Q&A Adventures in Democracy – Richard Dawkins and George Pell (ABC1, 9 April 2012): an unedifying and pointless debate

Q&A Adventures in Democracy – Richard Dawkins versus Cardinal George Pell (Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV (ABC1), 9 April 2012)

Managed to miss seeing this episode of the usually boring Q&A program that features every Monday night on ABC1 but someone kindly uploaded this to Youtube so I can watch this as many times as I can before I have to puke. A transcript of the episode can also be found at abc.net.au. By now we should all be familiar with the ploy used by TV channel programmers to structure so-called “debates”: pick an issue or a few related issues out of a hat, tease the subject into two polarised camps and then select proponents representing those camps and have them tear each other to bits in a restricted time slot while the debate host makes feeble attempts to calm them down. It’s remarkable then, knowing what we know, that the Q&A show producers insist on forcing a foreign guest like Dawkins into such “debates” on evolution, religion, the nature of the universe and how it began, and various other social and political issues with his extreme opposite, and surround them both with the opponent’s supporters: in this case, undergraduate students from Notre Dame University, a tertiary institution run by the Roman Catholic Church, just down the road from the ABC TV studios in the Ultimo area. (Not far from where Frank Gehry’s design for the new University of Technology, Sydney, building that resembles a scrunched-up paper bag will be built to overshadow the phallic brutalist building that currently dominates the UTS Broadway campus.) Even more remarkable is that Dawkins agreed to take on Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s Number One Man in Australia: it seems he really sees his vocation as arguing with and smacking down every public religious crackpot leader he meets over topics relating to religious belief and doctrines. And few come more crackpot than our own dear Pell-star.

With Q&A host Tony Jones playing referee, Dawkins and Pell quickly got bogged down trying to answer questions from the audience and arguing with one another. Some questions were not easy to understand, as uestioners themselves were not always very clear on what they were trying to ask and ended up asking questions that probably had little to do with what they really wanted to say. (And some questions were flat-out provocative.) The best questions were usually short and straight to the point, and came from people who had sent them in by video or online. Generally though audience members did not distinguish themselves by their knowledge of issues other than those recently seen and highlighted in the mainstream mass TV and newspaper media and Yours Truly had the impression that Dawkins was not terribly stretched by the questions asked. He looked quite impatient and had the air of a man wanting to be somewhere else, away from the rent-a-mob crowd that surrounded him and Pell.

While Dawkins’s approach was to answer questions to the best of his ability (given that there was some hostility towards him and he must have felt it) and admit inadequacy on questions he was not qualified or experienced to answer, the smug Pell made a great show of his erudition (or emptiness rather), even going so far as to say which page in Charles Darwin’s biography contained the 19th century scientist’s admission that he was agnostic and telling Dawkins to “go and have a look”, as if the Q&A TV crew had Wikipedia open or all copies of Darwin’s writings on hand. Furthermore, whenever Pell made an outrageously incorrect statement, such as ancient Jewish people being “intellectual inferior” or that Neanderthal people were extinct and therefore could not possibly be cousins to Homo sapiens (as though cousins can never die!), he blustered through rebuttals and corrections from Jones and Dawkins to the extent that he made an utter fool of himself. Yours Truly had the strange thought that Pell might have been coached in advance in his responses and that he had been fed the relevant page number of Darwin’s biography by an off-screen minion. (The page number was apparently wrong and should have been the following page of the biography.)

At times the animosity between Dawkins and Pell was plain to see though the panellists were kept far apart enough and Jones did not need to resort to manhandling either of them, though he did have to shush the audience and tell its members to mind their manners.

As with Q&A programs generally, the episode featured a Twitter feed and responses flashed periodically at the bottom of the screen throughout. While some were witty and entertaining, the great bulk of them added no value to the program.

In all, this episode was most unedifying with no insights or understanding reached and each duelling panellist reduced to defending his corner and either looking embarrassed and wanting to escape (Dawkins) or proving to be stupid as well as smug (Pell). This should teach Dawkins a lesson in choosing his opponents and the appropriate framework in which to sally forth into battle against them: if debate there must be, it’s better for that debate to take place in a forum where both sides can be on equal ground, such as on a blog forum or in a newspaper or magazine, and time is not of the essence. Clearly the aim of the program was to rake in viewers and pump up the show’s ratings but the effect will only be short-lived and viewer numbers are likely to return to the low doldrums when the next episode of Q&A arrives the following week.

The episode can be downloaded here.