NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Debating Pseudoscience

April 30, 2002

Some scientists feel the odds are stacked against them when they are put in a position of debating someone who, say, contends there really are U.F.O.s or alien beings walking among us. But their unhappy experiences have enabled them to formulate and present some advice for other rationalists who must try to debunk pseudoscience.

  • Keep in mind, they advise, that pseudoscience preys upon some uniquely American attitudes which in other settings are praiseworthy -- such as, that the world is a place of limitless possibilities open to those with know-how and a spirit of enterprise.
  • Combine that with a public that perceives the limits of science as targets that are constantly being overcome, and the suggestion that anything is absolutely impossible seems like an affront.
  • But we do know that there are certain physical laws, such as the law of gravity, which put real constraints on the viability of certain wild imaginings.
  • Yet such rational explanations can sometimes be a hard sell in a country in which -- as a National Science Foundation poll recently found -- half of Americans didn't know the earth orbits the sun, or that it takes a year to do so.

Science is not fair, because all ideas cannot be treated equally -- nor is it democratic, in the sense that truth cannot be arrived at by vote. Simply having a debate in the first place grants a certain amount of credibility or legitimacy to those advocating the scientifically untenable position.

Thus those scientists view as opponents of the scientific method, such as so-called intelligent design creationists, try very hard to appear in debates with scientists.

Source: Lawrence M. Krauss (Case Western Reserve University), "Odds Are Stacked When Science Tries to Debate Pseudoscience," New York Times, April 30, 2002.


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