Friday, January 25, 2013

How skeptics should not confront pseudoscience

I sincerely believe that it is necessary for both science educators and skeptics to engage the public in a rational dialog. I do not, however, think that they should be open to every available time, method, and format. This is because, as I will argue below, approaching the public in the wrong way may do more harm than good.

A format that should be avoided all together is formal debates. Debates have several features that make them a poor format for science communication. As it has been pointed out again and again, virtually the whole audience goes to debates with their minds already made up. Unless someone gets absolutely tooled, then no one is likely to change their mind (this can also backfire and embolden someone's beliefs). It is also very difficult to correctly explain scientific theories in such a small amount of time. Even the quickest explanation of evolution takes college professors a couple of full length class periods. There is no reason to think that it can be done in a twenty minute opening statement.

Debates can also help the cause of pseudoscience. Unlike the defenders of science, the charlatan have the ability to make things up on the spot because they are not committed to the truth. This gives them a massive advantage in persuading the audience who cannot tell the difference. Many pseudoscientists are also master rhetoricians and they pay their rent by debating. These factors mean that there is a good chance they are going to win, even if they are full of it. A great example of this is the debate between Kent Hovind and Massimo Pigliucci (link). Despite Massimo having doctorates in botany, genetics, and philosophy and Kent having one from an uncredited Christian diploma mill, the latter (at least in my opinion) easily won the exchange.

Perhaps even worse, you are granting the proponent of pseudoscience a major propaganda victory by merely stepping on stage with them. This victory is the ability to claim that there is a legitimate debate between their viewpoint and mainstream science. Since achieving this status is a major goal of Intelligent Design proponents, you have already given them a tremendous victory before you even open your mouth. You may respond to this by saying something like "But isn't that a change to crush them? What if the defender of science smashes them?" The problem with this is that it still gives the audience the impression that there is no settled science.

Instead of doing debates, scientists and science educators should make documentaries, host podcasts, appear on television shows, and write popular level books. This allows them to explain the complexities of theories like evolution without having to immediately deal with asinine objections like missing links and apes turning into people. Once these theories are properly explained, many of the criticisms that captivate the public imagination will dissolve away.  An excellent example of this is Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. This documentary debunks objections like "an eye could not be made by chance" or "what good is only half of an eye" by explaining how natural selection actually works.

If you are a skeptic and wish to discuss critical thinking at the grass roots level, then friendly discussions are to be preferred. There are many resources that can help develop techniques for diffusing ideas about science and critical thinking. If you desire to communicate ideas, like the theory of evolution, I highly recommend that you also read popular level books by people like Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, and (of course) Richard Dawkins. Their books contain lucid explanations, captivating evidence, and excellent analogies that you can use to explain science. I also recommend that you preempt the concerns that creationists may have by reading Ruse, Numbers, and Kitcher. Since all creationists have virtually the same objections, this should not be hard to do.

While this advice may not sound as daring as taking to he debate stage, it allows science to dispel misunderstandings on its own terms without creating the illusion that it is on par with pseudoscience. This is the standard that we should strive for because it creates a much better environment to change the minds of the masses.

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