Resolved: debates at scientific meetings are a good thing (interview) (UPDATEDx3)

Last week at the American Society of Naturalists meeting there was a formal debate on the proposition “the house believes that species richness on continents is dominated by ecological limits.” Dan Rabosky and Allen Hurlbert argued for the proposition, with Luke Harmon and Susan Harrison arguing against. I think debates at scientific meetings are a great idea, and was curious to hear more about it. And I bet many of you want to hear more about it too! So I asked the debate participants and Trevor Price (the organizer) if they’d answer a few questions via email and let me post their answers. The questions and answers are below. Thanks very much to everyone who took the time to do the interview, and for providing such great answers. Fun stuff, and lots to think about too!

UPDATE #3: The video of the debate is here.


Questions for Trevor Price

1. Where did the idea for holding an Oxford-style debate come from?

A long time ago at the International Ornithological Congress in Vienna, two scientists gave back to back evening lectures , one arguing that birds were dinosaurs and one that they were not. It was always in the back of my mind as an interesting thing to do, and I definitely didn’t want to speak myself on the night allotted to me!

2. What were your goals or hopes for the debate, and do you think they were achieved? I could imagine various goals–entertainment, a conversation starter, a serious scientific discussion, a way to encourage more debate in general within the field as a whole…

I think our major achievement was that it highlighted the various lines of evidence that can be brought bear on the question, and made it clear why the question itself is so hard to resolve. It was perhaps a little unsatisfying that so much remained uncertain, but it was also good to see there was agreement on some issues, which implies progress. I feel this will encourage much more research on this important question over the next decade, especially when the two sides of the debate are published. Roughly there seemed to be three sets of people, very informed who were extremely interested, less informed who got a bit confused and finally, an unanticipated result was that people from other fields did not even realize that this was an issue, and are already considering the ideas raised during the debate in their own research (nicely dovetailing with the stated goal of the American Society of Naturalists to be a conceptual unifier).

3. How was the question for the debate chosen? I can imagine that not all questions–even all controversial ones–would be equally suitable for a formal debate.

(1) I was well aware that people had strong views, (2) I knew I could find good debaters on either side, and (3) it is the topic that I personally am currently obsessed by.

4. What sort of feedback have you gotten?

This was always going to be a trial run, and the feedback I got was that it was successful and entertaining, but we should have brought the audience in earlier. I think those who were very interested in the question, such as me, wanted it to go on for longer with the audience engaged, but others were ready for a drink. There are some things that could be improved: I should have been a more strict time-keeper, but that was hard to do on the first run. Perhaps we will change the format, with one proposer and one seconder and questions from the audience, but that has, itself, to be debated.

5. Can we look forward to more debates at future ASN meetings?

I am sure there will be, and many people were thinking of topics at the meeting.

Questions for the participants

1. What were your hopes or goals for the debate, and do you think they were achieved? Did you see it as just a bit of fun, a chance to have a serious scientific discussion, a chance to have a good argument, a chance to change some minds…?

Susan: Debating is a great way to dig into a complex issue that has good arguments on both sides. I looked forward to developing my own thinking, learning from the macroevolutionists, and having fun in front of a crowd.

Allen: I agreed to participate because it was a proposition that is closely related to my own research interests and I thought it would be a fun, high visibility venue for discussing some of the issues and evidence. I thought the debate format would be especially useful for identifying true points of disagreement, versus points that really are disagreements only by virtue of semantics or context-dependence. For example, even clarifying how we interpret the word “limit” in the context of the proposition (which we did not come up with) I expected to help resolve some points of resistance. I suppose I might have hoped a teeny bit that the debate could change some minds by virtue of the sheer logical coherence and overwhelming evidence that indisputably placed the truth on our side, but little did I realize that I was actually a walking zombie! (note from Jeremy: see here for background explaining Allen’s zombie remark)

Luke: When I signed up to debate, my motivation was mostly fun. I do think, though, that the topic is worth some discussion. I doubt the debate could change many minds but I was happy to just get people talking.

Dan: I was looking at it as a bit of fun, but was also hoping it would force me to wrestle with things a bit differently by trying to take a strong stand on a particular issue.

2. How did you prepare? Had you ever done anything like this before? I imagine that doing a debate like this demands somewhat different preparation and skills than, say, a conventional research talk.

Susan: Luke and I discussed our presentation about two weeks ahead of time, and after that, I spent a good bit of time putting together a short presentation that would dovetail with his. I also studied up: Dan’s review of density-dependent diversification, Howard Cornell’s review of limits to regional diversity, and Dov Sax’s work on invasions were especially important. Finally, I listened to Oxford-style debates on NPR’s “Intelligence Squared” to get a feel for the process.

Allen: We created a GoogleDoc with two tables, each with two columns. In the first, we listed topics or ideas that we felt constituted the strongest evidence for our case, and in the second column listed what we expected to be the counterpoints that would be made for each. In the second table, we listed the ideas and evidence that we expected the opposition to raise as the strongest evidence for the non-equilibrium case, and then our own counterpoints. I knew going in that my skills did not lie in formal debating, but since I was going in with the goal more to illuminate issues rather than win, I didn’t worry too much about that.

Luke: Nope never done anything like that. I really enjoyed the chance to dive into the ecological and evolutionary literature. I also watched several zombie films. 🙂

Dan: In the end, it was hard to know how best to do this and no, it was a new format for me. But I admit that I enjoy arguing about science, so I was comfortable with the general idea of it.

3. How do you think it went? Either in terms of the debate as a whole, your own contribution, or both?

Susan: I thought it went great. In hindsight, one change I might make is to have an active moderator who jumps in, keeps people from talking too long, and actually asks them to directly address an interesting point made by the other side, as is the case on the NPR program.

Allen: I think it went ok. It felt like there were many issues that we did not get into, mostly for time reasons, so it did not feel at all like a thorough treatment. I think there was consensus among us and the audience that we should have restricted our opening remarks to perhaps be a bit shorter, and our responses/rebuttals shorter and more frequent. We didn’t have as many back-and-forths as I was expecting, and one problem was that there was a hard deadline for when the meeting’s bar closed. I think in the future, we will make sure there is more time for audience questions. We only had time for a couple. In terms of thoroughness, it seems we will be putting out two companion papers based on the debate that all share the same subheadings, thus providing a detailed point-counterpoint. In that way, it’s less important that the actual debate cover every topic or resolve any one issue, and the point of the debate can be focused on conveying to the audience the general areas of disagreement.

Luke: I have heard that people enjoyed the debate, so that’s great. I really think the core issues in this debate are ecological, and I think that came out in the discussion. I was really happy to have recruited Susan Harrison, she was a fantastic debating partner. Dan and Allan were great opponents as well. The thing I was most happy with was the tone. We managed to have a serious discussion of issues but never got nasty. Instead I think it was fun and respectful.

Dan: As a trial run, I think it went reasonably well. It would have been nice to have had more back-and-forth with Luke and Susan, but it was late in the evening and I think the audience would have lost patience with us if we’d gone back-and-forth too many times. I’ve heard some feedback from the audience about shortening main presentations, or moving directly to Q&A with the audience, or having debates a little earlier in the evening. Stuff to think about for the future, but I’m excited that ASN is keen to continue with this and look forward to watching the next one as a member of the audience.

4. Was it fun? Would you do it again?

Susan: Yes and yes!

Allen: It was fun and I would do it again. I would work on my flair. Luke had zombies, Susan had 1960s Peter, Paul & Mary references. Perhaps I was too earnest!\

Luke: Of course!

Dan: Yes, definitely. I think debates (with the right opponents, as in this case) can be light-hearted takes on issues that otherwise are debated with much more (maybe too much) gravitas in the primary literature. That said, I think the mix of personalities this time worked pretty well at keeping a positive tone. I find myself wondering how something like this would have gone down if we were debating the merits of cladistics at a 1980s systematics meeting…

5. What sort of feedback have you gotten?

Susan: Everyone told me our side won. Everyone undoubtedly also told Dan and Allen their side won. 🙂

Allen: Everyone universally enjoyed the debate as a means of engaging with scientific ideas that was very different from a talk format. My sense is that it did little to sway anyone who had a pre-conceived opinion going in, but that it was very educational for the people who do not regularly think about these issues. Several people suggested actually surveying the audience before and after to actually see whether there was a shift, which would have been cool.

Luke: I have heard a lot about zombies.

6. Not everyone is equally comfortable with debate and criticism. Many people find getting peer reviews stressful, for instance. Do you think formal debates like this have a role to play in encouraging people to be comfortable with debate and criticism in general?

Susan: Perhaps. But what makes debating fun is that you don’t have to win, which is very different from an NSF grant.

Allen: Yes, I think this is a great format that allows people to raise strong objections to each other without the potential stigma of being seen as a jerk. I was talking with a grad student who thought a great format for a grad seminar would be to spend a week or two reading key papers on either side of an issue, and then having students actually debate it in a subsequent meeting. Then repeat this for 3 or 4 issues over the course of the semester.

Luke: I hope so. I think civilized debate is a great way to start a conversation in a field. I hear about aggressive nastiness among scientists, and I hate that.

Dan: Perhaps. I think debate in general can play a role in starting discussions about ideas out without the excessive nuancing that would be likely in the peer reviewed literature. Sometimes polarization is a good starting point.

7. Any other thoughts you wanted to share?

Susan: I don’t think it would be any fun unless I could respect and enjoy hearing the other side’s arguments (…so much for global warming or creation versus evolution…)

Bonus question for Luke: I hear you brought up zombie ideas! Any comments on that? 🙂

Luke: I think about “zombie ideas” a lot. Some concepts have the power to guide thinking in productive ways; questioning zombies is a great example.

12 thoughts on “Resolved: debates at scientific meetings are a good thing (interview) (UPDATEDx3)

  1. Thanks again to everyone for doing the interview. Some random thoughts:

    -I totally agree with the idea of a formal debate as creating a “safe space” in which it’s ok and even fun for people to criticize one another’s ideas. Peer review serves the same purpose, although as Susan notes it’s less fun because the stakes are higher. I sometimes wonder if that’s part of what makes some folks uncomfortable with blogs as a medium for discussion and debate. A blog isn’t a formal practice in which all participants have agreed to participate. So if you do a blog post criticizing something, then no matter how you phrase it or what evidence and arguments I present, it’s possible you’ll be seen by some as just trying to pick a fight.

    -Re: zombie ideas, I’m of course pleased that the notion seemed to get a laugh and created some buzz. When I first introduced the phrase into ecology, it was my hope that it would be seen as funny or whimsical, and that the humor would help to create a space in which it was ok to debate what I saw as some serious issues. But for various reasons it might actually do the opposite–at least for some people, it make it harder rather than easier to have a discussion. I’ll probably post about this at some point down the road…

    -In terms of how to run this sort of debate, I definitely think it would be fun to poll the audience before and after in order to find out if or how views shifted. That’s done for many other formal debates, like the Munk Debates. And yeah, I could see where it might help to have a moderator jumping in to keep the back-and-forth going and steer the two sides towards engaging with and responding to each other. In peer review, the editor kind of plays that role–the author has to respond to every point raised by the reviewers, on pain of having the editor reject the ms.

    • I think such debates sound like a great idea — I wish I’d been at the meeting. And I think you may be right about blog posts as potentially a “less safe space” than a formal debate — but they do beat some other options and inject some modicum of democracy into arguments.

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  3. This post made me really curious about the outcome, not necessarily the process, but I guess we have to wait for the papers for that….. or could the opponents be seduced to write a guest-post on that? I think that would be really great, and then others can also chime-in in the comments and we can really resolve this!

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