The decline and fall of high school debating in America

July 30, 2023 • 11:45 am

From Matthew Yglesias’s Substack site Slow Boring comes a frightening article by Maya Bodnick describing what’s happened to high-school debating in America. It’s turning into an exercise in “critical theory”, with judges telling contestants in advance what kind of politics they favor, the debaters ignoring the assigned topic, and debaters speaking so fast you can’t understand them. Further, many of the debaters advocate a dismantling of America, no matter what system they’re talking about.

It’s a far cry from the kind of debates we see at Oxford or Cambridge, or that Hitchens and others have engaged in. And because Bodnick tells us that many famous current politicians (e.g. Lyndon Johnson, Nancy Pelosi, and John F. Kennedy) honed their skills in high-school debating, this change bodes ill for the future politics of America.

Click to read:

Here’s Bodnick’s take on what’s happened:

In a traditional debate round, students argue over a topic assigned by the tournament — for example, “The U.S. should adopt universal healthcare.” One side is expected to argue in favor of the motion (the affirmation side), and one against (the negation side). However, in recent years, many debaters have decided to flat-out ignore the assigned topic and instead hijack the round by proposing brand new (i.e., wholly unrelated to the original topic), debater-created resolutions that advocate complex social criticisms based on various theories — Marxism, anti-militarism, feminist international relations theory, neocolonialism, securitization, anthropocentrism, orientalism, racial positionality, Afro-Pessimism, disablism, queer ecology, and transfeminism. (To be clear, traditional feminism is out of fashion and seen as too essentialist.)

These critical theory arguments, known as kritiks, are usually wielded by the negation side to criticize the fundamental assumptions of their affirmation side opponents. Kritik advocates argue that the world is so systematically broken that discussing public policy proposals and reforms misses what really matters: the need to fundamentally revolutionize society in some way. For example, if the topic was “The U.S. should increase the federal minimum wage,” the affirmation side might provide some arguments supporting this policy. But then the negation side, instead of arguing that the government shouldn’t raise the minimum wage, might reject spending any time on the original resolution and counter-propose a Marxist kritik.

Here’s an example of how the negation might introduce this kritik:

Revolutionary theory is a prior question — the aff [proposal about raising the minimum wage] is irrelevant in the grand scheme of capitalism… [You as a judge should] evaluate the debate as a dialectical materialist — you are a historian inquiring into the determinant factors behind the PMC [first affirmation speech] — The role of the ballot is to endorse the historical outlook of the topic with the most explanatory power… Vote negative to endorse Marxist labor theory of value.

Or, if the topic was “The U.S. should increase troops in the Korean DMZ,” the negation might choose not to argue against the resolution and propose a securitization kritik:

Securitization is a political decision that discursively constructs certain phenomena as threats to justify their management and extermination. The practice of security erases alternate perspectives through the dominance of Western rationalism, permitting unchecked violence against alterity. We should use this round to create space for an epistemological multiplicity that breaks down dominant discourses of North Korea.

These are two examples of negation kritiks. Additionally, sometimes the affirmation side kicks off the debate by proposing a kritik — they don’t even bother advocating for the original resolution! For example, let’s say the original topic was “The U.S. should impose a carbon tax.” The affirmation side could decide to throw the resolution out the window and instead argue for an Afro-Pessimism kritik:

Western societies are structured on Enlightenment-era philosophy that fundamentally does not value Black people as people, and defines them as slaves. Even though documents like the Constitution have been amended to end slavery, it created a society that is rotten to the core, and the only way to fix it is to burn down civil society.

These kinds of kritiks are starting to dominate the two main platforms for high-school debates, “Policy” (now 67% kritik) and “Lincoln-Douglas (now 45% kritik).

In response, people started two new and more traditional debate forums: Public Forum and Parliamentary. But critical theory is starting to invade both of these, too. And they’re self-reinforcing, for as debaters age and become coaches and judges, “kritik” debates became more common.

What’s scary is how the judges publish in advance the kind of arguments they favor. Here’s a list of judges’ preferences from the 2023 “Tournament of Champions” debate (the winning debate from that contest is in the video below):

  • Love the K, this is where i spent more of the time in my debate and now coaching career, I think I have an understanding of generally every K, in college, I mostly read Afro-Pessimism/Gillespie, but other areas of literature I am familiar with cap, cybernetics, baudrillard, psychoanalysis, Moten/Afro-Optimism, Afro-Futurism, arguments in queer and gender studies, whatever the K is I should have somewhat a basic understanding of it.”
  • Before anything else, including being a debate judge, I am a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist… I cannot check the revolutionary proletarian science at the door when I’m judging… I will no longer evaluate and thus never vote for rightest capitalist-imperialist positions/arguments… Examples of arguments of this nature are as follows: fascism good, capitalism good, imperialist war good, neoliberalism good, defenses of US or otherwise bourgeois nationalism, Zionism or normalizing Israel, colonialism good, US white fascist policing good, etc.”
  • “…I’ve almost exclusively read variations of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism… I find these arguments to be a valuable and fun tool in debate and am happy to evaluate these debates to the best of my ability.”
  • Kritik vs. kritik debates are “currently my favorite type of debate to judge. My literature knowledge is primarily concentrated in Marxism, Maoism, and proletarian feminism, and I have a baseline familiarity with postcolonial theory, queer theory, and feminist standpoint theory, but I’m down to evaluate anything as long as it’s explained well.”
  • Ks I have written files on/answering/into the lit for – spanos, psycho, cap, communist horizon, security, fem, mao, death cult, berlant, scranton, queerness, set col…”
  • You will not lose my ballot just for running a K. Ever.”
  • I am frequently entertained and delighted by well-researched critical positions on both the affirmative and negative”
  • Kritiks “are my favorite arguments to hear and were the arguments that I read most of my career.”
  • Ks are my favorite!”

This, of course, completely ruins the way that, I think, debates should be to run: winners aren’t supposed to cater to judges’ tastes, but to make the best argument that they’re assigned. And they’re supposed to stick to their topic! In the end, Bodnick tells us why we should fear this trend:

This is what concerns me so deeply about this seismic shift in the debate landscape—and why I would hate to see the Public Forum and Parliamentary formats follow the trajectory of Policy and Lincoln-Douglas. Kritiks promote a worldview with pernicious implications for American politics among a group of people who are likely to end up in positions to have a serious impact on American politics.

When debaters reject the topic and advocate for these critical theories, they choose not to engage in pragmatic policy discussions. Instead, they condemn American institutions and society as rotten to the core. They conclude that reform is hopeless and the only solution is to burn it all down. Even if they’re not advocating for kritiks, in order to succeed at the national level, debaters have to learn how to respond critical theory arguments without actually disagreeing with their radical principles.

High school debate has become an activity that incentivizes students to advocate for nihilist accelerationism in order to win rounds. It’s the type of logic that leads young people to label both parties as equally bad and to disengage from electoral politics. What most normal people think debate is about — advocating either side of a plausible public-policy topic — is no longer the focus. With kritiks taking a larger share, debate is increasingly societally rejectionist. Too often the activity is no longer a forum for true discussion, but a site of radicalization.

Now surely you’re going to want to see an example of the new style of “kritik” debate. A championship debate is below, and note how fast the debaters talk. This is very common now, and I don’t know how either listeners or the judges can even make out what’s being said. As Bodnick notes:

These formats were started as a response not only to critical theory, but also to speed debate — often a related phenomenon. If you watch any of the examples of kritiks that I’ve linked to, it’s likely you will not be able to understand what the debaters are saying because they’re talking so fast. I abhor this trend, but it’s not the focus of this article.

So I give you a good example in the video below:

This was the championship debate at the 2023 Tournament of Champions Lincoln-Douglas Debate Tournament between Muzzi Khan and Karan Shah. The decision is a 2-1 for the affirmative (Dombcik, Kiihnl, *Schwerdtfeger). The 2NR goes for the Kant NC.

The topic?

At the University of Kentucky’s 2023 Tournament of Champions, held earlier this month, senior Muzzi Khan won the national championship in Lincoln-Douglas Debate. The topic was “Resolved: Justice requires open borders for human migration.” After an excellent preliminary record, Khan went on to win five single elimination rounds.

You don’t have to listen to the whole hour, but do sample both debaters. Good luck understanding them! The second debater starts at 17:53.  They sound as if they’re speaking in a foreign language!

Lee Jussim analyzes the criticism of our paper on science and merit

June 10, 2023 • 11:00 am

Lee Jussim is an antiwoke social psychologist at Rutgers and one of the 29 authors of our paper “In Defense of Merit in Science” (“Abbot et al.”).  As we expected, that paper was controversial, but it’s also been widely read, with more than 100,000 views on The Journal of Controversial Ideas.”

As I said in the WSJ op-ed I wrote with Anna Krylov (the guiding force of the paper), it’s a shame that a paper espousing the view that science and scientists should be judged on “merit” should be seen as “controversial,” but what do you expect these days.? The pushback was considerable. Many people simply rejected the idea of merit, with one of the editors who refused the paper saying that the idea of merit was both “hollow” and “hurtful”.  That, of course, is arrant nonsense.

Others tried to refute our argument by giving examples of science where merit was not recognized, or where bad science was lauded. These anecdotes are also a dumb way to go after our paper, especially because we were making a general argument, not saying that it’s always applied everywhere in science. Still others, like our  bête poilue, P. Z. Myers, dismissed the paper largely on ideological grounds, or used the common by worthless guilt-by-association argument.  PeeZus:

I had no idea that merit needed defending, or was at all controversial, but it has 29 authors, some of whom have significant prestige. Others are nothing but Intellectual Dark Web sort of cranks, and all of them would be not at all out of place on the fake University of Austin faculty. It’s an expansion of the Grievance Studies nonsense, and Boghossian is one of the authors, while Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay are cited, and if authors are not on the staff of the University of Austin, at least some of them are publishing opinion pieces in Quillette. Basically, it’s a collection of right-wing ideologues complaining about ideology, unaware that it’s ideology all the way down.

Well, if the idea that “science should be judged by its merit” is “ideology”, so is the idea that “airplanes should be flown by the most accomplished pilots,” or “a cancer operation should be judged by how well it was able to remove the malignant cells and prevent recurrence.”

But we’ll pass on, as Myers had no arguments against the substance of our thesis.  The quote above, by the way, is one of many collected by Jussim, who has produced a compendium of criticisms of our paper, most (but not all), being unedifying yet often unintentionally funny. I was particularly amused by the muddy and obtuse criticisms of Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of Science who took our paper as an attack on racial diversity which, he argued, was the real way to advance science, and that such diversity would in fact advance science better than judging research and scientists on merit. (I’d argue that intellectual  diversity would be more efficacious.) Here’s are two quotes from Thorp’s editorial:

. . . . the public has been taught that scientific insight occurs when old white guys with facial hair get hit on the head with an apple or go running out of bathtubs shouting “Eureka!”


It has somehow become a controversial idea to acknowledge that scientists are actual people.

But Jussim goes after him more thoroughly, as you can see by reading his essay.

You can read it, with the appropriate refutations of nonsense (and praise for thoughtful criticism) by clicking on his Substack headline below:

Lee can be quite snarky, and here’s an excerpt from his section called “Really stupid criticisms”. Here are two of them (all of Lee’s prose is indented, save for double-indented quotes):

One blogger went on a bizarre rant on the grounds that it was absurd for us to claim that a journal’s failure to publish our article violated our free speech rights.

It would have been absurd, had we claimed it. This delusional critique was by Scott Lemiux, who is described as a professor of political science. Presumably, that means he has a Ph.D. For further insight into why someone with so much education can write something so stupid, I highly recommend Taleb’s The Intellectual Yet Idiot.. . .

Another vein of stupidity is the “straw man” critique. Supposedly, when we argued that many prominent postmodern and critical theory perspectives reject merit and objectivity, that’s a straw man argument, an absurd caricature because, duh, no one is so stupid as to reject objectivity and merit right? This was in some of the PNAS reviews of our article that led to its rejection there, and it was all over academic twitter.

Richard Delgado was one of the most prominent critical race theorists of the last 30 years. Shall we see what he wrote? Fom Delgado & Stefanic’s 2001 book on Critical Race Theory:

“For the critical race theorist, objective truth, like merit, does not exist, at least in social science and politics. In these realms, truth is a social construct created to suit the purposes of the dominant group.”

Nothing quite says “some prominent critical race theorists reject merit and objectivity” as a prominent critical race theorist literally rejecting merit and objectivity.

Then Lee gives some “Faux sophisticated criticisms,” like this one from Holden Thorp:

This is the Editor in Chief at Science. Publishing this opinion piece in … Science. It is idiotic nonsense.

He then goes on to pull a subtle bait and switch. See if you can catch it:

 One view is that objective truth is absolute and therefore not subject to human influences. “The science speaks for itself” is usually the mantra in this camp.

But the history and philosophy of science argue strongly to the contrary. For example, Charles Darwin made major contributions to the most important idea in biology, but his book The Descent of Man contained many incorrect assertions about race and gender that reflected his adherence to prevalent social ideas of his time. Thankfully, evolution didn’t become knowledge the day Darwin proposed it, and it was refined over the decades by many points of view. More recently, pulse oximeters that measure blood oxygen levels were found to be ineffective for dark skin because they were initially developed for white patients.

Did you catch it? The fact that science has gotten some things wrong or that scientists’ biases have, sometimes, misled them to advance false conclusions, is presented as if it invalidates the reality of objective truths. It does nothing of the kind. Indeed, the way Darwin’s incorrect assertions about race and gender, and the fallibility of pulse oximeters were discovered, was by subsequent scientists debunking false claims and replacing them with true ones. The failures of pulse oximeters was discovered because it was objectively true that they were ineffective for people with darker skin.

The entire notion of scientific validity rests on the existence of objective truth, and without it, science is meaningless. Thorp baited you with the implication that there is no objective truth and switched in scientists’ biases and errors as if it refutes the existence of objective truth. Which it cannot possibly do because to know that an error was made or a conclusion is biased implies that one has access to objective truths that debunk those errors and biases.

Lee then cites a paper that disses Thorp but also gives us some thoughtful criticism:

An excellent essay on this controversy by a bio-ethicist at Merck (which includes some thoughtful criticisms of our paper) puts it this way:

Thorp adopts a questionable strategy known as the motte-and-bailey tactic, employing it fallaciously and deceptively. He presents the easily justifiable opinion encapsulated in “It matters who does science” (the [uncontroversial and easily defensible] “motte”), while conveniently avoiding any arguments that challenge Abbot et al.’s initial claim. Thorp’s unspoken and potentially harder-to-defend propositionthat “merit should (to some degree) be replaced by social engineering or identity-based policies” (the “bailey”) remains unsupported and unaddressed in his discourse.

There’s also a section on “logically incoherent” criticisms, though I think Lee makes a misstep here:

To criticize our paper is to argue that it is bad or unjustified in some way. However, to make these sorts of arguments, the critics must have some standard for truth. If they do not, then they cannot possibly know our paper is wrong, biased, misguided, hurful, or anything else.

Implicitly, then, they believe that getting at the truth is possible because they are making a truth claim when arguing our paper is wrong, hurtful, etc. If we are wrong and they are right, then they themselves are promoting claims that are actually true! That is, their claims have merit, whereas our’s  [sic] don’t. Anyone who believes the critics [sic] claims have merit (including the critics themselves) implicitly accepts our central argument that science has to be judge [sic] on its merits, even if they pose as critiques of our paper.

I’m not sure that’s true, for a critic could claim that science should be judged on a combination of merit and its ability to promote ethnic diversity, and that the “truth” is that society would be better off if science were judged by some combination of the two factors. That is a truth claim that at the same time criticizes our paper.

Finally, here’s an Epilogue that gives you another site with information about the reaction to our paper.

Anna Krylov, the main force of nature behind the merit paper, has also created this website,, that curates a lot of the essays, blogs, and podcasts discussing our paper. [JAC: see especially the last two sections, giving links to reactions about the paper as well as some quotes about the paper.] Jerry Coyne, over at WhyEvolutionisTrue has a slew of entries on some of the critical responses to our paper (such as herehere, and here).

The critics reviewed herein are, by many measures, really smart, accomplished people. They are all academics with PhDs, and, often, long lists of scientific publications. Make of that what you will.

One addendum: A colleague and I have a related paper, on the dangers of infusing ideology into evolutionary biology, coming out in two weeks. While it doesn’t have a lot of prestigious authors or Nobel Laureates, it does make claims that I expect to be controversial. That’s because those desperately trying to turn our field into a branch of Social Justice Ideology get furious if you say that it’s a bad idea.

Upcoming webinar panel on the future of affirmative action

February 9, 2023 • 12:45 pm

Here’s the announcement I have, and note that the seminar/webinar features Loury and McWhorter, who will surely make some people angry. But everyone knows that affirmative action is effectively dead, just as we know that universities will find a way around it when the Supreme Court bans it this Spring.

To register to see it, just click HERE (or click on the screenshot. You need provide only your name and email address, and it’s free.

The perils of politicized science

January 21, 2023 • 12:30 pm

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. held a panel last Thursday on “The Perils of Politicized Science”. (You can go to the website by clicking on the screenshot below, but I’ll put the entire video at bottom (1 hour, 41 minutes). No beefing about AEI: who else but a conservative organization would even host a discussion like this? It’s the ideas, not the venues, that are important.

I haven’t watched all of it yet, but will. Of the first two I’ve watched, Jussim is particularly energetic and engaging, as he tends to be. But I haven’t seen Satel, Krylov, or Mills.

The panelists certainly have street cred.

Sally Satel, senior fellow at AEI, former psychiatrist and teacher
Wilfred Reilly of Kentucky State University, who participated via Zoom. He’s a political scientist.
Lee Jussim of Rutgers University psychologist
Anna Krylov, University of Southern California, theoretical chemistry
M. Anthony Mills, Senior Fellow, AEI.

The topic, according to Anna, was the different ways that politics interacts with science and how politics and supposedly science-based policies are damaging science.  This differs a bit from the YouTube description, and because her summary was made after the panel, I take it to be more accurate.

So here you go:

Oxford Union debates whether wokeness has gone too far (videos)

January 14, 2023 • 12:20 pm

Last November 18 the Oxford Union debated the proposition, “This House Believes Woke Culture Has Gone Too Far.” The page with all the YouTube videos—eight of them—is here, and I’ll put them below because I run an accommodating website.

The Union has a page summarizing the debate, and gives the result:

. . . the Union voted last night 89-60 in favour of the motion “This House believes woke culture has gone too far.”

On his website, James Lindsay, who was put on the side arguing that woke culture has NOT gone too far, gives his account of the debate and says this:

I don’t intend to give a blow-by-blow summary of the debate. I encourage people to watch my part and the others for that (four speakers argued for ten minutes each, alternating sides). Instead, I want to summarize my argument and what I was doing with it and draw out a couple of important other points. My argument was simple: taken on its own terms, “Woke culture” has not gone too far because it cannot go too far.

Here you go, all eight presentations in order. Why couldn’t they just post a single video?

h/t:  Enrico

A must-read (or must-listen): A heated debate on whether the mainstream media is trustworthy

December 12, 2022 • 11:30 am

Unless you subscribe to Matt Taibbi’s Substack site, you probably won’t be able to read this debate, but a kind reader gave me a month’s subscription. And there I found this great debate on whether the mainstream media, or MSM, is trustworthy. However, I have since foun it publicly available on Youtube, and have put the debate below the screenshot (try clicking on it):

Click on “Watch on YouTube” to listen. In fact, the new printed version leaves some stuff out, so if you have time, listening is better:


The question is not explained with all its terms well defined (“what do we mean by mainstream media”? and “what do we mean by trust—complete trust?”).

But itt’s a good lineup. On the “don’t trust” side we have Matt Taibbi himself as well as Douglas Murray, author and editor at The Spectator.  On the “trust” side is author Malcolm Gladwell and New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg.  A preliminary vote showed people pretty evenly divided on the question, but at the end a hefty number had moved into the “don’t trust” column.  This goes along with what I thought: compared to the bulldogs of Taibbi and Murray, Gladwell and Goldberg seemed timorous and defensive.

Things get pretty hot during the debate, with Murray getting his teeth deep into Gladwell’s tuchas, and sometimes accusing the Canadian journalist of lying or distortion. In the end, Taibbi and Gladwell make the case that much of the MSM, including venues like the NYT and the Washington Post, have an ideological slant to their news that makes their reporting unreliable.

The debate was 90 minutes long, but before I saw the video online I printed it out and read it. And I read the whole thing, something I wouldn’t often do. If you don’t want to read this long debate, then listen to it, for this is one issue that I think is very important. And it’s entertaining, too. I’ll give you just two quotes that I hope will whet your appetite.

Taibbi on why the media is biased:

We’re not supposed to thumb the scale. Our job is just to call things as we see them and leave the rest up to you. But we don’t do that now. The story is no longer the boss. Instead we sell narrative in a dysfunctional new business model. Once the commercial strategy of the news business was to go for the whole audience, a TV news broadcast was aired at dinner time, and it was designed to be watched by the entire family. Everyone from your crazy right wing uncle to the sulking lefty teenager in the corner. This system had flaws, but making an effort to talk to everybody had benefits. For one thing it inspired trust. Gallop polls twice, twice showed Walter Cronkite to be the most trusted person in all of America. That would never happen with a news reader today. With the arrival of the internet, some outlets found that instead of going after the whole audience, it made more financial sense to pick one demographic and try to dominate it.

How do you do that? That’s easy. You just pick an audience and feed it news you know they’ll like. Instead of starting with a story and following the facts, you start with what pleases your audience and work backward to the story. This process started with Fox, but really now everybody does it. From CNN to OAN to the Washington Post, nearly all media organizations are in the same demographic hunting business. According to a Pew Center survey from a few years ago, 93% of Fox’s audience votes Republican. In an exactly mirroring phenomenon, 95% of the MSNBC audience votes democratic. The New York Times readers are 91% Democrats. Left or right, most commercial audiences in America anyway are politically homogenous. This bifurcated system is fundamentally untrustworthy. When you decide in advance to forego half of your potential audience to cater to the other half you’re choosing in advance which facts to emphasize and which to downplay based on considerations other than truth or newsworthiness.

This is not journalism. This is political entertainment, and it’s therefore fundamentally unreliable with editors now more concerned with retaining audience than getting things right. Lots of guardrails have been thrown out. Silent edits have become common. Serious accusations are made without calling people for comment. Reporters get too cozy with politicians and report things either without attribution or source to unnamed people familiar with the matter. Like scientists, journalists should be able to reproduce each other’s work in the lab. With too many anonymous sources, this is impossible. We just get a lot of stuff wrong. Now, in the Trump years, an extraordinary number of bombshells went sideways. From the pee tape, to the Alpha server story, to speculation that Trump was a Russian spy recruited before disco started, to false reports of Russians hacking of Vermont utility, we’ve accumulated piles of these wrong stories. Now, I’m no fan of Donald Trump. I wrote a book about the guy called Insane Clown President, but these stories offend me. A good journalist should always be ashamed of error. And it bothers me to see so many of my colleagues not ashamed. News media shouldn’t have a side. It should

Murray chomps on Gladwell’s tuchas:

Rudyard Griffiths: Hold on Matt, let’s bring Douglas in on this. I just want to hear his voice.

Malcolm Gladwell: Doug is speechless.

Douglas Murray: I’m never speechless. It’s not a problem I suffer from. I can’t sit here and listen to Malcolm Gladwell talking about fact checking and the importance of it. Not to get too mean, Malcolm, I read your book, David and Goliath, the chapter on Northern Ireland is more filled with inaccuracies than any other chapter in a nonfiction book I have read. It is having written a, not very well selling, but widely acclaimed book on Northern Island myself, my book on Northern Ireland didn’t sell anywhere near as much as yours did Malcolm. But, mine was filled with facts. And your chapter on Northern Ireland was so filled with inaccuracies, Irish historians ripped it apart. Would that you had a fact checker Malcolm, would that you did your own research. But anyway, let me get back to another point.

Malcolm Gladwell: You do have, I must say you do a very good job of it, but you must say you do have a tendency to accuse those who disagree with your opinion.

Douglas Murray: No no no, It’s not disagreement. You didn’t know that the provisional IRA were responsible for 60% of the deaths and the troubles. There were basic things you just didn’t know. Malcolm, I’m sorry. It’s not my fault, it’s yours and your fact checkers.

Malcolm Gladwell: I didn’t know the function of this debate was to rehash the accuracy of a chapter in a book I wrote. . .

The results taken from the YouTube site:

The audience voted on this resolution prior to hearing the debate. 48% voted in favour of the resolution, while 52% voted against the resolution.

At the end of the debate, another poll was conducted. 67% voted in favour of the motion, while 33% voted against it, representing a 39% vote gain for the PRO side.

I think you’ll agree that the victors deserved their victory.

Debate: Francis Collins vs. Richard Dawkins on God

May 22, 2022 • 10:30 am

Here’s a new episode from “The Big Conversation” (sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation!) in which Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, debates—or rather discusses—a variety of issues with evolutionist and atheist Richard Dawkins.  The moderator is Justin Brierly.

The argument centers on religion, especially on what constitutes “evidence” for God.  You might ask, “Why on earth would Dawkins debate Collins, since there’s no chance that either will change their minds?” But I think Dawkins took the time to do this to show the intellectually depauperate nature of Collins’s “evidence” for God. That evidence includes the laws of physics, our appreciation of beauty, the moral behavior of humans, and so on. Collins is not a “sophisticated” theologian, but remember that he’s not a theologian but a scientist who came to believe in Jesus through observing a waterfall frozen in three spouts (“the Trinity”). Collins seems to have picked up most of his arguments for God from a combination of C. S. Lewis and more modern “apologetics”, like the “fine-tuning” argument for God based on physical constants.

Reader Rick, who sent me this link, says “I’ve watched most of this and Collins is irritating.  When Richard points out a contradiction in his God hypothesis, he simply shrugs it off and says God can be anything He wants.  What a copout!”

But more about that contradiction below. In the meantime, if you want to hear a discussion between two smart guys, one of whom is subject to delusions, have a listen to this 1½ hour video. Let me add that Collins is an amiable and likable fellow, and was friends with Hitchens, helping Hitch with his cancer treatment.  What puzzles me is how such an apparently nice guy can buy into a passel of religious nonsense for which there’s no evidence.

But click to listen. It’s a better discussion than you might think.

They begin by discussing covid: Richard thinks that the lockdowns were premature, but Collins extolls scientific community’s rapid response in creating the mRNA vaccines.

With that out of the way, it’s onto the Big Questions of religion.  Collins recounts his conversion from atheism to religion, saying that he found that “faith was more rational than atheism” given the nature of the world. As for why Collins became a Christian rather than a Hindu or Jew, he says that he “needed an anchor for his faith”, and found one in “Jesus Christ, a historical figure about which we know a great deal”. Of course that “great deal” is solely from the Bible, and many of us aren’t even convinced that the anchor for Collins’s faith even existed. It would have been better for Collins to admit that “the great deal” is found entirely in the Bible, and different accounts of Jesus say different things.

The bit where I think Collins’s argument for God starts going awry is in his discussion with Richard about evolution.  Richard asks Collins the penetrating question, “If God could do anything, why did he choose to produce humans via the tortuous process of evolution?” Couldn’t He have just poofed all life into existence, as Genesis describes? And given—and Collins seems to agree—that a perfectly naturalistic process of evolution via natural selection could explain the appearance of organic design, why did God choose a mechanism that made Him superfluous?” (The question doesn’t arise about whether Collins thinks that with the appearance of H. sapiens the purpose of evolution has now been fulfilled: we have a product that evolved into God’s image.)

Collins’s answer smacks of a posteriori-ism, making the necessity of evolution into a virtue. As Collins says, “Evolution makes me even more in awe of the Creator than if God had just poofed things into existence.” In other words, God had a Big Plan for creating humans, and that Big Plan was evolution. Isn’t that mah-velous?  But he doesn’t explain why going through this Big Plan is more admirable and elegant than poofing things into existence. After all, several lineages of Homo, as well as of hominins, went extinct.

Collins has a further response:  God is all about order, and wanted a Universe that follows elegant mathematical laws. (Collins notes that the existence of those laws themselves constitutes evidence for God.) Ergo, we had evolution, which followed physical laws.  But this conflicts with Collins’s later assertion that it would be foolish to presume anything about the mind of God. After all, until 1859, all theologians thought that God cared more for creating humans instantly than for “following mathematical laws”.

The fine-tuning argument—the notion that the laws of physics were set up by God to allow the appearance of life and God’s Chosen Species—is especially appealing to Collins, even though there are naturalistic explanations for it. But Richard notes that if there were any argument that would convince him of God, it would be one related to fine-tuning. However, he adds that, as Hitch would say, “Collins has all his work before him.” Even if “fine-tuning” were to constitutes some sort of evidence for a Creator who made physical law, it gives no credence to Christianity and Jesus, who are smuggled in by Collins as an afterthought.

Richard adds the usual argument about how a a creator could come into being who ws so complex that he could bring into being the laws of physics. Collins responds that God could do it because he resides “outside of space and time.” Richard rightfully dismisses that notion as another a posteriori argument brought in without evidence to save God, noting that Collins’s “beyond space and time” argument “smacks of inventing a new cop-out instead of providing a proper explanation.”

Finally there’s Collins’s “contradiction,” which begins about 47:45 in the discussion. It is of course about theodicy. Why is there physical evil in a world created by an omnipotent and benevolent God? But Collins has a response, which I’ll call the “Let Her Roll Hypothesis”. It is this: God created the world so that it would obey his physical laws. And those physical laws simply allow for the existence of evil. Tectonic plates create earthquakes and tsunamis that kill innocents, cancers arise from mutations that obey physical laws, viruses evolve. In other words, God is more concerned with maintaining a Natural Order instead of mitigating suffering by interceding.

In response to Richard’s query that, if God can do miracles, couldn’t He have mitigated natural evil?, Collins says that miracles are a special case, to be used only in very special circumstances when convincing the world of God’s existence and power are overwhelmingly important. (One of these miracles, avers Collins, was the Resurrection.) Otherwise, it’s Let Her Roll, and if a kid gets leukemia, or a tsunami kills several hundred thousand people,  or a virus kills several million people, well, that’s just the byproduct of how God has chosen to run the Universe. It’s a remarkably sneaky but clever argument. (It could also be called “The Argument for the Rarity of Miracles.”) Evil, in other words, is simply a byproduct of God’s penchant for natural order and natural law, even if he could flout natural law if He wanted.

On to the query, “Where did the laws of physics come from?” (Dawkins says that if anybody would convince him of God, it would be that point.)  But he adds, why smuggle in Christianity and Jesus? Collins says that God was in a position to create the laws of physics because “God exists outside of into space and time.” (This doesn’t sound like a real argument to me.)

Richard responds that saying God is “outside time and space” is another a posteriori explanation, something that “smacks of inventing a new cop-out instead of providing a proper explanation”

The last part of the discussion is about human altruism, an altruism that Collins sees as evidence for God. In contrast, Dawkins sees it a carryover from the millions of years over which our ancestors lived in small bands in which reciprocal altruism (and kin selection) would have been adaptive. The “rule of thumb” to be nice and helpful to others, argues Dawkins, shows that “altruism” could have been a product of adaptive evolution.  The same goes for beauty, with Collins seeing human appreciation for music, art, and landscapes as evidence for God, while Richard notes that if birds can show a preference for beauty (this is Richard Prum’s argument for sexual selection), then so could humans.

My take? It’s an interesting discussion, but of course was doomed from the outset by both men holding incompatible worldviews. I have to say though—and call me biased if you will—that the ability of naturalism to solve scientific problems gives me a preference for Richard’s naturalism over Collins’s supernaturalism. In fact, Collins appears to believe in a lot of things for which there’s no evidence, like the Resurrection, and this detracts from his scientific worldview in other areas. Further, Collins appears to make stuff up as he goes along to buttress the weaknesses in his evangelical Christianity. But of course that’s the way theologians and regular believers have always operated.

In the end, the debate is a very clear demonstration of the philosophy of naturalism versus that of supernaturalism. To me, the ability of naturalism to explain the world (“we have no need of the God hypothesis”), plus the absence of miracles at a time when, one would think, Collins would find them especially useful (the world’s becoming more secular!)—all of this puts much heavier weight on the naturalistic side.

It’s hard to dislike Collins, but I am repelled at his uncritical approach to his religious beliefs.

An Intelligence-Squared Debate: Has the New York Times lost its way?

August 2, 2021 • 11:45 am

Here’s a 64-minute Intelligence-Squared debate on a topic of interest to many of us: “Has the New York Times Lost Its Way?” It’s a debate between four people: two for the motion (“lost its way”) and two against (the paper is fine). Here are the participants.

For the Motion:

Yascha Mounk – Author, “The People vs. Democracy”
Batya Ungar-Sargon – Deputy Opinion Editor, Newsweek Magazine

Against the Motion:

Frank Sesno – Former CNN Washington Bureau Chief
Virginia Heffernan – Columnist, Wired Magazine

Moderator: John Donvan, journalist and debate monitor

There are three rounds in the debate:

Round 1: 4-minute opening statements from each debater

Round 2: Conversation among debaters, questions by Donvan (he does a creditable job)

Round 3: Two-minute closing statements from each debater.

I think we all agree that the NYT is still one of the best papers around, but many of us object to how its editorial slant is spilling into the news coverage, including what topics are even covered—a point that Mounk makes repeatedly. Yes, as Sesno says, it’s making money, but $$ are not the question. I would be on the “lost its way” side, but would have added things like the 1619 Project, designed to propagandize schoolchildren (a NYT first, I think); the treatment of the Tom Cotton op-ed;  the firing of Donald McNeil for using the n-word in a didactic context but then allowing the word to be used in other didactic contexts (all the while saying “intent doesn’t matter”); the hypocritical hiring of Sarah Jeong versus the firing of Quinn Norton, and so on.

Yes, I still subscribe to the paper, because its reporting is still some of the best around. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t lost its way in some respects. The main way is that it has become beholden to the social media mob in a way that makes it change course repeatedly in response to pressure, and has allowed its editorial stance to bleed into the news (its anti-Israel bias is one example, but there are others, as Mounk notes). It is no longer, also as Mounk notes, “The paper of record”—a paper whose journalism can be read with profit by all (thinking) Americans.

Mounk and Sesno do the best job of defending their opposing sides, Ungar-Sargon weakens her arguments by getting overly worked up, and Heffernan, whose work is great in other venues, doesn’t seem to have much to say. I doubt this debate will change people’s minds, but you might have a listen. [GCM: Recall, though, as has been noted here at WEIT, that Heffernan is a creationist.]

And weigh in below in the comments. Do YOU think the NYT has lost its way?

h/t: Paul

Possible debate between Robin DiAngelo and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

March 20, 2021 • 10:30 am

The people who run the “Letters’ section of Conversation, where Adam Gopnik and I are debating “ways of knowing”, are trying to set up debates between proponents and opponents of Critical Race Theory (CRT). The problem is that the proponents are happy to give public lectures, but not so happy to debate. As far as I’m aware—and I may be wrong—neither Ibram X. Kendi nor Robin DiAngelo, who have written the two most influential popular books on CRT, have been willing to debate their views.

Conversation is trying to set up such a debate, preferring to do it as a video rather than an exchange of letters, and has reached out to both DiAngelo and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. They have just started a Crowdfunding site where you can pledge money to underwrite the debate, and all the funds are earmarked for charities, not for the speakers.

Moreover, if the debate doesn’t take place, you can get your donation back, or have it go straight to the charity:

If the conversation happens proceeds go to Starehe: a charity providing Kenya’s brightest underprivileged children with a quality education. You can pledge safe in the knowledge that you will not be charged unless the conversation happens.

Click on the screenshot below to go to the site (and to pledge if you wish):

The topic will clearly involve identity politics and/or CRT; here are the campaign’s biographies:

Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list where it remained for 85 weeks.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a best-selling author and human rights activist. As a proponent of individualism, she has expressed concerns about identity politics and its capacity to erode our sense of common humanity.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has already accepted, but DiAngelo has not—at least not yet.

I suppose the philosophy is that the more money that’s pledged, the more willing people would be to participate in such a debate, because, after all, the money is to go to educate poor kids in Kenya. There are 90 days left in the pledge drive, which started less than two days ago, and if the debate doesn’t take place, well, you have nothing to lose by underwriting it.

The likely correlation between pledges and the probability of a debate comes from realizing that it’s hard to resist doing a bit of talking to garner a big donation for the education of poor African kids. Both DiAngelo and Hirsi Ali would surely have an interest in that education.  It’s also “bad optics” if you refuse to debate when there’s a sizable donation to a worthy charity at stake.

But some cynics don’t think it will take place:

I don’t know if they reached out to Kendi yet; I suggested that they try to set up a debate between him and McWhorter.  I know that McWhorter has agreed to such a debate a while back, but Kendi refused, despite having said that he’s willing to debate his ideas with anybody who’s a genuine university professor (weird, eh?), and certainly McWhorter fills the bill.

It would be fun to see a back and forth between these folks (and between Kendi and McWhorter), so if you want to underwrite the debate, click on the screenshot above—or here. There’s a FAQ section with questions about funding and the like.

Feel free to weigh in below as to whether DiAngelo will accept. I’m not holding my breath.

Final exchanges between Sarah Haider and Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Will Wokeism die?

January 3, 2021 • 2:00 pm

I should be paying more attention to the Letter site, in which two people go back and forth, debating and discussing a single issue in a series of short exhanges. Have a look: there’s some good stuff on there. In fact, I’m likely to do one in the near future, but more on that as plans proceed.

It appears that Sarah Haider and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, after five letters (three by Haider), have wound up their conversation, which you can read at the link below. I’ve already posted twice about their earlier exchanges (here and here), but in the future will wait until a series is done before summarizing and evaluating it.

In the first two letters, we learned that Sarah was pessimistic: she thought the culture war was lost and the Woke had won. Ayaan, on the other hand, was more optimistic. Did either of them change their mind?

Yes, I think Sarah did, becoming more optimistic about Wokeism’s end than she was at the outset. And I think the telling part was when Hirsi Ali told her that, ultimately, any ideology which rejects the facts and embraces its own “false facts”, as does Wokeism, is doomed. I agree.

At any rate, I think that when discussing the origins of Wokeism, Haider might have cited the analysis of where Critical Theory originates outlined in Pluckrose’s and Lindsay’s recent book Cynical Theories. So while Haider is close to being correct in what she says below, it’s not true that Wokeism seeks only to destroy. It also wants to create an authoritarian and Orwellian society that ultimately rests on postmodern tenets:

Wokeism is, perhaps, an anti-ideology—a will to power that can be identified not by what it values or the future it envisions, but by what it seeks to destroy and the power it demands. This makes it especially disastrous. For, when an existing organizing structure is destroyed with no replacement, a more brutal force can exploit the resulting power vacuum. In Iraq, the defeat of Saddam paved the way for ISIS. In Iran, naive socialists helped overthrow the authoritarian power, hoping to create a more just world—instead, the Ayatollah took charge and promptly executed and jailed his former allies. Once liberal institutions have been delegitimized by the woke, what will replace them?

But while its philosophy is empty, the psychology of wokeism is deeply satisfying to our baser instincts. For the vicious, there is a thrill in playing the righteous inquisitor, in mobbing heretics and demanding deference—brutal tactics that keep the rest of us in line, lest we be targeted next. Meanwhile, the strict social hierarchies of the woke are reassuringly simple to navigate: one always knows one’s place.

Certainly Wokeism is driven by thirst for power, but its philosophy isn’t really empty, just repugnant. And I don’t fully agree with Haider that “liberalism flies in the face of human nature”. (She says this to account for the displacement of liberalism by Wokeism.) In fact, as Pinker points out, liberalism has slowly been making inroads over much of the world, and that’s because human nature is attracted by science and empirical success, repelled by oppression and mistreatment.

But the important issue is whether Wokeism is on the wane. At the end of this letter, Haider bends a little and suggests that, as she has done in her work with ex-Muslims, the death of Wokeism lies in appealing to the youngest rational folks you can find—those who can think but are still on the fence. She gives an interesting example of someone who, she thinks, has the right approach:

Instead of aiming our efforts on those already captured by wokeism, perhaps we should focus on the next generation, whose values are still in active formation, who will relish standing up to the empire of the woke as a function of youthful idealism.

In my work with ex-Muslims, we persuade curious, intelligent young people to stand up against the religious totalism that has destroyed so much of the Muslim world.

. . . Jordan Peterson’s approach provides a good model. Though I have reservations about his specific message, he addressed the anxieties of young people and guided them through the culture war skirmishes. We must do the same.

We shall see how big Peterson’s influence in destroying Wokeism will be, but at least the man has the guts to push back against the Woke. He’s not afraid of being called a racist or a misogynist. Conquering the fear of disapprobation is, to be sure, the first thing we have to do.

But, says Hirsi Ali—and I now think she’s right—Wokeism will die from its own petard, for it ultimately rests on assertions that are either wrong or untestable, and so, like Communism, is doomed. I may not be around to see it, but I think Hirsi Ali’s most important point is this:

What is baked into modernity is self-perpetuating, not self-destructive. Many young people may have their hearts and minds captured for now, but the facts of physics and mathematics will remain what they are even if their detractors insist these fields must go “woke” (the controversy surrounding mathematician Abigail Thompson shows these fields are not immune from ideological pressures). Sooner or later, these young revolutionaries do have to realize that, for real progress to be made, they will need to base policies on objective realities. If they want to go to Mars one day, it is not the theories of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi that are going to get them there.

You don’t even have to aspire to go to Mars: the same can be said if you aspire to equal opportunity for people of all groups. Critical Race Theory won’t create that.

And, as Ayaan notes, the failure of the “blue wave” to appear in November suggests that, as she says, “[Americans] retaliated against the woke.” Perhaps the dissolution is on its way.

At the end of her last letter, Haider entertains the notion that yes, Wokeism may disappear. But she thinks the cause won’t be the intellectual vacuity of a fact-free ideology, but simply Wokeism’s hegemony, which quashes criticism:

So I wonder if perhaps what we are seeing is not an outright rejection of liberal, Enlightenment values, but a symptom of deep ignorance and privilege—an inability to comprehend the value of something many here have never lived without.

As John Stuart Mill explained, when a doctrine has been accepted so widely that the people have generally inherited, rather than adopted it, it begins an inevitable decline. Converts bring with them a zeal, but also an intimate understanding of the merits and pitfalls of both the ideology they left behind and that which they have adopted. Their beliefs were formed actively, by wrestling with objections and rebuttals. Those who have inherited the values that shape their lives may never have done this work, and thus may be far more susceptible to the simplest persuasion and emotional appeals.

“The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful is the cause of half their errors,” wrote Mill. But if our success really is to blame, then we have cause for hope. It is possible that the challenge posed by the woke will serve to invigorate us, to wake us out of what Mill calls “the deep slumber of a decided opinion.” And that awakening—or shall I say awokening?—cannot happen a moment too soon.

If there is an “inevitable decline” of Wokeness, I think it will represent more than just the unavoidable death of ideas not questioned.  After all, Wokeism by its very nature precludes questioning, and that’s one reason it’s so successful. The reason Communism declined (and this is just my amateur’s take) is that it didn’t work—it did not produce a society palpably superior to ones based on at least some capitalism and freedom of speech and thought. Wokism won’t work because its tactics aren’t based on empirical data, and it rejects any data that contradicts its ideology. Ultimately, I think, that will bring it down. And it can’t come soon enough for me.

So in this exchange of letters between two very thoughtful (and civil) people, we have seen some movement. Sarah started out beefing about how Wokeness was here to stay, and in the discussion she wound up becoming not only more optimistic, but musing about what we can do to rid our house of ideological termites.


Some lagniappe: an article tweeted recently by Ayaan about the intellectual vacuity of critical gender theory: