Tuesday 2 December 2008

Debating Woo-Woo

Many rationalist take the stance that its not worth publicly arguing with believers as it gives nonsensical arguments an air of credibility by acknowledging that the matter is worthy of debate. I believe Richard Dawkins for one, cites this as one of his main reason for not concerning him self with such debates with creationists. I believe the other main reason is the likelihood of being unscrupulously edited and cut to misrepresent his argument. At first glance this seems irritating and frustrating to refuse to debate even though you hold all of the key facts and evidence required to fully slam dunk an argument and allow the public to reach a rational conclusion. But instead have to sit back and face the jibing taunts of the believers who claim that you are afraid to debate them.

The media claim that they like to represent the spectrum of viewpoints and political opinions. Therefore, in the UK we would expect to see equal amounts of time made available to representatives from each of the 3 major political parties. This in principle shows an unbiased viewpoint. The manifesto and proposals of each party will have certain supporters and who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s therefore up to the media to provide equal unbiased reporting of each viewpoint to allow the public to form an opinion on their stance. This is fine when we are presented with potentially valid alternatives. However, when the media extend this philosophy to other matters such as supernatural phenomenon, alternative medicine, pseudo science and creationism/ID, the unbiased intention breaks down as the alternative viewpoints expressed are often of massively varying validity. If a widely accepted peer reviewed theory backed up with substantial and valid evidence is challenged by a believer who merely prefers a supernatural explanation for the phenomenon, then we cannot assume the same level of validity for his argument. However by presenting the argument in the media with one person representing the agreed scientific consensus and one person representing an unsubstantiated fantasy, the media automatically give the false impression that there is a 50/50 split in the validity of both positions by fairly granting equal time to both advocates. Even if the representative of the agreed scientific consensus successfully presents an incontrovertible argument significant members of the public will none the less be swayed by the preposterous alternatives because a respectable news channel or newspaper has given them the opportunity to air they’re views, or perhaps because of the celebrity status of its representative or shared beliefs or religious convictions in common with the representative.

In the UK the media do not extend the courtesy of allowing equal political debate time to the Monster Raving Looney party. Despite the fact that this is a “valid” political party, there are no cries of unfairness when the BBC does not allow the same amount of coverage for representatives of this party to present their manifestos and views. I suspect that this is because no one takes the Monster Raving Looney party seriously, and would therefore not expect it to be given an equal weighting. Indeed if it were given an equal weighting I imagine that there would be complaints of time wasting rather than focusing on valid debates. This suggests that the answer to the conundrum of ensuring the media do not cow-tow to the believers wishing to air their delusions and engage in pointless debates between established principles, is to ensure the opposing viewpoint is widely understood as nonsense. While the established viewpoint should be promoted and spread with rational education (and of course revised an updated in the light of credible evidence to the contrary), what is the validity in simply publicly ridiculing and deriding irrational beliefs to the extent that the public would view any such debate as a joke. Is there a sliding scale of things we can ridicule? The majority of us seem happy to deride flat earthers and UFO abductees, but what about young earth creationists, psychics, astrologers, dowsers, new age nutters, regression therapists, homeopaths and alternative medicine advocates, can the enlightened show no sympathy with such ideas and publicly treat these topics which such contempt and ridicule that the notion of an equal footing debate is something the media could not take seriously.

Having just re-read the above thoughts, I feel somewhat uncomfortable with my conclusions. As a person who likes to encourage the scientific principle to advance the truth, why am I advocating childish name calling rather than serious debate?

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