Jon Perry
 on August 28, 2019

5 Tips for Engaging in Online Debate

Jon Perry provides 5 tips for moving past the "dumpster fires" of online debate and lead discussions down the right path.

person's hands typing on a laptop

Seven months after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a heated debate broke out during a conference at Oxford’s Natural History Museum. It included all the guilty pleasures we’ve come to know and love about evolution debates: name-calling, Bible-thumping, and personal attacks. The 1860 debate was so intense that at one point, a lady in the audience is said to have fainted in shock. The event turned Thomas Henry Huxley into a celebrity of sorts. He later came to be known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his relentless defense of evolutionary theory.

Over the years, Huxley’s bulldog tactics did seem to work as tools for persuading a crowd, but they often had the opposite effect on the people he directly debated. Many responded by doubling down in their rejection of his arguments, a psychological phenomenon now often referred to as the backfire effect (a delightful explanation of the backfire effect can be found in the online cartoon The Oatmeal).

While the scientific community has long since accepted evolution, sadly, the 1860 debate seems to have set the tone for discussions outside the community ever since. I get to watch it play out every single day. In 2012 I started a YouTube channel and website called “Stated Clearly.” There, I teach evolution and other science topics through short, friendly animations. Have you ever spent a few minutes in the YouTube comments under a video about evolution? Have you ever witnessed a Twitter debate on the topic? Due to the nature of my channel, from insults to death wishes, I get it all!

Personally, I know many people of all different worldviews who can have reasonable conversations about evolution, but these are not the ones usually chiming in online. On one side, you’ll find a group of angry Young Earth Creationists, often threatening hellfire or parroting long debunked claims that evolution has been falsified. On the other hand, you have a gang of angry defenders, bent on ridiculing Christian viewers and often exaggerating scientific discoveries. Both sides are fueled by ego and emboldened by anonymity.

It’s a dumpster fire. We can do better than this.

Stated Clearly illustration of a dumpster on fire

After many years watching these fights unfold in my comment section, and after countless attempts at intervention, I’m writing today to share with you what I have learned. I offer 5 guidelines, which, when I follow, often turn nasty arguments into genuine conversations. I hope they will help you as well. While the approach is intended for individual discussions online, classroom teachers may find aspects of these useful in their work as well.

Ignore insults

Many people see the science of evolution as a direct assault on their faith. Add this to the fact that evolution debates have historically been peppered with colorful insults, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that your partner is expecting a brutal boxing match from the start. Don’t be surprised if round one starts with them hitting below the belt.

When insulted, ignore it. In a classroom setting, you may not have this luxury, but online just let it slide. Don’t correct their spelling, don’t respond with a wittier insult (however tempting), don’t expect an apology, don’t even bother asking for a change in behavior. Instead, look past the insult to find the actual question or confusion your partner is having. Then respond to that question or address that confusion directly. Not only will this help your partner learn, but also, in almost every case (yes, even with a stranger on the internet) your partner will immediately calm down and mirror your respectful demeanor.

Make the conversation private

What’s the end goal of the conversation you are having? Is it to help your discussion partner or is it so show off how smart you are? If you are trying to reach the masses, there are better ways to do it than arguing on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube comments. Ego is the number one fuel for the dumpster fire. In a public online debate, ego will be pushing both of you to “win” at all costs. Honesty and civility are often the first casualties.

If you actually care to change your debate partner’s mind, move the discussion to private message, email, or best of all, a face-to-face conversation. It is amazing how quickly this will fix things. In a private conversation, ego melts away (mostly) and you will almost immediately see your partner as a real person rather than a random troll on the internet.

How do I do this? Simple. I will often give them a link to something short but relevant and then ask them to discuss it with me in direct message. It might look like this:

“It seems you don’t see how new genetic information could evolve. There have been several studies looking into this. Here is a 10 minute video that goes over a few of those studies. Will you watch it and then we can discuss it via messenger? I’m much more likely to see your response there than in the YouTube comments.”

People are far more willing to accept new ideas and ask meaningful questions when they’re not trying to show off.

Side note: If you don’t know the person in real life, be careful not to give them too much info about how to find you. Use a communication system that will allow you to block them if things get unsafe. In other words, it’s still important to be wise, even while you give them the benefit of the doubt.

person reading a phone and also raising the other hand to their mouth

Assume the role of an educator

Years ago, right before beginning the Stated Clearly project, I heard the saying “If they have not learned, you have not taught.” It hit me hard. It’s a modified quote from basketball coach and high school educator, John Wooden. Every time I’m tempted to enter a discussion, I think of this, then I think of the best teachers I had in school. How would they handle this topic?

Accepting my discussion partner as a student, rather than an enemy, allows me to calmly meet them at their current level of understanding, and gently help increase that understanding. They don’t have to go away knowing and accepting everything I know and accept, the goal is really just to increase their understanding as much as reasonably possible.

As an educator, what I teach must be accurate, backed by solid research, and never exaggerated to help “win” a debate. If I’m stumped by a student’s question, I can just tell them I don’t know. This is far better than making something up.

If I find that my partner is not learning, I cannot blame them. Instead, I must keep my cool, change my approach, and try again. While there are cases where the person simply doesn’t want to learn, in general: If they have not learned, I have not taught.

Send materials that your partner is likely to trust and actually use

Let’s suppose that after asking questions and listening to your partner’s point of view, you find that she rejects evolution because she thinks it is merely a doctrine of atheism. In this case, I don’t recommend sending her home with a book by a scientist known to actively insult religion. While many of those authors are great at teaching science, I would try to connect her to an author whose worldview resonates better with hers. Regulars at BioLogos will be familiar with many resources produced from a Christian perspective.

I recently discovered a wonderful book called God’s Word or Human Reason? (Inkwater Press, 2016). Its authors (Jonathan Kane, Emily Willoughby, and Michael Keesey) were all once card-carrying Young Earth Creationists (YEC). The book is full of the most careful and respectful responses to the arguments put forth by the YEC movement that I have ever seen.

If you aren’t familiar with the people or organizations your partner would trust, there are many sources of religiously neutral writings: articles produced by the NCSE, Evolution in Minutes by Dr. Darren Naish, or the works of my favorite evo-author, Carl Zimmer, to name a few.

Also be aware of your partner’s time constraints and familiarity with science. I started making the Stated Clearly animation series because I realized there is a need for short, friendly lessons that could be easily understood by non-scientists. They’re free for you to use and send to your discussion partners as needed.

Have a guilt-free exit plan

Let’s face it, you have a life outside the fascinating world of online evolution debates. Respect your partner’s time and ask them to do the same if they’re not automatically returning the favor. If things are too taxing, let them know. There’s no shame in letting a conversation go, so long as you can do it respectfully. My general formula is: Thanks but I can’t continue due to time constraints, here’s something worth reading on the topic.

I recently had a to end a conversation like this:

“It’s been great chatting with you about this but, as I’m sure is also true for you, the conversation has been cutting into my schedule a bit too deep. In closing I’d just like to recommend this article “40 years of invitro evolution”, it summarizes the discovery that biological evolution can take place in systems that are far simpler than modern living cells. It will help you understand why several research groups have been captivated by the possibility of an RNA-first scenario for the origin of life.”

So that’s it! My 5 tips for moving past the dumpster fire that is online debate! In a world filled with bulldogs, be an educator. This approach has helped me make a diverse group of new friends and keep things pleasant with YEC family members, all while standing up for the science I care so much about. Remember: If they have not learned, you have not taught.

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About the author

Jon Perry holding megaphone

Jon Perry

Jon Perry is an artist, science educator, and founder of the Stated Clearly project. There he works with scientists and other educators to create animations about genetics, chemistry, and evolution. The goal is to take scientific concepts that are commonly misunderstood, simplify them, and presents them in short, friendly animations for the public. The animations are used in public classrooms and have found a large following on YouTube. The project is funded through viewer support. Jon was brought up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly called the “Mormon Church”). Though he left the religion in his early 20s, he understands the value of faith, appreciates many of the teachings of Jesus Christ, and respects the strength of community that religion provides. He has been lucky enough to maintain strong bonds with family and friends within the church since leaving. He lives near Montreal with his spouse and two dogs.