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Debating the undebatable
Skeptics are often accused of a lack of "balance" when dealing with people who don't speak the truth. I was reminded of this some years ago when I was chasing publicity for a conference about medical fraud and quackery. It was promoted to journalists associated with major news outlets, many of them having job titles which suggested that they had some responsibility for health information appearing in their publication or on their radio or television station or network. Several commented that the conference was not really balanced and that I should have representatives of the quackery industry there to present their views. One even suggested two suitable people – one was an anti-vaccination doctor and the other ran a department of alternative medicine at a real university and taught homeopathy as if it were a science
Much of this nonsense can be put down to the combination of postmodernism and political correctness which is rotting the intellectual values of university humanities departments these days, the departments which contain the schools of journalism. Every point of view has equal value and it is impolite to challenge anyone, so every media outlet seems to want to outdo the others in fairness and presenting both sides. This is ridiculous. News is news and truth is truth. The strange thing is that this false sense of fairness only seems to extend to scientific and medical matters (and perhaps history). If I was running a seminar on financial planning or the legal aspects of property development nobody would expect me to give any time or space to timeshare slammers or peddlers of gambling schemes, but try to teach children about evolution or their parents about the superiority of medicine over witchcraft and there are cries everywhere about unfairness.
Then there is the really scary stuff. Several of the "journalists" criticised me for rejecting homeopathy and being closed-minded about it. Remember that these people write supposedly factual, researched stories for reputable media outlets.
One of the problems with offering a "balanced" view on every issue is that it often takes much longer to explain the truth than it does to present the opposite. It also lends credibility to nonsense to debate it and can give the impression that the scientist or skeptic is not really sure of the facts. As Richard Dawkins put it when discussing his refusal to debate creationists: "Such a debate will look good on their CV and bad on mine".
The problem can get worse with spoken debates because there is often no way to predict what is coming. I saw an example of this recently when the head of the immunology department at a major teaching hospital took part in a radio debate with a leading anti-vaccination campaigner. The professor expected a rational debate and not the ambush of lies with which he was confronted.
I am coming around to the view that it is pointless to engage some people in public spoken debate because there is never time to counter the lies. If you speak first they just get up and lie about something not related to what you said. If they speak first there is never enough time to explain why what they said is not true. Think about it – try to explain to a lay audience in less than one minute why any of the following statements are untrue:
The problem is manners – we are taught from an early age not to be aggressive in conversation so we lose whenever aggression is called for and we don't use it. The problem is confounded if we call a lie a lie because then the charge of ad hominem attack is raised. The fact that this is not ad hominem can't be quickly explained and any attempt at explanation just takes time away from the real debate.
This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the June 2009 edition of Australasian Science
A version of this article was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog on March 3, 2010
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