Is debating with anti-science activists worth the effort?

By Ken Perrott 22/01/2015


I often wonder if the effort put into challenging and debunking misinformation and distortion of science on the internet is worth the effort. After all, it often means debating with dyed-in-the-wool people who have an ideological conviction who are immune to facts. And it is rare for me to actually win over a discussion partner – although, on the positive side – I often feel that I have learned something myself from the exercise.

So this Facebook article from The Credible Hulk pressed a few buttons for me. The bold highlights are mine and serve to identify key questions or concepts.

When undertaking the challenge of refuting various forms of scientifically unsupportable claims, a question that often arises is “are we legitimizing and/or drawing additional attention to people and ideas that might otherwise have had lesser reach and impact?” The idea is that we aren’t going to change the minds of dyed in the wool cranks, and by trying to, we give them free publicity.

This is an important and valid question. I think that there are certain cases in which illuminating and addressing certain quackpot claims can bring such claims and their proponents undeserved recognition and attention from people who otherwise might have never even heard of them. It is possible that it may in some instances be complicit in permitting the development of an unwarranted public perception of legitimacy with respect to the claims.

However, it’s a subtle business we’re in with a lot of catch-22s, because sometimes the opposite can occur.

For instance, by not addressing certain contrarian claims, that can be construed by (how shall I say) “alternative theorists” as a conspiracy of silence on the part of the greater scientific community.

In some such cases, the popularity of a set of unsupported claims can rise to dangerous levels due to being ignored (rather than due to being disputed), in which case we then have no choice but to struggle to put out a fire that was downplayed for too long on the grounds that it might not spread if we downplay it.

Also, much of the fight against pseudoscience involves targeting the reasonable bystanders, many if whom may be amenable to evidence and reasoned discourse, but had simply not previously been exposed to the best information on a subject. Maybe they’d seen headlines and claims that compelled them to think a controversy was afoot when only a manufacturversy existed. They see these interactions and can often tell which side is making the more logical and evidence-based arguments. This furthers people’s science education and increases the number of people who are sufficiently aware to watch out for crackpot claims.

This is desirable, because keeping silent doesn’t improve the average scientific literacy of the population, and thus relegates the knowledge to elite academics alone, in which case people who lack the scientific educational foundation to evaluate the veracity of their claims are forced to choose to either believe or disbelieve their claims on the basis of their personal subjective perception of the ethics and competence of the scientists (instead of following the logic of the science itself and understanding why a particular conclusion is reasonable on the basis of the best available evidence at a given time).

I’m not sure that there exists a perfect solution, but I don’t think that ignoring the anti-science voices is the best option (though we do collectively need to be selective and tactful with which ones we spend time and energy refuting).

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