I have started writing a book. Sadly, I tend to do much better writing blog posts. Blog posts are generally thematic, but shorter and independent of each other. I’m not going to do as some “authors” have done and create a book that is just a collection of blog posts (that can be read for free).
The topic of the book was going to be how the various denialist groups use similar tactics. Creationists, anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, and anti-AGW and many other smaller niche groups use tactics that are surprisingly effective, while being completely wrong. Since a few very well known writers have also done this sort of book recently, I’ll just make some posts about them here.
This first post is about two very basic tactics in print and on-line debates: The Gish Gallop and Goal Post Shifting.
The first of these is what I consider the most fun and it’s really quite effective if you aren’t watching for it. The Gish Gallop is named after the late Duane Gish, a young Earth creationist and vice president of the Institute for Creation Research. Dr. Gish (biochemistry, UC Berkley – 1953) was, without a doubt, a fine speaker and debater. If reality was determined by debates, then I would be writing this book to laugh at the evolution supports, largely because of Dr. Gish.
The tactic, named as such by Dr. Eugenie Scott, is when the debater basically flings so much crap out that the opponent doesn’t have a hope of addressing all of them. In a 45-minute debate opening, Dr. Gish could make a hundred or more claims. He doesn’t discuss evidence or support any of the claims. There’s no evidence that the claims are correct. In almost every case, there’s no evidence at all.
But the point of the Gish Gallop isn’t to talk about evidence or even discuss a concept. It’s purely a debating tactic. It’s a way to score points in a system that awards such things. Actually, my understanding now is that the Gish Gallop isn’t as effective a debating technique, in formal debates with points awarded. But for the debates or even talks that Duane Gish was a part of, that didn’t matter. It sounded good, especially to people who were already predisposed toward Dr. Gish’s position.
The problem is that science is hard. It’s full of details that the vast majority of non-experts couldn’t care less about. When someone is trying to explain why a particular claim is wrong, there has to be a lot of detail. It becomes , not a simple few sentences in a debate, but a full on lesson in some fundamentals of science.
About a year ago, I read a website that talked about the “assumptions of radiometric dating”. The intention was that this would cast doubt on how scientists know the age of Earth or particular fossils, somehow making a 6,000 year old Earth more likely. I just described the entire argument in two sentences. There were no references, not even to creationist works. There was no logical discussion or even facts. It was nothing more than a bare claim.
Yet, to refute this bare claim, I wrote over 2,000 words and had two diagrams. Now, take a minute and say the preceding paragraph out loud. That’s how long it would take to say in a debate. Now, read, aloud, these two entire blog posts (carbon dating and isochrons), which is what it takes to refute the claims made in five or ten seconds.
It’s easy to see why this is such an effective debating tactic. In any debate with a time limit, it’s simply impossible to deal with a hundred claims thrown out. In a 15 minute rebuttal period, I’d be surprised if even two claims could be dealt with in a partially satisfactory manner.
The tactic is effective in written discussion as well, especially those with a word limit. A few sentences with claims are easy to type. It can take days of part time effort to, look up references, craft a response, and refute those claims. In an online forum, by the time such claims are refuted, the opponent has dropped thousands of new ones. The ability deal with this tactic rests almost solely on the amount of time and effort the respondent is willing to spend. I would venture to say that many books have been started in this manner.
It is claimed that the best response is to simply require that the person engaged in the Gish Gallop provide valid references for their claims. As Christopher Hitchens once said, “What can be asserted without proof, can be refuted without proof.”
Personally, I find this unsatisfactory though. I think that we should take the time to explain these things. The reason for this is that, if you have someone that’s even potentially listening to what you say, then you should take the time to refute their claims and show why, in detail, they are wrong. If there is a chance that we can teach someone valid science, then I think we should take it. To not do this is to longer be a teacher and I think that every scientist is a teacher.
One really nice feature of blogs and on-line forums, of course, is that these refutations really only have to be written once. From then on, people can just link to those refutations.
Of course, this process of having a detailed explanation leads us directly to the next denialists tactic.
Goal Post Shifting
Imagine a soccer game. This is a highly contested game, perhaps a playoff game between two really great teams. Tension in the stands is high. The red team has been the victim of what appear to be some bad referee calls. The blue team (and the crowd) is on the verge of tearing the whole stadium down.
In the final minute of the game, the red team kicks and scores, tying the game. Before anything else can happen, two of the referees walk over to the goal, pick it up, and move it over. When they set it down, the ball is not in the scoring zone. The referees declare that no points were scored and the game is over. The blue team wins.
I don’t think that there’s anyone who would think that is either fair or valid. Yet that is exactly what happens in what we call a goal-post shift. In this situation, the denialists make a claim, someone refutes the claim, but the denialists then says, “but that doesn’t address X” where X is something that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.
My favorite example of this comes from the Amazon.com discussions. In June of 2013, creationist Stephen Meyer released his book Darwin’s Doubt. This book was advertised (as all such books are) as the end of Darwinian evolution. In the book, Meyer takes us through the Cambrian explosion, conveniently leaving out a significant amount of material.
After the book was published, everyone pretty much ignored it. The Discovery Institute (Meyer is a senior fellow there and the director for that organization’s Center for Science and Culture) claimed that scientists didn’t refute the work because they couldn’t.
Donald Prothero, a paleontologist, took up the gauntlet and wrote a scathing review of Meyer’s work. The review appeared on Amazon.com and Prothero’s blog. The next day, a pro-creationist commenter at Amazon wrote that Prothero didn’t address early embryological development and just mentions epigenetics in passing.
It should be obvious that a discussion on epigenetics and embryological development is not within the purview of a paleontologist. Dr. Prothero probably knows something about these areas, but he’s known as a paleontologist and addressed the paleontological shortcomings of Meyer’s book.
As soon as he did so, the creationists were no longer interested in talking about paleontology. Quite inexplicably, they were only interested in two areas that Prothero didn’t address and, no offense to Dr. Prothero, isn’t an expert in.
The goal post shift is, unconsciously, an act of desperation. The shifter knows that their arguments have been refuted and the only way to save face is to get away from the topic which is causing them grief.
Let’s take a brief aside to talk about that last comment. In my years in the trenches with creationists, I have noticed a very common trait. This trait also appears among politicians, and other people who are blinded by ideology. That is, they absolutely, cannot admit to being wrong.
They will change the subject. They will become belligerent. They will double down, that is not only continuing to say the silly things that got them into trouble in the first place, but actually make it worse. Anything except just saying, “Oops, I was wrong. Sorry about that.”
I have had a creationist argue for years (and I mean that literally, late 2009 through 2012) that
- ice was not water
- that “size” included a measurement of mass (so a rock could never be the same size as a baseball because it would have a different mass)
- that ticks preferred watermelon to oranges (ticks, of course, being obligate hemovores)
These are definitely exceptional examples, but the complaint is very common.
Anyway, the goal post shift is purely to do anything to counter the refutation. It’s also an admission that the refuter is correct. There’s nothing to be done about the refuters claims and evidence. They are correct.
The only possible response is to somehow cast doubt on the refuter using a goal post shift (or another tactic we’ll talk about later on). It’s also used to cast doubt on the rest of the topic under discussion. Maybe that part of evolution is right, but what about all this other stuff…
I will say that, in denialist circles, the Gish Gallop and goal post shift are absolutely more common in creationist works than anywhere else. Although, the goal post shift does often appear in anti-GMO and anti-AGW work. The Gish Gallop makes rare appearances in anti-AGW work.
How to Counter
The Gish Gallop is effectively countered (in print, on-line, and speaking events) by two demands. The first is that the discussion stay on one topic. The other is demanding that the person provide evidence for the claims presented.
Now, in all my years of making these two demands of creationists, not one has ever actually responded to, much less performed these requests. However, it can be quite enjoyable to remind them over and over and over that they still haven’t provided evidence for their original claims.
One thing I often do when having these discussions is write down a list of questions, requests for information, and the like for the opponent in a text file. At the end of every reply, I will say, “and you still have yet to address these issues” and paste the text from that file. Note that this is also an effective counter to the goal post shift.
This pasting of points reminds the opponent that you have not forgotten the things that they said and that it is up to them to support their claims. If they cannot, then there’s no point in refuting them. Really, who is going to spend a couple hours and several thousand words refuting the claim that the moon is made of cheese?
After a few days of this, you can begin to expand on this by saying things like, “So, since you haven’t provided the evidence, we can assume that this is a meritless claim and will ignore it from now on.” And then, when that person brings up this point in a few weeks or months (and they will, just as soon as they think everyone has forgotten about the last time), you can remind them with that massive list of questions and requests for evidence.
For the goal post shift, it’s often just easier to remind them what their original claim was (paste text and link to the original) and that this new claim is different and not covered by the responses. You can also say that since the claim is changed, they have implicitly agreed that the first claim was wrong.
A final note.
There have been on-line debates that have gone on for more than 3 years. And the creationist still does this. After more than 3 years. Theses requests and responses by you will not change how they act. The point is not to convince someone who is so dogmatic about their beliefs that no evidence will ever convince them otherwise. The point, especially in public discussions, is to remind people who are silent but reading, that the opponent’s claims are meritless.
Next time, we’ll talk about Forced Ambiguity and Cherry Picking.
Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in genes that are not caused by changes to the DNA itself.