I’ve spent a significant amount of my time on the internet arguing with people. Often, with people so hopelessly lost in incredibly bad ideas that my interaction brings with it painfully little chance to drag them out.
But I’m a stubborn individual, and I’ve accumulated a lot of experience in the dusty corners of the internet, and I think I’d like to share my insights regarding interactions with pseudoscientists, such as young-earth Creationists. I’d like to think that insight would be interesting and help people to better correct people with incorrect ideas.
My advice only applies to well-prepared individuals with a degree of background understanding (a layman’s understanding of the topic will do, but you’re likely to need to compensate in other areas), who are interacting with individuals holding ideas which are known by the scientific community to be discredited (young-earth Creationism, global warming denying, homeopathy, etc). This approach will not be particularly applicable if you’re groping in the dark on the topic or if the discussion is a legitimate debate with someone holding a potentially correct position.
For starters, I think most people misdiagnose the problem with pseudoscience and those who have been indoctrinated into it. The common, intuitive, and direct approach to dealing with false information is to enter into a logical argument to demonstrate that the information is false. However, as you can see from the stubborn persistence of pseudoscience in the modern world, this approach often does not work.
The next step to go from there is to analyze why the debate-oriented approach towards correcting pseudoscience has such a low rate of success. Again, the common and intuitive conclusion is to assume the pseudoscientist lacks the ability to comprehend your argument, lacks the integrity to accept it, or is otherwise personally deficient and thus the failure is none of the business of the scientific debater – once the scientific debater presents their argument and it is not properly addressed, they are done, and can wash their hands of the business having said they have exhausted all options for the approach.
I think we need something more oriented towards results than that approach. Something that can allow us to fix pseudoscientists when we encounter them, with a high success rate – a cure for pseudoscience, as it were.
Which leads me to the primary and most critical theme of this article: Pseudoscience is not a mistake made by an individual that must be corrected, but a disease, afflicting a patient, that must be cured. The very large distinctions in approach I will propose compared with a debate-oriented approach stem directly from this paradigm.
The first major difference is that, if we’re to identify pseudoscience as a sickness, we can attempt to describe its’ pathology, or what precisely is malfunctioning in a pseudoscientist, as a first step towards a stronger understanding of the condition.
Under normal function, a human being will:
- Evaluate (however briefly) information that they perceive in order to gauge its’ accuracy and truthfulness, and then take appropriate measures.
- Check information for self-consistency if given a reason to do so.
Instead, a pseudoscientist will manifest the following impairments, impairments which constitute a large portion of the set of pseudoscientific behaviors:
- Exhibit strong confirmation bias towards information relevant to the affliction.
- Demonstrate extreme cognitive dissonance rather than analyze information relevant to the affliction for self-consistency.
The first major insight we can gain is the observation that pseudoscientists are not necessarily universally impaired in these functions – outside of the pseudoscience-afflicted area, a pseudoscientist can function intellectually without impairment. This implies that these malfunctions are not the primary cause of pseudoscience but either secondary causes or symptoms of the primary cause. In essence, a pseudoscientist is not necessarily of low intelligence, or intellectually impaired in any way other than the affliction of the pseudoscience itself. So we should stop calling them stupid, because they aren’t.
Now, the above describes a large portion of pseudoscientific behavior, but does not by any means catch all behaviors associated with pseudoscience. Explaining the others is where my pet hypothesis (and proposed cure stemming from this hypothesis) comes into play.
Other behaviors pseudoscientists have a particular propensity for*:
- A strong “Us vs. Them” mentality: pseudoscientists describe those who disagree with them (frequently actual scientists, or even scientifically literate laymen) in strong oppositional terms that often isn’t relevant to the specific subject matter that they would be discussing. (As an aside, google “us vs them”. I found the unusually politically charged results to be fascinating)
- Spectacle: Unlike science, ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ for pseudoscience. Pseudoscience promotes aggressive, emotionally charged debate, and actual logical discussion is irrelevant to the approach. Rather, victory or defeat is called (well, victory is called, anyway, more on that momentarily) based on the status of the emotional undercurrent of the discussion, in a manner similar to how children argue with each other. That is to say, when arguing with a pseudoscience advocate, his objective isn’t really to make you think differently – it’s to make you feel differently.
- Strong group pride: The strong social bond between pseudoscientists of the same flavor extends beyond the attacking of external forces. Pseudoscientists are known for making their own in-groups, including schools (complete with unaccredited degrees), journals (not strictly scientific journals, though, as they tend to lack peer review and other features which make scientific journals scientific), “Think Tanks” for PR purposes, and other socially or professionally flavored clubs. And, indeed, clubs they are, albeit themed by the pseudoscience. Pseudoscientific groups do not promote intellectual interaction, and this implies they do not exist for intellectual reasons. Pseudoscientific groups instead primarily provide social and emotional functions.
This is further observable when pseudoscientists lose debates, even by the emotionally-charged pseudoscientist standard – the group simply forgets the event has happened, in what seems to be a subconscious act of in-group support. This phenomenon also cripples any attempts pseudoscientists may have to enforce internal intellectual consistency, as people violating that consistency can simply be forgiven without censure or possibly even conscious thought.
Do you see where I’m going with this yet? Pathological pseudoscience seems to be identified by exceptionally strong affiliation with a strongly-defined social group. Mind, here, that when I say ‘strongly-defined’, I’m not referring to any purpose a social group may have in and of itself. On the contrary, I would identify a strongly-defined social group as one that defines the group’s enemies.
Now, we know already that strong group cohesiveness can impair individual thinking. Pathological pseudoscience seems to be a phenomenon related to groupthinking, but I feel it to be much more powerful. Pseudoscientific groups aggressively pursue strong group cohesion, which is likely made stronger still by the perception that the pseudoscientists face a powerful, monolithic enemy – that enemy being, collectively, everyone who thinks they’re wrong. And conflict with those individuals, rather than correcting them, only stands to make the affliction worse, as the more absurd (and thus memorable) the actions an individual is forced to take to defend the group, the stronger their later emotional self-reinforcement towards that group could become.
So, to summarize: I feel that pseudoscience is identified by when an individual reaches a point of emotional investment in a social group so strong, that it inhibits the individual’s ability to think in the sense that we understand the concept. Instead, their cognitive resources are hijacked to support the group paradigm, regardless of how absurd it may be.
Having read it, it all may seem fairly obvious (it does to me, now having written it). Yet, this explanation indicates that the modern approach towards pseudoscience is dangerously flawed. While the debunking, argumentative approach may function to immunize those not afflicted, it does nothing to correct pseudoscience in the afflicted and could conceivably aggravate the condition. Accordingly, recovery rates for pseudoscience tend to be very low. We are, essentially, trying to treat the symptoms of pseudoscience, and in doing so we’re missing the disease.
This post is turning, frankly, very large, so I’m splitting it in two. The second half will go into depth for my proposed treatment method for pseudoscience.
*- For further reading, check out these articles (I used them as a refresher before writing this article):
(Yes, it’s a Star Wars website. Yes, the article is good)