Suggested rules of thumb for online debate based on experience arguing with fundamentalists, creationists, and Scientologists. Given at the American Humanist Association conference, Tempe, AZ, June
Suggested rules of thumb for online debate based on experience arguing with fundamentalists, creationists, and Scientologists. Given at the American Humanist Association conference, Tempe, AZ, June 4, 2009.
1. Lessons learned from 25 years of battling
creationists, Scientologists, and
American Humanist Association conference
June 4, 2009
Thesis: Suppression of criticism is a failed business
model in the age of the Internet.
This doesn’t mean truth wins--it can be unnoticed, or
attacked with wrong but unanswered criticisms.
Truth can be promoted through archives of information
that earn reputations for trustworthiness.
4. Christian fundamentalism
The Five Fundamentals:
Inerrancy of the Scriptures
The virgin birth and divinity of Jesus
Doctrine of substitutionary atonement by God’s
grace and human faith
The authenticity of Christ’s miracles (or pre-millenial
5. Lesson 1
Minds can be
including your own.
6. Lesson 2
Publish and preserve
an archive of your
7. Preferably in an archive
with a positive
The Secular Web
regularly links to, and
rebuttals to its own
work, as well as fosters
online debates, formal
8. Lesson 3
Others will use your
work to accomplish
new and surprising
9. Young-earth creationism
Creation Research Society Statement of Belief:
1. The Bible is the written Word of God, and because it is inspired throughout, all its assertions are
historically and scientiﬁcally true in the original autographs. To the student of nature this means that the
account of origins in Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths.
2. All basic types of living things, including man, were made by direct creative acts of God during the
Creation Week described in Genesis. Whatever biological changes have occurred since Creation Week
have accomplished only changes within the original created kinds.
3. The great ﬂood described in Genesis, commonly referred to as the Noachian Flood, was an historic
event worldwide in its extent and effect.
4. We are an organization of Christian men and women of science who accept Jesus Christ as our Lord
and Savior. The account of the special creation of Adam and Eve as one man and one woman and their
subsequent fall into sin is the basis for our belief in the necessity of a Savior for all mankind. Therefore,
salvation can come only through accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior.
10. The CRS Van Andel
Center is right here in
And so is Walter Brown’s
Center for Scientiﬁc
11. Lesson 4
Do your homework.
12. Most of creationism consists of attacks on evolution.
There are two key exceptions in young-earth
Flood geology as an explanation of the geological
and fossil record, and
a 6,000-10,000-year-old earth.
These are two points that Duane Gish of the Institute
for Creation Research always refused to debate.
13. The Gish Gallop
Presenting your opponent with many brief arguments
against his position, across a wide range of ﬁelds, most
of which are outside his area of expertise.
Gish looks like an expert in many ﬁelds.
The opponent can’t address most of the evidence
due to lack of sufﬁcient time and expertise.
14. Philip Kitcher’s response
Set terms of the debate as a
comparison of biblical creationism
vs. evolution as an explanation for
Provide the case that Gish declined
to give, and refute it.
15. Lesson 5
16. Mark Isaak, The Counter-
2007, University of
17. Lesson 6
Specialize, and dig as
deep as you can.
18. Lesson 7
Be honest. Admit and correct your mistakes.
19. Lesson 8
Be willing to criticize
people on your own
scientists and skeptics
can be unreliable.
20. Lesson 9
Use the principle of charity.
21. Lesson 10
Be willing to befriend, or at least be civil and polite, to
people you disagree with. In most cases, you probably
share some common ground, such as a commitment
to pursuit of the truth.
22. Lesson 11
This may lead to
personal attacks from
people “on your side.”
23. Lesson 12
Lessons 7-10 may lead
to interesting and
24. “Facing the Fire,” a 2008
about the 1988 Plimer/
Gish debate, released on
DVD with the entire 3-
25. Plimer is now facing
criticism from others
about his most recent
work, a book arguing
that there is no scientiﬁc
support for man-caused
26. Scientology v. the Internet
Church of Scientology Media Relations Director Leisa
Goodman on a 1995 MTV special on cults:
KURT LODER: I do understand there's like a
galactic overlord, Xenu. Is there a whole staff of
characters, or is that not true?
LEISA GOODMAN: Oh, I...I don't think...I don't really
know what you mean, what you're talking about.
27. OTIII--Operating Thetan
III, in L. Ron Hubbard’s
own handwriting. To
read this without
(being “clear” and
OT I and II) was to risk
serious illness or death.
28. Lesson 13
29. Scientology’s past
1963: Scientology raided by FDA for medical claims about E-meters.
1972: Scientology frames Paulette Cooper for bomb threats (and in 1976, tries to
get her committed to a mental institution). (“Operation Freakout”)
1973: Scientology Guardian Ofﬁce inﬁltrates government ofﬁces (IRS, Treasury,
Interpol, DEA, etc.), but two participants get caught in 1974. (“Operation Snow
1977: FBI raids Church of Scientology locations in CA and DC, discovering plots
against Cooper, the mayor of Clearwater, FL, CSICOP, and others. 11
Scientologists are indicted, including Mary Sue Hubbard, who takes the fall for her
Scientology engages in extensive litigation against critics and former members, and
is dubbed by Time magazine “The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power” (May 6,
1991). Scientology sues Time Warner and journalist Richard Behar.
A Usenet newsgroup created on July 17, 1991, which
became very active in 1994.
An email from Elaine
Siegel, CSI Ofﬁce of
Special Affairs (OSA)
32. a.r.s, late 1994
Sep. 14: An anonymous poster leaks a Scientology plan to handle Internet critics.
Nov. 10: Former Scientologist Arnie Lerma, who had been posting court
documents pertaining to Scientology, is personally visited by two men with an
unsigned afﬁdavit in his name. The document says he recanted his attacks on
Scientology and that he “left the Church entirely because I could not maintain a
high enough ethical standard and wished to protect the organization from my
destructive behavior.” He didn’t sign, but called the FBI and the Washington Post,
which reported the account on December 25, 1994 (also reported by Associated
Press, January 3, 1995).
Dec.: Scientology secret materials are posted anonymously, and declared genuine
by former Scientologist OTVIII Dennis Erlich, who started posting in August.
Forged cancellation messages begin to be issued to delete these postings,
including Erlich’s commentaries. The unknown entity responsible is dubbed the
33. Lesson 14
There can be signiﬁcant real-world consequences of
34. a.r.s, 1995
Jan. 3: Religious Technology Center attorney Thomas Small gives notice to
anonymous remailer operators that they are infringing Scientology copyrights by
allowing anonymous posts to a.r.s and alt.clearing.technology (a.c.t)
Jan. 10: RTC attorney Helena K. Kobrin attempts to remove the a.r.s and a.c.t
newsgroups from all Usenet servers, which fails.
Feb. 13: A team of people shows up at the home of Dennis Erlich at 7:30 a.m. with
a writ of seizure. Erlich calls 911 but is told he has to let them in. They conﬁscate
ﬂoppy disks and tape backups, photocopy many of his personal papers, and
delete ﬁles from his computer. RTC serves Erlich, his ISP, L.A. Valley College BBS,
and its upstream provider, Netcom, with a lawsuit for copyright infringement, and a
TRO is issued against them.
35. Picketing begins
36. Mar. 24: Scientology-hired private
investigator Eugene Ingram visits Jeff
Jacobsen’s employer, his sister’s
house, and makes frequent drives
through his neighborhood and
questioned his neighbors.
Mar. 28: Jacobsen is served a
subpoena to be deposed by
Scientology attorneys in a case
involving the Cult Awareness Network.
Apr. 4: Jacobsen is informed by his
local telco that three attempts have
been made to access information
about his phone records.
37. Aug. 12: Arnie Lerma is raided, like Erlich, and sued for
copyright infringement and trade secret
misappropriation along with his ISP, the Washington
Post (which had printed a short excerpt from OT7) and
reporters Richard Leiby and Mark Fisher.
Numerous a.r.s participants posted the same short
excerpt for its humor value, and for the status of
receiving an Avagram--a cease and desist letter and
lawsuit threat from RTC attorney Ava Paquette.
38. OT 7-48
1. Find some plant, trees, etc. and communicate to
them individually until you know they received your
2. Go to a zoo or a place with many types of life and
communicate with each of them until you know the
communication is received and, if possible, returned.
39. Sep. 15, 1995: Federal Judge Leonie Brinkema throws
out the injunction against Arnie Lerma, vacates the writ
of seizure, orders his possessions returned.
Nov. 28: The Post and its reporters are released from
the lawsuit and RTC ordered to pay its court costs.
Lerma is found liable for copyright infringement and
ordered to pay the statutory minimum damages of
$2,500 for ﬁve instances of non-willful infringement.
The trade secret claims are thrown out.
Aug. 2, 1996: RTC settles with Netcom and Erlich’s
40. Lisa McPherson
Lisa McPherson died in
the care of Scientology
on December 5, 1995.
She was severely
dehydrated and had
bruises and bug bites.
41. The Internet v. Scientology
42. A few high-level defections
Tory Christman, OT7 active on a.r.s (joined around 1970, left in 2000 and is now a
public critic of Scientology)
Mike Rinder, Executive Director of the Ofﬁce of Special Affairs and a chief
spokesman for the Church of Scientology (joined at age 18 in 1974, left in 2007
and is not speaking publicly)
Jenna Miscavige Hill, niece of the head of the Church of Scientology, David
Miscavige (her parents left in 2000, she left in 2005 and now runs
Jason Beghe, ﬁlm and TV actor (joined in 1994, left in 2007, has spoken out
publicly against the church in online videos)
James Packer, Australian billionaire and friend of Tom Cruise (became involved in
late 1990s, distanced himself from the church by 2008)
Wikipedia is a valuable archive, but needs to be
supplemented by archives managed by people within
areas of expertise.
Wikipedia’s entries on creation/evolution and
Scientology are quite good, mostly due to active
The Wikipedia Arbitration Committee voted to ban
contributions from all Scientology IP addresses on May
29, 2009. Some anti-Scientology editors have also
been banned from editing Scientology pages.
It’s possible to engage in productive and entertaining
online debate without being sued or injured, and to
actually change some minds.
Well-constructed and maintained online archives help.
45. Ray Hyman’s “Proper Criticism”
1. Be prepared.
2. Clarify your objectives.
3. Do your homework.
4. Do not go beyond your level of competence.
5. Let the facts speak for themselves.
6. Be precise.
7. Use the principle of charity.
8. Avoid loaded words and sensationalism.
46. Role models
Piet Hein Hoebens, Dutch journalist and skeptic (1948-1984)
Richard Kammann, New Zealand psychologist and skeptic (1934-1984)
Marcello Truzzi, Michigan sociologist and skeptic (1935-2003)
Tero Sand, proliﬁc Finnish talk.origins contributor (1965-1996)
Robert Schadewald, Minnesota science writer and creationism critic (1943-2000)
Barry Beyerstein, British Columbia psychologist and skeptic (1947-2007)
Critiques of Christianity
The Secular Web, http://www.inﬁdels.org/
Critiques of Creationism
The Talk.Origins Archive, http://www.talkorigins.org/
The Panda’s Thumb, http://pandasthumb.org/
Critiques of Scientology
Dave Touretzky’s Secrets of Scientology, http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~dst/Secrets/
Jeff Jacobsen, “We are Legion: Anonymous and the War on Scientology,” http://www.lisamcpherson.org/