon me. But they just jammed that studio and stood around the sides of the studio and they hated my guts, they hated everything I said. So, it was [stacked against me] in the first place. So I warn you about that.

Grothe:          Julia, what you're focusing really on is the science communication question versus just the science education question. You could be schooled in evolutionary theory and be able to communicate that very well in a classroom of students who are ready to learn it. But there is a different skill set that's required to engage people who don't already buy it or who don't want to learn it. And so not every scientist is cut out for debate. But I think there are some scientists or science communicators that we should never say, well in principle, "It's just bad to debate it." Instead, let the good debaters debate it, let the bad debaters research it, and I think that's a good solution.

Hrab:          It's also being able to realize that like, you said all the time, no amount of evidence will convince a true believer. So you're not going for the people that believe. You're going for the ones that might have sliver of doubt. You're going for the ones that aren't necessarily sure. That's always my target audience. If I'm speaking to someone, I'm never going to convince someone that is, you know, fully believing in whatever their believing, in whatever their [woo] is. But maybe someone is going to hear this conversation that I'm having with this person and they'll think, "Yeah wait a minute. What is that? How does that work? Why is that that way? That always seemed weird to me." And then in the same way that they preach their wedge teaching, we have our wedge of doubt. And the wedge of doubt is so important and that's where, I think, almost everyone's experience in this room probably for those that might have been believers at one point, it all started with that splinter of doubt, where you might have read something, heard something, seen something, heard a conversation, whatever it was. I think that's what our job often as debaters is, just find [that] 2 percent, 5 percent, 10 percent of the audience. That's kinda mmhmmm...has the puppy face, you know, that's what, that's ooh, that person, that's who I'm talking to right now.

Randi:          And I ask you to beware, if you have to answer a question, if the response starts out as that's a very good question, that means you're dead, because they've already got a prepared answer that goes on for at least eight paragraphs and more, and it's all rehearsed and they know it word for word with the punctuation and such; you know, you're dead at that point.

Hrab:          That's a very good point!!!

Mirsky:           I have three questions that have occurred to me over the years. [And] most of the debates that I run into are at informal gatherings and the first one is: "Do you get most of your information from Fox News?" Because we want to know, you know, what the grounding in reality is. The second question is: "Why do you think that? Where are you hearing this? What has made you think what you do?" And the third question is: "Is there anything that I can say that would change your mind? Can you think of anything that if I said it, it would make an impact on you?" And if there's nothing then you might as well just go back to the bar and get another drink.

Randi:          [Yes,] I heard this from Martin Gardner many years ago, one time when he came up with the really bright idea, what you just said Steve. If the fellow looks at you and if you ask him whoever it is you're debating, "What would change your mind on that angle?" If they can't answer that, I mean that's a very telling question right there, and Martin Gardner came with that idea and I thank him for that. I've used that many, many times since. And if they can't answer that question or if they say, "Oh nothing would change my mind, then you won a great point."

Mirsky:           I mean, the most famous example is probably Haldane, a great evolutionary biologist, was asked, What would convince you that evolution isn't true or didn't happen and he said, "A rabbit in the Precambrian; if you find rabbit fossils that are 700 million years old, I have to go get a new job. But other than that you know, I'm sticking with what I have here."

Randi:          [Or] admit that rabbits are older than you thought.

Mirsky:           That's another possibility.

Hrab:          And to have those answers ready too because that might get turned around on you also: "But what would it take for you not to believe it?" You know and be able to say that kind of an example or whatever the issue is. And that's the first thing you should be saying to yourself anyway as a skeptic. When you come to believe something or when you come to accept something as being as truthful as it can possibly be under all this, I know we have these caveats that "what is truth?"; but, that's the first thing you should be saying: "Okay, what would it take for me to think something different?" Because we all have our biases in some way or another, you know.

Grothe:          Just one quick comment on the context question and should we debate. It depends on what you're trying to get out of it. Steve's initial point is look if you're in a formal debate, front of an audience; what's the phrase I learned: "Thanks spades. Don't send a boy to do a man's job." Right? You send a good debater. Right, but sometimes you're not debating even to win. Because frankly some of us like to debate just because it's fun. You know skeptics just want to engage. Like skeptics, you know, [Skeptics] in the Pub in Saint Louis, we've started a new group last summer; over 100 people, some [months] show up at the pub, conveniently across the street from the high-rise where we live and the bartender, she is kind of new age. Well [ain't] nobody in the Skeptics in the Pub thinking they're going to persuade her or convert her or get her to join our club; they're just rabbid about the fun prospect of engaging and debating, so it really depends on what you're trying to get out of it. Formal debates I understand this pushback this criticism, but sometimes you just wanna debate because it's a hell [of a lot of] fun.

Randi:          On our Caribbean cruise that we just completed recently, remember the lady with the pink hair?

Grothe:          Yes.

Randi:          What's her name again...

Grothe:          Maria.

Randi:          Maria, of course, of course.

Grothe:          Yeah, beautiful story.

Randi:          Thank you, thank you very much. No that was an excellent case something that really turned me around of my tracks. She turned out to be a Reiki practitioner.

Grothe:          On the JREF Cruise.

Randi:          On the JREF cruise, yes of all things, and she was also into homeopathy. And we had a lot of conversations back and forth and she looked a little distressed, and she didn't show up for one day entirely. And then she showed up looking up a little baggy-eyed and said she had a very bad night and such. And she sat me down and she told me, "So you've turned me around completely." She said, "I am going to throw away all that literature that I've been handing out to my patients and I am going to try to get more realistic about [it]." That's a victory. This is a hallelujah moment folks. I mean, well not really hallelujah but close enough, close enough for all purposes.

Grothe:          It should be said Maria Myrback runs a blog--you should google it: fledgeling skeptic--so this story of her being a believer and turning into a skeptic is recounted on her blog I think we would all dig reading.

Randi:          And we did it, we did it, on that cruise, can you believe that, out in the middle of the ocean. And that's a victory.

Hrab:          It's also fun to, kind of, watch people, sort of, work themselves into [a pretzel] describing what they believe; when you get a homeopathist or someone who buys cold a remedy that's what's called homeopathy, and you say, "How does that work?" And then just watch as the noodles kind of coalesce. And then they get worked into this thing. And I have said [this] on my [podcast] recently, that one of the best things you can say is, "Really, explain that." And [then they'll go, "Well [because] it's, you know, it's the energy and..."

"Really. And what happens with the energy?"

"Well, it's coming from, you know, a place."


And then let them get sort of stuck. You're not even debating at that point it's just they realize, wait a minute yeah, you know.

Randi:          George, you should get into show business. You [do] this very well.

Hrab:          Really....

Galef:          George I think the sarcasm is dripping down off the table and pooling into the audience. But that actually reminds me of another question I had which was, do you think that this, I am really interested in techniques for sort of getting people to lower their automatic defenses that they have against our arguments. And so I would think that asking questions instead of making arguments might be a good way to do that, to sort of lea[d] people to a conclusion without them feeling like you inserted it into their or [are ]trying to insert into their brain. Do you use that technique, a lot , the rest of you?

[Hrab]:          Being friendly is so effective and it [might seem counterintuitive] and there are times you just want to throttle this person, because [they're not] thinking clearly, but being friendly. And it also is nice because that counteracts their expectations of what you are as someone, who is; as an atheist, personally, you know, it's just for me personally when I say I am an atheist. I mean, the best response I got--once I was in a gym working out and [got into] this conversation with someone and said I was going to this [Christmas vespers], and he said, "Oh! Christmas vespers are] beautiful. And I said "Yeah, I enjoy going even [though] I'm an atheist. [And] he looked at me and he said, "You're an atheist? But you work out all the time." And so, yeah, and he said, "What do you do when you're sad?" and I asked, "What do you do when you're sad?" But that was the idea of like, an atheist is a person has to just be this sad person who doesn't use a treadmill.

Randi:          How often do atheists get this expression: "You must have a very sad life." [You get] this all the time. They can't believe that anyone can be happy [and be an atheist]. And [I'm not] saying that you should all be atheists; remember, we're a non-atheist organization. Right? Right D. J. Okay? But...

Grothe:          I am nodding just as we rehearsed beforehand.

Randi:          Exactly, I appreciate your responses, yes. But, no, it's true, they really can't believe that you can be happy being a skeptic and/or an atheist. They can't believe it. Why would you go through your life doubting everything? No I am not a cynic, I am a skeptic. Let's get the terminology right here.

Hrab:          So be nice; be nice and represent.

Randi:          Yeah, because you know the old saying: "You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar." Although I have let out an awful lot of vinegar I admit.

Mirsky:           And you're going to have to have  Thanksgiving dinner with a lot of these people, too.

Randi:          That's a great point.

Hrab:          Well there's the [Phil Plait] talks about the Dalton thing, you know, it's: be nice until it's time to not be nice. And there's a point where you sort to have to sort of say, "Okay, you know, you're not being fair and you can get a little bit more aggressive perhaps." But initially I think just [being] nice.

Randi:          Well a boyhood chum of mine many years ago in Toronto, Canada, was named Walter Spain and his parents were interesting folks. And one of them was a retired engineer, the male was a retired engineer who was very grumpy about life because he had been fired and he was in private business now. And his wife wore hearing aids in each ear, and that's in the days when it looked like the size of a cucumber stuck into your ear with wires coming out of it. And she had the perfect solution to the whole thing. He'd make an argument [with her and] screech [and carry on] and she'd say, "So you say." Out they would come. And he knew that he could [scream] all he wanted and she wasn't hearing a word he was saying. So we don't all have that recourse unfortunately, but Mrs. Spain had it down.

Grothe:          Randi's comment is actually also a metaphor for the problem of a lot of us engage [in] when we're trying to get through to someone else. Sometimes they just tune us out, they take out their hearing aids, metaphoric hearing aids. And so the question of context is so important. Are we trying to debate someone to change their mind? Are we trying to debate someone to change their minds or instead to have some fun, right? Martin Gardner--someone couple of weeks ago shared with me this anecdote--Martin Gardner had a long correspondence with Mario [Trutzi], one of the original figures in the skeptics movement. And [Trutzi] often argued, "Well the skeptics are too negative, you know; they're not open minded enough about the believer's claims and we should really bend over backwards and explore all these possibilities." I think the best skeptics do, but that was his argument, and he just couldn't believe that sometimes skeptics would dare to make fun of a believer in whatever belief. And Martin Gardner said, "Well wait a minute, if you're"--in the letters--"if you're not trying to change their mind, but you want to change other people's minds who're listening, the best weapon in that regard is ridicule and poking fun and joshing and that sort of stuff"--which I think gives us a bad wrap, but it's the context question. Are you trying to change this person's mind? [Are] you trying to change the listener's mind? Or [are] you just trying to have some fun because you're at a pub gathering and you've had three and you have, you know, [an inclination to] butt -heads?

Randi:          There's another point here that should be made I think D. J. You say, "to change people's minds. I don't set out to change people's minds. I'm not that ambitious. I only want to get them to think about what I'm telling them or what I'm suggesting to them or outlining to them. If I can get them thinking, if it goes the right way, if they're thinking people at all, I think that they will--and I have had them--come to me years afterwards and say, "You know, you made a big change in my life. You got me thinking about this." And you know I've turned around. Wow! These are victories that you cherish, believe me and if you hear only from a few of them, seven or eight in a year--and that's about the average that I get like that--then you know that you're reaching a lot more people who don't send you an e-mail or a written letter. In many cases, they're hand-written letters and personally signed and people who think it's that important that they have to tell you, you made a change in their lives. But just get them thinking about what you said and ask them to consider it carefully.

Hrab:          The ridicule point is an interesting one. If you're speaking with someone who is a believer, there might be a common reference point of ridicule, which is a nice avenue to open up a conversation. You know, you could look at some, I always love [when], you know, a believer will talk about [Anubis]. ["Oh you know, they pray to] a dog, that's so silly." But you can, sort of, there might be an in, you know, to have a common source of ridicule and you could say, "Why, you know, that's not that different from what you think. There are some aspects of what you believe that are sort of similar. What do you think about it? How is it different? Explain to me how it's different."

Randi:          There are some things in ridicule you've got to be very careful of. Now, I lectured in college and universities all over the world, [as] I'm sure you know. And I very frequently meet with the academics afterwards, [and] they will drop a comment like, "You know, these people who believe in all these supernatural and all [these] occult things, they must be really stupid." Now that gives me an open door to walk in and really flail them with it. I say, "You have a library here?" or "Let's go out to the local book store," and I do one of my book tests, the usual, [it's a mentalism] stunt that usually blows them away. And they're just like fish out of water and I say, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. You said people who believed in these things were stupid. Are you stupid? I just fooled you." And they look around and they say, "Oh! I see your point." And I hope they do see my point. People who believe in the supernatural and [the] paranormal are not necessarily stupid at all. They're just misinformed. And if you can get them thinking again and give them a different point of view that they may wish to consider, you can win them that way. And when you win them, you win them solid, believe me.

Mirsky:           Well, I think there are certain cases where ridicule is the exact proper response.

Randi:          Example, example.

Mirsky:           Example! I have a column in the June Scientific American: Poll from Harris: 24 percent of Republicans think Obama might be the Antichrist.

Grothe:          Right, right.

Mirsky:           One of the things they say in the column--it's sort of a series of follow-up questions to that 24 percent--and one of the first questions is, "Do you consider the fact that you think Obama only might be the Antichrist to be evidence of your scientific outlook?"

Randi:          Example of ridicule, exactly. I agree. Thank you, Steve.

Hrab:          And [yet] of that 24 percent how many of them hold down jobs and raise families and don't drive their cars off of cliffs?

Randi:          And vote.

Hrab:          And vote, yeah--but I mean...

Mirsky:           Interestingly only 22 percent of the total--and that means fewer than the ones who think that he might be the Antichrist--think that he wants the terrorists to win. So there's a small percentage who think that he might be the antichrist but still wants the terrorists to lose.

(Crowd laughing)

Mirsky:           Because the Antichrist is tricky like that.

Randi:          Of course, of course, I should have seen that.

Hrab:          [Ah, that's] just like the Antichrist.

Mirsky:           It's just like [that]

Galef:          Good [detective] work, Steve.


Steve:          Well that's it for part 1 of the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism panel on "arguing with Non-skeptics." I will be right back after this word from the Nature podcast.

Kerri Smith: This week: how climate change is making marmots fatter and fitter; what a world without mosquitoes might be like; and the link between obesity and diabetes; plus, the regular news update.

Steve:          The Nature podcast is on iTtunes and at Tune back in for part 2 of the Arguing with Non-Skeptics" panel. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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