On Debating Cranks

Is it moving the goalposts when a skeptic demands evidence, not just necessary, but sufficient evidence as a reason to accept an extraordinary factual claim?

Is this heavy-handed, this demanding of evidence more sound than just that of alleged but nonetheless seemingly compelling personal experience, the anecdotal testimony of ‘reliable’ eyewitnesses whose accounts don’t sound ‘obviously false’ and who would ‘never lie,’ or ‘irrefutable’ physical evidence like blurry photos, low-resolution video or trace evidence that is either inconclusive or easily faked by even a child (and often has been)?

Is the requirement that a seemingly impressive statistical result of a paranormal study be replicated by others, no matter their beliefs or attitude, excessive or unfair?

I would say not.

Sure… one could argue that I’m arguing for the skeptical position on the need for solid evidence because I’m a skeptic myself, and that would be true, but not for the reasons the accusation would be and often has been given. I take the skeptical position in this because as a skeptic, I just might be in a real position to understand skeptical attitudes, thinking, and reasoning better than, say, someone whose mindset, belief system and values are opposed to those of skeptics.

In discussions I’ve attempted with those who subsequently show themselves to be dedicated advocates of fringe-claims, sort of ‘testing the waters’ so to speak, to see what they’re actually like, and to make reasonably sure that I haven’t misjudged them on the basis of their initial comment, most of the time such attempts at constructive discourse have been unproductive.

Generally, all I’ve learned from such exchanges is the extremes of intellectual strategies that people can and will resort to to protect their cherished personal opinions from questioning or criticism.

True believers tend to have rather peculiar ideas, often rather lax ones, as to what qualifies as reality, science, logic, or evidence, and have shown to me a tendency to dismiss them or the need for them when these do not conform to or otherwise validate their beliefs.

They do not play by the same rules as science, and by that token, their skeptical critics…

It is for this reason that once I establish that someone actually does argue like a crank, I decide that any further attempts at reasoned discussion are pointless, and that I could better spend my time and resources on other matters.

Is this being dismissive? Of course. But it’s dismissal for reasons of practicality.

My time is limited, and there’s no point in devoting attention to playing a game when the ‘other guy’ (both genders)isn’t playing by the same rules, and therefore isn’t really playing the same game.

It is for this reason that I will not debate cranks, quacks, pseudoscientists, antiscientists and other fringe-claimants on the venue of this blog once I figure what they really are from the initial exchange in the comment threads.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll completely ignore them, only that all attempts at rational discourse are now off, and that I’ll no longer cater to their need to defend whatever doctrine or belief-system they happen to hold dear that I had the temerity to criticize.

In my experience, it’s a lot easier to argue constructively with another skeptic than with a believer, because those skeptics I’ve read and met are open to the possibility of being shown wrong, of being convinced by the evidence. This is a key ingredient for intellectual honesty, and in strong contrast with those self-styled champions of What They Know to be A Proven Fact™, who have shown themselves to act as if it were simply unbecoming to change their minds in the light of mere facts and mere reality that could conceivably refute their views.

After all, changing one’s mind and being wrong are weaknesses of character…Aren’t they?..

3 responses to “On Debating Cranks

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention On Debating Cranks « The Call of Troythulu -- Topsy.com

  2. I would tend to agree with you that it is pointless to argue when your opponent is closed to reason, and no amount of evidence will sway them from the truths they “know”, as they will dismiss any evidence to the contrary as lies or a part of a greater cover-up conspiracy. This mindset seems common to all the “truthers” out there, plus alt-med proponents, climate-change deniers etc.

    As skeptics we’re far better off taking the time to challenge the partially formed, rarely thought out views of the lay-person who has simply accepted some argument from authority, such as a parent or mis-guided friend “who knows such things”, as these folk are far more open to having their less-closely held sacred cows questioned, which can lead to a positive experience.

    Good post, and thanks to Kat aka @abutcherswife for directing me to your blog.


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