Arguing about pseudoscience: a useful analogy


If you’re a scientist or science supporter who has even a modest online presence, at some point you will probably find yourself arguing with someone who is a proponent of a theory or belief that science doesn’t support, or contradicts altogether. Repeated enough times, these arguments start to follow predictable patterns.

SCENARIO: PERSON 1 (a scientist) is at the bar in a pub. He orders two drinks and a bag of crisps. He takes these and sits down. He is alone, but clearly waiting for someone. PERSON 2 (a stranger) enters. He sits in the vacant seat at PERSON 1’s table, uninvited. The following conversation occurs.

PERSON 1: … hello? Can I help you?

PERSON 2: Did you say you’d just been to Manchester?

PERSON 1: What?

PERSON 2: You just told the barman you’ve come back from Manchester. I overheard you.

PERSON 1: Oh, right, yeah. I just came back from a conference.

PERSON 2: You mentioned football.

PERSON 1: I did? Oh, yes. It was a nightmare driving back, there was a match on apparently, and the roads were jammed.

PERSON 2: Do you know who the best football team from the Manchester area are?

PERSON 1: Well, I’m not exactly a football fan, but given what I know, it’s probably Manchester United.

PERSON 2: Wrong! Open your eyes!

PERSON 1: Sorry, what?

PERSON 2: The best football team in Manchester are the PPs.

PERSON 1: …the what?

PERSON 2: The PPs! It stands for Plough and Potato. It’s a pub. They’re a brilliant Sunday League side from the Plough and Potato pub, on the outskirts.

PERSON 1: Right. And they’re the best team in Manchester?

PERSON 2: Yes. Probably the best in the country.

PERSON 1: Sorry, but I rather doubt that.

PERSON 2: Are you calling me a liar?

PERSON 1: What? No. I’m just saying that, based on the substantial evidence available, what you said is almost certainly wrong.

PERSON 2: So you’re saying I’m lying!

PERSON 1: NO! I’m saying you’re wrong. They are two different things. You can completely believe what you’re saying and still be wrong.

Written By: Dean Burnett
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  1. pretty much spot on! although it doesn’t cover many of these conversations where not only do goalposts move but the whole pitch spins round (i remember one “discussion”about the reduction in vinyl record sales being proof the world has run out of oil which soon became proof there’s loads of oil that “they” are hiding from everyone and they stopped making vinyl records dispite an increased demand. yes this was well within the era of the dominance of CDs)

  2. While I’ve had similar conversations, any suggestions on what to do about them?  I’ve found requesting evidence to back their position, while presenting evidence that supports mine, tends to just end the debate (they get angry and leave, still holding their incorrect opinions). 

  3. If it isn’t supported by evidence, it isn’t a theory. People need to stop tossing that word around so carelessly.

  4. The premise of this article is clearly flawed. Everyone knows that Man City are the best team in Manchester. Someone had to be the first to say it….  🙂

    Nice article – how many times have I had this type of conversation?

  5. I have had similar experience in my workplace when after a discussion on astronomy, shape of the Universe , its fate etc., one  lady walked away, proudly stating, ‘If you really want to know how the world will end, the Bible is the only one that will tell you.’ And she is not even a fundamentalist Christian, just a run -of-the-mill believer!   

  6. That piece would be just too funny were it not too true.  The timing couldn’t be better for me.  In homage to The Richard, I am currently about 70% through with a Coursera offering from Duke on genetics and evolution and just starting another on how to reason and argue.

    Sad thing is that I ought to have learned from the Horsemen and others that facts and skills at presenting them are woefully inadequate when trying to penetrate the density of human belief.

  7. Talking about moving the goalposts, according to most people in North America, you Brits aren’t even playing Football….  😎

  8. HenMie
    I have had similar experience in my workplace when after a discussion on astronomy, shape of the Universe , its fate etc., one  lady walked away,
    proudly stating,
    ‘If you really want to know how the world will end, the Bible is the only one that will tell you. ‘ And she is not even a fundamentalist Christian, just a run -of-the-mill believer!

    She was probably going away to get some better information than yours, from the astrology corner of her local tabloid newspaper. 
    Such people have been building up their “knowledge” for years from reading these “journalist experts”.

  9. A problem I seem to keep encountering is being accusing of calling religious/conspiracy/paranormal/alt med believers nuts or thick, when I’ve done nothing of the sort (just posed genuine questions).  An example was a drunken campfire discussion with a friend of a friend who was predicting a zionist backed terrorist atrocity during the Olympics.  His main ‘evidence’ was the ways ‘zion’ could be spelt using the 2012 logo (an idea I’ve since learnt Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also finds compelling).  When I politely pointed out that it could be coincidence that the numbers 2, 1, 0, & 2 could be flipped and arranged to appear as Zion in almost any font (and in any year those numbers appeared), he was almost certain that I’d just called him thick.  When I asked what sort of evidence he required to be proved wrong (e.g. like his predicted terrorist atrocity never actually materialising), he replied ‘none’ – and was then convinced I’d just called him nuts??  Shame really, as I left feeling quite the bully…

  10.  If, like me, you are an Englishman who is NOT interested in football, it is indeed as all-pervasive and infuriating as religion. Football poisons everything!

  11. Ceva34: I hate football specifically and TV sports in general. (But I’m not English. Not even English speaker). The main stupidity of TV sport seems to me that fans are expected to support the team of their own country/town even if it is the worst team ever in history of sports. I would expect sport-liking people to be fans of teams that actually win; that’s not the case. You have to support lame teams if they happen to train in your city. Then you can say “we win” and “we lose” without getting your fat ass out of your sofa. You can’t imagine how many gold medals I won at last Olympics (though certainly less that you) without even being able to run 5 minutes to save my life. That’s fucking irrational bullshit.

  12. Reality is often funnier than fiction. Below the article, there is a real life version of the article in which someone by the name of Genghis McCann is the real life PERSON 2!

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