I Am, Regrettably, Declining To Debate You: Here’s Why.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 4.824% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

You are a stranger who’s shown up in my comments, desiring a debate on the topic I just opined upon. “I am a logical human,” you tell me. “Swayed only by facts! So marshal your best facts, and you can convince me I’m wrong!”

While a kind offer, dear sir, I’m afraid I shan’t. And here’s the reasons why:

1) You’re Presuming It’s Worth My Time To Convince You.
I don’t know you. And maybe the same arguments I could use to convince you would be the same arguments that bring Ted Cruz to his knees, weeping, realizing that everything he thought is wrong.

But probably not.

And honestly, saying I need to convince you attaches a kind of importance to yourself, doesn’t it? Like you’re the gold standard, and if I convince you then vast riches will follow. Unfortunately, a lot of white cisdudes carry this attitude – “I am the only person truly worth debating, and unless you engage me – me personally then your argument is worthless.”

Dude, you’re just some schmuck on the Internet. Same as me. Maybe if you had a Joe Rogan-sized audience or something I might think “Well, here’s a valuable investment,” but is worth taking an hour out of my busy day to try to win you over?

Especially when I don’t know you. I mean, you say you’re logical, but every flat-Earther-and-lizard-rulers claims that. Based on past experience – because I’ve debated thousands of folks before – there’s like an 80% chance that anyone who comes saying “You must win me over!” is so thoroughly in the other camp that there’s no possible reconciliation.

And 80% is generous.

So yeah, you’ve started out by inflating your own self-importance. But to me, you’re an investment – If I spend my time engaging with this person, is that expenditure going to pay off?

Already, based on assumptions? Probably not. That’s not a ding on you, or anyone who does choose to invest, but I’ve got books to write, a podcast to produce, and partners I could be texting.

You’re kind of a distraction.

2) Engaging You In Public May Lend Your Stupid Argument My Credence.
Someone comes to you and says, “Milk is actually just chalk urine. Because chalk is alive, and it pees milk.”

Do you:
a) Spend hours refuting this argument, or:
b) Have a laugh and move on?

Probably b. Because some arguments are so patently false that it’s easy to walk past ’em.

Ah, but what if the person is from the Chalk Is Alive movement, a group that’s posted hundreds of books and webpages refuting the idea that milk comes from – of all creatures – cows? Why, here’s a hundred links pointing to prominent celebrities confusing cows and bulls, obviously nobody would make that mistake if cows were real, SEE THE COWSPIRACY

Should you engage then?

I’d argue not, for three very important reasons:
a) No matter how much you argue, milk comes from cows. (Or, okay, mammals.)
b) A person this deep in the bag isn’t gonna be convinced they’re wrong.
c) Giving air time to this jamook’s views in your comment thread by treating this ludicrous proposition like it’s worth debating convinces some aspect of your audience that there’s a legitimate debate to be had, thus encouraging people to join the Chalk Urine movement.

I’ve discussed this before in my essay A Reminder: You Don’t Have To Propagate Right-Wing Talking Points… but there’s this weird idea that “the marketplace of ideas” will somehow expunge all untruths, when the actual truth is that the Internet has allowed for perhaps the greatest expansion of free speech in the history of humanity, where anyone can have a platform that rivals the greatest of newspapers…

And what we’ve gotten is one of the greatest swirls of mis- and disinformation ever, peppered with the same old depressingly anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

If “free speech” was the solution, it would be solved.

It ain’t. Therefore, giving your skewed views time or credence by debate may be just rallying newbies to the cause.

Is that the case with all viewpoints? Of course not. Some concerns are legitimate. Some folks are worth engaging with, because they do have actual concerns that can be assuaged with data. But that brings me to point #3….

3) Data Isn’t Neutral.
The people who cram twenty links into a five-paragraph comment believe they’re the easiest to convince – but in my (anecdotal) experience, every time these folks are not so much “using the data to derive their opinion” but “justifying their emotions by seeking out correlation.”

We can get into a link war, where I muster fifty links from my well-placed sources and you muster fifty-one links from your bullshit ones, and at the end of the day, well….

We get back to “Is this a good use of my time?”

Because the problem is that it’s hard to tell good bullshit from actual sources these days. I believe firmly in wearing masks, but I’ve had some anti-maskers post reputable links from what looked like good sites and actual data, until physician friends of mine explained to me why those studies were bad.

Fact is, if you have an opinion – any opinion – you can find a thousand links to back it up, even if it’s terrible. And if you’re looking to have your opinion changed, I don’t think data’s the way that it happens for most people.

I think most people devise their gut first and then find data to support it.

And again, I don’t know you. Maybe you’re a special snowflake. But let’s get to point #4….

4) Will This Be A Debate?
I define a “debate” as “a place where both participants have a chance of having their minds changed.” I take care to delineate where I can have a debate (economic policies, effective methods of policing, best Pixar movie) and where I can’t (who gets to use the bathroom, whether cops should measure threats based on how scared they are, best Star Wars movie).

(A New Hope. I have classic Star Wars tattoos. You’re not gonna convince me otherwise, but you be happy in your fandom.)

But to too many others, “debate” means “we clash to show off who’s smartest,” and fuck that. I want the truth when I debate. And I’m smart enough and good enough with words to know how to deflect people away from your weak logic, how to put a shine on turdy ideas, how to structure a story so you’re sympathizing with the people I need you to.

That’s fine technique for winning an audience over, but… I actually want the truth, not to win.

Again, I don’t know you. Maybe you think the same way? But probably not. Especially not if you’re basically flinging the glove down to demand a duel.

So you’re not the person I’m debating. And I’m sorry. I know you thought it was important to talk to you personally. But in the end, you’re an investment, and I’m the banker saying I don’t see a profit here.

There’s people who are probably willing, though. Maybe you can find someone! Or maybe you can educate yourself.

If you were ever willing to admit you might be wrong in the first place. But there’s a good chance I’m not because I’ve sifted through enough evidence that I’m reasonably certain that milk comes from cows, which, again, is a good reason for me to decline.

Sorry. It’s not me, it’s you.


  1. Doug S.
    Feb 25, 2021

    Heh, my personal favorite Star Wars movie is The Last Jedi – I won’t claim it’s any kind of objectively best, though. De gustibus non est disputandum. 🙂

    I do happen to be the type that debates for fun and often appreciates “link wars”, but I also try to appreciate that people often have better things to do than argue with random people on the Internet. Also, part of the value of Internet debates is not to convince the person you’re “debating” but rather to show your point of view to the less vocal audience; silence can sometimes be taken as agreement, although you’re under no obligation to correct the record every time someone says something stupid.

  2. Doug S.
    Feb 25, 2021

    By the way, which Pixar movie do you think is the best?

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