We all like to think that we base our views on evidence, but sometimes evidence gets in the way of a good argument. Here are 8 good ways to avoid evidence (with examples).
1. Don’t bother to check
There are things we all know, and there’s no need to check the evidence before we present the facts.
There’s a small example of this in John Loftus’ latest book, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails. In a chapter on witch hunts, John apparently discusses the medieval instrument of torture, the iron maiden. Trouble is, historians tell us this is probably an anachronism – there are no reliable reports of iron maidens in medieval times (some stories are considered to have been faked), and the first iron maidens were apparently built only about 200 years ago.
This is only a minor matter, and John could easily have used some other device as his example, but it does throw his historical research into doubt. (By the way, I looked at more than a dozen internet articles and several books, which don’t all agree, before coming to these conclusions.)
I must confess I have almost fallen into this mistake several times while writing this blog. I write in some “facts” that I “know” and then later remember to check them, only to find my memory wasn’t fully correct, and I have to edit it a little before I post it.
2. Just ignore it
If the evidence doesn’t support what you want to say, just ignore it. Your opponents may not know about it and you might easily get away with it.
This tactic seems to have been used by Richard Carrier in a discussion of the so-called fine tuning of the universe in a chapter of a book (coincidentally, another book edited by John Loftus). Carrier made a number of confident statements about the conclusions of scientists and I daresay his readers probably accepted what he said.
Unfortunately, cosmologist Luke Barnes contested the facts, referencing about 200 scientific papers by some of the world’s most eminent cosmologists, showing that Carrier’s understanding was incorrect (as a subsequent review by JJ Lowder demonstrated).
3. Be selective
If the majority of experts disagree with you, just quote the one or two who go against the consensus. It sounds impressive and your opponents amy not realise what you are doing.
Those who disbelieve in climate change can quote the few scientists who share their disbelief, and ignore the vast majority who accept the science. Likewise christians who disbelieve in evolution can quote the few scientists who share their doubts and ignore the rest.
And you don’t have to go far to find sceptics these days who argue that Jesus probably didn’t exist. For example, the late Christopher Hitchens spoke of “the highly questionable existence of Jesus” and Richard Dawkins has written in similar negative way, at one time using as his reference Professor GA Wells. Many other sceptics reference Robert Price or Richard Carrier to support their views.
They fail to point out though, that Wells was a Professor of German, not history, and Price and Carrier are just about the only published scholars who hold that view, while the overwhelming consensus of historians is quite different. Eminent historian (and agnostic) EP Sanders sums up the consensus: “There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life”
The fine-tuning argument also often suffers from the same tactic. Disbelievers in fine-tuning often quote the writings of the late Victor Stenger, even though his ideas have been systematically refuted in Luke Barnes’ paper, which cites 200 papers.
4. Misinterpret the evidence
It is easy to misinterpret evidence, whether deliberately or accidentally. You can sound like you have done your research, and unless someone has read the same sources, you might get away with it.
It happened on this blog a while back, in comments on a discussion of the archaeological evidence for Nazareth. A commenter referenced the writings of ancient historian Josephus and said: “Josephus lists 204 Galilean towns ….. Bit odd that he wouldn’t mention [Nazareth]”.
Unfortunately, checking the source paper showed that Josephus only stated that there were 204 towns, while naming only 35 (17%). That “fact” is often quoted, but the evidence is different. It is no surprise that Josephus didn’t name the small village of Nazareth.
5. Poison the well
One of the best ways to dismiss evidence you don’t like is to disparage the expert who has provided the evidence. If the expert is an atheist when you are a christian, or vice versa, you merely have to claim that this has distorted their scholarship. Even better, claim they are biased even when you don’t actually know what they believe.
Don’t worry that this is a libel against eminent scholars who publish in peer reviewed journals – “all’s fair in love and war”. And don’t worry that your side is as likely to be biased as the opposing side.
The internet debate over whether Jesus existed is full of this. Those who like to quote Richard Carrier’s or Robert Price’s very sceptical views often accuse the remaining scholars of being “apologists”, even though they include non-believers like Maurice Casey, Michael Grant and Bart Ehrman, and a Jew (Geza Vermes).
6. Disparage those who disagree with you
A similar tactic works with those you are discussing with. Call them delusional or blind, biased or a faith-head. Mock them, particularly if you are in the majority in that particular discussion.
Of course mockery proves nothing, and is no substitute for an evidence-based argument, but those who agree with you probably won’t care, and those who disagree will likely get sick of it soon enough.
Richard Carrier’s argument with Luke Barnes provides an example of this too. He dismisses Barnes with “Barnes is something of a kook. He claims to be responding to arguments he doesn’t even articulate correctly or even appear to understand”, even though Barnes is the expert, citing experts and judged by JJ Lowder to have made a persuasive case (see #2 above).
7. Make an excuse to withdraw from the argument
If you are struggling to defend your view in an argument, particularly if your opponent seems to have the evidence on their side, beat a hasty retreat. Say that you are sick of the topic, or, better still, can’t be bothered with someone so obstinate and blind to the facts.
This tactic was used in two of the discussions I’ve referenced above.
- Richard Carrier terminated his discussion with Luke Barnes (#2 & # 6 above) with: “I’m not going to continue spending time on this conversation. You have consistently failed to correctly grasp anyone’s argument you aim to argue against. And you make only strange and irrelevant arguments against them. This is a waste of anyone’s time.”
- The discussion about Nazareth (#4 above) ended with the commenter who misquoted the evidence saying: “I’m pretty bored of this subject”.
8. Speak confidently
If you can speak or write fluently, you can sound confident and get away without being limited by the evidence. Christopher Hitchens wrote “Religion poisons everything”, Richard Dawkins suggested christians are “delusional, and Stephen Weinberg said “for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”. They sound confident and authoritative, but they ignore what science has found.
For science has found that religious faith has many positive benefits for health and wellbeing, and historians have found that religion is not a major cause of wars as sometimes claimed. David Sloan Wilson, who has researched this subject, criticised Dawkins for being unscientific.
Keep your eyes open
If you keep your eyes open, you’ll find these tactics being used, whether deliberately or unwittingly I cannot say. But of course, to recognise them, you’ll need to check the evidence for yourself.
Most of the examples I have used here involve non-believers, because those are the examples I have most commonly come across being used against me, and because sceptics tend to put great emphasis on their claim to be evidence based.
But I don’t claim only unbelievers avoid the evidence. I am quite aware that christians can use the same tactics, and I disagree just as much with that.