Empty chair syndrome

Last autumn, there were a couple of stories going round the blogosphere (though rarely hitting mainstream media) that seemed to me very similar, though with some holding apparently contradictory views. The link between them is an empty chair on a stage. During his recent speaking tour of the UK, William Lane Craig invited Richard Dawkins to a debate. Craig was already booked to speak at the venue in Oxford, so Dawkins would not have as far to travel as the visiting American. Dawkins declined this invitation, though apparently Craig left an empty chair on stage to signify Dawkins’ absence.

More recently, another empty chair was left on stage, at a test for Sally Morgan. Led in part by the science writer (and now something of a libel law expert), Simon Singh, Sally Morgan had been invited to take part in a test of her psychic abilities. Like Dawkins, she declined this invitation. Unlike Dawkins, though, Morgan chose not to write an ad hominem attack on Singh to be published by a national newspaper. There were however, some letters sent between Singh and Morgan’s lawyers, which, in spite of being marked “Strictly Private and Confidential” Singh thought appropriate to publish online. I will leave it to you to consider whether it was appropriate to publish the letters.

What struck me was the reaction from the “pop science” or “science journalism” section of the blogosphere, who seemed to consider that in the case of Dawkins/Craig, that the person declining the invitation was right in declining and that the empty chair was a bullying gesture, while in the Morgan/Singh case, Morgan was considered be the slippery one who was rejecting a perfectly honest invitation.

My personal opinion is that in both cases, the invitation should have been accepted. My reasons are as follows: Both Dawkins & Morgan have made personal financial profit from their relative claims. As such, there is some duty of responsibility to defend their claims. In contrast to this, had an anonymous blogger (such as myself) been invited, I think there wouldn’t be a duty as no one has paid me for my writing or for a tv show (which is probably a fair reflection of the value of my thoughts!). Both have considerable media experience and so would not be flayed in an environment where they are far less experienced and uncomfortable than their critics.

On the other hand, I do have sympathy for them both. In both cases, there was an underlying theme of trying to portray the non-attendee as being in some way scared or unwilling to appear on a platform with their critics. The empty chair is loaded symbolism, somewhat akin to giving them a white feather, in an effort to shame them. This is, I think, an act of bullying that should not be encouraged.

In the case of Craig/Dawkins there was also a phrase banded about to the effect of “[this would look good on your CV, not mine]” in reference to the merits of one having debated the other. I think various other commenters have made as much of this as can be made, so I will offer nothing further.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever invited me to a debate or a test of my claims in a public arena. I certainly do not recall ever having declined such an invitation. If such an invitation were to come, I think in all probability that I would decline. I am not a skilled debater. One of the reasons that I choose to write is that I have a mild stammer, which always makes me appear to be even less intelligent than I actually am. The trouble is, my mind moves faster than my mouth, so when I come to speak I can usually think of 2 or 3 ways of saying the same thing, and I often get muddled. By writing, this can be slowed down. So when it comes to oratory, I prefer to write word-for-word and then either read or memorise what I am to say. This makes such events as those Dawkins & Morgan were invited to something of a problem for me.

But if such a case were to arise, I would dearly hope that no one leaves an empty chair for me on stage. It is an act that I think is ungracious and, if you will allow me to be a little quaint, a rather poor show. If I were to go further into old parlance, I would say it is “ungentlemanly” or “unladylike” though I hope you do not infer this to be sexist; it is not meant to be.

It is rare for me to pick a fight. I do not go out of my way to present challenges to others that I demand they meet. I may ask questions of them to clarify their views and I may respond to articles, blog posts, etc. that others have written. Anyone is, of course, welcome to write responses to anything I write. If such a response is included, I would hope that they inform me and I am very willing to provide a link to any such response in my blog. I do not like the empty chair and would hope that I never stoop to such a cheap level as to do anything like it. Debate and the free exchange of ideas should not be about point-scoring, but should be constructive and proactive; something I always try to achieve here, though I could not necessarily say that I always succeed.

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