The Opposite of Debunking


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.

Written By: Kyle Hill
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  1. There will ALWAYS be more misinformation than information. Because making up and spreading falsehoods and myths requires so much less effort than actually doing the work, whether it’s realizing that you have to accelerate through space and time and what happens, or actually taking a trip to the Galapogos Islands, or coordinating and making a Large Hadron Collider. It takes nothing to spread some news about a talking snake, and consolidating your power around the unproveable and the never happened.

  2. Very good article. I also recommend the critical thinking course by Dr. Steve Novella.

  3. I always tell such believers that they confuse skepticism with cynicism and then go on to debunk their next bit of convoluted nonsense.

  4. What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.

    We may have patience to explain on some occasions, but while honest enquiring ignorance is something we all have in some areas, assertive bigoted ignorance is something else.

    Once this is identified, the question is, “Do I waste my time on this fool”? – With an audience watching, it can be a matter of the greatest good of the greatest number, as some will listen!

    Without an audience, –  telling them to read a book and get an education, is probably simpler and less frustrating.  Some will never learn.

  5. Another problem is sometimes the name of something. Or even more basic. I’ve had to correct people simply because of Einstein’s quote about god playing dice….and now we are stuck with a reporter’s name: the god particle. 

  6. After seeing such an interesting title and immediately going to the link
    to read it, I have to say that I was disappointed, and have to disagree
    with Quine’s first sentence. (I don’t undertake that lightly!)

    To me, the style of writing was uninviting.  The sentences were
    awkward, the content tended towards repetitiveness and it contained
    virtually nothing that hasn’t been said elsewhere.  Indeed, the first five paragraphs could have been condensed by a factor of 4 or 5 without losing value.  Having struggled to the end I regret bothering.

    I agree that the subject is one of the biggest issues for skepticism, now that most people have given up the other big issue – how to spell it.  I agree with the spirit of the content but coming from a “JREF research fellow specializing in communication research and human information processing” I felt disappointed about the lack of added-value.

    I would love to follow Steve Novella’s course.  I admire his work greatly, but it has to be said that it is a little too expensive to go viral isn’t it?  It is probably excellent value for money, but quite costly for the average person.

    To the accusation of cynicism I generally quote George Bernard Shaw,

    “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who haven’t got it.”  
    Nobody has yet provided a witty reply.

  7. I like your 10 commandments; a hell of an improvement on the traditional ones.
    How about just “thinking”? The argument could be made that what passes for “bad” thinking isn’t thinking at all. I do like “good thinking”; however, it will instantly put others on the defensive. It seems to me that “critical” is somewhat less laden with value judgement than “good”, “correct” or other words with more comparative connotations.Steve

  8. I’ve seen talking snakes. I once had a conversation with one. Although, it obviously wasn’t from this dimension.

  9. Yes agreed. James Randi, over the years, you have made skepticism fun. Rather than simply disputing the view, you went ahead and showed how it was done. Many years ago when I was probably still a kid, and it was announced that you would be on a particular TV show, I recall thinking “Oh I like him.” I enjoyed the way you would demonstrate how psychic surgery was a sham and how bending spoons was BS. As a kid, I found you to be entertaining and enlightening. As an adult, you have my respect and I have fond memories of you. Maybe we should take your lead and not just say something to dispute a view, but show it too.

  10. Why not simply ignore most of the nonsense and focus instead on highlighting and exposing the key pillars of the nonsense at every opportunity?

    There is no life after death.

    There is no part of the human identity that survives death, the electro/biological/mechanical/chemical reactions that give rise to our consciousness (all those brain cells, neurons and synapses) dies along with everything else and the atoms gradually disperse.

    Evolution is a fact (it is after all a scientific theory).

    Religion was invented in antiquity (Neandrathals had a form of it) and is simply a power and control mechanism that is very effective, with those infected with the mental parasite willing to kill and die to remain hosts.

    Lets not forget those religions that are being invented every day by individuals and groups who make their lust for power and control so obvious that the “main” religions class them as cults and therefore not religion DUH!

    Anyway, how many times has Von Danikens’ crap been debunked. It’s making a big comeback again.

    Anything to keep rational people busy debunking irrelevant crap rather than identifying and focussing on the main problem, religious and irrational promulgation by the indoctrination of children and by embedding the nonsense in culture.

  11. I would love to follow Steve Novella’s course.  I admire his work greatly, but it has to be said that it is a little too expensive to go viral isn’t it?  It is probably excellent value for money, but quite costly for the average person.

    That courseware is available at a tiny fraction of the published cost if you catch one of their promotions, and do direct download. If you get on the publishers mailing list, you will get notices, and you just have to watch for when that course is in the deep discount list. I was also able to pick up a couple of great courses in religious history that way, for which, I would never have paid the listed price.

  12. This is why I now consider myself a secular humanist, a pro-science layperson (especially for evolutionary biology), and a moral realist as well as an atheist. It’s easy (and sometimes fun) to tear down other people’s blinkers, but then people want to know just what they’re supposed to think instead, and that’s where you tell them what you yourself think. This article gets a like from me.

  13. >Bigfoot or angels
    If a Bigfoot were eventually found, or the DNA of one, it would not shake things up much. It would not require rewriting that much science. It is not all that improbable (other than the current lack of bones/DNA/corpse). It would be not that much bigger surprise than a coelacanth. 

    However, an angel defies gravity and can appear and disappear at will. That would really really shake things up. So my skepticism about angels is considerably higher. There is too much wantum mechanics involved.

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