Should Science Debate Pseudoscience?

Do debates against pseudoscience advance the cause of science, or do they do more harm than good?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid #167
August 18, 2009
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Today I'm going to propose a bit of a radical idea. About every week I get invited to debate someone — on another podcast, on the radio, in person — and I'm invited to take the side of science and debate a pseudoscientist. It might be a ghost hunter, it might be a Young Earth Creationist, it might be a practitioner of alternative medicine, always based on some Skeptoid episode I've done that ruffled someone's feathers. Although I used to always accept these invitations, I now always decline them. I have concluded that it is not only useless for science to debate pseudoscience, it is actually counterproductive to science. Today I'm going to argue that no scientist should ever agree to debate a pseudoscientist about a scientific question.

The exception, of course, is court cases, but that's a legal process and not the type of open debate designed to illuminate the public that we're talking about here. In court it's always essential that science put its best foot forward in order to continue strengthening the bond between laws and facts. In court, there are consequences if you lie or make stuff up. In debates, there are no consequences for making stuff up, and there is no tangible benefit for the one who brings the best evidence. Courts of law reward good evidence; debates reward only good rhetoric. A judge is trained to see the difference between evidence and rhetoric, but a debate audience is rarely so well equipped.

I'm not saying that science should not be debated internally. Efforts to falsify existing theory are the core of the scientific method. There is the common analogy of three concentric circles: the center represents the core fundamentals that virtually never change; then the second circle where all the scientific work and research is constantly working out the details, and where scientific debate occurs; then the outer circle is the fringe research which has yet to establish any validity. While scientific debate advances the process of examining and refining the second circle, pseudoscientific debate seeks to throw out the established core fundamentals and replace them with a different set of fundamentals that have never gone through any kind of scientific development. Appropriate scientific debate not only has a place, it's an essential part of the process; but presenting the core fundamentals as if they are comparable to non-scientific alternatives serves no constructive purpose whatesoever.

The primary reason I oppose debates is that a debate, by definition, allows two competing views to be explored and compared, and arguments presented for each. The audience is expected to weigh these arguments and hopefully decide which one they found more compelling. The very nature of a debate presents science as if it is merely a competing opinion. When we agree to a debate, we are agreeing to drag science down to the level of a view that competes with pseudoscience. Simply by agreeing to the debate, we present the scientific method as being vulnerable to disassembly by fallacious pseudoscientific arguments. That's the message we send: Science is not fact, science is merely opinion; and it's as weak as any other.

There's another unfortunate reality about debates, and that's the dirty little not-so-secret that everyone who attends a debate has typically already made up their mind, and has been invited to attend by one side or the other. They are huge proponents of their side, and neither debater has much hope of changing the minds of anyone in the room. Most debates probably have a handful of attendees who are open to actually learning something, but they are an extreme minority. If you've ever attended a debate of any kind, you know what I'm talking about.

When you advertise a debate, maybe 1,000 people will attend. And let's say you do a smashing job and manage to convince that entire handful of convincable attendees that science is real. Great, you won over five people. But what you're forgetting is that for those 1,000 attendees, there are 5,000 people out there who heard about the debate (they saw the ads or flyers or whatever) who did not attend. What you unintentionally communicated to those 5,000 people is that your scientific discipline is academically comparable to the pseudoscientific version, and that both are equally valid. The fact that the debate exists at all struck a blow to the public's perception of the credibility of science that far outweighs any progress you may have made in the room.

I've been the lone representative of science in the room, the one they introduce as "a real trooper for agreeing to come into the lion's den." I've received the condescending smattering of applause from the room where every single person is against me and everything I have to say, but they've "shown me that they're good people too and will treat me respectfully in spite of how misguided I am." Nice folks. And then I'd walk back to my car and every time I'd say to myself "That was a friggin ridiculous waste of time." And I guarantee that their writeup of the event in their newsletter would say I was a nice guy, I was a real trooper to come and talk, and they probably planted within me a seed that would eventually bloom into full-blown science denial, and they'd love to have me back someday to see how that seed has germinated. Going to debate at an event sponsored by the pseudoscience group is always a ridiculous waste of your time. You serve merely as a masturbation enabler for them. Next time, send them a stack of dirty magazines instead.

It has been argued that scientists have a huge advantage in debates because we have the facts on our side. Well, so we do, but that's not an advantage at all. Rather, it's a limitation. The audience members who are not scientists can rarely discriminate between facts and pseudofacts. The pseudoscientist has an unlimited supply of sources and claims and validations. He can say whatever he wants. If compelling rhetoric would benefit from any given argument, he can always make that argument. Pseudosciences have typically been designed around compelling rhetorical arguments. The facts of science, on the other hand, rarely happen to coincide with the best possible logic argument. Having the facts on your side is not an advantage, it's a limitation; and it's a limitation that's very dangerous to the cause of science should you throw it onto the debate floor.

It has also been argued that scientists should debate pseudoscience because if we don't, we allow them to have an unchallenged platform, and the only voice being heard is theirs. I don't buy this argument at all. Not holding a debate doesn't silence us any more than it silences them. Both retain the same "unchallenged platforms" that both have always enjoyed. We have free speech in our society, and anyone who wants to will always have a voice whether we choose to hold a debate or not. What's important is the quality and reach of our voice. I say that science communication should be its own one-way platform. We're the ones who should be refusing to give the pseudoscientists an apparently-equal voice by agreeing to debate them. Science benefits the public, pseudoscience harms the public. We should be doing all we can to promote good science communication, and to refuse to admit the voice of pseudoscience, at every opportunity. They have their free speech already; we don't need to be turbocharging it for them by letting them leech off the credibility we've earned.

I've heard another argument in favor of debating, and that's that when you win, reporters will trumpet that result to a much wider audience. Well, that's an awfully gutsy roll of the dice you're making. Who is this reporter? What makes you so sure he's going to think your position is the stronger? And consider that it's going to be yet another article contributing to the false perception that science and pseudoscience represent two equally valid, debatable perspectives.

I say, take any energies you might be inclined to devote toward preparing for a debate, and instead devote that time to prepare a one-way science presentation that will amaze and enlighten, without any polluted cargo of pseudoscience being delivered alongside. It is not cowardly to protect the delivery of valuable information.

No doubt this episode of Skeptoid will be laughed at by the purveyors of nonsense, saying that I'm advising science to tuck its tail between its legs and run because we know we can't win any debates, because we've discovered that magical thinking is in fact real, and stronger than science. You may well receive this same criticism when you decline a debate. Don't worry about it. Don't feed the trolls. Let the schoolyard bully tease and taunt, you have better things to do than engage him.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Neither am I saying that science should not respond to the promotion of pseudoscience in pop culture. Absolutely we should; my point is that debates are the wrong way to do it. We should write articles like Simon Singh's. We should inject good science into the media through projects like the Science and Entertainment Exchange. We should continue to produce high quality content like podcasts, videos, and TV shows that appeal to a broad audience with entertaining content, and that deliver powerful doses of science education and critical thinking skills; and that never open the door a crack to the contamination of pseudoscience. These are the ways to effectively impact society positively.

So to all of you debaters out there, you may agree with some of my points, or you may disagree with all of them. But like I always say: Whether I'm right or wrong makes no difference. What matters is that you're thinking about these questions. Don't accept any invitation to debate before you consider all of its implications. Science should be taught as fact, not offered as an alternative opinion in a debate.

Brian Dunning

© 2009 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Alters, Brian J., & Gould, Stephen Jay. "Stephen Jay Gould: An Interview." The American Biology Teacher. 15 Apr. 1998, Volume 6, Number 4: 272-275.

Beyerstein, B. "Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience." The Center for Curriculum and Professional Development. 1 Jul. 1995, October 1996.

Dawkins, Richard. "Why I Won't Debate Creationists." RichardDawkins.net. Upper Branch, 15 May 2006. Web. 17 Aug. 2009. <http://richarddawkins.net/articles/119>

Krauss, Lawrence. "Odds Are Stacked When Science Tries to Debate Pseudoscience." New York Times. 30 Apr. 2002, F: 3.

Lilienfeld, S., Landfield, K. "Science and Pseudoscience in Law Enforcement: A User-Friendly Primer." Criminal Justice and Behavior. 1 Oct. 2008, Volume 35, Number 10: 1215-1230.

Novella, Steven. "Simon Singh's Libel Suit." SkepticBlog. Skeptic Magazine, 11 May 2009. Web. 17 Aug. 2009. <http://skepticblog.org/2009/05/11/simon-singhs-libel-suit/>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Should Science Debate Pseudoscience?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 18 Aug 2009. Web. 22 Aug 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4167>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 57 comments

You inform us Pablo, that common sense tells you the world is flat - My response is "does it?"

I never had that problem. Common sense told me that the world is round, that all people are similar in nature and there there is no such thing as a "race"

It told me that Christian theology was largely rubbish based on fairy stories, that there was no Noah's Ark and that wealth was very unfairly shared according to rules that were made before I was born, and which I would never have made.

My early childhood misapprehensions came from adult lies and jokes which began with Santa Claus and the Christmas story and went on to me believing that Australia had kangaroos "because it was big" and New Zealand wallabies "because it was small" - there are no wallabies in NZ. Nor do Chinese eyes go up and Japanese down

Of course the core of these lies is not lack of common sense in the child but rather loving belief in the core lie that adults are trustworthy

I remember seeing two little children - one French one English - playing happily together on a beach for hours on end. They became best friends. Asked about it the English child said she had a lovely time and really liked her new friend - but "she speaks scribble"

That's common sense uncontaminated by prejudice.

Phi, Sydney
March 5, 2011 6:23pm

An excellent article. I think we do not need to doctor discussion on science. Pseudoscience will not be able to survive for long, it will disappear on its own. The history of objective science goes back to the first human being born on this earth. "... Since the discovery of fire and the wheel, he never took a rest from unraveling the mysteries of the world." quoting from (<a href="http://sciencedebate.com/science-blog/what-science-and-why-science-debate">ScienceDebate.com</a>. Science will continue to thrive.

Roger, USA
April 24, 2011 5:14pm

I deplore the term "common sense". Please guys, its the masses that believe common sense is a good thing.

I'd much rather see diversity of opinion (not phantasm) and continual innovation.

common sense tells you that you will see a rabbit.

Innovation told men that catching it may be a great way of finding out what it tastes like.

Common sense had a man in the moon, not on the moon.

It is in now way correct to debate complex issues and formulate action on the gut feeling you have at the time. Things we vote on and maintain or reject may be totally irrelevant with technological advances over the next decades but we vote to halt those advances as well.

The time governments waste debating commonsense issues may seem fair, but how can the voter or parliamentarian do anything else but to go by its philosophy on issues it has absolutely no expertise with.

I'd say we go back to the savannah and enjoy the rabbits running by. Its effectively what we have always done being common folk having a common sense.

A good example is the way we giggle at klingons boasting of glorious death in battle. What a ridiculous idea..It is..and, we still have a goodly proportion of klingons amongst us.

Its hard to criticise anyones stance if you (just like the rest of us) have the odd klingon in your clan.

(Now for my big polemic!) Stand up.. smash your calculators and send you kid to a university where they have to work hard every week of semester. Vote nuclear, vote renewable!

Henk V, Sydney Australia
August 31, 2011 10:27am

The only real problem I have with this is that not debating does send a message. It's not an admission of weakness -although it can be presented as such- nor does it do any direct harm to science's ability to communicate, as Brian pointed out communication is often the last thing such events are about.
However one of the more frequent criticisms I've encountered is a perception that science is elitist; a relatively small group of like minded people who are arrogant and dismissive of the opinions of those less intelligent/rational.
Saying that debating with pseudo-scientific thinkers demeans or diminishes science may well be true, but it's not difficult to see how someone who believes, or at least hasn't been convinced of the flaws in, say...homeopathy might find that statement offensive.
To say that science is fact rather than opinion does nothing to alter the fact that it's opinion that needs to be changed if anything is going to be accomplished. If you totally dismiss a person's belief; intentionally or not calling it unworthy of reasoned discussion then the odds are good that they will be equally dismissive in turn. After all it's just another opinion to them, at least until they're convinced of the validity of its methods and motivation.
If science's chief proponents are seen to be uninterested in discussion, or as treating other systems of thought with high handed contempt then surely that also runs the risk of damaging sciences reputation?

Simeon Polis, Norwich, England
January 4, 2012 12:31pm

Its pretty easy when you debate pseudoscience to come to the conclusion that you are talking to someone who isnt familiar with a mid high school science text book.

If you think scientists are elitists, argue with your most accessible technologists, plumbers, electricians and mechanics.

I am sure you will lose every time. I still havent seen a single post calling these very useful people as elitists.

Now to Simeon's latter paragraphs a lot of scientists would view pseudo science as non science. They do not debate non science, they can only expose it.

Whilst you may think a scam artist has a valid view, its only about getting as much money and recognition for the minimum of work. That's why pseudoscience can be invented on the spot by relation to some very accesible ideas by folk who should be doing something less egregious with their allotted time.

Sure I know well meaning people who set up this way. But they have cherry picked a set of mission statements rather than learning a little bit of science. When confronted (usually energy transfer) they change the subject with the best relational operator in their arsenal;

but.

Once the magic term "but" is uttered, the direction of the conversation is forced to change until the next;

but.

The whole point of this is for a scientist to debate scam artists the scam artist has to elevate and argue science or be ignored.

I debate pseudoscience out of perversity.

Mud, In a Sinful shire and a Sinful state, Oz
June 15, 2012 9:27pm

"There are no internet police... People say whatever they want on the internet and it's not fair!"- Mike Petrucelli, Kangen-water (snakeoil) salesman- quote taken from youtube video

A Kangen believer I know has actually used the "no internet police" argument with me to debate science. They can say whatever they want without scientific facts and they judge us according to themselves.

Dylan Hoff, Perkasie PA
March 6, 2013 1:04pm

Almost mandatory reading on common sense being a false sense of security.

I do miss Cam of Thunder Bay and Tom H. of Kent.

Kept the "common sensers" honest.

Its common sense not to think about things.

Mung Dean, Gerringong The IL. USO
September 20, 2013 3:00am

It's a damned shame Bill Nye couldn't take this advice. It's always galling to see fringe theories legitimized by public figures giving them the undue honor of a debate.

I have several friends and family who are, unfortunately, young earth creationists, and I anecdotally see the excitement and sense of vindication that just the news of the upcoming debate at Ken Ham's Creation Fantasy Amusement Park gives them.

I really can't help but agree that debating delusional advocates of pseudo-science at best results in preaching to your own choir, which is never worth the sense of legitimacy it gives to the pseudo-science advocates.

Raymond J. V., Port Huron, MI
January 2, 2014 11:10am

Perhaps what is needed is for the Scientific community to 'chose the battleground'? Take the fight to THEM and invite them to support their pseudoscientific delusions in front of OUR crowd. Also I an rather disappointed that the TV companies (even those who should know better - like Discovery Channel) are so happy to give unchallenged airtime to supporters of psuedo-science. I am fine with 'ghosthunter' type programs and the like, they are great fun as entertainment, but don't have any place on channels that purport to support scientific thinking!

Ian Beeby, Bolton UK
January 4, 2014 1:55am

Bill Nye knows what he's doing. His real cause is ridding the schools of teaching creationism. He's bringing attention to this issue that too many people are frightened to touch.

@polarfun, New York
January 4, 2014 12:35pm

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