Science is all about debate.
Science welcomes debate! Without debating, there is no science. Science is debate.
On the other hand, you can’t take a phrase like “climate change debate” literally. Nobody actually means that.
When graciously declining an invitation to debate, a gentleman scientist always explains:
(They’d win, you could get seriously hurt—pigs are quite strong!—and you’d only end up humiliated, bemerded and bawling a stream of excuses for losing to an opponent who, 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 less legitimate, mainstream, reputable and/or serious scholars).
And this is exactly what the science ignorati are so good at: drawing attention to science a scientist would give little weight to (or even 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; sensationalise; 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 a speaker 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 what the opinion of experts likely believe!
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 talk to any audience, in any venue, as long as I don’t have to share the credibility of a stage with a contrarian.
It’s only logical that so few scientists are willing to debate. They’re so busy doing science, most of them probably haven’t debated 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 that creates 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 probably find yourself in a debate. 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 this, there’s always one in every debate: the person who’s still madly scribbling rebuttals while the other side speaks!
This just makes you seem rude—reducing you to the level of the skeptics, in other words. But 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.