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Should blogging scientists engage pseudo-/anti-science cranks?

October 8, 2008

I’ve been having an internal argument inside my head regarding whether or not practicing scientists should directly engage with psuedo- and/or anti-science cranks and zealots.

I waffle on this because attempting to have a real (and ultimately constructive) discussion with these people typically ends in frustration. I forgot where I read it … on some other blog somewhere … but the attribute that best describes these people is arrogant ignorance. The important part is the adjective … obviously there is nothing wrong with being ignorant (i.e., a lack of knowledge/awareness about a subject).

It seems to me that this condition inevitably leads to a discussion/debate that solves little to nothing thus rendering the entire exercise futile. On the other hand … if we, science bloggers and blogging scientists, don’t call the cranks out on their nonsense, who will?

The rise of the internet and ability to self-publish widely has certainly led to an increased number of shouting cranks. That’s fine … the advantages of a networked global population still vastly outweigh the negatives.

Which brings me to my question. Since blogs have provided pseudo-/anti-science cranks a “platform” should we also use blogs to battle them? Real science is conducted within the realm of peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences — thankfully the cranks have little opportunity to spout their malarkey in that venue (unless they create their own “journal”). Since we (scientists) can publish and participate in science elsewhere, does a blog become an appropriate medium to battle cranks?

I still struggle with this issue … I’d be interested to hear thoughts from you.

Finally – and what prompted me to write this post – a superb example of effective crank-battling is this post by Suvrat on the geoscience blog Reporting on a Revolution. He very nicely chronicles his ongoing interaction with someone claiming they can predict earthquakes with astrology. Good stuff.


20 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2008 7:09 pm


    thanks for your thoughts and the link to my blog.

    You raise a good point that these battles may lead to frustration and a never ending bait and counter bait situation. It is near impossible to change fundamentalist minds.

    But I look at it a little differently. It is not the crank I am trying to argue with but I am providing a scientific alternative to people who the crank is trying to seduce. There is a much better chance of convincing the genuinely uninformed layperson who might otherwise get swayed by pseudo-science nonsense.

    I feel much better when I think about it this way, since I can then just explain the science as best as I can and think of this as a regular science outreach effort.


  2. October 8, 2008 7:41 pm

    Does making fun of them help?

  3. Brantosaur permalink
    October 8, 2008 9:04 pm

    I proffer sarcasm…

  4. October 8, 2008 10:52 pm

    I agree with Suvrat – direct engagement is more often than not a waste of time, but putting the correct information out there for the casual browser/Googler is not.

  5. Monica permalink
    October 9, 2008 4:45 am

    Hi! in your experience…do u know any example of sediment waves on levees founded or described in outcrop?

  6. October 9, 2008 4:49 am

    I think that Suvrat describes a very thoughtful approach. It may not generate as many comments, but it actually might result in the right people hearing the information – the right people being those who will actually listen. Trying to convince anyone of one particular viewpoint, even of facts and data, unless that person has an open mind, can degenerate very rapidly into nonesense, and very often doesn’t work.

    But you have a nicely spirited approach to setting things straight, when dissenters or questioners arise to comment on your blog posts. I’m not sure that the long discussions that sometimes ensue convince the actual commenters, but discussion does result in providing more information to people who are interested in knowing the whole story.

  7. October 9, 2008 5:44 am

    I reckon I’ll echo the general sentiment here; you can’t really hope to get through to a true believer. As an example, a post I did a while back on the whole Expanding Earth nonsense has been getting pretty steady commenting since then, with most of those people coming in to say “you’re full of crap, the Earth IS expanding, blah blah blah”.

    There’s no hope for the nutjobs, but the simple act of exposing their ridiculous grasp on reality and logic is worth the effort.

  8. October 9, 2008 6:53 am

    Thanks for all your thoughts … I would also agree that the information that the casual reader or ‘lurker’ gets from an exchange like that can be valuable and is a good thing to keep in mind. Along those lines, popular blogger Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy does not engage w/ cranks directly, but does use his blog to combat their claims. Also … it is a lot of work. For the cranks it’s quite easy – they find some obscure non peer-reviewed article and prop it up as the end-all-be-all “proof” that the moon is made of cream cheese. But, for genuine and sincere scientists, we have to try and strike a balance of referring to a lot and the most appropriate references, which takes thought and effort.

    Monica: I’ve moved your question to this post — it’s the most recent post relevant to your question. Scroll down to the last comment in that thread to continue.

  9. Brantosaur permalink
    October 10, 2008 12:30 pm

    Sometimes others have say it better…

    1) “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” Voltaire

    2) “The scientific method is nothing more than a system of rules to keep us from lying to each other.” Ken Norris

    3) “Science is not belief, but the will to find out.” Anonymous

    4) “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.” Voltaire

    An idea or position which cannot be questioned is not worth believing in.



  10. October 10, 2008 2:07 pm

    I agree with everyone else – writing for the casual lurker/Googler is more important, and less futile, than actually trying to convince a crank of anything.

    Even if you’re writing for an audience with good bullshit detectors, where you’re not worried that they’ll actually be convinced by the crank, I think crankblogging can still be a useful thing to do sometimes. One of the things I find most difficult about popular science writing is the storytelling/narrative side of things, especially for a background/basic science post. Cranks are a cheap source of conflict that can help drive the scientific “plot” and keep people’s attention.

  11. October 10, 2008 4:22 pm

    Who gets to decide who is the “crank” and who is not?

  12. October 11, 2008 4:28 am

    I believe think the Yami McMoots and I have that privilege! ;)

  13. October 11, 2008 7:27 am

    Here is a great, and humurous, post about what a crank is. Enjoy.

  14. October 14, 2008 3:09 pm

    Dear Brian, I write an italian scientific blog “scienzeedintorni”, somehow as sciencesandsourroundings. Just today I have written a post against an italian public TV, in wich they present the so-called mysteries
    For example, tomorrow show summary has crop circles, Ica stones “that will rewrite human hystory” and the extraterrestrial visits.
    The worst thing, for me, is that most of the material comes from your country (for example man traces of jurassic age with dinosauran traces). I think that the situation in the same as USA: there are many belivers, which are driven by people that make money with them, as Rosemary Althea, that I’ll grade to be delivered to a state prison.
    But the scientific point of view is not made to go against these people, because a scientist doesn’t matter this.
    I agree with you about the arrogant ignorance. I have asked this question to a creationist: you must explain why you are right and geologists, geophisicists, biologists, palaeontologists, chemicals, astrophisicists and go on agree on a world view and only a few teologists say that they are wrong… He answered tht there is a lack of skeletons for the evolution to be not a teoy only…

  15. October 14, 2008 6:04 pm

    Aldo … thanks for the comment, glad to hear there are bloggers in Italy are active in helping the general public learn about fringe-, psuedo-, non-, and anti-science.

  16. October 14, 2008 8:06 pm

    Blogging as a Christian geologist, I have to face young-Earth creationism head on at times. But the approach of sarcasm or ridicule would get me nowhere, unless my objective were polarization. I share the perspective of Suvrat: I will engage the bad science, but with the lurker or non-science reader in mind. I treat my “opponents” with respect, whether it be the atheist who visits my blog who thinks “Christian geologist” is an oxymoron, or the young-Earth creationist who is trying to tell me that there are human footprints in the Cretaceous Glen Rose Formation of Texas.

  17. October 15, 2008 5:04 am

    Dear Kevin, your blog’s name has -perhaps – something that brings a title reader to wrongly understand the blog meaning…
    But I understand your position. Yet religious creationism is arriving now in Italy, but unfortunately it has some big sponsors in Catholic movements….
    I have written in my blog that atheist and cristians must be united to fight against superstitions such as extraterrials, astrology, magicians, future-predictors and so on
    I have (in italian) a very important document: a letter in wich Wojtila writes to the great astrophisician and priest George Koyne, former directo of the Vatican Specula, talking about the teology and the evolution wich, for the great Pope, is not a teory, but the real way of the life.
    It’s sad to see the current position of some important people in the roman church…..

  18. October 16, 2008 9:14 am

    arguing with people like that takes alot of energy, energy that could be used to do actual fun things.

    instead of writing a 5 page refutation of something that is already unreadably stupid, work on your next accretionary wedge post. or come up with some other new post that is interesting for itself.

    I’d rather see some cool pics of Italian geology, rather than some italian dude refuting the same boring creationist douchebaggery.

  19. October 20, 2008 11:04 am

    The Half-Crankery (this is a spinoff of the technical invention site calle “The Halfbakery”.


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