Hard sciences the 'natural' choice in annual Raft Debate

Dressed as Charles Darwin and armed with an erupting bottle of “science juice,” Dan Cristol scored a victory for the natural and computational sciences on Wednesday night at William & Mary.

The biology professor was this year’s winner of the annual Raft Debate, held on Oct. 2 in the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium, which was packed with students, faculty and staff.

The event begins with this premise: Three professors are stranded on a desert island with only one chance of escape: a life raft. The professors – representing the humanities, social sciences and natural and computational sciences, overseen by a judge and opposed by the notorious devil’s advocate -- battle it out to determine academia’s most valuable discipline.

In addition to Cristol, the debaters for this year’s competition were Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies John Riofrio for the humanities and Associate Professor of Sociology Thomas Linneman for the social sciences. Presiding over the debate was Virginia Torczon, the dean of graduate studies and research for Arts & Sciences, and playing the part of the devil’s advocate was Associate Professor of Mathematics Sarah Day.

Some students come in with an idea of who they want to win—a number of students in the front row were wearing homemade “Dan Fan Clan” T-shirts sporting Cristol’s face on them—but a number came simply to watch the fun. Some switched allegiances midway through the performance, and others even went for the nihilistic third option.

 “In the beginning I was probably rooting for the devil’s advocate,” said Cole Pearce ’15.  “It’s fun, incites some conflict.”

Each of the professors and the devil’s advocate were given seven minutes to make their case. Then, after each had gone, they were given another three minutes for a rebuttal.

Cristol led the debate dressed in official robes and a fake beard, claiming to be Charles Darwin and giving a case for why the natural and computational sciences should claim the dinghy. Painting a world with only humanities as full of “naked people rooting around for tubers” and only social sciences as “like a world with only humanities, but with more marketing research,” he brought up natural sciences’ role in helping humanity through medicine, agriculture and the scientific method.

The high point of his statement was his inclusion of Mentos and a bottle of Coke, which produced a fizzy explosion onstage.

Riofrio, not one to be outdone, complemented Cristol on his use of “words and language” to give his presentation, and talked about the use of humanities in things such as the clothes Cristol was wearing (fashion design), the food everyone was eating (culinary arts) and general “expression and communication,” or language. Comparing his opponents to the Jersey Shore cast, he threatened that a world without the humanities would result in nothing but terrible reality TV shows, and gave the other professors a number of Jersey-Shore themed props.

Defending the social sciences last, Linneman brought up a number of issues with both of the other fields—that the natural sciences were more focused on the “coulda” rather than the “shoulda,” and the “outrageous obfuscation” present in the humanities—before insisting that the social sciences had a lot to offer.

“These other fields, they’re too old,” he said. “Nothing new is coming out of them anymore. Social science though is new, young: it’s still got a lot of area to explore.”

Finally, the devil’s advocate came up to speak her mind. She argued that in order for any of the fields to be of use, they had to be used in conjunction with all of them.

“A world with only humanities is like a bunch of brilliant actors and a great script in a room with no way to broadcast them,” she said. “With only social sciences, it’s a bunch of CSI shows with no actors, only real crime labs; and with only the natural sciences, it’s a reality show with no talented people at all.”

She gave each of the professors a gift she thought they could use: including yarn to Cristol to make a “bird harness,” a book on “how to speak bird” for Riofrio and a notebook and pens for Linneman, so that he could implement some thought experiments “while they were all alone on the island.”

The rebuttals began again with Cristol, who started with the claim that the humanities were “a luxury we simply can’t afford without science.” He further added that the social sciences, far from the clarity Linneman was touting in his opening remarks, were in fact riddled with obscurity.

Riofrio’s defense rested on the guest appearances of his two kids, who helped him perform a song loosely adapted from a Rihanna tune. This was met with great applause from the audience.

Linneman, however, didn’t seem impressed.

“I’m not even going to stand up,” he said, shaking his head. “Can’t even do anything once you break out the children.”

Day, in one last plug as the devil’s advocate, urged the audience to embrace balance between the disciplines and leave them all on the island.

After a quick round of questions from the audience, the votes were taken. All four contestants received a considerable amount of applause, but Cristol clearly took the cake.

“That’s what you get for telling your 500-student class that they get extra credit for coming to this,” quipped Judge Torczon.

Still, the audience seemed pleased by the result.

“I thought it was great,” Cole said. “I was happy to see Cristol pull through with a Dar-Win.”