Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Science, the Desire to Debunk, and the Credulous Style

R. Lee recently wrote about "The Desire to Debunk" where she criticizes what she sees as a compulsive need by some to debunk/skeptically inquire (!) accounts of the paranormal, strange animals, etc. She asks why people are compelled to debunk/attack the accounts of others.

I can't entirely agree with that point of view. If you do think that scientific inquiry is an important or the most important way of understanding reality, then these anomalies should be quite interesting. They should be examined, and if necessary, explained in ways different from the explanations offered by those that report the anomalies in the first place.

But where I agree with her is that too often, that isn't what debunkers/skeptics do. In many cases, a minimal amount of time is spent by the would-be debunker to basically say "Well, that's just obviously garbage and nonsense." Or to come up with a daft explanation that is as scientifically supportable as the original paranormal explanation (the Michigan swamp gas UFO explanation by Hynek comes to mind). Typically, such treatments are filled with scorn and hyperbolic "I wish I ran Something Awful" style humor (example: the Iron Skeptic, who is better known for his condescending and juvenile style than his increasingly thorough, though still at times lacking, research).

At that point, which is a common occurrence, I agree with R. Lee that such behavior borders on the pathological. Not all debunking falls into this category. Some is well thought out and takes on tough questions. A skeptical analysis can convincingly get to the core of a particular problem with precision and elegance. But where does the more scornful and less thoughtful approach come from, and why is it quite common?

It's an exercise in making the debunker feel better about themselves, in my humble opinion.

I would link it to what Christopher Hayes calls "The Credulous Style. In his essay "9/11: The Roots of Paranoia," he takes much of the 9/11Truth community to task for a failure found in other parts of the Spooky Paradigm: unfalsifiability. That some claims (in particular some of the engineering claims) about the destruction of the WTC do not hold up to testing, and yet they continue to exist and thrive. He concludes that the claims of that movement, or at least the more visible MIHOP claims, are without merit and wrongheaded.

But Hayes goes on to point out that a substantial amount of the reason for the existence of this movement falls on the authority-friendly attitude towards inquiry. Playing off of Hofstadter's famous "Paranoid Style," Hayes argues that the complete failure of the media and other institutions to question narratives from the government and other authorities has made the paranoid style a rational choice. As he puts it

So it's hard to blame people for thinking we're not getting the whole story. For six years, the government has prevaricated and the press has largely failed to point out this simple truth. Critics like The New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann might lament the resurgence of the "paranoid style," but the seeds of paranoia have taken root partly because of the complete lack of appropriate skepticism by the establishment press, a complementary impulse to the paranoid style that might be called the credulous style. In the credulous style all political actors are acting with good intentions and in good faith. Mistakes are made, but never because of ulterior motives or undue influence from the various locii of corporate power. When people in power advocate strenuously for a position it is because they believe in it. When their advocacy leads to policies that create misery, it is due not to any evil intentions or greed or corruption, but rather simple human error.

Simply put, the mainstream press has acted as the stenographer of the US government, and more specifically of the Cheney clique and their followers, not questioning some of the most ridiculous or sham announcements about "dangerous" enemies. In turn, authorities regularly throw around denigrating or sarcastic use of "conspiracy theorist" to smear anyone who questions even basic aspects of power relations and government actions.

At first glance, one sees the word "credulous" in "Credulous Style" and makes the connection to those who report or study/collect anomalies with a paranomal explanation. But I think the real connection here is between the credulous style and the most vehement and poorly researched debunkings. Just as a total lack of accountability in checking on government pronouncements by the media has made paranoia a rational choice, rank dismissive skepticism defeats itself in the long run. It makes science look less like a reasoned examination of the facts and application of hypothesis and theory, and more like a pissing contest where one's venomous tone is of more value than one's analysis.

So why the self-defeating approach? In some cases, I think there may simply be substantial anger and frustration with what skeptics fear is a grave threat to scientific inquiry. Sagan's Demon-Haunted World. But I think in many cases, what is more important is putting the skeptic's opponent in place, and by a psychosocial Newton's second law, elevating the sarcastic debunker away from Crazy towards being Respectable.

Or as one of the comments for the Iron Skeptic says

"Sometimes we just have to do things because it makes others unhappy"

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