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Posts Tagged ‘evaluating arguments’

Debunking the Debunking Handbook

Posted by softestpawn on January 16, 2012

SkepticalScience has published the Debunking Handbook that is intended to summarise how you show an argument is wrong. Unfortunately… it is itself wrong in some fairly fundamental ways.

The summary at the beginning says:

“Debunking myths is problematic. Unless great care is taken, any effort to debunk misinformation can inadvertently reinforce the very myths one seeks to correct. To avoid these “backfire effects”, an effective debunking requires three major elements. First, the refutation must focus on core facts rather than the myth to avoid the misinformation becoming more familiar. Second, any mention of a myth should be preceded by explicit warnings to notify the reader that the upcoming information is false. Finally, the refutation should include an alternative explanation that accounts for important qualities in the original misinformation”

For a start this is phrased to suggest that you already know what is fact and what is ‘myth’. ie, this is not a way of evaluating an argument for its worth or otherwise, but a way of selling a specific argument.

It’s not a debunk manual, it’s a ‘spin’ manual.

First: the refutation must focus on core facts rather than the myth

Any non-trivial problem has myriads of facts that can be interpreted in different ways to suggest different conclusions – this is what makes understanding people, the world and the universe so interesting. This guide says you should push the facts that support your views and avoid analysing those that contradict them. This is far from ‘debunking’ an argument; to focus on specific facts and avoid others is spin.

The example given is the claim that (some) climate skeptics claim that the sun has driven recent climate warming. The debunking is supposedly that the sun’s measured total radiation output does not match warming in the last very few decades, and therefore the skeptic claim is wrong. By itself, this is Fine and Good, but ignores the myriad effects that various solar outputs – different particles and radiation wavelengths – have on the atmosphere and so temperatures. The conclusion may well be right, but the text ignores or oversimplifies the facts that support an alternate view and picks those that support the agenda of the so-called ‘debunker’. This is not a debunk, it’s a sell.

Second: any mention of a myth should be preceded by explicit warnings

This is an obvious statement of intent: a claim that the argument is wrong without saying why.

It’s not even a refutation, let alone a debunk.

Finally: the refutation should include an alternative explanation

This is clearly wrong as it has nothing to do with showing how the initial argument is wrong, and can result in missing the point.

If you claim that aliens move clouds around, I can counter with a similarly clueless argument that the clouds are sentient and move themselves. The discussion can then move to how silly it is that clouds are sentient, and so lose the focus from evaluating the original claim about aliens.

At worst, having shown that it is silly to think that clouds are sentient, a (poor) conclusion is that therefore aliens do indeed move clouds around, as the only alternative considered.

The Worldview Backfire Effect

It is ironic that such a publication should talk about how people are biased by their “worldviews and sense of cultural identity” without considering how they might affect the authors.

In particular I enjoyed the phrase “Self-affirmation and framing aren’t about manipulating people” because, clearly, they are (see also, for example, the very interesting article by Kahneman and Tversky Judgements Under Uncertainty). That’s what is interesting about them.

Removing framing to get at the underlying objective data and arguments is extremely difficult, and will continue to be so while publications like the “Debunking Handbook” encourage others to muddy the waters.


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