Is debating with anti-science activists worth the effort?

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I often wonder if the effort put into challenging and debunking misinformation and distortion of science on the internet is worth the effort. After all, it often means debating with dyed-in-the-wool people who have an ideological conviction who are immune to facts. And it is rare for me to actually win over a discussion partner – although, on the positive side – I often feel that I have learned something myself from the exercise.

So this Facebook article from The Credible Hulk pressed a few buttons for me. The bold highlights are mine and serve to identify key questions or concepts.


When undertaking the challenge of refuting various forms of scientifically unsupportable claims, a question that often arises is “are we legitimizing and/or drawing additional attention to people and ideas that might otherwise have had lesser reach and impact?” The idea is that we aren’t going to change the minds of dyed in the wool cranks, and by trying to, we give them free publicity.

This is an important and valid question. I think that there are certain cases in which illuminating and addressing certain quackpot claims can bring such claims and their proponents undeserved recognition and attention from people who otherwise might have never even heard of them. It is possible that it may in some instances be complicit in permitting the development of an unwarranted public perception of legitimacy with respect to the claims.

However, it’s a subtle business we’re in with a lot of catch-22s, because sometimes the opposite can occur.

For instance, by not addressing certain contrarian claims, that can be construed by (how shall I say) “alternative theorists” as a conspiracy of silence on the part of the greater scientific community.

In some such cases, the popularity of a set of unsupported claims can rise to dangerous levels due to being ignored (rather than due to being disputed), in which case we then have no choice but to struggle to put out a fire that was downplayed for too long on the grounds that it might not spread if we downplay it.

Also, much of the fight against pseudoscience involves targeting the reasonable bystanders, many if whom may be amenable to evidence and reasoned discourse, but had simply not previously been exposed to the best information on a subject. Maybe they’d seen headlines and claims that compelled them to think a controversy was afoot when only a manufacturversy existed. They see these interactions and can often tell which side is making the more logical and evidence-based arguments. This furthers people’s science education and increases the number of people who are sufficiently aware to watch out for crackpot claims.

This is desirable, because keeping silent doesn’t improve the average scientific literacy of the population, and thus relegates the knowledge to elite academics alone, in which case people who lack the scientific educational foundation to evaluate the veracity of their claims are forced to choose to either believe or disbelieve their claims on the basis of their personal subjective perception of the ethics and competence of the scientists (instead of following the logic of the science itself and understanding why a particular conclusion is reasonable on the basis of the best available evidence at a given time).

I’m not sure that there exists a perfect solution, but I don’t think that ignoring the anti-science voices is the best option (though we do collectively need to be selective and tactful with which ones we spend time and energy refuting).

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16 responses to “Is debating with anti-science activists worth the effort?

  1. Still ignoring the fact that no one has the right to inflict a toxic industrial waste on another, or any other substance for that matter, especially without their informed consent, no matter how much you may believe it is safe, or even ‘beneficial’ to them: and in the case of fluoride, the only claimed benefit to a minority of the population anyway . . . crazy man . . . :{

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  2. Greenbuzzer, your url link is to an Organic NZ blog site.

    Are you representing the magazine a Organic NZ?

    >

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  3. Ken, obviously, I fully agree that the best option is to provide accurate information, rather than to ignore patently false and misleading nonsense. The length of my comments make for laborious reading for any who take the time to do so, but that length is clear example of the statement in the image above….”the amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

    It takes antifluoridationists about 2 minutes to copy/paste a short paragraph of unsubstantiated claims which take a page to provide facts and evidence which refute them. Connett is fully aware of this differential. Thus his constant pleading with people to debate him.

    Steven D. Slott, DDS

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  4. Sometimes people are still trying to make capital out of old ideas,
    More corporates are shifting away from furthering the idea that global warming is a scam. But are few laggards are still trying to chime in on the old gang’s bandwaggon.

    Sometimes new grounds can be found for exploiting superseded technologies. Because of so many Roundup-resistant weeds, Monsanto have now introduced dicamba-resistance, and increased dicamba will be on our dinner plates. I am waiting to find if it will still have the antibiotic resistance markers which they said were old tech. And in the mean time they are still trying to push RR stuff in Australia, presumably till the weed resistance arrives there.

    Many people say such GMO technology is great science. But at the drop by drop rate it advances with one drop evaporating before the next arrives it cannot fulfil its promises of feeding the world. (Actually also farmers in the USA are paid not to produce so much.)

    Monsanto are spending twice as much on conventional breeding as GMOs. Drought resistance &c depend on large complex packages of genes that nature can arrange faster than genetic engineers. But GMOs are great for the companies that produce them since they are easy to trace for patent purposes. It only takes one gene to do that.

    I had fierce arguments on NZ Skeptics about GMOs. Of course I get called “anti-science,” by people who proclaim it is the all and everything, unlike Monsanto itself, who say it is only one tool.

    The global warming and GMO subjects are both bound up with money and shills. But some new stuff may challenge people’s reputations or their current knowledge. Note the approach of a few of this group to Gerald Pollack’s work which I have referred to on this group.

    The new ideas such as that the solar system is sun-centred rather than earth-centred often meet with strong opposition. The tried and tested ways got changed.

    Battles go on and that needs to be distinguished from being psuedo-science.

    Pollack refers to the “like likes like” phenomenon. An explanation originates from Feynmann and Ike. Other scientists “DLVO” try to provide an explanation but it does not fit the facts.

    Like charges in proximity do not attract but like-charged bodies in water have exclusion zones around them which can have opposite charges in the space between, so that the bodies are being attracted to them, hence toward one another. A colloid such as blood will show, I believe, how suspended particles move toward one another over time to the extent that there distribution is no longer even.

    There may be some use in being careful of a source of info if it has led you or other people astray in the past. But I feel people such as whose grants are coming from GMO sources set out to use the “care” principle to form a bandwaggon of attack, possibly wrongly, on what threatens the GMO business and their grants, rather than on scientific purity.

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  5. Thanks Ken – Sometimes you actually impart some words of wisdom that I can take on board, e.g. Much of the fight against pro-fluoridationists involves targeting the reasonable bystanders, many of whom are amenable to evidence and reasoned discourse, but had simply not previously been exposed to the best information (truth) on a subject. Maybe they’d seen headlines and claims that compelled them to think a controversy was afoot when only a biased agenda existed. They see these interactions and can often tell which side is making the more logical and evidence-based arguments.
    I now realise why your lot squealed like stuck pigs when the HCC tribunal process resulted in fluoridation being stopped. It was only through manipulation of the democratic process by you and your fellow zealots that fluoridation was restarted and of course access to the deep pockets of the taxpayer helped considerably. Truth does have a habit of winning in the end, Witness the tobacco, lead in petrol, Agent orange, asbestos and thalidomide controversies. The were all scientifically ‘proven’ as beneficial to humans and remorselessly promoted as such by the same sort of ‘spin doctors’ who peddled fluoridation.
    The safety and effectiveness of putting an industrial by-product in our drinking water to treat dental decay is increasingly being questioned and the pro-fluoridationists answers look less and less credible. In 2014 over 130 jurisdictions, the Nation of Israel and 5 councils in the ROI rejected fluoridation.

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  6. Let me take advantage of Trevor’s little rant to correct this misinformation. This is for the benefit of others – Trevor is a dyed in the wool anti-science type so won’t change his mind whatever I say.

    18 Months ago the Hamilton City Council was effectively “captured” by a relatively unannounced “tribunal” dominated by anti-fluoride individuals and organisations. This was organised internationally and nationally and councillors, having no understanding of the subject, were fooled into voting to stop fluoridation. I have referred to some of this manipulation in my article When politicians and bureaucrats decide the science. I understand researchers at Waikato University are analysing the tribunal and submissions and am sure this will show a high degree of manipulation of the process by the alternative and “natural” health business interests.

    This despite polls showing overwhelming support of citizens for fluoridation and a previous referendum showing 70% support.

    Protests from some councillors and citizens lead to a new referendum during the local body elections later that year – – again showing overwhelming support for fluoridation.

    Truth does tend to win out in the end and anti-science massages do tend to be rejected by the person in the street, After all, it is their health that concerns them and it is in their best interests to listen to scientific experts, not the commercial interests behind the anti-fluoride movement.

    Thank you Trevor for providing me with the opportunity to communicate this message to readers here who are €are amenable to evidence and reasoned discourse. From experience I know you aren’t interested in a logical deiscussion of the issue so would not have wasted my time on you alone.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Trevor, as usual, one has to diligently hunt to find an accurate statement anywhere in your diatribe. I’m on my third time through but so far have as yet to only find one……..”truth does have a habit of winning in the end”.

    Steven D. Slott, DDS

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  8. Witness the tobacco, lead in petrol, Agent orange, asbestos and thalidomide controversies. The were all scientifically ‘proven’ as beneficial to humans and remorselessly promoted as such by the same sort of ‘spin doctors’ who peddled fluoridation.

    Trevor, you have been challenged on several occasions to substantiate this myth. Each time you have run away.

    Provide reference to a single scientific community or organisation that has (historically) claimed there to be proof that tobacco, lead in petrol, agent orange, asbestos posed no health danger to humans.

    Note that make life easier for you I have removed the term “beneficial to humans”, as even now, Thalidomide is currently considered beneficial in several areas of medical treatment. The term is also subjective and benefit is not mutually exclusive of harm.

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  9. Working as an electronics technician I sometimes had hypotheses and sometimes explored to find out how to get something working. Sometimes I had a circuit diagram to check, maybe even with voltages written on. Sometimes I had a same type working version to compare to. If it were something new being run up I might search for bits in back to front. And maybe all the parts in, and the correct ones. No bent pins on relays. Once I had a nasty surprise when I had not noticed a big electrolytic capacitor reversed and it blew up after a few minutes. Or joints not soldered properly. Charred components, blown fuses. That’s pretty quick then start with test meter on diodes, check voltages present. Compare chip voltages to whats in books. Measure frequencies present. All sorts of things. Not many words in my brain.

    Annoying faults were intermittent.

    Can’t have too many ones that you can’t do else it may not be good for the pay packet.

    My brain still ticks over that way when I come up against a problem.

    When we got things going then some of them we would put in a heat cycling cabinet to make sure a cold or hot day is not going to be a problem when the product is with the customer.

    With fluoridation we seem to be at a stage where the product is improved a bit maybe but some of the customers are dissatisfied.

    Some teeth have the slight burn marks. Others are not protected.

    Going to the books: Westendorf has reported: “According to
    Knappwost, the reduction in decay relies for the most part not on the presence of fluoride in the
    saliva, but rather on an influence on the saliva quality and quantity. According to McClure(7),
    the F-content of saliva, independent of the intake level, should never exceed 0.1 mg/l.
    More recent experiments by K.Yao and P. Groen (8), which were carried out with the
    help of an F-specific electrode, confirm these results. The F-content of the saliva secreted by the
    parotid gland, which for test subjects drinking water with < 0.1ppm of F was 0.007ppm, rose to
    0.009ppm upon transition to concentrations of 1ppm of F in the water."

    Since the water may be many times stronger in fluoride than the saliva it makes me wonder if the fluoride is working by stimulating saliva, maybe through another allergy. Just one of the sort of thought a tech gets when his pay depends on it.

    Though the decimal points there seem a bit wrong. Sometimes techs have to deal with wrong circuits, too.

    Fluoride can inhibit enzyme reactions. But I read not enough to stop the bad mouth bacteria. But what is it doing to the proteolytic micro-organisms which convert the salivary fluoride compounds into tooth material?

    The technician has to get many notions every piece of equipment and hopefully gets quickly to the solution and doesn't replace good parts.

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  10. A very relevant article from the Hulk, in that I’m presently working out whether I have time to devote to going along and asking pointed questions at Stephen Meyer’s upcoming talk (the event page, in case anyone is curious: http://goo.gl/60uyKG ).

    I don’t think it’s at all fair to a sympathetic audience to simply leave them to hear Meyer’s message on ID unopposed, but presenting a compelling counter-argument on the spot means preparation and study, particularly if I’m going to boil down responses to something which will fit into question time.

    The old difficulty of it requiring orders of magnitude more effort to demonstrate the flaws in an argument than to make the argument in the first place, I suppose. Nor am I exactly a gifted public speaker.

    It may be that perusing a previous talk and putting up a rebuttal to that on the event page is the way to go. That way, it’d be available to anybody who wanted to raise questions.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Skilled politicians are the people who know to balance these considerations. Community water fluoridation advocates need their assistance.

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  12. To whom can we attribute the quote in the image of the presentation screen above? I’m going to use that for certain.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. David Fierstien

    Ken, in reading your article, it looks like you know the answer to the question you posed. Mark Twain once said, “A lie can make it half way around the world before the truth has a chance to put its shoes on.” That was 150 years ago. Today it might be said, “A lie can make it half way to the edge of the solar system . . . ” This illustrates, more than ever, the importance of countering misinformation.

    For this question raised in your article, “are we legitimizing and/or drawing additional attention to people and ideas that might otherwise have had lesser reach and impact?” I can only think of one clear cut example of when this happened. Vincent Bugliosi wrote the best-selling book “Helter Skelter” which was made into a movie. But I would argue that had he not written that book, had Charles Manson been ignored, he would have no more notoriety than Dillinger or any other criminal. Instead we see he is still a major icon in today’s popular culture. This example has nothing to do with countering misinformation.

    Now, take Greenbuzzer for example. If the only thing known about HFA was that it was a “toxic industrial waste,” if that was the only information out there, that’s what the public would believe. I know, you can’t reason with Greenbuzzer, because he believes in the logic of what he is saying. You can’t tell him that Chlorine, also used in drinking water, is considered a weapon of mass destruction which was used in WWI, that a ruptured canister of it could kill everyone in a city block, and yet Paul Connett endorses its use. For some reason, that kind of logic just won’t work on him.

    T.A. Crosbie up there is a different animal. He just lies. And he must know he’s lying. Richard Christie beat me to the punch on this one, “Witness the tobacco, lead in petrol, Agent orange, asbestos and thalidomide controversies. The were all scientifically ‘proven’ as beneficial to humans and remorselessly promoted as such by the same sort of ‘spin doctors’ who peddled fluoridation.” Of course that’s a lie. Leaded gasoline was never claimed to be beneficial. No one ever said Agent Orange was beneficial to human health. He know he’s lying. But this guy also believes the lies of those whom he follows. Here he is presenting the “endorsement” argument which the antis inconsistently oppose: “In 2014 over 130 jurisdictions, the Nation of Israel and 5 councils in the ROI rejected fluoridation.” Now these numbers come from FAN, but if you go on the FAN webpage you will see your own Hamilton, NZ listed as a city that no longer fluoridates its water, which of course is a lie. This guy lies, and he believes the lies of FAN. They symbiotically support each other as they depart from the truth.

    So you’ve got lunatics like greenbuzzer that can’t be reasoned with, and you’ve got liars who may be sane but won’t listen to what you’ve got to say. Then you’ve got the genuinely curious who are looking for answers, and if they are only presented with one side, with misinformation, they will be misinformed and they will make misinformed decisions.

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  14. “it makes me wonder if the fluoride is working by stimulating saliva, maybe through another allergy. ”

    ???

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  15. My suggestions: Know your subject well and anticipate opponent’s points so that they can be dismissed quickly. Try to use most of your allotted time to give your message, such as the benefits of fluoridation or vaccines.

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  16. You and me both, Alison.

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