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Debating Pseudoscientists

July 5, 2004

I am commonly asked about debating pseudoscientists over their "theories". This is not a topic that is easy to distill down to a simple answer, so I have decided to write this essay about it. It does boil down to this: in general, directly debating them is useless, so I don't do it. Here's why.

Not too many scientists will take on "fringe" claims. In general, there are two reasons for this. The first, and most obvious one, is that most real scientists are too busy doing (gasp!) real science. However, I am no longer a research scientist; ten years of doing it paid my dues. I found myself gravitating (har har) toward education, both formally as well as through my website and writing. It was a natural extension of what I do to start taking on the pseudoscientist theories floating around.

The second reason is that most scientists find pseudoscientists to be very irritating. Sometimes it's because the pseudoscientists attack the work being done by real scientists, and sometimes it's because real scientists get tired of being asked about aliens, UFOs, Planet X and the Apollo Hoax. In fact, many real scientists think that pseudoscientists should be ignored. They reason that they don't want to give these guys publicity, and that taking them on legitimizes their theories.

I disagree. Well, partially. There is a possibility that by debunking a theory, I might actually be giving it more air time than it would otherwise get. It's funny: if I ignore somebody, they claim it's because I'm afraid to take them on. And if I do debunk them, they then claim they must be on to something, or else why would I bother to go after them? Aaarrgg! It's (il)logic like that that makes it so aggravating to deal with these kinds of people.

So there's a balance to be sought: I want to make sure that there is correct information on the web to counteract the nonsense spouted by so many of the pseudoscientists, but I also don't want to be seen as giving them more of a spotlight than they already have. This is a difficult balance to find!

I usually err on the side of getting the debunking out there. That's because I'd rather have the information available, then ignore something too long and have it grow too much. For example, NASA's policy was to ignore the Moon Hoax theories. They may have been correct; it's rather beneath their dignity to acknowledge such a silly idea. But that policy came back to bite them. When Fox TV made their awful Moon Hoax show, NASA wouldn't really comment, was dismissive, and didn't take the show seriously. The way NASA was painted in the program made them look rather bad afterwards.

Crank theories are like bacteria: at low levels they are fairly benign, but they tend to fester. Once they reach a certain level it becomes time to apply some antibiotics.

So sometimes I feel the need to step in.

Debunking fringe theories is usually not trivial. For example, Richard Hoagland has been making his (mistaken) claims about Mars for literally decades. The breadth and depth of his claims is astonishing! It would take forever to debunk everything he says, as it would for most pseudoscience theories. And every time you debunk one thing, they pop up with another claim, instantly ignoring that you just destroyed their last argument. This is another reason most scientists don't bother debunking wacky theories.

However, in general, you don't need to take on every claim. What I have found is that there is usually a core set of claims, the "big ones" upon which the rest of the other thousands of claims rest. For Nancy Lieder, it was a giant planet in the inner solar system. For Hoagland, it's geometry of martian features, a giant Face on Mars, and things he sees in images. For James McCanney, it's claims about comets and the solar wind. Debunking Nancy really only meant showing that there is no planet roaming around the solar system. For Hoagland, it's showing his math is fallacious, his image analysis poorly done, and his conclusions based on a misunderstanding of how digital images work. For McCanney, it's really just showing that everything he says is contrary to the most basic of observations.

So that's what I have done on my pages. I took on the gist of the claims, and I don't bother with the hundreds or sometimes thousands of minor details. Destroy the foundation of their theories, and all the little claims flutter to the ground as well on their own.

But then, inevitably, the issue of a debate comes up. Nearly every major (in the loose sense of the term) pseudoscientist has challenged me to a debate at one time or another. Both McCanney and Hoagland have publicly called for me to debate them on, for example, the "Coast to Coast AM" radio show. In almost every case, I have refused.


To Hoagland's followers, the answer is obvious: I'm scared to debate him, because I know he will win. That is silly, and obviously so. If I thought I were wrong, why would I write my pages in the first place? Moreover, and this may be more pertinent: why go on C2C and talk about it? After all, there is a chance that one of the people whose theories I am trashing might call in! Clearly, there must be another explanation.

There is. Several, actually. One is that these people crave attention, publicity. There may be many reasons for it; to sell their product, to get more followers, to simply get attention. Whatever their reasons, I don't feel the need to further their goals. Debating Hoagland, for example, will do nothing to further my cause, which is to simply educate people about astronomy. I already go on C2C to discuss this stuff, and I have my webpage. Anyone who listens to the C2C show will be able to find both my ideas and Hoagland's. What good would debating him on air do?

Furthermore, these aren't really debates. There are countless tales of scientists debating creationists, and these pseudoscientists are very glib. They are excellent at misdirection, avoiding answering direct questions, obfuscating issues. Debating them is a losing scenario, because they seem like they win when in fact they haven't said anything of substance at all. If you listen carefully to what they say when interviewed on the radio, you will find that they commonly aren't really saying anything. There are lots of inferences, lots of accusations, but no real meat to it.

Basically, pseudoscientists ignore huge gaping holes in their logic, and instead focus on small, niggling pieces that the debunker may not be familiar with. As I said above, when I write I go after the foundation of their claims, knowing the minor claims will fall away after the major ones are gone. But in a debate situation the pseudoscientists focus on the small claims, because in this way the real scientist can get bogged down in details. This way, the pseudoscientist can distract the listener from the real problems in their theory, and make it sound like they win. I have seen this countless times. Creationists are famous for it, for example.

So debating these people on the radio would be like digging a hole in water.

Now, I have debated pseudoscientists a couple of times. I debated Bart Sibrel on a radio show once. That was a while ago, when I thought an actual debate would do some good. I trounced him on the radio, but he's still out there, making the same old tired (and very wrong) claims about the Apollo missions.

Perhaps more famously, I debated Nancy Lieder on C2C in May of 2003. I actually rather regret that whole episode. Not because I lost the debate; far from it. Despite her claims, (and what the heck, I can chest thump sometimes too) I mopped the floor with her (see for yourself). I regret it because it wasn't necessary. After all, I knew Planet X was nonsense, and I also knew that her clock was ticking down rather rapidly: she claimed that we would all be dead on May 15, 2003, and the debate was held a few days before that. In my defense, I'll say that I was worried that her garbage might take a turn for the worse, as the Heavens Gate debacle did. So I was hoping that by debating her, I might actually do some good.

Maybe I did. I don't know. But what I do know is that Planet X's deadline came and went, Nancy made a lot of empty excuses, and in the following months her cult-like following dwindled to zero, for all intents and purposes. Hurray! And I do know that I got quite a few emails thanking me for taking on her nonsense, including from people who had loved ones who actually made life decisions based on the garbage Nancy spewed.

That is why I do this. There are people out there who want to scare other people into buying their products (books, pamphlets, what-have-you). Maybe these pseudoscientists believe what they say, and maybe they are evil conmen preying on people who don't know any better. But either way, they are wrong, and I try to minimize their impact. I am not so foolish to think I can stop it. But maybe I can slow it down a little.

But debating them on the air doesn't help, so I don't do it. This may change, if the circumstances warrant. But like I said, the people who listen to C2C already know what I think, and what the pseudoscientists think, so a debate would do no good.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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