why arguing with a crank just won’t work out

Cranks looking to debate serious scientists and scholars aren't looking to have a discussion. They shouldn't be given a platform and legitimacy by proxy.

ignoring argument

One of the things cranks love as much as suing their critics for criticizing them is organizing debates. Or at least what they believe to be a debate because their definitions of what constitutes a debate vary greatly from those used by scientists and academics. Normally, when professionals and experts host debates, we use a statement or a reply to present the evidence for our position, lay out why we view the topic the way we do, then try to see where we differ on the subject and why. Basically, a good debate is one where both participants will learn something about each others’ position or notice that they didn’t consider a particular approach and then go back and continue their work from there. Debates between experts can certainly get very, very heated, yes, but after the passions cool, there’s often something gained even if it’s just knowing why your colleagues see things differently. This is why when George Dvorsky and I went back and forth of Skeptically Speaking, and when this blog hosted Michael Vassar’s exchange with me about Singularitarianism, there was no talk of a victory because we simply exchanged ideas in a debate format. For cranks, a debate is all about winning.

I’ve been the lone representative of science in the room, the one they introduce as “a real trooper for agreeing to come into the lion’s den.” I’ve received the condescending smattering of applause from the room where every single person is against me and everything I have to say, but they have “shown me that they are good people too and will treat me respectfully in spite of how misguided I am.” Nice folks… And I guarantee that their write-up of the event in their newsletter would say I was a nice guy, a real trooper to come and talk, and they probably planted within me a seed that would eventually bloom into full-blown science denial, and they’d love to have me back someday to see how that seed has germinated… You serve merely as a masturbation enabler for them.

This quote is from Brian Dunning’s post on why he no longer wants to do public debates, and it so astutely captures the key difference between the mindset of an expert and that of a crank going into these exchanges. The former is there to present his or her case with evidence and logic, the latter is there to take a victory lap in front of his or her fans, preaching to the recruited choir and sharing the stage with someone who has serious and legitimate credentials to later claim that the expert failed to make a case against the crank’s favored woo, a claim which will be repeated again and again as the crank proceeds to engage in session after session of strenuously patting him or herself on the back in public at every opportunity. You could go out and debate the random crank who challenges you and demonstrate that he doesn’t know the first thing about your field. Then you’ll have to endure this crank’s smug condescension and claims of undisputed victory. It’s a fight you simply cannot win because it’s not based on facts, but on pretentious posturing and arrogance, exemplifying why you should not wrestle with the proverbial pig. You’ll get filthy and the pig will enjoy every second of it.

A terrific example of this can be seen in Dawkins refusal to debate Christian apologist William Lane Craig. In his zeal to share the stage of Dawkins, Craig has been pounding his chest in preemptive victory and calling a scientist annoyed with his pretention a coward. Or rather, he encouraged one of his cheering sycophants to do that in public, fawning all over a man whose grasp of honesty and morality is so tenuous, I would have no trouble describing him as a sleazy parasite. As his fans gasp in admiration, he blithely dismisses horrendous war crimes of the past as being more traumatizing to the soldiers than the civilians they slaughtered, goes on to state that animals don’t really understand pain based on arguments pulled out of his backside, as well as claiming to have embraced astrophysics in his defense of Biblical inerrancy, while using such a tired and worn out non-sequtur, he should be embarrassed for trotting it out in public. This is a man who declares that the universe must have been created by something, that something must have been a singular deity, and this point is not to be questioned or disputed, then presents this assertion as science.

His behavior is exactly what we were just talking about. A self-important blow hard with a lax grasp of human decency and no grasp of the basic principles of propositional logic wanted to debate a biologist about ethics he doesn’t understand and the science he dismisses, claiming victory by default when his intended target did the sensible thing and refused to play his game. Good for Dawkins. Feeding parasitic cranks should not be a scientist’s obligation, and if said parasitic cranks try to sell themselves as victors of a debate that would never happen, they will come off as either arrogant, self-absorbed hecklers, or insecure wannabes with something to prove and a crushing inferiority complex to overcome, to all but their admirers.

# science // cranks / debate / pseudoscience

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