Science is all about debate.
Science welcomes debate! Without debating, there is no science. Science is debate.
On the other hand, nobody actually means this.
When graciously declining an invitation to debate, a gentleman scientist always explains:
(They’d win, you could get seriously hurt—pigs are pretty strong!—and you’d just end up humiliated, bemerded and bawling a stream of excuses for losing to an opponent that, let’s be frank, is somewhat dirty and subhuman.)
The trouble with debates is that a skilled speaker can make almost any scientific evidence seem worth considering.
It isn’t, of course—but the audience might not know that. You can’t expect non-experts to recognize industry-linked, ideologically-driven, think-tank-funded, notorious, crank, serially-crank and other low-credibility evidence—especially since researchers still aren’t required to disclose credibility statistics alongside their results. (The Respectable Science movement argues that such transparency needs to be mandatory if we want to keep scientific integrity out of the reach of illegitimate, non-mainstream, disreputable and/or unserious scholars).
And this is exactly what the science ignorati are so good at: drawing attention to science a scientist would ignore.
Rhetoric (the art of speaking persuasively) and scientific truth (which nobody really knows how to define) are not always easy companions.
The orator essentially has the audience at his or her mercy: he or she can cherry-pick; sensationalize; fail to mention contrary, pro-science studies; or cite papers from journals the majority of serious scientists would probably say are fast getting a reputation for not being very respectable on any legitimate level.
I’ve even seen speakers deliberately forget—for ideological motives—to put enough emphasis on the fact that for every paper that flies in the face of the broad science, scientists have a mountain of science broadly agreeing that our understanding of the majority of the evidence is more or less consistent what the opinion of experts likely says!
Literally. And the audience is none the wiser.
As I like to quip when warming up the room: rhetoric is a weapon of mass deception.
That’s why I’m perfectly happy to speak to any audience, in any venue, as long as they don’t grant the other side an opportunity to do so.
Anyway, it’s only logical that scientists are rarely willing to debate. They’re so busy doing science that most of them haven’t had a chance to debate since high school.
Remember, science isn’t about debating, it’s about the eternal human quest to prove what we believe.
Just by turning up the deniers win. They don’t even need to win (though they usually do); all they need to do is debate you, because by debating you, they create the illusion of debate.
Which is just what their side wants the general public to think: that there are somehow two sides to this. So the worst thing our side could do is to play into their dishonest strategy.
Despite these warnings, you’ll find yourself debating one day. What then?
2. Be prepared!
Don’t leave preparation to the last minute. I know, I know, it’s an apple-pie truism. But no matter how many times I say it, there’s always one in every debate: the person who’s still madly scribbling rebuttals while the other side speaks!
This just makes you look rude—reducing you to the level of the skeptics, in other words. Even worse, it gives the impression you’re thinking on your feet.
Always make sure you can answer all the points of your opponent’s case, confidently and succinctly, the night before.
But how? Well, refuting climate skepticism isn’t exactly rocket science. It’s climate science, which is far more difficult intellectually and requires fluency in a whole network of scientific domains.
Luckily it’s all available to you, in non-scientific language, at the popular anti-skeptical site SkepticalScience.
The slick, intuitive layout is designed to be instantly familiar to anyone who remembers Sunday School catechisms. For every skeptic meme, it provides a simplified, one-sentence response; and if that’s not convincing, you can even look up a valid response. (Simply click on the “Advanced” tab). This multi-comeback system is ideal when you don’t know what level of critical thinking to expect from your audience on the day.
So unless you’ve spent the last 10 years in a cave with patchy ADSL, there’s no excuse for leaving a single skeptic claim undebunked.
Finally, if you haven’t already done it, copy out the top five or so SourceWatch hits on your opponent—and that’s it. Your argument’s practically written for you.
Remember to find out how long your opponent is scheduled to speak so you can get there on time to give science’s response.
And if you do arrive early, don’t just sit there twirling your thumbs while your skeptic opponent speaks, for heaven’s sake. Take the chance to do one last mental rehearsal of those all-important rebuttals.
Because you can never be too prepared.