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Is Debating Pseudoscience a Good Idea? Carl Sagan Weighs In

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 03 2014

Tomorrow, as many of you know, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” will take the stage with Answers in Genesis frontman Ken Ham to debate the topic of evolution. For those of you interested, the event may be watched streaming for free, live at 7 PM Eastern on February 4, 2014.

Are such debates a good idea? As you might gather from the many divergent opinions on Nye’s choice, the answer is far from clear. Too much depends upon the circumstances, format, and participants of the “debate.” Also, it is often argued—and I tend to agree with this argument—that there are figures too cynical to be fruitfully engaged in any format. (My initial gut feeling was that Ham may not be a fair-minded opponent, and that this particular debate may not have been a wise decision for Nye for that reason—though Randy Olson has almost brought me around with this thoughtful post.)

But the wider meta-question is not a new one. I thought it might be interesting to share a decades-old argument in favor of public engagement with fringe ideas and their proponents by a pioneering voice for modern scientific skepticism: Carl Sagan. It reminds me that “debating pseudoscience” is, when you get down to it, what skeptics do.

In December of 1969, a symposium on the topic of UFOs was hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Organized by Sagan and Thornton Page, it almost didn’t happen at all. For over a year, the symposium faced passionate opposition from scientists who believed that hosting such an exchange would lend inappropriate legitimacy and stage time to the fringe, and all at the expense of the science. “A distinguished scientist once threatened to sic then Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew on me,” Sagan later recalled, “if I persisted in organizing a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in which both proponents and opponents of the extraterrestrial-spacecraft hypothesis of UFO origins would be permitted to speak.”1

So fierce and so serious were these behind-the-scenes objections that Sagan wrote a letter in September of 1969 to the scheduled symposium participants and the Board of the AAAS in which he pled the case for serious, transparent, straight-faced public confrontation. I share part of that plea as it was lightly adapted for the introduction of the 1972 book UFO’s—A Scientific Debate, in which Sagan and Page shared an editorial voice (the “we” in the passage below):

The opposition to holding this symposium, presented in part by some very distinguished scientists, was based upon the view that if such an unscientific subject as the UFO controversy is discussed, we might just as well organize symposia on astrology, the ideas of Immanuel Velikovsky, and so forth. We believe this conclusion is substantially correct, but it is not the reductio ad absurdum that its authors seem to believe it is.2

All of us who teach at colleges and universities are aware of a drift away from science. Some of the most sensitive, intelligent, and concerned young people are finding science increasingly less attractive and less relevant to their problems than was the case for previous generations. We all agree that this drift is deplorable. It must be due in part to their misunderstanding of what science is about, the scientists’ failure to communicate its power and beauty. At the same time there is a range of borderline subjects that have high popularity among these same people including UFO’s, astrology, and the writings of Velikovsky. …

But while we may deplore this trend, particularly in its extreme variant as a religious cult, it seems to us unprofitable to ignore it. To talk of ‘dignifying it by discussing it’ is to misunderstand these attitudes. They already are dignified in the sense of having widespread newspaper and magazine coverage which reaches many more Americans, both scientists and laymen, than, for example, the scientific journals that generally avoid such discussion.

There are some things we can expect of scientific symposia on such topics and other things we cannot expect. We will not convert true believers, regardless of the strength of our arguments. … But what can be done in such symposia is to confront unscientific claims and methods with the power of the scientific method. The habits of critical interrogation and of suspending judgment in the absence of adequate data are unfortunately uncommon in everyday life.

… We believe that organizations like the AAAS have a major obligation to arrange for confrontations on precisely those science-related subjects that catch the public eye. Previously such confrontations have served science well. For example, in the Huxley-Wilberforce confrontation on evolution, the novel position has stood the test of time, but the belief that the asteroid Icarus would impact the earth in 1968 has not stood the test of time. In both cases, science has been served well by demonstrations of its power and predictiveness.3

————————————
UPDATE (Feb 4, 2014, in the hours before the debate): I was down very sick all weekend, and put this post up in something of a delirious haze. Re-reading it after another day’s recovery, I feel that it might be useful to further clarify my position on “debates”—a position which amounts to “Well, that depends what you mean by ‘debate.’”

There are well-known problems with the contrived point-counterpoint formal debate format, such as the “Gish Gallop,” which I do not wish to downplay. These limitations have convinced many, including the National Center for Science Education, to adopt a no-debate policy. By and large, I think this is a wise choice.

On the other hand, I am very strongly in favor of the wider concept of “debating” with paranormal and pseudoscientific ideas and their proponents—that is, fairly and transparently engaging with and critiquing these ideas—for much the same reasons that Sagan articulated. These are topics of public interest. They impact the lives of millions of people. In my opinion, the work of studying these beliefs, engaging with the best their proponents have to offer, and making a good-faith, science-informed effort to get to the bottom of them, are all part of a valuable public service. Sagan found to his frustration that the wider scientific community was reluctant to perform this service (and as the history of the paranormal shows, scientists sometimes find themselves outside of their range of competence when they are willing). For this reason, it seems to me very useful to have a few specialist “skeptics” kicking around. Talking about this stuff—studying these claims and “debating” their merits—is what we do.

References

  1. Carl Sagan. “Night Walkers and Mystery Mongers: Sense and Nonsense At the Edge of Science.” Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 10., No. 3. Spring, 1986. p. 225 [Excerpted from Broca’s Brain]
  2. Sagan did indeed later organize an AAAS symposium on the radical ideas of Immanuel Velikovsky. For more on Velikovsky, see my current Junior Skeptic story “The Ping-Pong Planets of Doctor Velikovsky,” bound inside Skeptic magazine Vol. 18, No. 4. On newsstands now.
  3. UFO’s—A Scientific Debate. Carl Sagan and Thornton Page, eds. (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996.) pp. xii–xiv

Note to Commenters: I invite and encourage civil discussion, scholarly debate, and open exchanges of ideas on this thread. At the same time, I expect all commenters to keep these useful principles firmly in mind. I will delete posts that seem to me to be abusive. It’s not that kind of blog.

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34 Responses to “Is Debating Pseudoscience a Good Idea? Carl Sagan Weighs In”

  1. BobM says:

    I think I would sooner see Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman debate than bill Nye, but even so they would be engaging in a fight they cannot win. Nye is an educator not a debater. I realise he’s boning up on evolution, but I think he should bone up on the tactics used by professional charlatans like Ken Ham. (Hope that’s not too abusive :-).) He is going to have to learn to cope with the Gish gallop for a start. And there should be some control over editing. Because no matter what the actual result, it’s pretty much guarantee that the creationists will edit it to make it seem as if they won.

  2. JodyB says:

    But wouldn’t Bill Nye publicly protest unfair editing? Wouldn’t the negative press of dishonesty haunt their cause, resulting in PR damage?

    • BobM says:

      Wouldn’t matter, because the only people who’d take notice would be scientist and science advocates. I doubt the press would care. People of faith wouldn’t care. Mind you… the indoctrinated are hard to shift anyway.

  3. Jim Bishop says:

    On their rather long list, one of the major mistakes professional scientists make, and they depend on the largess of the public to fund their research, is to appear, at least, to be so arrogant about their sophistication that speaking and explaining to mere mortals is beneath their dignity. Thus, they bring upon themselves the reduction of their budgets, and the contempt of their ‘unwashed’ neighbors. This pattern has been extended to the disrespect, at least, they display toward Carl Sagan and other ‘popularizers’ who attempt to explain science, and the reason for science, to the general public. I’ll wager George Gamow, with ‘One, Two, Three, Infinity’ (http://www.amazon.com/One-Two-Three-Infinity-Speculations-ebook/dp/B008TVLKK6/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1391509483&sr=1-1&keywords=one+two+three+infinity – How many of your books will still be in print 67 years after you scribble them?) opened science, and scientific thinking to more people than the entire science departments at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton combined.

  4. Trimegistus says:

    Of course it’s smart for skeptics to debate Creationists. How else can you keep the pot stirred? WIthout public debates and blog fights, people might cease to care so much. They might not lie awake at night fearful of the Scary Christians who are always poised to oppress us all. They might not make donations.

    Can’t have that. So debate away! Build up your feeble crackpot opponents as serious menaces. And don’t forget to pass the collection plate to the faithful in the audience.

    • Jason Loxton says:

      Trimegistus: As college science instructor, I am torn on whether or not we ought to debate creationists, but your characterization of the situation seriously misrepresents the real and present danger that evolution education remains under in the US and elsewhere. Check out the National Centre for Science Education’s news page for updates on recent legislative action designed to undermine evolution education. In 2013 alone, 11 bills or resolutions were tabled in legislatures in nine US states.

      The battle is far from over.

  5. Nick Matzke says:

    Carl Sagan’s words are wise, but they have no relevance to the Bill Nye-Ken Ham thing. A nonprofit symposium at AAAS with a panel of academic experts is totally different than a for-profit event completely controlled by the Creation Museum and being exploited to the max (ALREADY!!) for their fundraising and propaganda purposes. Bill Nye could have the performance of a lifetime and it’s still a loss, the professional creationist organization makes bank and the followers in the fundamentalist churches see two apparently smart people talking complex stuff they don’t understand and assume the guy they already like won.

  6. MikeG says:

    Part of the problem with these debates is a huge swath of the general public’s literacy in general, and science literacy in particular. Here’s my (admittedly cynical) impression of what many people will get from the debate -

    Bill Nye: blah, blah, blah…
    Ken Ham: blah, religion, blah, bible, great flood, blah…

    In addition to being a good debater, Bill Nye will have to be able to articulate his ideas as if he’s talking to a 5th grader if he wants to reach a large audience.

  7. Nick says:

    Bill Nye isn’t that great at debate, but he did aim at the 5th grade level of viewer/listener. I personally think he wiped the floor with Ham. Much better than I had hoped for, sorta like the Seahawks on Sunday. Maybe Prothero will do an analysis tomorrow.

    • Sorry, Nick–the blog just posted was already set to come up this morning and complement the previous blog. I will wait until my NEXT Wednesday post to give a more considered assessment of what happened last night…

  8. Kent McManigal says:

    When one participant is a creationist, it isn’t a debate any more than if I were to “debate” someone who believes snow is made by faeries.

  9. Cathie Mason says:

    I watched the “debate” with a group of secularists. This audience was cheering Nye and pooh-poohing Ham. I now consider myself an atheist though I was raised in and for a long time practiced one of the major Christian religions. But none of my teaching in that religion ever went as far as this nut, Ham. I shuddered to hear him state that children needed to be indoctrinated with his drivel, the bible and science as defined and interpreted by Ham. If his god does exist, it certainly will not be pleased by Mr. Ham’s interpretation.

  10. aqk says:

    It’s a bit of a conundrum-
    If one does NOT debate them, the Scientific community will come off as somewhat “uppity” and “standoffish”, leaving the bizarre field unchallenged, and leading to “See? Them pointy-headed perfessors are afraid of our theories!”.

    OTOH, when debating them, you have to be somehow down-to-earth, and do it at their level.

    I haven’t yet watched the Nye-Ham debate, but hope that Nye managed to argue at the Creationists’ level.
    And gee, perhaps even planted some seeds in their heads. Oh- were any creationists even watching? Would they?
    Let’s hope Nye converted a few. But I somehow doubt it.

  11. Doug says:

    The debate may sway some young people whose views have not yet solidified. When I was a teenager, I believed in UFOs, Bigfoot, astrology, Uri Geller, the Bermuda Triangle, all that. It was not because I was stupid, or crazy or closed-minded; it was because I was young and believed what I was told. The school library had books on “Flying Saucers” and the “Abominable Snowman,” every newspaper ran an astrology column, the “Scholastic[sic] Book Club” marketed tarot cards and books on ancient astronauts to students, my 7th-grade biology teacher taught us about “thinking plants” and ESP. (He was always complaining that the Russians were “way ahead of us in studying parapsychology”–hey, it was the ’70s!) Nobody told me that there was no scientific evidence for these things–I was under the impression that they were facts.

    It was only later, when I began reading Asimov, Sagan and Randi, that I learned to my astonishment that these ideas were baseless. It didn’t happen overnight, but I soon came around to the skeptical point of view. Don’t assume that everyone who believes in pseudo-science is a fanatic whose mind is made up. Some people simply haven’t had the facts clearly presented to them.

  12. Andre Gois says:

    In my opinion, is ok to debate pseudoscience because they use logic to conclude they position. Is different with religious guys. They dont use any kind of logic, and you cant debate about any kind of arguments with them.
    They ignore our logic and the facts, and stick in they position, wathever you say.
    Is a big lost of time.

  13. MikeG says:

    I watched the debate and thought Bill Nye did a great job (bow tie anecdote notwithstanding).

    The one main issue regarding creationism’s lack of viability is that the hypothesis cannot under any circumstances be changed regardless of the evidence. Ham point blank admitted this. He has to admit this because creationism isn’t about science. Science doesn’t work this way. Bill alluded to this when talking about science questions we currently don’t know the answers to, but I feel this point could have been made more clearly.

    • frank says:

      Not quite true – my understanding is that the question referred to Ham,s faith in god , not his scientific views,
      Recognize that , as Nye pointed out, many Christians accept evolution without problem – but is it not possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist ” if scientific evidence falsifies evolution – let alone should a “young” earth be validated.
      Thus the stakes are not the same for each side! If science creams the YEC position they still have their god to comfort them – but if (may god forbid!?!) it is ever established that the planet is too young to allow evolutionary processes to answer the “where do I come from ” question – who is the Atheist to turn to?

  14. BobM says:

    I was possibly wrong, though as that Chinese bloke is alleged to have said about the French Revolution – “too soon to say.” It’s encouraging to see that a Christian poll has found 92% of respondents think the science guy won, but I suspect it will have little effect on fundamentalists. Perhaps the young……..
    Incidentally, I often use the idea of -what would change your mind? – when talking to true believers of one sort or another. I must have asked this question 100 times, but only had one answer. Perhaps two if you count “nothing.” So Nye is doing a damned sight better than me. Still, I guess are loud silence is just as much a reply as anything else :-).

  15. Liam McDaid says:

    The reason why this was a waste of time (for Bill Nye)?
    http://doubtfulnews.com/2014/01/ken-is-mad-at-us-mean-ole-atheists-and-bloggers/

    Thanks to all the free publicity Ham got, I’m sure he will have no trouble selling the bonds. No good faith here, at all.

    If only Bill Nye had pushed the debate off until next week….

    • Sorry, but nearly every source (including Pat Robertson, the Discovery Institute and even Christianity Today) agrees that Hamster lost this one badly (see my post next Wednesday). Even Hamster’s own AiG site is not crowing about a “victory” like creationists usually do. They know they got creamed, even if they won’t admit it. And the $25,000 in ticket sales plus a few DVDs will make NO difference in the $29 million in junk bonds that need to be sold by tomorrow. The only publicity Hamster got was BAD publicity, and he’s not gonna sell those bonds–so his Ark park is toast (as was he last night)

  16. Double Helix says:

    Mr. Loxton,
    This was a great post, and it came at a good time. One of my office mates saw the debate and told me that Mr. Nye won handily. This gave me a good reason to send my office mate a link to this post, and I discovered a new skeptic friend, who was delighted to find out about all the skeptical things that are going on now. Right in my own office! Does anyone know how many self-identified skeptics there are world-wide now?

    • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it, and that it led you to discover common interests with your colleague. The last few years have been a fun time for folks interested in skepticism-themed socializing and entertainment, with local Skeptics in the Pub and easily-accessible free blogs and podcasts springing up all around the world.

      At the same time, the workhorse efforts of the formal scientific skepticism organizations—the tradition in which I work—have continued to grow, fueled in part by that broad grassroots enthusiasm.

      Nor is it just us scientific skeptics. The atheists, the humanists, and many other parallel rationalist communities and movements have each enjoyed their own renaissance since 2005, with all the joys and headaches and confusions that growing pains always bring. This new ability of scattered communities to find each other—it’s a beautiful thing.

  17. WScott says:

    “To talk of ‘dignifying it by discussing it’ is to misunderstand these attitudes. They already are dignified in the sense of having widespread newspaper and magazine coverage which reaches many more Americans, both scientists and laymen, than, for example, the scientific journals that generally avoid such discussion.”

    Exactly, thank you. Some people seem to believe that if we just ignore unscientific ideas, they will go away. This attitude is staggeringly naive, not not mention easily disproved by a casual glance at the history of such ideas. No amount of peer-reviewed journal articles is going to discredit Creationism in the eyes of the general public – if it could, that would’ve happened 100 years ago.

    Phil “Bad Astronomy” Plait recently wrote:
    “For too long, scientists have thought that facts speak for themselves. They don’t. They need advocates. If we ignore the attacks on science, or simply counter them by reciting facts, we’ll lose. That much is clear from the statistics. Facts and stories of science are great for rallying those already on our side, but they do little to sway believers.”

  18. Jay Thacher says:

    The debate now gives skeptics a tool to influence people who may be on the fence about Creationism. If I had this information back in the 70’s after attending a Josh McDowell Campus Crusade for Christ event I would have realized McDowell had not done enough research as he had claimed concerning his His best-book Evidence That Demands a Verdict.

    I bought the Christian dogma until the early 1990’s when I started watching the documentaries on TLC, Discovery Channel and History Channel to name a few. James Burke’s Connections program made me realize that I had not gone far enough in researching whether there is a God of the Holy Bible.

    Nye named a wooden ship, The Wyoming, that debunks the Ark construction. I wished he had addressed the amount of water to cover the whole earth (literal interpretation of the King James Bible). Assuming there was indeed enough to cover Mt. Everest. Some accounts state that rain fall for 40 days & nights was not rain fall but rather hydraulic pressure. Further the atmospheric changes from that much water on earth would have crushed humans all of this is explained at http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Global_flood

    If skeptics have this knowledge and start asking simple logical question of proselytizers they could stem the religious fundamentalist dogma. After being told that fish were not taken aboard the ark a simple question of, “Would that be the salt water fish or the fresh water fish?” rocked that fundamentalist to their core.

  19. J Dan Vignau says:

    I think that the venue of a Christian school is perfect. At least these students will be exposed to the truth for once in their lives.

  20. s.s. says:

    i notice the proliferation of pseudoscientific terms used in new age gab. quantum theory is being appropriated all over the place from people who have no idea what they are talking about ,but use it to validate their own multiverses, vibrational levels, contact with ascended masters who evidently live in the duplex next door light years away because ….quantum! not a science class or science degree in the lot of them but the heads all bob up and down and the lingo is bandied about in expert fashion, and by the way you are such a loser if you can’t get to level 28 with ease. If anything, debate could at least define and reclaim the terms.

  21. Daniel says:

    If you think there ought to be some kind of filter for when it’s appropriate to debate something, perhaps a good dividing line is to think about otherwise pseudoscientific claims that might have some intuitive appeal to the layman that might at least think he generally looks at claims from an empirical standpoint.

    Intelligent design falls into this category, or at least as I understand what intelligent design purports to be. There is an intuitive appeal to the idea that life is so complex that there has to be some kind of creator.

    On the other hand, young earth creationism probably isn’t worth the time, if the idea is to try and convince people that would otherwise believe. The people that support the theory don’t really claim to be looking at the issue from a scientific standpoint. It’s in the Bible, and that’s the end of the matter, so far as they’re concerned. If there were some kind of debate, the two sides would probably just be talking past one another.

  22. JC says:

    Perhaps it was the haze of sickness, but the reference to “Gish Gallup” was clearly intended to be the “Gish gallop” see http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Gish_Gallop.

    The Gallup company is a dubious promoter of its opinion polls. The Gish gallop is the figurative gallop of a horse in describing a method of running over your opponent in a debate or public forum.

    Eugenie Scott coined the phrase. I love Eugenie Scott.

    I find the Gallup company to be pseudo-scientific in promoting the meme that they are scientifically measuring something. They use mirrors to reflect the bright light of public opinion rather than spectrometers to analyze its content.

    I didn’t want there to be any confusion because the Gallup company helps to undermine scientific discussions by selling bunches of opinions as statistical measurements. They probably would determine the winner of this evolutionary debate by counting how many people liked the debaters versus the content of the arguments.

  23. Canman says:

    I’ve read almost all of of Carl Sagan’s books. The only chapter I did not finish was his long, boring debunking of Immanuel Velikovsky. I still congratulate him for going to the trouble to do it. I think anyone who calls him or herself a skeptic ought to feel very uneasy about not addressing an opposing view.

    • I personally found Sagan’s take on Velikovsky quite impressive when I recently went through it for my Velikovsky research (Junior Skeptic 49). However, it has been critiqued a number of times over the decades since the AAAS symposium / debate took place. (Sagan’s talk was adapted for the Broca’s Brain book chapter on Velikovsky; he later revisited those arguments for Cosmos). Several commentators including David Morrison and Phil Plait have taken Sagan to task for errors in calculation (some corrected I think for the Broca’s Brain version), insufficient study of Velikovsky’s ideas (I’m not at all sure I agree with that criticism) or for Sagan’s tone toward the elderly Velikovsky. That last question is very interesting to me, given Sagan’s famous Demon-Haunted World call for skeptics to “temper our criticism with kindness”—a preoccupation that I share. Science fiction author Jerry Pournelle has said, for example, that, “Sagan wisecracked through the whole ‘debate’, never once confronting anything Velikovsky said, and mostly using his verbal skills to ridicule the old man. It was as shameful a thing as I ever saw Carl do.”

      It is also, as you say, quite long—though not so long as Worlds in Collision!