“Debunking” debunking

Among those who call themselves scientists, debunking is still a favored approach to dispelling misconceptions about science.

Does it work? I’m not so sure.

According to the dictionary, to “debunk” is “to expose or excoriate (a claim, assertion, sentiment, etc.) as being pretentious, false, or exaggerated. “U.S. novelist William Woodward (1874-1950) is credited with coining the term, meaning “to take the bunk out of things.” Y’all know what bunk is… Debunkers are hard-core skeptics, and proud of it. See Wikipedia for the ABCs of skepticism –the ancient Greek philosophy, the scientific variety, and other common conceptions.

A number of dedicated skeptics/debunkers have become media darlings and best-selling authors as well, among them Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, James Randi, and Michael Shermer. Some are affiliated with the Skeptic Society, others with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). CSI says its mission is “to promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.”

Here’s my problem with some of the hard-core skeptics (and they tend to be the better-known ones – see above). They can be nasty. Condescending. Close-minded. They can preach to the choir, while the “ignorant” masses tune out. (Who wants to be told they’re ignorant? Or even stupid?)  Check out “jgmdavi’s channel” on YouTube, “Debunking Pseudoscience; or, in Defense of Good Science,” where you’ll find clips from stand-bys Dawkins, Shermer, and others. See http://debunkingpseudoscience.blogspot.com/, the product of an anonymous female blogger (who says her occupation is “cook” and her zodiacal sign is “Cancer” – I would have expected a debunker to give her zodiacal sign as “N/A”…). See astronomer Andy Fraknoi’s “skeptic’s resource list” on topics in  “astronomical pseudo-science,” including astrology, UFOs, the “face” on Mars, and the “doomsday”-planet Nibiru story.

My favorite rhetorical critic, Kenneth Burke, had some thoughts on debunking. The aim of rhetoric, in Burke’s view*, is (or should be) identification, which is “compensatory to division.” The aim is (or should be) to find a point of identification with one’s audience and symbolically – rhetorically – create conditions for connecting with its members. The rhetorical strategy of debunking aims to “discern an evil” and then attempts to eradicate it, Burke says. Debunkers might agree. But what the debunker actually does, says Burke, is to “[perfect] a mode of argument that would, if carried out consistently,” undermine his/her own argument as well. “In order to combat a bad argument, [the debunker] develops a position so thorough that it would combat all arguments — and then must covertly so rework this position that he may spare his own argument from the general slaughter,” typically “by an unintentional ambiguity whereby he throws something out by one name and brings it back by another name.”

Yep.

Ray Hyman, professor emeritus of psychology with the University of Oregon and a founding member of CSICOP/CSI, wrote a guide to “proper criticism” for the organization a few years back that I recommend as resource for hard-core skeptics, skeptic-wannabes, and anybody else who cares about clarity.  I had the privilege of meeting Ray Hyman while I was in grad school in the mid-1990s. I found him to be a dedicated skeptic, devoted to the scientific method, and a fair-minded person who rather scrupulously avoids the harsh, rejecting rhetoric so dear to some of fellow skeptics (e.g., Dawkins). You can read the guide yourself, but here are its basic guidelines: be prepared, clarify your objectives, do your homework, do not go beyond your level of competence, let the facts speak for themselves, be precise, use the principle of charity, and avoid loaded words or sensationalism.

This is good guidance not only for skeptics but also for all the rest of us – especially us bloggers.

My advice to debunkers? Quit it. Or, if you must persist, at least follow Hyman’s guidelines. It’s the least you can do.

* Kenneth Burke, The philosophy of literary form: studies in symbolic action (3d ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973

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