Saturday, 20 April 2013
Who debunks the debunkers?
Watching TED talks yesterday evening, I came across a talk by someone called Michael Shermer. He is the publisher of Skeptic magazine and he was illustrating the way that people are taken in by people claiming knowledge or products that do amazing things when there is no scientific evidence to support them. He illustrated this by bringing along a device which claimed to be a modern dowsing device for detecting whether students had cannabis in their lockers. This device cost $900. He pointed out that if you go to enough student lockers you will find cannabis, so that the device is bound to work on some occasions. He went on to say that it is the times that it doesn’t work that are critical and he and people like him are out to count these and debunk these myths. So his point was that in examining sweeping claims we need to be very careful to look at the detail to ensure that we actually weigh and sift the facts to ascertain whether grand claims are accurate. What was surprising was that he went on to say that this is the way that psychics and astrologers work – but that they were there to count the times it does not work. Now, this is a very grand and sweeping statement. Applying Michael’s own methods of skepticism, I would like to understand where the factual data lies to make such a sweeping statement. There might be one or two cases where Michael might be accurate with this statement but, following his methods, I would like to count the times where this is not the case before taking such a grandiose claim at face value. He is right we must be careful when people make large claims based on untested beliefs and he is also right to assert that it pays to be skeptical. These people who make such claims with little evidence or direct research to back them up should be debunked. So I would like to ask – who is going to debunk the grandiose and sweeping claims made by debunkers? Whether astrology is true (personally I find it difficult to disbelieve given the overwhelming data I have that suggests it is accurate but I may be deluded) or not is not the point. The point is that we cannot have double-standards. Either we really do keep our statements accurate and factual (which means we are careful to acknowledge how little we know for certain) or we accept that we do not, but then we cannot accuse others of being inaccurate. When I described this to my friend Sam this morning, he pointed out that I was lumping all debunkers in together in a sweeping generalisation – damn! I think we had all better have a very good sense of humour about how we are all hoist by our own petards otherwise our self-righteousness is going to explode in our faces.