Stop Using Q&A Time to Pontificate November 21, 2009

Stop Using Q&A Time to Pontificate

A couple nights ago, I participated in a two-person panel discussion on the movie Collision. The film documented a series of debates on the topic “Is Christianity Good for the World?” between Christopher Hitchens and evangelical theologian Doug Wilson.

This was billed as a discussion (as opposed to a debate) and I thought it delivered that. I said what I wanted to say, and I think Dr. Chad Meister (the Christian on the panel; he’s on the right in the picture below) would say the same. Pastor Mark Bergin was the moderator (below, left) and he asked some very good questions to lead the discussion.

I’m told video of the event will be coming soon and I’ll post it if I get it.

Jeremy Witteveen was in the audience and he has a lot to say about the event. He’ll talk more about the panel next week, but for now, he shares his thoughts on the movie itself (he wasn’t a fan).

I bring this up because of something else Jeremy alluded to on his website and which he’ll talk more about soon — I felt the same way about it so I’m glad I wasn’t alone. (Codemenkey agrees, too.)

The Question & Answer time was almost entirely dominated by atheists. (Which is fine. I’m glad they went up to the microphone to ask their questions. I wish more Christians would’ve done that.)

The problem: Many of those atheists used the time not to ask a question, but to tell everyone about their views of religion.

For example, they felt the need to comment on things Wilson argued in the movie. There was no question posed to me or Chad — it was just long, rambling, word vomit. Or they told stories about their encounters with religious people who made really bad arguments in favor of God’s existence.

If it happened once, I could just chalk it up to a self-righteous person who just enjoys the sound of his own voice.

Unfortunately, it happened several times. And it was annoying as hell: to the (mostly Christian) audience, to me, to Jeremy, and (I’m sure) many of the other atheists who came to watch.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen it happen. I’ve been to plenty of atheist conventions where people have done the same thing. (Which makes no sense… who are you trying to convince with your views?!) It’s particularly frustrating because at many of these events, you come because of the speaker (Richard Dawkins, for example). You want to hear his views in the limited time you have, not the views of random people from the audience.

I wish our moderator in this case would have cut them off and just asked, “What’s your question?” but he was in a rough position as a Christian pastor — he may have been thinking of the backlash he would receive if he kept cutting off atheists who wanted to speak their minds. I don’t blame him for letting them go on… and on… and on.

I don’t know if this sort of thing goes on at non-religious events as well, but it needs to stop.

The best solution I’ve found is to collect questions from the audience before the panel discussion starts. The audience writes down what they want to ask, a volunteer collects the cards and hands them to the moderator, and the moderator chooses which questions are most worth hearing the answers to.

Have you all experienced anything like this? How have you handled it?

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  • Hemant: When we ran the Dawkins event, we used a service called textmarks which allowed people to SMS their questions to a shortcode and had a moderator pick out the most interesting ones. It was much more successful than traditional Q&As since the 140 character limit forced people to be concise.

    Alternatively, volunteers running around with cards is also a great way to do it for smaller events. After a few too many experiences with Q&A at atheist gatherings, I vow never to allow a mic at anything I’m running ever again.

  • Yes, it happens at far too many atheist events and not just at events where there is a mix. I like the solution that Xianhang Zhang mentions. Last Monday at the debate between Jerry Bergman and PZ Myers in St. Paul, there were people who wanted to ask multiple questions, and I was one of the rude ones who would put a stop to it. I’m not normally like that, but I am there more for the guests than the audience. But of course there were people who were just clueless as to the fact that the Q&A was for a limited time.

    I usually don’t stick around for Q&A because of that. If the trend towards “tweet” questions picks up, I may be able to handle it.

  • It’s the worst, Hemant.

    I’ve been in several debates and panels, and yes, the atheists in the room tend to more often than not come to the microphone with five-minute commentaries, rather than simple questions.

    Or… they’ll deliver a five-minute commentary, then ask an unrelated question.

    It’s a big problem, and I agree that having all questions placed on cards is the best approach.


    Zachary Moore, PhD
    Executive Director
    North Texas Church of Freethought

  • I agree totally that Q & A time should have questions, not comments! Many people get upset over lengthy comments with no question regardless of which side they come from. I guess everyone secretly wants their moment at the microphone. A good moderator should always interrupt and ask “Excuse me, but what is your question?”

  • Or time the microphone for 1 minute, FSM_ed.

  • Stephen P

    My experience of Q & A sessions with questions on cards is that they tend to be rather sterile and boring, with little feeling of real audience participation. However they are probably necessary with a very large audience, or in a discussion where there are very heated views.

    I generally prefer people to give the questions live at the microphone, but it does indeed require a very competent moderator who will be firm when necessary – and even mute the microphone with audience members who completely refuse to get the message.

  • mai

    Oh, atheists do that too? Fan conventions suffer from the same thing. Maybe it’s an universal thing and all q&a’s should just be done with submitting questions in advance. (Or that SMS idea, which sounds fabulous.)

  • Jon

    I suspect that a lot of these people are rarely, if ever, in a situation where they feel safe and validated enough to speak their mind as an atheist. (Makes sense for fan conventions, too, I think.)

    It’s unfortunate that it can ruin a good discussion, but I think it just speaks to our human nature. We want to connect with others and we want to express ourselves, but as an atheist there are often very few opportunities to do so.

    Maybe some sort of planned social gathering before or after the event would channel that to a more appropriate location?

  • I agree with Jon – I think many more people are coming out as nonbelievers and they have so much to say that they haven’t felt free to say before. They are, as Sherwin Wine described, “the wounded.” Probably best for the moderator to remind everyone just before the Q&A starts to limit their comments to a question relevant to the discussion.

  • The problem with the question sheet hand-ins is that it creates the potential for censorship on the part of question selectors, and thus, whether or not censorship happens, many people in the audience may be highly dubious as to whether or not it is happening and why the organizers set it up this way. I went to a God debate a few years back which was run by Young Earth Creationists and they used this strategy and I was *HIGHLY* suspicious of them for this. Whether or not they censored perfectly legitimate questions, I don’t know. And I’ll never know. And I personally don’t like that. I’d rather firm rules regarding questions be set from the beginning and enforced in the open so everyone can see and judge for themselves whether the event runners are staying honest.

  • I agree with Jon. I think that Atheists finally feel like they have a chance to speak and take full advantage without even realizing how annoying it is.

    When I’ve come across that at CFI discussions, the mediator (or host) is very quick to remind them of the purpose of Q&A by simply yelling, “Your question, please.”

  • Lyz

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves EVER! It’s Q&A, not Show & Tell.

  • J Myers

    I wish our moderator in this case would have cut them off and just asked, “What’s your question?” but he was in a rough position as a Christian pastor — he may have been thinking of the backlash he would receive if he kept cutting off atheists who wanted to speak their minds. I don’t blame him for letting them go on… and on… and on.

    Hemant, it appears you had access to a microphone as well. Not your job, perhaps, but I doubt anyone would have thought less of you for it, and a good number probably would have appreciated it. Maybe next time?

  • Todd

    I’ve seen this sort of thing at software developer conventions, although not as frequently as you mention. You’ll have a panel of lead developers give a discussion or demo on their software and then they turn the microphones on for Q&A. There’s always one dork who gets up and describes in excruciating detail how he “corrected” a serious flaw in a prior version of whatever is being discussed. Not a question, just a long rambling “like at how cool I am” verbal brain dump. That’s exactly what you describe here.

  • Hemant

    J myers — I thought about it, but ultimately decided against it. There were goods reasons for and against me doing the interrupting and I’m not sure I made the right call. I could have done it differently.

  • Maybe there should be a Christian and an atheist both moderating the meeting. Then the atheist could cut off the atheist questioner who is just rambling on.

  • I’m not sure if it’s fair to say only atheist do this. I think people do it. I’ve held events for the club where both atheists and theists ramble, I’m been to events that have absolutely nothing to do with religion and people will do the same thing.

    I’ve found having people write on cards works well to stop that, but stops the flow of ideas because people can’t add upon the previous question. I’ve found glares, eyerolls from the audience, and cutting them short to work fairly well.

  • stephanie

    What Mai and Jennifurret said. It’s far too common in ANY question and answer. Far too many people like to pretend they’re on the panel.

    Hemant- you did the right thing. It’s the moderator’s job to handle these types. It would have come off as downright unfriendly for you to cut someone off.

  • stephanie

    What Mai and Jennifurret said. It’s far too common in ANY question and answer. People get excited and seem to think they’re on the panel instead of in the audience.

    Hemant- you did the right thing. It’s the moderator’s job to handle these types. It would have come off as downright unfriendly for you to cut someone off.

  • Audrey

    I’m glad you brought it up. I was also a little bothered by this, and especially that only the atheists seemed to be doing so much of it. (But they were also most of the only people that got up to ask questions anyway, which I thought was strange in itself. Other events I’ve been to have always been pretty balanced on what types of people ask questions)

  • Jasen777

    That’s just the inevitable result of an open mike.

  • Zoo

    Agree with jennifurret. It starts early too. Every kid has at least 17 animal related (or semi-quasi-related sort of maybe) stories, so you learn really quickly in a zoo education setting how to cut off the stories and focus on the questions (though it may not translate well to other settings).

  • Miko

    I think this is a problem with all Q&A events. Even the 2008 town-hall presidential debate (in which questions were screened ahead of time and repeated word-for-word) was still annoying in this respect.

    Plus, you get time-wasting problems with passing microphones around or with people who don’t speak loudly or clearly enough to be understood.

    In almost all circumstances, I’d rather have a moderator collect comments and read paraphrased (shortened) versions of selected ones.

  • Deanna

    Maybe it’s a regional thing? Here in Charlotte, NC when Richard Dawkins spoke last month, there was only one question that turned into a bit of a ramble.

  • the whole q and a was an unfortunate play to the pseudointellectual blowhard stereotype. it also was annoying that the cfi guys tried to hijack the event to advertise themselves.

    aside from all that, it really was an enjoyable first time attending anything like that, and both sides were fun to listen to.

  • Revyloution

    You nailed this on the head. That type of behavior is like fingernails on a chalkboard.

    I hear it often on call in shows too. They will have some really interesting guest on Talk of the Nation, or Science Friday, and they get some nut job that takes up 10 minutes with some obscure personal anecdote.

    Seriously, if you were that interesting you would be on the stage. Not in the audience.

  • Richard

    @Xianhang Zhang

    Twitter is an amazing idea for this.

    FWIW, I’ve seen atheists do this too. When James Randi gave a lecture at UIUC we had a theist give a /long/ (as in, several minute) story, followed by, “can science explain love?”

  • Staceyjw

    I think this type of behavior occurs when an event draws an audience that (is thought to be) made up of mostly one worldview, but includes speakers from an opposing philosophy.

    In every group (xtians, atheists, etc), there are a minority of individuals that are especially attracted to these type of events. They see them as the ultimate opportunity to spread their beliefs to a CAPTIVE audience, which holds an opposite belief system. I think they also want to publicly denigrate the opposing idea.

    Some Fundies show up to primarily atheist events, and vice versa, for honest intellectual discussion, but the above described just want reinforce their own beliefs, pushing it on others.

    The best way to deal with this is to make it clear that this is not acceptable, and is not what the event is there for. If the moderator is hesitant, then someone else needs to step in and ask the interloper to step down.

    That said, I have had a much different experience at those type of events. It’s always been fundies acting inappropriately, asking unrelated questions, and rambling about their belief.

  • Stephen P

    Hemant- you did the right thing. It’s the moderator’s job to handle these types. It would have come off as downright unfriendly for you to cut someone off.

    As he was sitting next to the moderator, perhaps he could have quietly – i.e. not through the microphone – encouraged the moderator to intervene. Or he could have asked the “questioner” something like “sorry, it isn’t clear to me – is this a question for Chad or for me?”

    (I appreciate that it is much easier to think of these things behind the keyboard than in front of an audience.)

  • ed42

    The problem with written (or texted) comments is the (perhaps irrational) paranoia that the questions are gamed and/or filtered by the moderator.

    Even if you are not the moderator have the fortitude to either interrupt a running commentary or after the first long one is finished with a phrase such as “What is your question?” and repeat as necessary until the audience gets the point.

  • It isn’t just atheists. I’ve seen it in Q&A’s about almost every topic. Some people just use it as an opportunity to fulminate and hear the sound of their own voice. And yes, it’s very annoying. A total missing of the point.

    I personally don’t object to the “write your questions on cards” thing. But I agree that if that’s not going to be the format, then the moderator definitely needs to be willing to step in with, “Thanks for your thoughts — do you have a question?”

  • Svavar Kjarrval

    The audience could write the question onto a card and then those who pass the microphones could check if the individual actually has a question. They could also remind the speaker (before it’s their turn) to focus on the question itself.

  • Pseudonym
  • Aj

    This is universal to every Q&A I’ve listened to, about any subject, however intelligent/knowledgeable the audience. I’m surprised when a good question is asked, I really like good questions. I prefer the format where people are asked to write down their questions and hand them in. You get better questions, and a lot of people aren’t very good speakers, or they hold the mic too close or something else that makes listening to them horrible. Hitchens seems to attract the most crazies, atheists and theists, rambling about different things.

  • Kevin

    IANAM (I am not a moderator), but it seems to me that the moderator bears the brunt of the responsibility for this. Why not begin Q&A with the following:

    “There is a large audience and limitted time. I realize many of you have a lot to contribute, but to make sure we get to everyone’s questions, you will be limited to 60 seconds to phrase your question. If you go beyond that I will give you 10 seconds to finish your question before cutting of the microphone.”

    Then, at 60 seconds, interrupt everyone who has not asked a question yet with “Your question, please” and, after 10 more seconds, turn off the microphone and allow the speakers to respond to what has been said.

  • fsm

    with all respect, the entire event was poorly done. the audio was terrible. your time on stage together was silly. hitchens very clearly said that “human solidarity” was where he based his morality, and you both spent 15 minutes discussing or trying to find the right words. your biblical scholar (barf) from “indiana university” (later said to be bethel college, a subpar christian degree mill in indiana) used the words “this/that is interesting” more times than i could keep count. your entire conversation together was never more than surface deep.

    finally, books that have come out since “new atheism” was coined are not the only ones in print. how do you justify discussing “is christianity good for the world” with only reference to hitchens “G.I.N.G.” and also only dawkins penultimate publication (T.G.D), and ignore books on the creation of our country as a republic, and Thomas Jefferson, Mother Theresa, etc.

    the entire evening was a sore disappointment.

  • meh, for the time allotted, they did alright. i sure wasn’t looking for an all night event, and there is only so much that can be covered in an hour or less. it is my opinion that dr. meister made a lot of fallacious arguments including a very godwinesque one near the end, some of which did more harm than good to the end of civil discussion between theists and atheists IMHO; but since this was not a debate — meh, whatever. he appealed to his part of the audience, and hemant to his.

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