Raft Left Empty in W&M's Annual Raft Debate| October 6, 2008
Fighting for his survival, Biology Professor Mark Forsyth literally used all of the tricks - and plush, disease causing microbes -- in his bag.
"When you can’t beat your competition, infect them and let them die," he said.
But in the end, it was not enough to beat Law Professor Laura Heymann, the pop-culture referencing devil's advocate who declared that the humanities, social sciences, and natural and computational sciences were all equally deserving of a watery grave.
Heymann’s victory came at the end of the College's annual Raft Debate, which took place Oct. 1 in the Sadler Center. The debate is set on a desert island, where a scientist, a social scientist and a humanist are shipwrecked along with a devil's advocate and a judge. With only one raft on the island, the three scholars each try to prove the worth of their respective disciplines in order to win their way off of the island. Meanwhile, the devil's advocate argues that none of the disciplines deserve saving. The judge picks a winner based on audience reaction.
This year, Forsyth, associate professor of biology, represented the natural and computational sciences while Danielle Dallaire, assistant professor of psychology, represented the social sciences. Steve Holliday, associate professor of theatre, speech, and dance, represented the humanities and Laurie Sanderson, dean of Graduate Studies and Research, Arts & Sciences, played the judge. Heymann, an assistant professor of law, served as the devil's advocate.
Opening the debate, Holliday defended the humanities by declaring it "the conduit for human understanding."
"We’re the people who put things in terms that Joe Six-Pack will listen to," he said. "Frankly, we also put things in terms that Joe Philosophy Professor or Joe Physics Professor will listen to because nobody is expert in anybody else's specialization. Instead, we have the responsibility to absorb what’s going on in the Earth and try to make sense of it in a way that the generality of humanity can work with it."
Holliday noted that education today is based on the classical model, and that most of what "we’ve inherited from the ancient world – what we actually remember and listen to and take home with us from the ancient world anymore -- is really the humanities."
"They’re just as true and just as applicable today as they were 2,500 years ago," he said.
Though Holliday appealed to the audience’s classical sensibilities, Forsyth went a different route. He praised Louis Pasteur’s modern-day disciples for finding way to make “more and better beer.”
"So, for those of you over 21, the next time you drink a toast, drink a toast to my fellow colleagues who have gone before me and studied microbial physiology in the interest of alcohol production," he said. "And drink a toast to our microbial friends who actually gave their lives. You are drinking dead microbes."
Later, Forsythe pulled out several stuffed "microbes" representing diseases that he tossed toward his competitors on stage in a playful attempt to infect them. He also pulled out a cure and asked if someone infected with disease should get a spot on the raft.
"I think not," he said.
Dallaire used old newspaper articles to reference world disasters, including 1889's Johnstown flood and 2005's Hurricane Katrina.
"Social sciences saved the day in both of these instances," she said, explaining that social scientists helped mobilize resources and helped people rebuild their lives.
Dallaire also noted the effect of social sciences on diseases, noting a recent CDC study that said there has been a 25 percent decrease in heart attack and stroke.
"The largest impact they said was because of social scientists getting the message out about making lifestyle changes, things that people should do every day to prevent these things," she said.
As Heymann made her way to the podium, she pulled out a pitchfork and donned a headband with plastic horns. Though she applauded her colleagues for their efforts, she said that the arguments only sounded good because they were being made by "smarty-pants people."
Using glossy photos, she asked the audience to imagine that instead of the professors who were on the stage, they had Paris Hilton representing the humanities, "Survivor" host Jeff Probst representing the social sciences and "the kid who used to sit behind you in fourth grade and pick his nose" representing science.
"Now those arguments don’t sound so attractive, do they?" she said.
Heymann said that none of the disciplines deserved to be saved because they each balanced the others out.
"In the end these three need each other," she said. "The social scientist needs to be there to remind the humanities folks about what they’re doing and why they are doing what they do, and they need to be reminded by economists that investing in 'Gossip Girl: The Musical' is probably a bad idea. The natural scientists need to remind the social scientists that it’s okay to actually have an answer every once in a while. And the humanities folks need to remind both the natural scientists and the social scientists that you know what, it's okay to get out of the lab. Go see a movie, okay? Without all three, the balance is off completely. We cannot save them all. We must therefore save none."
During the rebuttal, the professors tore into each other's arguments. Dallaire urged the audience to "not make a deal with the devil."
After some questions from the audience, Sanderson, who wore a black robe and judge’s wig, asked the audience to use applause to vote for the person whom they thought should be saved. After the first round of voting, there was a tie between Forsyth and Heymann. The second time around, Heymann was declared the winner and the three professors were cast into the sea.
Though not one of the disciplines officially represented on the island, law – Heymann's specialty -- seemed like the night's winner.
As Heymann said in her rebuttal remarks, "It seems to me that the solution to all of this chaos is a field that provides rules, standards, punishments for social transgressions … I'm not quite sure what that discipline is, but if you know what it is, I urge you to vote in its favor."