I was shocked today that a fellow creationism fighter did not know what the Gish Gallop was. Well, he knew what it was, just not that it was called the Gish Gallop. Imagine my surprise when Uncommon Descent has decided that the “Gish Gallop” is no longer Kosher and will ban those who use the phrase. Of course, they actually use the Gish Gallop in defending their decision to ban the use of the Gish Gallop.
Now, if you aren’t a hard-core creationist fighter (and I mean creationism, not Intelligent Design), you might not have heard of Duane Gish. He’s old school. He was into creationism before all these new fangled inventions, like math, came out. He does have a graduate degree in Biochemistry (what is it with creationists and biochem?) from UC Berkley, so he’s not dumb. In fact, he’s rather quite intelligent. He’ something like 90 now so he’s not on the circuit much. In fact, he pretty much dropped off the radar about the time that Behe published Darwin’s Black Box.
What he really was, was a master debater (insert 7th grade joke here). He excelled in debates. But once his style got around, people learned how to beat him.His debate style is now what we call the Gish Gallop.
The principle is really simple. A debate is timed. So the tactic is to throw so much shit (pardon the language, but that’s really the only correct terminology) at the opponent that they just don’t have time to respond all of it, then declare victory when the opponent doesn’t answer everything in minute detail.
For example, here’s a sentence that has come up in a recent on-line discussion I (and some others) have been having with an ardent ID proponent. This is from the pro-ID guy.
Evolution is a fact of science. Populations mutate every second and at least some of those mutations will become fixed in the gene pools of those populations.
That is the classic definition of evolution. You can define evolution anyway use choose, I suppose…but the above is how a biologist that writes a 101 textbook would define it. I wholeheartedly agree with those textbooks.
This is a good way of saying this… in a debate. The tactic is to say something that is true. Then say something manifestly false, but say it with confidence. Then reinforce the wrong statement. Then tell the opponent that they can say it however they like. Then reinforce that false statement again.
Now, read that entire quote out loud. It takes less than a minute. In a 45 minute debate opening, one can easily present 45-60 fundamentally wrong things.
Now think about what it would take to explain why this single statement is wrong. One would have to actually define evolution, preferably with references to actual textbooks. Then have to explain about population biology and why populations don’t actually mutate, but that they do accumulate mutations and how the allele frequency changes and can, through various means, become fixed in a population.
That’s literally an entire graduate level course. Not really something that can be explain in 15 minutes. But the opponent has another 44-59 of these ‘issues’ hanging out now. It can’t be done. One cannot deal with all this wrong shit in the time span of a simple debate.
So, at the end, the debater using the Gish Gallop simply points out all the things that the opponent didn’t deal with and declares victory.
This doesn’t work so well in text-based debates (unless there’s a word limit). Because each sentence can be extracted, quoted, and analyzed in depth by anyone. That’s the fun of a place like After the Bar Closes. There are experts from all kinds of sciences sticking their noses in, tearing up these arguments.
It also doesn’t work so well, when the opponent refuses to play that game. The link to the Gish-Saladin debate above is a great example of this. Saladin kept pushing his own agenda and Gish couldn’t respond. He was something of a one trick pony.
You’ll see this tactic used in politics, anti-science debates, even advertising. I’ll just add one more thing, when you see this tactic being used. Take some time and research two or three things that the presenter says. If they don’t pan out, if there are mistakes (usually big gargantuan mistakes that 5 minutes on Wikipedia will sort out), then it’s very likely the rest of what the presenter says is the same. You can then add that presenter to your “Has some issues, probably not trustworthy” list and mostly ignore them from them on… except, of course, to have some fun debunking them or explain to other listeners that he’s full of horse-hooey (with references).
Regardless, the science is not settled by debates, so it’s a moot point. But a lot of people think that it is somehow. Or that getting their message out, no matter how fundamentally wrong it is, is worth it.