One of the heroes of my youth was James Randi, also known as The Amazing Randi. In case you don’t know him, Randi is a magician and escapist that became famous later in his life as a professional skeptic and debunker. He came to prominence on TV when he helped to debunk the psychic claims of Uri Geller. He created a skeptical organisation called the James Randi Educational Foundation, which offered 1 million dollars to anyone who could prove a paranormal claim, and the prize went uncollected.
Randi was such a good debunker because he was a magician. At the time there were some scientists that were starting to research paranormal phenomena, and sometimes they would even come up with positive results. The problem that Randi saw with some studies was that scientists tend to be pretty bad at spotting deceit. By assuming that most paranormal believers were honest, scientists were not prepared to spot outright liars and deceivers. Randi, and many others like him, were assuming that many of these so-called psychics were fraudsters, and would set out to replicate their tricks and to prove how they were fooling the scientists and researchers.
The psychic industry continued unabated despite all the debunks, there are always unscrupulous people willing to prey on the unsuspecting public, but I always remained heartened by the perseverance and endurance of the skeptic community. There will always be mediums, psychics, UFOlogists, cryptozoologists, gurus, and ghost hunters, but at the same time there will always be skeptics willing to debunk these claims. For some years I lost touch with the debunking community, it is difficult to keep an interest in repeating cold reading claims, blurry ghost images, and bending spoons. But I always thought that it was nice that if I read a ridiculous claim, I could always try to find a debunker who had done the hard work and had produced an explanation for the latest UFO claim.
Skeptics are always asked the same question. Why do you care? A fake psychic is getting some money from gullible people, so what? There’s a ridiculous person who has made a career out of bending spoons in front of an audience not trained to see beyond the flamboyant persona, so what? The answer is that while some of these beliefs may be harmless, they tend to be the symptom of a wider malaise. The widespread adoption and unchallenged acceptance of crackpot ideas and blatant lies act as an indication of lack of education and critical thinking skills. This is not a problem if it only manifests itself in the purchase of horoscopes, ouija boards, and the odd book about alien abductions. But the people who are willing to believe in ghosts and spiritual links with tigers, may also believe in Moon landing conspiracies, and then 9/11 conspiracies. These usually hint at two types of problems, lack of respect for expertise and science, and mistrust in authority.
Then we start seeing more worrying beliefs, from dangerous conspiracy theories, climate change denial, and the modern anti-vaxx movement. And then it all culminates in political movements that purposefully encourage shoddy thinking and disinformation, the new populists do not like experts, truth is relative, and everything is to be seen through the lens of the culture wars.
Modern skepticism is mostly composed of amateurs, an army of Internet sleuths that tackle specific conspiracies. In forums across the Internet people discuss 9/11 conspiracies, the Amanda Knox case, Big Foot, homoeopathy, and psychic mediums. But the Internet has had the effect of making it easier for conspiracies, misinformation, and downright lies to take hold, so the growth in disinformation has not been matched by a growth in debunking. As misinformation has gone political and conspiracy theories have been gaining more prevalence, mainstream media was completely unprepared. News organisations started trying to give equal time to climate change denialists, a coverage disproportionate to the scientific consensus. By the time they stopped, it was too late. Conspiracy theorists and flat earthers are also constantly given air in the news, they make for good clicks. But the biggest problem that I have noticed is that mainstream organisations tend to pair real experts with conspiracy theorists, and this almost never works well.
You may be asking, “Wait a second, aren’t you saying that we should be trusting experts?” For the most part, yes, experts are good. But there’s something that experts and scientists are really bad at, and it is explaining the science, and also they tend to make horrible debaters. Some time ago I watched a TV debate between a Moon Landing conspiracy theorist and a cosmologist on TV. The cosmologist never stood a chance, as she was armed with facts and science, but the conspiracy theorist knew all of the “gotchas”. The very premise of the debate was flawed of course, here is a random crackpot, and here is a person who has several degrees and a PhD, they should never be in the same level, but the conspiracy theorist knows his stuff, and by the end the presenters were going “well, that thing with the flag is weird”. It’s not, but you need to know why!
This is not new, it’s been known in skeptic circles for many years, and it dates back to Young Earth Creationist debates against evolutionists. Creationists would often challenge biologists and geologists to debate evolution, and many unwary scientists took the bait. While scientists used to do relatively well, Creationists often came on top due to a series of rhetorical tricks that were tried and tested. When you don’t have the facts on your side, obfuscate, lie, misquote, and flood your opponent with one fake assertion after the other so they cannot debunk all (this is known as the Gish Gallop). The scientists who used to do better were people who were experienced in the debate and the tactics used, and would agree on a format ahead of time.
A similar thing has happened recently. Doctors tend to be experts in their field, but they tend to be unfamiliar with the intricate deceptions of the anti-vaxx movement. If you pair a random doctor with an anti-vaxxer, chances are they will not be able to respond to the myriad of silly and outright false claims, mostly because they often have a sliver of truth.
As I have mentioned in previous articles, one of my latest obsessions has been the Flat Earth conspiracy theories. How is it possible that we’re in the 21st Century and people still believe that the Earth is flat? A similar phenomenon has occurred there, a few times flat earthers have sat down to debate with scientists, and these tend to be unfamiliar with the crazy claims that these make, and therefore tend to have less impressive results than one would expect. After all, it’s really easy to prove that the Earth is round, right? Erathostenes did it around 250 BCE using only a well, sticks, and feet. But when you ask the average person, it is surprising just how little they have thought about it, I mean, really thought about it. This is what flat earthers latch on, and they start going on about bendy water, NASA hoaxes, and in-existent Antarctic treaties. These are easy to refute, but only if you know what you’re looking for.
Here is where debunkers come in. You don’t need to be a nuclear physicist to be able to prove that the earth is not flat, just know a few basic facts about the world, and know the arguments made by the proponents. Ask questions, where is your model, explain an eclipse, explain the sunset, explain the ISS flying above you. It’s actually easy if you know what you’re talking about. One of my favourite recent debunkings was made by Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby on ITV against flat earther Mark Sargent. He went in expecting to walk rings around hopeless journalists, these people tend to be slick, well presented, eloquent, and they know their stuff. But Schofield is actually a space geek, and he was prepared with questions that Sargent could simply not counter, and reverted to spouting more lies. The interview fizzles out, and the interviewers eventually do not know enough to answer the stupid assertions, and ask other questions (the Antarctic Treaty doesn’t say what he claims that he says). It’s also not true that scientists can’t answer his 5 questions.
My argument is that we’re getting to the point where we need to start having more real debunkers challenging these people. If you’re going to have Mike Sargent on, because it is compelling TV, then have a debunker, there’s tons of them on YouTube (this brutal takedown from Professor Dave is still my favourite).
Moreover, we need more debunkers attacking the latest and more dangerous conspiracies. Coronavirus is not caused by 5G. The idea that a virus was made in a lab by Bill Gates is preposterous, but we need people who can argue with the idiots proposing it.
People of the Internet, the world needs you. Become familiar with a conspiracy theory and learn the arguments against them. We need the army of debunkers back.
By the way, the photo proves that the earth is not flat because even though the sun has set below the horizon, it is still illuminating the higher clouds, but not the lower ones. Only a globe explains this.