Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Skeptoid #167

God, am I torn.

I was walking the dog on our evening constitutional when I flipped on this week's episode of Skeptoid. I am just all sorts of mixed up on this week's episode on why science should not debate pseudoscience.

Brian Dunning clearly comes down on the side of the negative: science should definitely not debate pseudoscience in public forums. The man has first hand experience debating pseudoscientific magic, nonsense, and bogus "facts." He sounded frustrated, I almost expected him to shout out his window "I'm mad as hell, and I am not going to take it any longer." He did not.

His basic premise seemed to be: 1) most of the people attending the debate have already made up their minds, 2) you are giving the pseudoscience promoters equal billing with science, 3) you cannot win the debate because the science advocate is shackled by facts and evidence -the other side can just make stuff up, 4) for the few whose minds are swayed toward science at the debate the event itself to the larger non-attending public sends a message that a legitimate disagreement exists {really a subset of 2}, 5) a skeptic or science proponent's energy can be better spend doing other activities. I believe I hit all of Dunnings high points.

When I listened to each point on my walk, I tended to agree. My mind went back to the debate between Phil Plait and Joe Rogan on the ridiculous moon landing hoax on Penn's radio show, where Rogan's Gish Gallop swamped Plait's facts and knowledge. Well, at this point in my walk I was depressed. It was time to head home to sulk in some pie.

And, yet . . . Giving up an entire front in the battle against pseudoscience just strikes me as wrong headed. You are giving the other side the field. True, the pseudoscience advocates are not getting the debate podium to trumpet their baloney, but neither are they being challenged. They are being handed the field free and clear. It's not really about winning that discussion, convincing that audience, or coming away with a press story at the end of the day on how Kim Paris, PhD wiped the floor with Terry London, soul communicator. It is the act of confronting the other side and letting them know they won't just have their flawed ideas take the day.

I agree with Mr. Dunning that other avenues exists to convince people of the correctness of the scientific method and rational thought in presentations, lectures, blogs, podcasts, television, internet video, etc. However, I highly suspect those preaching to such audiences are preaching to the science choir. At a debate, you might win over just five of the thousand in attendance but maybe a seed of doubt is planted in thirty more. It might be a small, hidden gain, but it may not happen without the debate.

I tip my hat to Mr. Dunning for bringing the topic to the forefront. I think he makes valid points. He has spent his time in the trenches and has had his fill. I do not think anyone can blame him. As Mr. Dunning notes for those who go into such a forum to realize what they are really getting them self into and have a realistic goal. I would suggest it is not to win that debate, that day, that audience, or to garner positive press. The science advocates are performing a necessary, if somewhat thankless task, of maintaining pressure on those who would champion irrational beliefs based on nothing more than hype and magic to control how society bases its decisions. Yet, for all this high minded writing, damn if I don't fear Mr. Dunning is correct.

Drat. There is no pie in the house.

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