Should Science Debate Pseudoscience?
When scientists publicly debate promoters of pseudoscience, they often do more harm than good.
by Brian Dunning
August 18, 2009
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.
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.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Should Science Debate Pseudoscience?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
18 Aug 2009. Web.
16 Jul 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4167>
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/>
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