RE: META: How to respond to Crank Science?

From: Lee Corbin (
Date: Sat Aug 18 2001 - 11:11:46 MDT

Harvey does bring up some hard questions about how one deals
with either tired old arguments, or texts full of pseudo-science.
Two classic cases are the university mathematicians who would
each week receive a number of "proofs" of Fermat's Last Theorem,
and the barrage of pseudo-scientific papers written by Creation
Scientists purporting to disprove evolution.

> Lately, we have been accused of having "blind faith" in science by not
> personally verifying scientific knowledge with our own research. We have
> been accused of being "politically correct" for not giving unscientific
> viewpoints equal standing with scientific ones. We have been accused of
> "refusing to debate" for not debunking every crank theory that gets posted.
> We have been accused of "not proving our position" if we don't personally
> disprove every anti-science post that appears. We have been accused of
> "appeal to authority" for preferring scientist's conclusions to those of
> mystics or politicians. We have been accused of "personal attacks" for
> reviewing an author's background and methodology.

If by "we" you mean the scientific community, that's perfectly true.

Suppose on this list, however, someone posted a detailed argument that
the moon landing was a hoax, or that the Shroud of Turin was legitimate?
What, indeed, should our response be? I might reply by saying that these
are very old arguments, hardly accepted by any of this list's regulars,
and that the posting party should take his or her essays elsewhere. I
probably would also, perhaps nastily, condemn the posts as "conspiracy
theories" or "pseudo-science". Just as many others here, I would *not*
feel obligated to undertake a line-by-line refutation.

> How should we respond to challenges to science or established facts? How
> much work should we undertake to argue the basics over and over again?

None! But I do admire the good soldiers here who do undertake explaining
certain fundamentals, say about extropianism, to the newbies.

> (This used to be against the list rules in former years.) How much time
> should we expend defending our basic position that science is real and all
> scientists aren't part of a great liberal conspiracy of political
> correctness? Do we really need to examine unscientific organizations and
> methods just in case they might have stumbled across some truth that science
> missed?

You are here inching up towards the position of being able to dismiss
out of hand those political views held by perhaps half of the list's
regular posters? It would be too easy to take arguments that one disagreed
with concerning race or history (e.g., when did liberalism arise in the U.S.),
and attempt to write them off as pseudo-science, or that there was no need
to address such obviously crank views. As a general rule, I would say that
arguments should be evaluated on their own merits (rather than being dismissed
out of hand) if quite a number of a list's regular participants find the
material suitable for discussion).

> I have tried to respond rationally and scientifically to some of these
> claims lately. I am becoming discouraged that it is a waste of time and
> leads nowhere. If people do not understand the basic scientific,
> experimental, and statistical methods, then further discussion rarely helps.
> If people do not believe in these methods, the situation is even worse.

I have an idea that Harvey here could be referring to the views of Mike
Lorrey and myself. At one point, Harvey was claiming that Mike was very
ignorant of statistics and statistical methods or thinking. This was
untrue and unfair: the actual disagreement was just a misunderstanding,
and was quickly resolved to both parties' satisfaction. And to be honest,
Harvey, I really haven't seen you beleaguered by people who were not
"rational and scientific", at least not lately. Surely I've misunderstood;
you didn't really mean us, did you?

> Time is a limiting factor here. It is no wonder that most readers just skip
> these arguments. Should we just ignore these challenges as they appear?
> Does that make them appear stronger or weaker than directly confronting
> them? Is there a danger of filling the Extropian archives with all sorts of
> unscientific conspiracy theories that are posted as if they had all our
> support?
> I would seriously love to hear some comment about this.

Okay :-) I'm giving it my best shot. I don't see any easy answer. Sometimes
I skip replying to posts simply because I agree with them. If the poster already
has high status on the list, then he or she should interpret my silence that way.
As for other threads, I ignore them entirely if I am not interested in them. So
I don't quite think that the danger warrants much worry: sure, crank letters
will appear in the archives that no one responded to, but sensible people aren't
going to suppose that those views are widely endorsed.


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