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Refusing to debate denialists

Orac, over at Respectful Insolence, has a post titled “Debating Denialists” that talks a bit about how pointless it is to debate denialists, whether they be Holocaust deniers, anti-vaxxers, creationists, or 9/11 Truthers. Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust historian, uses the phrase “trying to nail a blob of Jello to the wall” when referring to debating them.

Orac explains…

[…] for a debate to be an intellectually useful exercise, there have to be two reasonable points of view being argued, points of view that have evidence to support them. The evidence doesn’t have to be of equal quantity and quality on each side, of course, but it should at least be somewhere in the same ball park–or on the same planet.

He goes on to say that denialists crave the respect that real science receives and desperately want to be taken seriously by people in relevant fields of study. Being put on the same stage or the same screen as genuine, respected scientists and scholars gives them exactly what they want, so it’s best to just avoid the debate in the first place. Richard Dawkins has taken the same position for the same reasons, refusing to debate creationists.

In his article, he quotes Lipstadt’s listing of a number of tactics that I see all the time from denialists and it’s disheartening to see them, especially when otherwise intelligent people fall into the denialist sewer and veritably flaunt their ignorance and misinformation as though they are spreading enlightenment to the huddled masses. “We need to educate people,” they claim, while deliberately spreading misinformation. “People need to hear the truth,” they say, while making certifiably false claims. “People are just falling prey to the mainstream media,” they cry, while basing their own claims on religious and political ideologies rather than facts.

Regarding the denailist tactics, Orac says [emphasis mine]…

[…] there is a commonality among cranks in the types of fallacious arguments and twisting of data that they engage in. Being a “denialist” is not a matter of what is being argued, but how it is being argued. It’s about bad reasoning, bad science, cherry picking data, and misrepresenting sources to support a preexisting agenda.

Which is why in a debate they are so damned hard to pin down. Like Jello.

Indeed.

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