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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

The Talk.Origins Rules of Engagement

Post of the Month: August 2000

by Louann Miller

Subject:    Newbies and Rules of Engagement: thoughts toward a mini-FAQ
Date:       July 10, 2000
Message-ID: 8kdn5b$2s4$

We've had a fairly large number of newcomers through the meat gr ... I mean, the vigorous idea-testing process of bracing public debate recently. An unusually large number of them (this is an impression, not numeric data) seem to have either fled after a few posts or hardened down quickly into Conrad-like evasions of the main points of discussion. The fun of moral superiority is all very well, but I'd like to see some good discussion of the data for a change and we don't get much of that without thoughtful and reasoned opposition.

Granted, we can't make a thoughtful human being out of a ranter just by handling them differently. But I can't help thinking that there are some moderates, or something resembling moderates, being driven away along with the loon squad. I think part of it is the old problem of different underlying assumptions about how debates should be conducted in the first place. We've got the, which does a great job. But usually the newbies have gotten themselves in way too deep, and gotten way too stomped on, before they ever locate it. I was thinking that creating a really short FAQ that could be posted to the list regularly once a week or so might give them a sort of a sporting chance.

Here are some preliminary notes about the points which, as far as I can see, create the most trouble with first-timers. Please jump in any time.


QUESTIONS. Many first-time posts begin with a series of questions. "How can you believe men evolved from apes, when there are still apes around?" "Why do people think that evolution is a religion?"

In life in general, people ask two types of questions. There are rhetorical questions, where an answer is not expected. "How could you do such a thing?" You don't want to hear an answer -- you want the person to know you're angry. And there are ordinary literal questions, which are asked because you want to know the answer. "How old are you? How tall is your brother? Did you graduate from college?"

The first and perhaps most important rule of -- we WILL answer questions, whether they're meant as rhetorical or literal. "How can you believe humans are only apes?" "Well, not only apes. We're a very specific and smart kind of ape. There are several reasons for thinking we're close relatives. First, there are the morphological similarities. (Much detail, with footnotes.) Second, there are the genetic similarities. (More detail.) Third ..."

The person answering in this way is not doing it to be sarcastic (or if he is, that by itself doesn't invalidate the answers). The basic assumption here is that if you ask, it's because you want to know. Asking questions for effect, in hopes that there will be no answers given, is considered less than honest here.


CITE? This is a one-word question people will often ask here. It's a request for the exact source of your information. If you've ever written a paper in school, this will be familiar because it's basically a request for a footnote. The more exactly your source of information is identified, the more easily readers can decide how much credit to give the source. If I say, "Somebody told me that Charles Darwin hated slavery," that proves very little. But if I say "Charles Darwin hated slavery, because in Chapter X and Y of 'Voyage of the Beagle' he writes about how noble a runaway slave was when she killed herself rather than be recaptured" then you've got something you can check for yourself.

Second rule of -- a request for a cite is always in order. It is not a cut-down or an insult; it's a normal, neutral way of keeping our information straight. You're allowed and encouraged to ask for cites yourself. But -- harking back to rule one here -- if you ask for a cite, it's assumed that you want one. If someone gives you a source for his information, and you still dismiss what's been said without going to look for the cite -- again, it's not seen as honest.

You may be getting the impression by this time that carrying on a debate in can lead to massive amounts of homework. How right you are. But sometimes people don't want to work that hard, which is where we get --


PERSONAL ATTACKS. There are a lot of personal attacks in, just as there are in any talk.* newsgroup. One of the reasons for this FAQ is the hope that newcomers knowing the ropes may reduce that problem a little. But there are still right ways and wrong ways to handle the problem. Personal attacks in are like fights during a hockey game. It's hard to stop them from happening, but the goal is to stop them having any effect on the final score.

Suppose that you've posted a message like this: "I don't believe in human evolution because lots of transitional fossils like Piltdown Man and Nebraska Man have turned out to be forgeries." This being Usenet, you get several responses to the thread. Two of them go like this:

Poster 1: You lousy rotten religious fanatic! Everybody knows you people are full of it. Read this web article X to see how wrong you are.

Poster 2: We've heard that one before. I'm afraid you have some bad information. Read these articles X and Y for details. Nebraska Man was an honest mistake, corrected by the man who discovered it in 1925. Piltdown Man was a fake, but it was caught out in 1948. (Dates not exact; I'm quoting from memory -- LM) There are hundreds of other fossil hominids from dozens of other species, so those two bad pieces of data don't prove anything at this late date.

It's a natural human temptation to respond to Poster 1: "You stinking fishbait snothead, watch what you call me! I don't have to read your rotten web site. You're stupid." Natural, but not the best approach. What's even worse is to respond this way to Poster 1 and completely ignore the more polite Poster 2. That leaves the impression that you're using Poster 1's bad manners as an excuse to ignore his good data -- and also Poster 2's good data.

Third rule of -- if someone has both an attitude and a point, ignore his attitude and address his point. Doing the reverse makes him look good (crude maybe, but honest) and you look evasive. Sticking to the data in the face of personal provocation will make you look mature and sensible. If someone has an attitude and NO point, of course, feel free to ignore him entirely.


PERSONAL ATTACKS, RELIGION BASED. In many social circles, calling someone an atheist ranks with calling him a child pornographer; it totally destroys the person's credibility. is a bad place to use this technique for two reasons. One, half of us really are atheists. Two, half of us aren't.

The conversation about the evils of atheism is never goes well for the religious side here. An overtly religious creationist unwittingly puts himself on the wrong end of a double standard. An atheist arguing evolution only has to demonstrate that he has his facts right; he doesn't claim to be unusually good or noble personally. A person arguing creationism for religious reasons has to prove that his facts are right AND that he and his religion are morally better than everyone else. This often turns into the creationist trying to claim that his facts are right BECAUSE he and his religion are morally better than everyone else.

This is where it turns into a massacre, because this implicit claim usually comes at the end of a string of vicious personal exchanges which make everyone involved look thoroughly unholy. Then the religious creationist goes off muttering how evil atheists are. The atheists go off muttering how evil 'Fundies' are, and telling each other stories about how glad they are not to have to believe that stuff any more. (Aggressive atheists are usually former believers. The more strict and literal their former church was, and the more horrific their story about why they left, the more aggressive they are.) The middle ground people who are both religious and think evolution is the way God made the world, which is lots, go away deeply embarrassed to have to claim kinship with the religious creationists.

Quick summary: Don't ask questions if you don't want to listen to the answers. Don't take it personally if people ask you to footnote your sources. Don't get drawn into personal sniping sessions instead of sticking to the facts. And don't assume that everyone will agree that your religion is the best one.

I seem to have lost sight of that whole "short" concept. But what do you think, sirs?


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