(I'm placing this in the Irrationalities forum not because it is an example of an irrationality, but it is one particular tactic of debating against irrationalities. If anyone else has examples of patterns or tactics for debating/countering irrationalities, I think these would make great topics for posts. What do you guys think?)
In the game of Chicken, two players compete by simultaneously raising the stakes of the game, until some imminent but not entirely predictable time in the future when the final result of the game will be determined to see who is 'chicken' and who is not (this player is the winner). For example, two young people race their cars toward each other, head on, until one or both swerve off to avoid collision.
To determine the result of the game:
- if both players are chicken, then they both lose a small amount. Each walks away with a wounded pride. But aside from that, no big deal.
- if neither player is chicken, then they both lose a very large amount. Head-on car crashes are often fatal.
- If only one player is chicken, then the chicken loses a significant amount, while the winner gains a significant amount. Their friends all love the daring winner and shun the chicken.
Most people are at least vaguely familiar with this game. It can be played for very high stakes, such as driving cars head-on, but it can also be played with lower stakes.
Some might ask, why even play the game at all? It seems like a lot of risk for a very uncertain reward.
That may be true, but as soon as one person challenges another to play Chicken, the game has already begun, and attempting to withdraw from the game is seen as being 'chicken'. So the initial enticement to play seems small and harmless, and many people end up over their heads by the end of the game, too committed to withdraw, but with very little chance of exiting the game without losing a lot of 'face'.
In the game of Evidence Chicken, a skeptic entices a person who makes an extraordinary claim to play Chicken by expressing doubt that the claimant can provide evidence for their claims. Many claimants can be enticed to play Evidence Chicken if the skeptic keeps the initial enticement to play as fairly innocuous, such as a simple innocent-sounding question. As soon as the claimant has committed to playing Evidence Chicken, the skeptic can pretty much increase the stakes of the game at will, while the claimant soon finds themselves in over their heads, unable to back up their claims with convincing evidence. They almost always leave the game having lost significant credibility in the eyes of the on-lookers who were not fully convinced either way before the game began.
As a result of this predictable pattern of engagement, the skeptic is able to find a lot more willing partners in debate, with relative ease, and with a high probability of winning the game, and hence achieving the goal of reducing the prevalence of the unfounded belief in extraordinary claims.
I use Evidence Chicken a lot. It's basically my one-trick-pony way of getting people to actually bother to try defending their silly beliefs publicly, rather than just brushing me off with, "Well, I just have faith," or "We'll have to agree to disagree."
Depending on the audience and the temperament of the claimant, I may begin quite innocently, or I might just come right out and say, "Where's your evidence?"
The latter is easy, but it often results in the claimant not really engaging in debate, and instead throwing out red herrings like, "You're so rude," or "You think you know everything."
To use the innocent approach, you can try actually showing some interest in the claim, like, "Hmm, that's interesting. Where did you hear about that?" and just escalate the difficulty of the questions as you go. Pretty soon, the game of Evidence Chicken is on.
It's of course important not to fall into the trap of making too many claims of your own which you might not be able to back up with evidence. And when you do make claims (which can be useful as a give-and-take way of escalating the game to higher stakes), try to make sure you definitely can back them up with real, independent evidence, such as a scientific article (or better, several).
As a way of being prepared for backing up your own claims with high probability, take notice of good sources of evidence for unusual scientific facts in your daily life. If you hear something interesting about evolution, for example, and you think, "Hey, that might be a good point to raise in debates with my creationist friend," don't just remember the fact itself; find out its source. What were one or two of the researchers' names, or what nationality were they? What was the title of their paper? Where did you hear about this new finding (e.g. were you listening to a particular radio show, watching a program on TV, reading a particular website, newspaper, or magazine?)?
All of these little details do not have to be remembered perfectly, only enough to allow you to plug them into Google to find the original source article (or science news summary) where the interesting new fact was demonstrated.
Then, when your creationist friend says, "... well, the birds just flew around Noah's Ark until the flood was over," you can say, "But that doesn't make sense, because we know that birds evolved from dinosaurs, and you already claimed that dinosaurs had to be kept as eggs on the Ark in order to fit all the species on there."
And when your friend says, "Birds didn't evolve from dinosaurs! There's no proof of that!" You can say, "Well, yes, actually, there is, and here's the URL to the latest proof which I just pulled up in Google by typing in 'archaeopteryx' which I heard about last week on that science show."
And then you up the stakes of the Evidence Chicken game by saying, "So, now that we've shown the story of Noah's Ark to be unreliable, what evidence do you have that anything in the Bible is true?"
Related topics: The Socratic method of argumentation