William & Mary

Social sciences escape the island in annual Raft Debate

  • Victory for Vishton:
    Victory for Vishton:  Peter Vishton, associate professor of psychology, waves goodbye to his fellow castaways after winning this year's Raft Debate.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Raft Debate:
    Raft Debate:  Katherine Preston, the David N. & Margaret C. Bottoms Professor of Music, leads the audience in a modified version of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Raft Debate:
    Raft Debate:  Associate Professor and Chair of Applied Science Christopher Del Negro argues for the natural and computational sciences.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Raft Debate:
    Raft Debate:  Assistant Professor of Philosophy Christopher Frieman plays devil's advocate, arguing that none of the disciplines should be saved.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Raft Debate:
    Raft Debate:  Vishton said he was dressed not as a baby, but as "the future."  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Raft Debate:
    Raft Debate:  Vishton's children hold up signs during their father's argument on behalf of the social sciences.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Raft Debate:
    Raft Debate:  Phi Beta Kappa Hall was filled for the event.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Raft Debate:
    Raft Debate:  Audience reaction helped Judge Virginia Torczon make her decision on the winner.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Dressed in a giant onesie complete with bib and oversize bottle, big baby Peter Vishton goo-gooed and gaa-gaaed his way to victory Monday night, earning himself – and the social sciences – a one-way ticket off the desert island during William & Mary’s annual Raft Debate.

To the delight of the standing-room-only crowd in Phi Beta Kappa Hall, the associate professor of psychology left behind representatives from the humanities and natural and computational sciences, as well as a devil’s advocate who wanted them all to remain shipwrecked.

The premise

The Raft Debate, one of William & Mary’s quirkier traditions, fell by the wayside during the 1980s before the Graduate Center, the Arts & Sciences Office of Graduate Studies and Research and the Arts & Sciences Graduate Student Association collaborated to revive it in 2002.

Since then, every year four William & Mary professors representing each of the major academic disciplines have taken their positions as castaways on an onstage desert island. Through some unfortunate event, one academic each from the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences washed ashore alongside a devil’s advocate and a raft just big enough for one passenger.

And therein lies the rub. To decide which academic – and thereby, which discipline – should survive, the three professors engage in a lively debate over whose field is most important to humanity. Complicating the situation is the devil’s advocate, a fellow castaway who thinks society would be better off if none of them were saved. Overseeing the debate is a judge who referees the proceedings and ultimately declares the winner.

In addition to Vishton, three other characters joined in the scholarly brawl on the beach: Associate Professor and Chair of Applied Science Christopher Del Negro for the natural and computational sciences, David N. & Margaret C. Bottoms Professor of Music Katherine Preston for the humanities and Assistant Professor of Philosophy Christopher Frieman as devil’s advocate. Dean of Graduate Studies and Research for Arts & Sciences Virginia Torczon reprised her perennial role as the judge.

The event’s popularity, which led to the move from the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium to PBK Hall last year, has only continued to grow. Every seat was full well before the 6:30 p.m. start time with students eager to support their disciplines. Following wins by the devil’s advocate, natural sciences and humanities in the previous three Raft Debates, Vishton carried the hopes and dreams of every social science student in the house on his baby blue shoulders. Luckily for them, he delivered.

The arguments

Before the debate began, Torczon set forth the ground rules: The castaways each had seven minutes to make their cases, followed by a round of three-minute rebuttals and audience questions.

Whether by boldness or bad luck, it fell to Del Negro to deliver the opening volley.

“Empirical observation and understanding the natural world provides us the ability to survive, and then thrive,” the applied science professor said. “And by surviving and thriving, we have the time, the space and the resources to build culture.”

Toting a model Eiffel Tower and recollecting a recent trip to Stonehenge, Del Negro emphasized that these symbols of culture were the products of engineering – and without the natural sciences, he argued, neither they, nor the cultures they represented, would exist.

Next up was Preston, who began by noting that she would not focus on “all the bad things empirical thinking has brought us.” Instead, she focused on the humanities’ good points.

“My argument is quite simple: The humanities – English, storytelling, arts, philosophy, music – are absolutely basic to human nature,” she said. “The social sciences and natural sciences are derived from humanity – we humans are cultural creatures.”

As a music professor, Preston turned to her own discipline as an illustration.

“Music is a different mode of understanding that bypasses understanding and goes right to our hearts,” she said. “Music is everywhere, and it can come out of nowhere.”

At that point, Preston was interrupted by a student who began singing Richard Rodgers’ “The Sound of Music,” the main theme of the eponymous musical. She was soon joined by others, and then yet more until several rows of students were singing.

The audience was in riotous applause at this turn of events, as elaborate planning and unexpected gags are always Raft Debate hits. But Preston was not yet done.

“Music is really a human thing; it’s exclusive to human primates. We’ve all had the experience of hearing a rousing tune and then clapping along,” she said, producing a kazoo alongside many audience members and at least one fellow castaway. The kazoo wielders then launched into a lively, if limited, rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Sure enough, the audience clapped along.

As enthralling as Preston’s musical tour de force was, Vishton stole the show as he waddled up to the mic, stuffed animal in hand, flanked by his two children holding poster boards.

“Goo goo, gaa gaa, and good evening,” he began. “You may think that you see a baby here at the podium. A large, hairy, awkwardly dressed baby. I am not a baby – I am the future.”

At that point, not even 30 seconds in, the audience was captivated. His children, however, were mortified – one held up a sign saying, “I will need therapy after this.”

“Of the three disciplines represented here, social sciences are by far the youngest. Social science certainly has the most yet to do with its future. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater,” he urged.

Vishton then turned to undermining the other disciplines, noting that science has created great advances in medical care – provided you can pay for them. Nor did art escape unscathed:

“What could be more beautiful or more inspiring than Van Gogh’s painting, Starry Night, or Vermeer’s portrait, Girl with a Pearl Earring,” he inquired before continuing, “except, well, an actual starry night, or a girl wearing a pearl earring?”

After extolling the virtues of the social sciences, Vishton abruptly ended his presentation.

“And with that, I must conclude. I need a nap, and I have a wicked burp coming. I also seem to have to have left a carbon footprint in my diaper.”

Finally, Freiman took the podium.

“I really dodged a bullet tonight – I almost wore my bib and giant onesie,” he opened, before turning to business. “At best, these disciplines have no value, and, at worst, they’re downright harmful.”

The initial broadside complete, he turned his aim to the individual disciplines.

“Social scientists are scientists in the way Dr. Pepper is a doctor,” Freiman said, then questioned whether 2,700 years was quite long enough for the humanities to get the themes of the Illiad sorted out.

Finally, he questioned whether the natural sciences were using their resources efficiently. Observing that the International Space Station cost $150 billion, and that Oxfam calculates that $200 is sufficient to save one child living in poverty.

“This means that for the price of the space station, we could save the lives of over 700 million impoverished children,” he calculated. “That’s pretty much all of them.”

Rebuttals and result

Del Negro next gave his rebuttal, relying on the natural sciences’ venerable – and predictable – argument that without the natural sciences, there would be no technology or infrastructure to rebuild society.

Preston, in line with her unorthodox approach, adapted her rebuttal into a sing-along. With the words to a new song on the projector, she had the audience join her in singing:

Row, row, row the raft
Strongly through the waves
Merrily, happily, eagerly yes! (the)
Humanities we will save.

Vishton, however, was not impressed.

“The way that groups are bonded together by singing together, that’s a very powerful result from social science there,” he said, “But I’ll close there because it’s way past my bedtime.”

Finally, Frieman made his last digs at the disciplines, noting that the internal combustion engine was a great scientific advancement, except that it lead to humanity’s second-greatest existential threat: the climate crisis.

The greatest existential threat to humanity, according to Frieman? That’s the product of music: Justin Bieber.

With that zinger, Torczon opened the debate to audience questions.

Following a discussion of the Earth’s inevitable heat death from the sun’s red giant stage, a humanities fan asked, “Professor Del Negro, can you do anything about the expanding sun?”

Revealing a wit that truly shined during the questions, Del Negro responded: “Well, my son is only 10 years old, and he’s on a well-balanced diet.”

Unable to top that, the debate moved to the all-important vote stage using the official Raft Debate sound meter to gauge the audience’s applause for each of the contenders. After a tense pause, Torzon declared Vishton the winner.

Though the other academic factions left disappointed, all acknowledged that Vishton had earned his escape.

“I was rooting for the humanities since history mostly falls in the humanities,” said Douglas Breton ’17, a transfer history major attending his first Raft Debate. “But I think social sciences definitely deserved it this year – and I’m okay with that because social sciences sort of encompasses history as well.”