Denialists should not be debated

Orac has brought up the interesting point that debating the homeopaths at U. Conn might not be a good idea.

On a related note, in a post derriding attacks on consensus I was asked by commenters if isn’t it incumbent on science to constantly respond to debate; to never let scientific questions be fully settled. And I understand where they’re coming from. These ideas represent the enlightened ideals of scientific inquiry, free speech, and fundamental fairness.

However, they’re also hopelessly misplaced in regard to the problem at hand. That is, denialists, cranks, quacks, etc., are not interested in legitimate debate or acting as honest brokers trying to bring clarity to a given issue through discussion. Orac dances around this issue a little bit, talking about the challenges of debates with pseudoscientists because they are hard to pin down, but the fundamental problem, simply put, is the absence of honesty and standards. Academia and science are critically dependent on debate, this is true, but the prerequisite for having the debate is having people who are honestly interested in pursuing the truth and operate using the same rules of evidence and proof. It’s not about censoring dissent, which the cranks insist is the issue in their eternal pursuit of persecution. It’s about having standards for evidence and discussion. This is why these debates, when confined to a courtroom, often fare so disastrously for the denialists. In the presence of standards that exist before evidence can be introduced, they are left with nothing.

In what is probably the best book on denialist tactics Deborah Lipstadt’s “Denying the Holocaust”, are the best arguments for not engaging in debate with denialists. Now, I realize we’re not talking about scum-of-the-earth holocaust deniers here, but the fact is, the tactics and the methods are ultimately the same no matter how noble or evil the motive. Just because the motives or ideologies of the other cranks or denialists are different, doesn’t mean that they don’t have the exact same flaws in their arguments, use of evidence, or fundamental honesty. Lipstadt explains the risks then of entering into debates with deniers:

Shouldn’t we hear their ideas, opinions, or point of view? Their willingness to scribe to the deniers and their myths of the legitimacy of a point of view is of great, if not greater concern than are the activities of the deniers themselves. What is wrong, I am repeatedly asked, with people hearing a “different perspective”? Unable to make the distinction between genuine historiography and the deniers’ purely ideological exercise, those who see the issue in this light are important assets in the deniers’ attempts to spread their claims. This is precisely the deniers’ goal: They aim to confuse the matter by making it appear as if they are engaged in a genuine scholarly effort when, of course, they are not

I tend to agree. Lipstadt’s book really is fantastic for understanding denialism in general, because, in a way, holocaust denial has resisted oblivion for so many years by refining their tactics to the point that it’s often difficult even for smart people to realize the true objectives of the debater. Inherent in these calls for open debate, like this recent appeal from evolution denialists to extend their debate in science magazine, is an attempt to hide the ideological agenda in favor of ideals appealing to scientists – like openness, free inquiry, and fairness. However, one only needs to look closely at how they operate to see that they are liars. This suggestion that ID isn’t creationism is, of course, hysterical considering the textbook of intelligent design from these cranks shows all they did to upgrade it from creationism was to do a “find-and-replace”. Sometimes poorly, as shown here in a slide I took from John Lynch that was also shown at the Dover trial:
There is a reason that Judge Jones basically called them pathetic liars in his decision – they clearly are.

Lipstadt described this phenomenon 15 years ago with regard to Holocaust denial:

One of the tactics the deniers use to achieve their ends is to camouflage their goals. In an attempt to hide the fact the fact that they are fascists and antisemites with a specific ideological and political agenda–they state that their objective is to uncover historical falsehoods, all historical falsehoods. Thus they have been able to sow confusion among even the products of the highest echelons of the American educational establishment.

Do you see the parallels in tactics? Intelligent design isn’t creationism (ignore the find-and-replace) it’s an alternative theory! They just want to make sure they keep the Darwinists honest by suggesting an alternative hypothesis and honest debate! They’re for inquiry into all possible avenues of explaining the origin of life! Hooray for open-mindedness!

Not bloody likely. Between the findings of the Dover trial, and of course, the Wedge Document explicitly stating their ideological objectives, it becomes very clear, very quickly, the denialists simply aren’t being honest. This is camouflage, don’t believe it.

You may ask then, so what if they’re dishonest? What’s then the big deal with debating them? Well, because you’re helping them achieve their goals! This is what they want, to spread their ideas and create the illusion of legitimate debate, when in reality there is none.

Lipstadt’s argument for ultimately dismissing this “reasonable” approach – as repeatedly suggested by multiple commenters – is as relevant to this debate as it is with any other denier, and I must quote it extensively, since it’s dead-on:

Many years ago the prominent German historian Theodor Mommsen warned that it would be a mistake to believe that reason alone was enough to keep people from believing such falsehoods. If this were the case, he said, then racism, antisemitism, and other forms of prejudice would find no home. To expect rational dialogue to constitute the sole barriers against the attempts to deny the Nazi annihilations of European Jewry would be to ignore one of the ultimate lessons of the event itself: Reasoned dialogue has limited ability to withstand an assault by the mythic power of falsehood, especially when that falsehood is rooted in an age-old social and cultural phenomenon…

The vast majority of intellectuals in the Western world have not fallen prey to these falsehoods. But some have succumbed in another fashion, supporting Holocaust denial in the name of free speech, free inquiry or intellectual freedom. An absolutist commitment to the liberal idea of dialogue may cause its proponents to fail to realize that there is a significant difference between reasoned dialogue and anti-intellectual pseudoscientific arguments. They have failed to make the critical distinction between a conclusion, however outrageous it may be, that has been reached through reasonable inquiry and the use of standards of evidence, on the one hand, and ideological extremism that rejects anything that contradicts its preset conclusions, on the other.

I too admire Steve Novella and all the others who promote true skeptical behavior and attack pseudoscience, I consider him a friend and colleague. However, I also believe this debate is a tactical error and I would respectfully disagree with his decision to engage the pseudoscientists in this fashion. I think Steve would ultimately wipe the ground with these cranks, and people who are convinced by evidence and reason would have no problem seeing the foolishness of believing in magic water. The problem is the value of this debate to the cranks, for whom it brings legitimacy and publicity, which is what they crave more than anything, while the people who see the skeptics wreak havoc on homeopathic nonsense will be limited to the confines of the lecture hall. To my critics who think it is wrong to be dismissive of crankery and denialism and who think I’m being unfair, I must emphasize that fairness is not at issue when you argue with people who are too dishonest, or too incompetent, to use reasonable standards of evidence and inquiry.

The goal instead must be to enforce standards of scientific debate, to delimit sharply what kind of evidence and argument is worthy of being listened to, to educate people about the form of pseudoscientific arguments, and when these arguments are proffered, to refuse to engage on the grounds they aren’t even worthy of consideration.

Don’t mistake denialism for debate…


  1. One should recall the advice the late Stephen Jay Gould gave Richard Dawkins several years ago when the latter was challenged to a debate with YEC Duane Gish. “Don’t do it!” was the advice. I entirely agree with the proposition of not engaging denialist whackjobs in debate unless the following condition is met, namely that the scientist devotes extensive time to preparation. The example is the occasion where Ken Miller debated Michael Behe. Prof. Miller spent several weeks in preparation by reading everything that Prof. Behe had ever written on the subject. Having done so, he was well prepared to refute any argument raised by the latter. However, most scientists have neither the time or inclination to engage in such time consuming preparation and thus should decline any debate invitations.

  2. bob koepp

    If you’re on intellectually solid ground yourself, you shouldn’t find it all that difficult to “pin down” and expose pseudoscientist babblers. They lack standards? OK, articulate the standards you think essential to open, fair debate of whatever issues are on the table. And be prepared to defend those standards rather than simply asserting them.

    Fairness most definitely is an issue when arguing with dishonest and/or incompetent people. If not then, when?

  3. The best approach is to subject the cranks to merciless ridicule, not to give credence to their absurd lies by pretending that they want an honest debate.

  4. The only debate I think stands a chance of working would involve HEAVY moderation by a judge who’s willing to brick wall any attempt by cranks to change the subject.

    Example: 9/11 twoofer at debate makes an argument that relies on the premise that the buildings fell ‘faster than freefall’. Skeptic challenges that assumption, demanding evidence. Judge agrees and refuses to let the argument continue until the twoofer demonstrates his premise to be true.

  5. Evinfuilt

    Any time you try and pin them down, you go straight to “shifting goal posts.”

    If you require facts, reproducible results, double blind-testing, all you get is excuses. You get blamed for making it too hard on them, or for sabotaging.

    Its not worth the time, there’s a reason its called pseudo-science. That’s what prevents a real debate, we’re playing by 2 totally different set of rules. Heck, denialists own set of rules have to vary, they can’t even agree on what is proof, or even if proof is required.

  6. SLC, Bob and BD, you’re talking mostly practical issues about debate itself, that’s not so much the issue. The issue is the idea that these people who are fundamentally dishonest and seeking attention and legitimacy do not deserve to be treated as though they are equals or have any legitimacy. Debate confers legitimacy. That I believe is the tactical error. Only so many people will be in the room to see you mop the floor with them. However, lots more will ultimately hear how these ideas “are debated by scientists” and BS accounts from the cranks about how they actually won.

  7. The best approach is to subject the cranks to merciless ridicule, not to give credence to their absurd lies by pretending that they want an honest debate.

    That or disemvowelment.

    If you just want a broadcast blog/website, close the comments. But it’s the interaction that yields education. The “merciless ridicule” strategy is, well, akin to child abuse — you can’t elevate children by merciless fiskings (although you may create some psychopaths if you tried that in real life).

    I can’t really provide evidence for this except for Colbert-like gutliness (or long term experiential observation).

    …but the fundamental problem, simply put, is the absence of honesty and standards…

    Well, I think that the fundamental problem is holding oneself and one’s friends to the same honesty and standards. If we’re willing to fudge a little for friends, maybe we’re not so pure either. I may be weaseling here, but have you actually defined honesty and standards in an objective, universally acceptable manner?

    I don’t think so — most of these issues are ones of perception — so working on their perception so it dovetails yours, is 1) a never ending task, and 2) a necessary endeavor.

  8. Ted, I think that’s a separate issue. There’s a difference between people who have been tricked by the nonsense and might listen to a careful explanation of why it’s wrong, and the primary perpetrators in spreading misinformation who are the ones you will debate.

    Further, while the people in the room that may be on the fence will convert, getting debates with scientists is itself a goal of the denialist tactics to legitimizing their point of view and persuade others of its thoughtful consideration by scientists.

    This isn’t about not trying to educate people about why these ideas are wrong, it’s about not giving the people who spread this silliness the legitimacy that debate with real scientists confers.

  9. SLC, Bob and BD, you’re talking mostly practical issues about debate itself, that’s not so much the issue. The issue is the idea that these people who are fundamentally dishonest and seeking attention and legitimacy do not deserve to be treated as though they are equals or have any legitimacy. Debate confers legitimacy. That I believe is the tactical error. Only so many people will be in the room to see you mop the floor with them. However, lots more will ultimately hear how these ideas “are debated by scientists” and BS accounts from the cranks about how they actually won.

    Quite true. My scenario was about the only thing I can think of that would leave the cranks thoroughly embarrassed. But since they’d never agree to conditions like that, I doubt it’d happen. That’s what makes debating them a losing strategy: They’ll refuse fair debates and only go for ones that give them the advantage.

  10. …the legitimacy that debate with real scientists confers.

    Let me make a few points.

    I think I understand that aspect. I’ve been on the internets since the 80s. It could get discouraging and frustrating having to repeat the same damn thing every time a new generation hits the webs, but I’ve reconciled with that aspect. A grade school teacher understands the personal futility of teaching — there’s another class of empty headed dunderheads next year. And the year after. The satisfaction, if any, is in turning a few.

    The issue is still one of perception, and a secondary issue that you have an effect on the observers of the transaction.

    As an observer, I will NOT learn anything in a drive-by merciless fisking of the short bus riders (except that it’s tres cool to slap the retarded around), but I will get something from a well reasoned discussion. If nothing else, I’m routinely drawn to follow up intelligent adults back to their linked blogs.

    On the issue of perception, (I think) it’s crucial to understand that short-bus riders in many cases can be turned given the right approach (i.e. 83% pro Iraq War in 2003, somewhat less now). The question is how much time, effort, money you want to invest in it. and I don’t mean that solid facts are subject to perception, but that not everyone chooses to be a scientist — and that should be cool because who’d unstop the clogs if that were the case? So a worldview (perception) of a PhD candidate will not be the same as that of a Wal*Mart worker. The types of work one chooses dictates to what level of factli-ness one engages.

    Real Scientists(tm) can generally choose who they want to engage. If they choose to engage the short-bus riders (troofers, ID-ers, etc), it’s their choice and they will tend to write copiously on the benefits of fisking the retarded. But those people (short-bus riders) are not as significant (IMO) as the Serious People(tm) that Real Scientists(tm), should engage, (if they had a need to demonstrate the size of their big brass balls) — the proper targets of well educated scientists, should be well funded, well educated denialists that obfuscate issues on a global level be it climate change, health care, commerce, foreign policy, ecology.

    It just seems to me a gross waste of talent and potential to take a PhD and with it, slap the retarded by mercilessly ridiculing them, while other Serious People(tm) people are eating your lunch just down the street. (Or it may just be idle conspiracy talk that there are SeriousPeople(tm)out there dedicated to the task of eating the lunch of other people.)

    But don’t take this the wrong way. I still enjoy DenialismBlog and its commenters. 🙂 Just one commenter’s opinion.

  11. I think you guys would like Ed Brayton’s recent article.

  12. The problem is the value of this debate to the cranks, for whom it brings legitimacy and publicity, which is what they crave more than anything, while the people who see the skeptics wreak havoc on homeopathic nonsense will be limited to the confines of the lecture hall.

    In the case of homeopathy, I don’t think one debate with some skeptics will add any more legitimacy or publicity. They have several hospitals and entrenched government support in the UK.

    I suppose there may be danger here in the US with those who haven’t heard of it yet, but among those who have I doubt there are fence-sitters.

  13. ebohlman

    The big problem, as I see it, is that pseudoscience will almost always win the debate in the eyes of the general public. That’s because pseudoscientific “ideas” are generally simple and can be easily conveyed in a short time without requiring the audience to have much background. Genuine science, on the other hand, is complicated, messy, can’t be explained in a few short talking points, and requires a lot of previous education to understand correctly.

    This kind of “debate” merely measures the relative sales skills of the participants.

  14. There are two huge problems with debating creationists. The first is that much of the evidence for evolution is not understandable to lay audiences, so they find it easy to just dismiss it out of hand. Second, creationists are masters of changing the subject, and many scientists follow them into a swamp of irrelevant points until the original point has been forgotten.

    In random comments on ID-friendly blogs, I’ve found that an effective technique is to pound on the single issue that a scientific theory must have scientific evidence, then to demolish anything the opponents come up with. Emphasizing the lack of ID research and lack of any practical applications is also useful.

    Have I succeeded in changing any opponents’ minds with this strategy? No, but they sure try to change the subject quickly. If you don’t let them, then at least the audience will wonder about their credulity.

  15. Like other species of cranks, and the factually challenged in general, denialists should always be debated, but never by oneself.

    To do them full justice one must arrange a venue, fill the hall and have the thick skinned moderator introduce them at the zero hour to an opponent drawn by the rare opportunity of publicizing an even more bizarre belief. An almost infinite variety can be located by judicious use of search engines , and tipping court clerks and OTC stock market officials, for florid cranks are litigious creatures, and penny stock CEO’s like to pass the plate live from time to time.

    If for example, you want to deal with a bible college geology major bent on explaining evolution in seven days or less, best look up a Bengali Svengali fundamentalist prepared to quote Vedic scripture at him chapter and verse, and argue that afloat in a sea of milk, the ark would have run ground on Mount Agung, before Hanuman could swear he was Noah’s uncle.

    Blastocyte worshipers likewise need to be paired with homeopaths, who will scold them for wasting valuable time on cell lines when the trick is to take one pluripotent stem cell and amplify it by sixteen times sixteen fold dilution.

    Deep Greens bent on abolishing fire should be made to meet and greet Maharisi Management University recruiters promising Carbon Offset levitation ,or proprietors of snowblower engines guaranteed to run on fermented orange juice,foiling Iran while saving the ozone layer from scurvy.

    In a pinch, if you must debate an erudite hard case like Behe, try the computer science department of a serious Mormon university like Brigham Young. Whoever they send is bound to be cheerful, presentable, and highly motivated, for though the odds of his prevailing in the face of alternative zeal are slim, should there be a miracle he is assured of a once in a lifetime conversion opportunity.

  16. Corinne Titus

    What about debating with doctors opposed to vivisection?

    Seems to me that you are in denial that there is an opposing view from the MEDICAL WORLD. It does exist, like it or not and you can try to stop debating all you want but this is America so I think free speech just may prevail, evntually someday.

    Corinne Titus
    Antivivisection Activist

  17. Don’t debate? So what is it that you people are afraid of? Can’t back up what you’re claiming?

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