Whether it's in a formal public debate or a conversation over family dinner, arguments are bound to happen. After all, we're just human, and all seven billion of us have a variety of opinions about a variety of subjects, leading to well over seven billion possible ways of disagreeing. Most of those disagreements are benign or at least easily navigated, not to mention the ones that can be simply ignored because they don't matter.
And then there are the big disagreements. Religion. Politics. Salad dressing. These are the kinds of topics that inspire passion (which is good), healthy debate (also good), entrenched inflexible positions (trending towards bad), and a desire to win at all costs rather than seek common solutions (definitely bad).
Science isn't immune to argumentation within itself, either. After all, science is done by scientists, which last time I checked were all living, breathing human beings. Some conferences around some topics in some disciplines are a sight to see, with simmering anger in the air and scathing attacks presented in the talks.
But at least in science there's an ultimate arbiter: nature. The data get to decide who wins and who loses. It may take a year or a century of careful effort (and more than a few heated arguments), but eventually the evidence will declare a victor, and everyone will move on to the next thing to disagree about.
That's all well and good within science, but science often intersects with the public, which means it often intersects with things like religion and politics. It's there where things get the messiest.
Most scientific disciplines can go on doing their thing - there aren't many high stakes when it comes to how supernovae detonate, for example. But when it comes to topics that cut right to peoples' core beliefs (like big bang cosmology) or imply and inform major policy decisions (like climate change), the vitriol comes out.
And since most people don't base their religions or their politics on empirical evidence, the usual rules of scientific debate don't apply. How can the evidence be the ultimate deciding factor if not everyone in the discussion believes that's how debates are ultimately won? How can reason prevail if reason was never a part of it?
And so many scientists get stuck. The tools they use to debate don't apply in this new realm. Their words get twisted, their arguments warped. Emotions and rhetoric take over. Evidence, if there is any, is ignored.
And one of the most effective forms of rhetoric is to simply dump as much misinformation, bad arguments, and attacks as possible. Never quite fleshing any point out but relying on the quantity rather than the quality of the barrage to win the day. It's an effective tactic because scientists want to be complete - there's a need built from our training.
And so, the scientist typically fumbles in these scenarios, trying to respond to every point. Trying to explore every nuance, clear up definitions, provide the evidence. It's long, arduous work, and it doesn't pay off. It doesn't work because there's never enough time to untangle the nonsense. Instead of masterfully rebutting every claim, most are left unanswered, and the responses themselves are only half finished.
Instead, the best response against such a deluge of misinformation is to focus on one, single statement. The most brazen statement, the most egregious, the one with the most awful consequences. No, many of the arguments will be left hanging, but that will always be the case. By focusing on one statement and offering it your full weight, that will be the last thing that sticks in the minds of the audience. They'll forget the other statements of the barrage, lost in the noise.