The beginnings of a book manuscript, “Debunking for Dummies.”
Looking for a new hobby? Why not try ‘debunking’, which seems to be growing in popularity and requires little except a narrow viewpoint and a handful of faulty arguments. Let’s be clear from the outset though – we mustn’t confuse debunking with ‘skepticism’. The latter requires broad knowledge, critical thinking, and the ability to doubt your own viewpoint as much as any other. Obviously a much tougher proposition, as the lack of true proponents shows, so I would advise against trying this unless you are a serious masochist, or at the very least a true seeker of knowledge.
The first step in becoming a debunker is to immediately relinquish that title and establish your credentials by calling yourself either a skeptic or a scientist. Never mind that you are actually trying to impose your personal viewpoint on others, rather than following the scientific process and applying critical thinking to all sides of the argument. Actually, the best debunkers are those that don’t even know their true identity, having such poor critical thinking skills that they truly believe that that they are exhibiting all the open-mindedness and mental sharpness of the true skeptic or scientist. As such, some might reprimand me for writing this short article, seeing it as a hazard to the serious debunker’s faith in themselves – little chance of this however, as the real top-notch debunkers have a force-field of ignorance that is nigh impenetrable.
Okay, next you’ll need a few handy tools. The best method, being a pseudo-skeptic, will be to take some of the skeptic’s best tools and misuse them. First up, that venerable favourite, Occam’s Razor, which implies that the simplest explanation is often the best. The trick for the debunker is to take Occam’s Razor and use it not as a handy rule of thumb to aid critical thinking, but instead to impose it as a literal and immutable law of the universe which immediately destroys your opponent’s arguments. Don’t worry that complicated things happen all the time, thus disproving the ‘Law of Occam’. That would make thingscomplicated.
Just in case you’re caught without your bag of tricks, and cornered by a rabid pack of irrational pseudo-scientists, I recommend busting out a move I like to call ‘The Extraordinary Sagan’. Espouse with great enthusiasm that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. Ignore the fact that a true scientist would say that all claims require the same proportion of evidence. Someone might even point out this statement isn’t meant to be taken literally, but should be seen in terms of the acquired evidence of human experience (e.g. if you know from past experience throughout your life that a ball falls down when you drop it, and then someone says their ball fell ‘up’ yesterday, you would require evidence of a proportion to prove this singular event over the accumulated evidence of your life experience). The best thing is, you can apply this to all sorts of things inappropriately, like the discovery of a secret chamber, lost city, or lost knowledge, where the application of acquired knowledge is virtually without merit.
There are plenty of other tools and techniques to be had, and mastered, with a minimum of effort. Found a fraud, or a badly performed experiment? Immediately use “guilt by association” to apply this judgement to all researchers and theories in this particular line of inquiry. Did somebody earn some money, or at least get a small grant for their research? Obviously, you can tar them with the brush of the con-man, or at the very least label them opportunists, who are not at all interested in scientific integrity (because we all know that scientists and skeptics don’t make any money). The following chapters outline the best methods1
Okay, so I’m being facetious. Satire can sometimes provide the harshest realisations, and with my use of it here I expose my particular prejudice and desire – namely to remove the debunker’s smug air of respectability and intellectual superiority, and expose them for what they really are: a pseudo-skeptic. I’m playing on the title of ‘pseudo-scientist’, of course, a term which every pseudo-skeptic is quick to label their adversary with when their arguments are starting to fail. The problem in this case, is that the pseudo-skeptic has as much understanding of ‘science’ as they do of ‘skepticism’ – very little at all.
The derivation of the word science comes from the Latin scientia, meaning ‘knowledge’. Science has always been, at its core, the search for knowledge. Early Indian science is seen as including such things as yoga, which was a systematic approach to gaining knowledge about the mind, and the relationship between consciousness and the cosmos. Early Greek science was influenced by Pythagorean thought; that there is a correspondence between the workings of the human mind and nature, through numbers and music. Indeed, most sciences began as a mode of inquiry into man’s place within the cosmos. Human consciousness was obviously of high importance – from yoga and Pythagorean thought, through to the Kabbalah and magic, throughout the ages man has developed systems of mapping and exploring consciousness and has held the knowledge gained through these practices in the highest regard. If science truly is a search for knowledge, one might ask who has more right to be called a scientist – a Kabbalist or a taxonomist?
The modern conception of science, which the debunker holds so dear, is based upon a particular branch of science which has become dominant over the past four centuries. To grossly simplify historical developments, the physics of Newton and the philosophy of Descartes combined with other factors during the ‘Enlightenment’, to give central importance of one strand of science – modern science, as we know it. This science is basically physicalism – “the belief that reality is reducible to certain kinds of physical entities”2 (and if you want illustration of this, ask a group of physicists and chemists whether psychology is a science). With this newly dominant science came ‘the scientific method’. Many people are surprised to learn that the scientific method is not a gift from god which determines whether something is ‘scientific’ – it is actually one method of gaining results, amongst a number of possible others (put forward throughout history, from the Gnostics through to Karl Popper). The fact cannot be overstated – the modern scientific method which the pseudo-skeptic virtually deifies, is simply one particular method of revealing information about one particular type of knowledge.
A first criticism of this deified science, which pseudo-skeptics fail to grasp, is that although modern science is a mode of knowledge which is particularly conducive to maintaining bodily survival, it is not as helpful with the actual ‘living’ part. Physicalism trivialises the human experience, reducing it to the interactions of chemicals and ‘pure physics’, leaving no room for a spirit or soul. An example is in the ‘scientific’ explanations for NDE’s (Near Death Experiences) – as much as someone who has experienced an NDE may be told various possible physical reasons for the onset of an NDE, very rarely do they hold much weight. The awareness that occurs during such events is not something that can be described by a physical process, hence the ineffability of the event. To quote the aviator Charles Lindbergh, in relation to an OBE (Out of Body Experience) he had during his 1927 transatlantic flight: “My visions are easily explained away through reason, but the longer I live, the more limited I believe rationality to be”3.
Another problem with the modern scientific viewpoint is that too often it is considered complete. A cursory glance at the history of science shows, however, that this assumption has been wrongly held throughout the ages. Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm changes has gained quite a high level of acceptance, yet the pseudo-skeptic’s ignorance of examples throughout history has led to some very flawed thinking. For example, in a recent article in the New York Times, Lawrence M. Krauss argued:
“How often have I heard the cry from the audience, ‘Yeah, but 300 years ago people would have said it would be impossible to fly!’the problem with that assertion is that 300 years ago people did not know enough about the laws of physics to make the assertion, so the claim would have been improper.”4
One wonders whether it crossed Mr Krauss’ mind that in 300 years time, someone much like himself might be writing about him in the same terms?
Two of the most famous examples of paradigm changes are Copernicus’ heliocentric model and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. However, there are other smaller examples: for instance, the distinguished medical journal Lancet once described hypnotic subjects as trained criminals who were paid for their stage acting5. Other anomalies that were once ‘fiction’ include ball lightning and meteorites. Of course, it has to be noted that for every ‘vindicated anomaly’, there are thousands of misconceptions, wishful thoughts, and outright frauds. This never invalidates investigation of anomalous data though, as most pseudo-skeptics would have us believe. Niels Bohr summed it up perfectly, when he said “the task of science is both to extend the range of our experience and to reduce it to order”6. Science requires both speculation and methodical examination to evolve, and to deny either is madness.
At this point, perhaps a quick caution to the pseudo-scientist is necessary: you are on a downward spiral into nazism and other nastiness. Or apparently so, according to the debunking fraternity. The BBC’s Horizon feature titled “Atlantis Uncovered” warned against this ‘fact’7, portraying fringe thinking as a descent into irrational thought, and ultimately (of course!) National Socialism. Similarly Michael Shermer, in “Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of our Time”, states “today’s paranormal beliefs probably seem relatively harmless. They are not. The reason is that if someone is willing to accept such claims on nonexistent evidence, what else are they willing to believe?”8. This sort of thinking is nonsensical, as similar outcomes can be assigned to nearly any type of human endeavour. As physicist Henry Stapp argues, physicalist science on its own is dangerous, because it leaves “no rational basis for anything but self-interestthe collapse of moral philosophy is inevitable”9.
But maybe the pseudo-skeptics are just referring to all those everyday crazy people out there, with nothing better to do but believe in pseudo-science and polish their jack-boots. Surely they think more of actual scientists who investigate anomalies with an open mind? Not so, apparently, if we look at the evidence in James (‘The Amazing’) Randi’s attack on Dr Gary Schwartz of the University of Arizona, who upset the gods of debunking by being foolish enough to initiate a scientific study of ‘psychic’ John Edwards (which is odd, seeing as one of the core values of those gods’ magazine of choice, Skeptical Inquirer, is “freedom of thought and inquiry”10). In this ‘debate’, Randi twists words to name Schwartz as a believer in the tooth fairy, and resorts to about every trick written in the pseudo-skeptic’s handbook. The reader may want to view a complete transcript of the dialogue at the “Debunking the Debunkers” website11, which shows clearly where any irrationality lies. Interestingly, Randi only published his ‘devastating critique’ on his website12, and not the responses, explaining that Dr Schwartz had “issued frenzied responses to my comments, which I am tempted to publish here, but that would make a very long document indeed”. So what drives the pseudo-skeptic to such extraordinary lengths? Why do they attack their ‘enemy’ with such ferocity, and accusations of nazism and other name-calling?
A primary motivation of the debunker would seem to be, quite simply, jealousy. I’ve grown weary of the number of times I’ve been told how unfair it is that Graham Hancock has experienced such success. But don’t mistake this jealousy as simply being in terms of personal gain. James Alcock writes in Skeptical Inquirer:
“rather than honouring science, the public is generally disdainful of both science and scientist, while welcoming to their bosom the purveyors of magic, shamanism, and supernaturalism” 13
One pertinent point to note from this statement is how pseudo-skeptics always talk in terms of how the general public needs to be told what is best for them (by the pseudo-skeptic of course). And yet they wonder why the public is disdainful. The other point is that the jealousy of the debunker has at its root their deep-seated desire to have their particular worldview validated.
So what is the underlying reason for the debunkers position? Why do they feel the need to “portray science not as an open-minded process of discovery, but as a holy war against unruly hordes of quackery” 14? The obvious conclusion is that behind this behaviour lies a large amount of insecurity. In particular, anxiety that a carefully constructed world-view, which helps them to make sense of the world and also often bestows upon them a position of power, may be dismantled at any moment. Any attempts by ‘pseudo-scientists’ to investigate outside this world-view are regarded as a threat, an attempt to pull the comfortable rug out from beneath the debunker’s feet. As much as the true skeptic harbours doubts about their stance, the debunker attempts to convince themselves and others, through any means possible, that they are right. How can the debunker, therefore, ever be considered anything more than a pseudo-skeptic.
That’s not to say, however, that criticism of alternative theories is incorrect or somehow morally wrong in any way. Ideas and theories should always be questioned, but in a respectful manner, and with the humility to realise that any position may prove to be completely incorrect. We should always question what we believe, and also why we do so. In the end though, it is each person’s inalienable right to construct a view of the world which fits the evidence of their experience best, and helps them to understand the world. The debunker does not believe in this philosophy however, and feels the need to impose their personal viewpoint upon others. It is high time that all parties showed more respect for philosophies different to theirs, and made an attempt to understand them. If the pseudo-skeptic does not take my word for it, perhaps they’ll listen to James Alcock, who wrote in Skeptical Inquirer (with the emphasis added being mine) “we may differ in our assumptions about the underlying nature of reality, but we are much the same as each other” 15.
- This ‘manuscript’ is the compilation of a number of ‘debunking standards’ which I have experienced over the years on mailing lists and website discussions. I have obviously had similar experiences to the people at the ‘Debunking the Debunkers’ website (http://www.survivalscience.org/debunk/default.shtml), as they have been inspired to write similar commentaries. I thoroughly recommend their website as it is far more comprehensive than my small list, and also their observations are spot-on and well argued. I have used this resource to the benefit of this article, as a perusal of the footnotes will show.
I was also pleasantly surprised to read an excellent article in Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 26 No. 1, Jan/Feb 2002, “3 Skeptics’ Debate Tools Examined”, by Alvaro Caso, which addressed a few of my points. I recommend this article as well, as a handy resource for the critical thinker.
- Tart, Charles “States of Consciousness and State Specific Sciences”, in Advances in Altered States of Consciousness and Human Potentialities Volume I, ed. Theodore X. Barber, 1976.
- Lindbergh, Charles cited in Psychic Voyages.
- Krauss, Lawrence M. “Odds Are Stacked When Science Tries to Debate PseudoScience”, New York Times April 30, 2002.
- Parker, Adrian States of Mind, 1975.
- Bohr, Niels Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge
- Shermer, Michael Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of our Time, 1997.
- The reader can view Henry Stapp’s writings at his website: www-physics.lbl.gov/~stapp/
- Frazier, Kendrick “From the Editor’s Seat: 25 Years of Science and Skepticism” in Skeptical Inquirer Volume 25 No. 3, May/June 2001.
- Alcock, James “Science vs Pseudoscience, Nonscience and Nonsense – 25 Years of CSICOP”, in Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 25 No. 3 May/June 2001.
- Drasin, Daniel “Zen . . . And the Art of Debunkery”, at www.survivalscience.org/debunk/zenartofdebunkery.shtml
- Alcock, James “Science vs Pseudoscience, Nonscience and Nonsense – 25 Years of CSICOP”, in Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 25 No. 3 May/June 2001.