A few days ago I said, regarding Chopra-Dawkins debate, that these debates don’t change anybody’s opinion but only confirm one’s previously held biases. Actually, it was Chopra who said it, but I concurred. Checking with atheists, however, they quickly gave an example of the debate that worked – on the value of the Catholic Church.
The motion was that Catholic Church is a force for good and two sides argued for and against it. The audience was polled before the debate started and votes were collected at the end again. Here’s the link to the results. Roughly the third of the audience changed their minds, and if you look at the numbers closely, more “Catholics” changed their minds and voted against their church then undecideds. It was a clear victory for the atheism.
It is possible that some undecideds or those originally against switched to the Catholic side, too, but that would need even more Catholics to change their minds and vote against to balance them out. Some might have become newly undecided but the number of remaining undecideds was very insignificant, less that 1.5%, so it doesn’t change the overall result in any way.
So, what happened? Does it mean that mine and Chopra’s assertion that debates don’t work is wrong? Well, of course it’s not absolutely correct, the better wording would be “debates don’t show results instantly”. Some people fortify their positions, for some they start to erode and this process might take a very long time but some effect must be there, every action must bring some reaction. Even when we, as devotees, expose ourselves to atheistic arguments we must face some sort of contamination. We might feel like our Kṛṣṇa conscious arguments became validated but simple exposure to alternative views opens the possibility that they might be valid, too. Association matters, it affects us no matter what, so we should always be aware of the risk, and we can take it only in service to the mission of Lord Caitanya, not for any other reason.
Still, even in modified form the assertion doesn’t hold in this particular case. Is it an exception? Was it a particularly bad performance by the losing side? Or should my rule be modified? Well, obviously it needs modification to account for exceptions such as this. And it was an exception – it’s from six years ago, the only case that atheists could muster from hundreds if not thousands of debates widely available on youtube. In fact, when this discussion started, both atheists and believers agreed that we should not expect an instant change of mind, and no one could explain this case (or rather they didn’t even try).
Okay, it was an exception, exceptions are said to prove the rules, but the exact meaning of this saying can be contested. Originally, it was “to test the rule”, not prove it, and another meaning could that “proves that rule exists”, not that the rule is true. In any case, an exception is not a cause to freak out but rather an opportunity for deeper examination of the nature. So, what made this debate particularly bad for the Catholic Church?
One thing that needs to be mentioned that it’s possible the count was rigged. Not by the organizers but by the devious atheists (all atheists are devious by our definition). They could have known that “before and after” vote was going to take place and they could have initially stated their position as pro-Catholics only to change it to anti-Catholic later. It could have been as easy to organize as a flash mob. I don’t think these people were responsible for all the 700+ switched votes, though. Something else mush have gone very wrong for Catholics there.
Next question – how catholic were those Catholics to begin with? It is unthinkable that a person who dedicated his whole life to the church would, in just two hours, change his opinion on such a fundamental matter – is his church good or bad? And if they did change their minds so suddenly, was it a lasting change or only an instantaneous reflex to the mountain of accusations heaped on them during this debate? Would they change their minds back if they watched it again or thought deeply about it? Possibly.
Neither I nor Chopra nor numerous atheists and believers alike have any solid studies and numbers to support our view that debates don’t matter much in the short term but it doesn’t mean that we must accept any kind of quantified proof as an overriding evidence. It is evidence, we add it to the wealth of our experience, but don’t expect it to outweigh everything else that was stored there in the course of our lives. We can just dismiss it as a freaky accident and nether speak of it again – which would only confirm our rule – biases are extremely hard to overturn.
Speaking of numbers – there are studies showing that to overturn one bad impression one must counterbalance it with seven good ones. Applied to this particular debate every unpleasant fact about Catholic Church must have been given seven positive ones to balance it out, perhaps seven times more time must have been given to pro-Church speakers, but that was not the format, of course.
There’s another psychological fact that people tend to trust those saying negative things more, they assume that those criticizing are smarter than those praising. Psychologists might have explanations for this, too, but the fact stands, and it should have been accounted for by debate organizers.
The way the motion was put, “Is Catholic Church a force for good in the world?”, immediately made it into good vs bad argument, meaning making it emotionally charged and thus governed by rules other than reason and logic. It’s not what the organizers intended, of course, but something they clearly overlooked. Well, the moderator was a woman and no matter how smart they appear, they are not generally very intelligent. In this case the moderator was brilliant, witty, and had a very good control over the speakers and the audience, but this one slip on framing the discussion probably ruined it for all, and it seems for all eternity, too – since people still keep quoting it.
Would have a male moderator spotted it? Not guaranteed, of course, but in this case it was a female. Were there any males on the organizing committee – very likely, but since they gave the moderating job to a woman they were also very likely to have been captivated by her charms and considerable wit, and thus they lost their intelligence, too.
Here’s what I think we all miss about this “women have less intelligence” adage – men mixing with women are equally stupid, there’s no difference anymore. That’s why Lord Caitanya told us to avoid BOTH equally. In the contemporary society there are no independent men left, they are all willfully beholden to women, and so when feminists say that men’s superior intelligence is a myth they are absolutely right – as far as they can see.
The organizers of this debate should have stayed clear of inappropriate association with women but they probably didn’t and fell for the charms of their chosen moderator.
There was something else that I thought was odd about this debate but it escapes me now. I’m not going to dissect it statement by statement like I did with Chopra-Dawkins, it was two hours long, but I still want to cover important points, not necessarily in the content but implicitly assumed ones, like the unfortunate framing of the question or giving the moderating job to a woman. They all affected the outcome and if we continue to miss them they will affect the outcomes in the future, too. We should be able to spot and avoid such setups ourselves.