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The Opposite of Debunking PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Kyle Hill   
As a skeptic, I am faced with what I will call the “Debunker’s Dilemma.” Because there is such an incredible amount of misinformation, pseudoscience, and straight-up bunk out there, it appears that a skeptic’s stance on many beliefs is constantly “negative.” Not negative in the way of cynicism, but negative in the way that we are consistently reciting the phrase “You know that’s just a myth…” or something similar. Surf any skeptical forum like the skeptic subreddit and you will find many threads lamenting over ignorance with “myth this” and “nonsense that.” Again, this is the dirty work that must be done. However, when this bleeds over into the public sphere we get the (undeserved) “cynic” moniker. This is the dilemma we face: in order to counter nonsense, we are doomed to be ever seen as dismissive critics of people’s beliefs.

In this view, to me it is not a coincidence that people have this conception of us. Because there is orders of magnitude more pseudoscience than science out there, we are always too busy shooting down the junk to do much else. It is imperative that we continue to do this, but if we want people to understand the full range of skepticism we have to also stress the affirmatives. We need to live up to the charge of promoting science and critical thinking. In my observations, this is accomplished primarily within the skeptical community, and any outside exposure that we choose to endorse or create is mainly “debunking.” Don’t misunderstand me, debunking is a worthy cause and someone has to do it, but I want this movement to be positive. We need to be actually thought of as positive by the public, no matter what we may tell ourselves.

This is my call to the skeptical community: we need to get into the habit of promoting good science, critical thinking skills, and good causes in equal amounts with debunking (or at least more than we do now). I am not saying that the skeptical community has never done this, campaigns like “Hug Me I’m Vaccinated” are wonderful promotions of good science and a good cause with a skeptical bent, but I think we can do more. As hard as we try now, we are still faced with the dilemma: to the public a skeptic equals a cynic.

With the same zeal that we handle ESP, homeopathy, and creationists, we can more actively promote a positive skepticism. This aspect of the skeptical movement would probably resemble a general science education program, which many skeptics are trying to branch out into (like Michael Shermer’s new Skepticism 101 program and the JREF’s educational modules), but it is critically lacking in my view. We bemoan the poor state of education in critical thinking, so why not devote at least a few more resources into addressing that problem? My fellow JREF colleague Dr. Steve Novella has just produced a new lecture series aiming to deal with this very issue, but he is in the minority. We have the brainpower and the technical skills to equate in people’s mind science and reason with skepticism. I want a skeptic to be seen as anyone who uses reason to move accurately through the world, and not just someone who doesn’t believe in certain things like Bigfoot or angels.

The skeptical community routinely supports educational organizations like the National Center for Science Education, but perhaps we farm out too much of the responsibility they bear. I am happy to see many skeptic conferences now offering things like museum tours and the like, as it is the love of and interest in science that presumably lead most of us to skepticism. I for one was a science geek all my life and the skeptical movement just happened to fit that upbringing. But I do not see many avenues in the modern skeptical movement that could provide this kind of ground-up education. Compounding the deficiency, the largest skeptical organizations are stretched pretty thin as it is, so it is hard for them to branch out into advocacy.

I know that we are a positive bunch. We love science, we love rationality, and we love the community we are in. I want the public to see us that way. So bring attention to worthy causes, support pro-science organizations (not just the ones we are familiar with) and movements, tweet, blog, or talk about the things we can do to advance skepticism in a positive way. Specifically this could be getting involved with your local school board to give your two cents about the science curriculum. It could be going to a college’s biology colloquium and writing or talking about it with friends. It could be starting a local effort to get your neighborhood vaccinated. Or it could be as simple as taking your kids to a museum instead of the movie theater. Again, these sound less like skeptical goals and more like general science education goals, but to me it is clear that a strong scientific background flows much more easily into skepticism than the other way around (even more obvious if you look at the backgrounds of our best advocates like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, or Phil Plait).

A well-rounded skeptic knows how to sort the science from the pseudoscience, but also does the opposite of debunking by engendering positive skeptical values that inoculate against nonsense. We do not have to be a reactionary movement that has to scramble when the newest irrationality comes out. We can’t be effective as the pseudoscience TSA. By more vigorously promoting scientific inquiry and critical thinking skills, separate from any notions of debunking, we can go on the offensive.  

 

Kyle Hill is the JREF research fellow specializing in communication research and human information processing. He writes daily at the Science-Based Life blog and you can follow him on Twitter here.

   
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Why so critical?, Lowly rated comment [Show]
I disagree
written by Peebs, July 05, 2012
I'm ignoring the chap who has "Real Science to do" (don't they all).

I'm afraid I immediately look at any extraordinary claim first cynically, usually are they making money out of whatever woo they're peddling, then looking for the usual clues. i.e liberal use of anecdote, cold reading, the magic word 'quantum' in whichever branch of bullshittery I'm presented.

It may be because I'm turning into 'Grumpy Old Man' and thoroughly enjoying it!
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written by MadScientist, July 05, 2012
So what? What really annoys me are the goobers who keep whining about Big Pharma and how all those science people are "close-minded" - what horrible bitchy things they are.
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written by Peebs, July 05, 2012
Apologies and many thanks to Mad Scientist.

I completely forgot the 'Closed Mind' approach.
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written by Willy K, July 05, 2012
Kyle, we need to start organizations with positive sounding, plain language names that will interest the curious general public.

How about "How Does The World Really Work?" That doesn't sound too cynical or too "sciencey" does it? Once a person looks into it they will find out that the way the world, and the entire universe, works is not always simple and intuitive, but that it can be basically understood by ordinary folks without a lot of science education.

A key educational point will be to show folks that laws of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. shape Human thought, and that is not the other way around.

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written by Appenzeller, July 05, 2012
@Mad Scientist
Two things are mixed in your statement - Big Pharma and scientists working for them. Big Pharma is sinful in many meanings of the word - see the latest Glaxo case. But simpler minds, hearing of such cases, lump together all people involved - both greedy businessmen and laboratory workers. So it's hard to wonder - all of them in the popular opinion steal our money and bribe doctors.
However, such opinions are (half) right. As usual, truth is more complex. Here is the good opportunity for the rational mind to not be "negative" only.
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Ten Commandments of Critical Thinking
written by kungfuhobbit, July 06, 2012
If we want to encourage critical thinking, we must abandon the vacuous phrase. What is critical thinking? Good Thinking
see the 10 Commandments of Good Thinking... http://www.kungfuhobbit.com/20...nking.html
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Not "good" enough
written by Shmeggley, July 06, 2012
Kungfuhobbit I like that you're trying to elaborate and define critical thinking a bit, but I don't see why you'd want to replace "critical" with the even more vague and ambiguous "good". Also, if you do want to abandon the word "critical", then why use it in two of your ten commandments?
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written by overlord624, July 06, 2012
@Peebs
You are absolutely right! Those shady quantum physicists and their crazy god particles (or Higgs borgons as they call it now) are the bane of all reason!
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Big Pharma
written by Caller X, July 06, 2012
There IS no Big Pharma. Where is Little Pharma?
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Actual scientist.
written by GodelEndedYourReligion, July 06, 2012
I am heartily bemused by the response that my comment received. I wonder how many peer reviewed scientific publications the people commenting on this thread have? Personally I have only cracked off two so far, but more are on the way. I had high hopes for the discourse on this thread. Alas, the condition of being a scientist is best characterized by a vain hopefulness and indomitable work ethic...and apparently a complete inability to engage laymen.
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written by Peebs, July 06, 2012
Ah, those borgons! And those damned physicists. They know nothing of homeopathy.

To our friendly old thing who complains of our (my) scepticism I offer you two words.

Proof

Citations.

There you go and over to you.
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Reality isn't a democracy.
written by GodelEndedYourReligion, July 06, 2012
I love how the interface on this site automatically demonstrates the danger of ignoring unpopular views by actually folding the comment out of view.
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written by overlord624, July 07, 2012
I love how the interface on this site automatically demonstrates the danger of ignoring unpopular views by actually folding the comment out of view.

I'm not sure why people have downmoded this particular comment, but I find it pretty valid. Unpopular opinions deserve equal spotlight as everything else in a rational discussion. The downmoding functionality should be reserved for disruptive comments. If people are wrong, then they deserve to know how they are wrong, not to be ignored for it. Sometimes the unpopular opinions are more meritious than they first appear.

@GodelEndedYourReligion
You seem to have some ego issues. Just because you can do the dirty work of your academic lead (assumptions, I know) doesn't mean you are immune to making stupid mistakes. Even accredited well-respected scientists can be wrong, especially when the subject is difficult to define or poorly understood up to this point. Take for example how the otherwise brilliant Sir Issac Newton decided that the faults of his then revolutionary understanding of mechanics were the realm of god, which we now know is explained by the unintuitive characteristics of quantum interactions.

Let me try to explain what I find wrong with your initial comment. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong on something.

I don't have a lot of time to write...I have real science to do.

Okay, first of all, you start with a comment that can be interpreted as "the discussion isn't even real science". This statement oozes of arrogance, even if you didn't mean it that way. This makes for a very bad first impression and the sarcastic remark from Peebs was well deserved.

First, small effects are not always repeatable.

That's not really limited to small effects. Just go ahead and try to repeat the big bang!

Real events go unrecognized because they are infrequent or cannot be reliably repeated but are none the less real events. Out of hand skepticism isn't even healthy in the context initial consideration of hypothesis because small effects are too easily dismissed.

You are making the wrong assumptions here. What the article discusses is known false or downright ridiculous claims without a shed of credibility behind them. Everybody can make extraordinary claims, but if extraordinary claims is all they have, then dismissing them is a fair decision.
So yes, I'd dismiss the random guy who claims crazy things and has vested financial interest in me believing him, but I'm going to listen if Stephen Hawkins makes the same claim. Heuristic decision making is necessitated by practical considerations. I'm not going to live long enough to be able to verify every single ridiculous claim.

As a scientist with hopes of identifying novel data I am often struck by how important belief is in finding small effects.

Every major scientific discovery begins with a leap of faith. Clarke's second law applies in full strength here. The difference between a scientist and a charlatan is that the later stops with the belief, while for the scientist, this is only the first tiny step.

Second, when Godel showed us that consistent languages that allow self reference do not always provide means to express proofs for all truths which can be expressed, we should have acknowledged that natural human languages that are most often tasked with the role of being the medium by which we attempt to arrive at a common truth are not intrinsically capable of confirming or denying the validity of our statements. This is general indictment of both language and skepticism as a behavior, truths exist for which proofs do not.

The ability of a language to express a fact doesn't prevent us from transmitting factual ideas which cannot be properly defined in it. Our brains are capable of deriving the abstract facts from a vague piece of text just fine. One of the great things about the brain is that it always puts information in some kind of context and matches it to existing experiences.
That said, when we do need to express a fact in an unambiguous way, we have the language to do that. It's called mathematics.
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written by overlord624, July 07, 2012
(continued from my previous post who was apparently "too long")

Why waste time with doubt when the future beckons for and rewards inference of un-confirm-able truths?

There is no such thing as "unconformable truth", at least as far as it concerns us. If something exists and affects the physical universe in non-chaotic way, then it's effects can be measured and studied, even if we cannot rigorously define it. Gravity is a great example. A 100 years ago we didn't know what it is, and we had absolutely no idea how it works, but it's effects were verifiable and it's existence was not in question.

I think that other ideas about a closed set of behaviors labeled "science" might share a similar fate, found inadequate for reality because they are prone to influence by assumed priors like Occam's razor or conservation "laws".

Science is not a behaviour, it's a means to an end. Any investigation which ends with the discovery of a reliably verifiable truth is science, even if some uptight professors may be offended about it. Modern practices like the scientific method are effective and reliable, but if they prove insufficient, we would eventually have to upgrade or replace them. It's not a "closed set", it's open to innovation, just like any other field.
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Welcome to the Soft Gang-Rape of the Lowly-Rated Comment
written by Caller X, July 07, 2012
written by GodelEndedYourReligion, July 06, 2012
I am heartily bemused by the response that my comment received. I wonder how many peer reviewed scientific publications the people commenting on this thread have? Personally I have only cracked off two so far, but more are on the way. I had high hopes for the discourse on this thread. Alas, the condition of being a scientist is best characterized by a vain hopefulness and indomitable work ethic...and apparently a complete inability to engage laymen.


I voted your first comment up to see how many down votes you received. You're welcome. If I had down-voted your first comment, it would have been because you started throwing around Godel and Popper like someone who had read, or more likely read part of, or read about, a few books. Some names and terms are simply red flags of intellectual butt-piratery. Among them are Goedel, Popper, hegemony, Language Poets, deconstruction, postpunk, Schroedinger, and the list goes on forever.

In your shorter post above, you just sound like a pompous ass.

Alan Sokal proved that any idiot can get a peer-reviewed paper published. I only have one, but I left science after getting my driver's license. See what I did there?
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Caller X,
written by Peebs, July 07, 2012
I like the 'Soft Gang Rape' metaphor (or is it an analogy? I can never remember).

Statistically 9 out of 10 people enjoy gang rape.

If that offends, accept my heartfelt apologies. I'm just making a point about our first poster.
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written by Caller X, July 07, 2012
written by Peebs, July 07, 2012
I like the 'Soft Gang Rape' metaphor (or is it an analogy? I can never remember).

Statistically 9 out of 10 people enjoy gang rape.


Pretty sure it's a metanalphor.

Statistically, 1 out of 2 people enjoy one-on-one rape.

There's always that one party pooper.

We call those "rape victims".

So what you're saying is that the rape victim is at fault for not enjoying being raped? Okay, I didn't say it.


If that offends, accept my heartfelt apologies. I'm just making a point about our first poster.


Popper would have a field day. You have been deconstructed. Welcome to my modality.
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Awesome.
written by GodelEndedYourReligion, July 07, 2012
Yes, yes, I am a pompous ass. I agree wholeheartedly.

I admit I was "trolling" a bit by stating that I had "real science to do". The truth is that my "ax to grind" issue is the relative neglect of the role of inductive reasoning in science and science education. My own impetus to engage a lay community on the subject of role of skepticism in society, probably comes from a vacuum formed by the fact I have specialized since my undergraduate education and no longer have an outlet to discuss the philosophy of science and mathematics which I enjoyed while studying Mathematical Logic as a minor concentration. I lash out because the way I was indoctrinated dictates the appropriate way to respond to bunk is ignore it until it does damage (like cohabitation under the same budget cap). Surely there is a role in our global consumer society for watchdog organizations, regulation, accreditation, licensing, fraud protection...all these are venerable pursuits. And yes peer review can fail to spot total bullshit. Personally, I can attest that in the low acceptance rate venues I have submitted to, the reviewer on my papers either read or had a minion read and respond at length to the submissions. That is not to say that reviewers in narrow topics can even offer up a useful critique beyond the superficial markings of professionalism. My point isn't that critical review isn't valuable, it is that within the frame of academia (which I must concede tends to self police), critical reviews can become destructive to creative process and the fragile confidence of individual students. Throughout my education and career I have spent countless hours engaged in the process of attending lab meetings which are intended to get ideas passing among potential collaborators. Every lab director brings the same agenda, get the people talking so they share the known pieces of the intellectual puzzle in a quick and fearless way and hope that the ensuing conjecture bears verifiable hypothesis. And then the actual meeting happens. And during the inevitable and protracted silence I wonder to myself if the critical piece of the puzzle is in the mind of the poor grad student who, still smarting from the critique of his last presentation, is terrified of being publicly embarrassed. So yes, I believe the label "Critical thinking" bears a negative connotation and the grand enterprise of science is a positive venture that employs deductive processes which while they are essential can be the bugaboo of real progress.
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part II
written by GodelEndedYourReligion, July 07, 2012
Honestly, I keep a secret tally on every person in a lab, I afford five instances of pointing out things that cannot be done for every statement which points out something which can be done. Essentially, by applying a slight negative linear cofactor to the number of statements of known problems and a larger positive value coefficient to the number of statements that correspond to opportunities, I can maintain a small integer evaluation of lab members. I shouldn't really claim it is a small integer evaluation, there really are only three classes, converging to negative, positive or zero. Improvisational comedians employ a technique characterized as "Yes, and..." by which the unfettered admission of ideas can produce a comedic effect because of unexpected juxtaposition of unlike or inappropriate elements, which is easily detected, producing the shared reaction of laughter, which in turn, probably helps the group understand it's commonality. The best lab climate has those same features: ease and reward for contribution, rapid feedback and knowledge sharing, a strong confederacy or communal 'spirit', a safe place for rehearsal of ideas which will someday have to endure a more critical external environment. In some ways this is ritualized in the Socratic Method, the student infers, induces a claim or proof, speculates, fails gracefully and blamelessly and the teacher bears the burden detecting the incongruity but is also burdened with creating an interrogative technique to get the student to realize their own mistake. In this sense the Socratic Method addresses some of the issues that are probably inherent in a human system which frequently delivers negative stimuli. Authorities, teachers, judges, etc. sometimes have the issue of delegitimizing themselves by exclusively offering negative feedback or creating the condition of learned helplessness by presenting too steep of a learning curve. Our very biology has a wide variety of capabilities to "down regulate" stimuli of a detrimental or repetitious nature, this includes challenges to sense of self worth. I am taking the position that educational institutions, legal authorities, and the members of societies promoting skepticism, all have an imperative to reconcile their social intention with possibility of discrediting or otherwise inuring themselves in the minds of their audience by challenging the audiences self worth. Don't believe me? Look at the response to my post "Why so critical?".
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Caller X
written by Peebs, July 07, 2012
You are of course, absolutely correct.

The point I was making, in complete agreement with your first post, was it's fun to wind up the original poster.

I jumped onto your soft rape comment and took it a stage further.

As I said in my previous post, I had no wish to offend.

Having said that, I've just tried to read his/her latest post and gave up halfway.

Do you think it could be our old friend Deepak posting?
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To overlord 624
written by GodelEndedYourReligion, July 07, 2012

Why waste time with doubt when the future beckons for and rewards inference of un-confirm-able truths?

There is no such thing as "unconformable truth", at least as far as it concerns us. If something exists and affects the physical universe in non-chaotic way, then it's effects can be measured and studied, even if we cannot rigorously define it. Gravity is a great example. A 100 years ago we didn't know what it is, and we had absolutely no idea how it works, but it's effects were verifiable and it's existence was not in question.


You are of course absolutely correct, if we only consider empirical sciences. I should have qualified my statement by saying that in the abstract domain of mathematics, true claims, in languages that have interesting properties like "completeness", "compactness", and "consistency", which do not have proofs or have proofs denying the possibility of proof, are in many ways more interesting and noteworthy than those strait-forward claims that are easy to prove. Take for instance the notoriety gained by characters that introduced great unconfirmed conjectures, Poincare, Hilbert, Fermat. Much in the way an irrational numbers are often more fascinating than integers, truths without proofs can both be incredibly useful prima facia, but also engage the epistemological roots of the enterprise.
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I rest my case.
written by Peebs, July 07, 2012
A classic Choprawoo word salad
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Your case must be resting.
written by GodelEndedYourReligion, July 07, 2012
"Word salad" doesn't make sense. Just because you cannot understand what I wrote doesn't mean that it doesn't make sense. Ad homenim attacks are really just about what I expected out of this group. It is really quite likely I am suffering the result of my own expectation bias right now. Elevating discourse probably requires a modicum of respect for the other participants in the conversation. Again, thanks to overlord624 your conversation was a credit to this community.
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written by Caller X, July 07, 2012
God damn. I'm not in favor of banning anyone (for obvious reasons) but if I were, the inability to spell ad hominem would be my sole criterion.

Take for instance the notoriety gained by characters that introduced great unconfirmed conjectures, Poincare, Hilbert, Fermat. Much in the way an irrational numbers are often more fascinating than integers, truths without proofs can both be incredibly useful prima facia, but also engage the epistemological roots of the enterprise.


You can take Poincaré, Hilbert, and Fermat and insert them into your rectum or my list of names thrown around by poseurs.

As for your two most recent scat samples posts, tl;dr.
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Addressing the critique.
written by GodelEndedYourReligion, July 07, 2012
Should I pose for an image with my diploma? Poseurs, indeed. Excepting the odd superfluous word (sometimes I change tense without taking out all the unnecessary connecting words) and some spelling errors I am fairly content with validity of claims and statements I have made on this thread.

I do have to apologize, I came here for a fight. I find skepticism to be the habit of vindictive and petty underachievers. Skepticism, is the type of behavior you might expect from someone who believes they are refuting your claims by pointing out spelling errors. My code must have been getting tedious. smilies/wink.gif Please ban me so I can write your ilk off and proceed with a different time waster.
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Pompous Ass Says What?
written by GodelCavortedWithYoungBoys, July 08, 2012
So which is it, touched by an "uncle" or bullied in high school?

If only you could edit yourself you might one day write something interesting.
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written by NoOneInParticular, July 11, 2012
GodelEndedYourReligion wrote:
Elevating discourse probably requires a modicum of respect for the other participants in the conversation.

Interestingly, the latter is exactly what you have been displaying a stunning lack of from the first minute...
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