“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A telling symptom of crackpottery

The anti-science cult has quite a few sub-cults: anti-vaccination; creation science and anti-evolution; 9/11 truthers; homeopathy supporters; climate change skeptics, etc. I have a secret fascination for reading such nonsense. This has been a guilty pleasure for me for quite a while - I also am drawn to watch, in fascinated horror, such as Benny HinnRobert Tilton (for a different take on Tilton, see here), and other "spiritual healers."

In perusing the web sites devoted to such belief systems (I say belief systems as opposed to bodies of knowledge) there's often an element of paranoia - "there's a huge, malign conspiracy to quash the truth, a truth to which I and those of like belief have access." One way this frequently expresses itself is in the demand for debate. See the comment at 10:16 on May 29, 2010 here, the touting of a debate at the Oxford Union here or the report of an "evolution debate" here for examples.

Why is this? Are questions of science, nature, and fact settled by debate? Obviously not. I actually participated in debate in High School and was coached in the skills necessary to prevail in a formal debate on such topics as: Resolved: Taxpayer funds should be used to flouridate Rockford, Illinois' drinking water. Of course, I'd need to be fully prepared to argue the affirmative or the negative side. It involved gathering facts that support either argument and being prepared to defend against such arguments gathered by the opposing side. The judging was quite formal and a winner was always declared.

This is what the supporters of creationism, anti-vax, homeopathy, etc. want - the ability to utilize clever tactics to convince an audience lacking in specialist knowledge for the purpose of persuading the greater public and thereby influencing public policy. But debating skills (at least insofar as convincing a non-expert audience on scientific topics) do not equate with the ability to ferret out the truth from disparate data. Either skill takes dedication and perseverance to develop; scientists choose the latter and thus may fall very short on the former.

Thus, when looking at blogs and web sites with viewpoints on subjects on which I'm not an expert (and no one really has a blog or web site arguing the arcana of the physics of acoustic propagation in steel or the acceptable level of heat input in a flux core weld), if I see a lot of clamoring for debate or the citation of the results of debate, I become immediately skeptical of the viewpoint being espoused.


Anonymous said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................

GD said...

Over the past few years I've become very leery of the use of debates. When trying to explain to others why I felt this way, or describe what I saw as differences between debate and discussion, I've never been able to make a clear point - Your description is perfect!