Should We Engage with Pseudoscience?

Please feel free to split this into a new topic (if it warrants further discussion) or delete this altogether (if this has already been discussed at length; please send me a link in that case).

How do you balance cost and benefit for public dialogue about pseudoscientific or fringe positions with people who advocate those positions?

On the one hand, public discourse seems to be a good way to communicate with people who hold those positions, to expose them to new ideas or a different way of thinking, and to those who don’t hold that position, to demonstrate peaceful and productive discourse.

On the other hand, it can elevate certain positions to a level of legitimacy that they don’t deserve, and may give the appearance that these are two competing ideas, on similar footing. This may be counter-productive. Also, this involves investment of time that could be spent doing other things.

How do you weigh costs and benefits?

I also assume a line will be drawn somewhere, flat earth, young earth creationism, electric universe, etc. How do you draw that line?

I ask all these things because I feel conflicted about how best to engage people who hold pseudoscientific or fringe views. This being unresolved in my mind, at present I tend to keep to only private discussions.

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It is a tough balance. Whether deserved or not, Creationists do consider creationism to be legitimate, and they will be part of the audience that you are communicating to. The only person who can convince a Creationist to abandon creationism is the Creationist themselves, and the only way to convince them is to remove barriers that might prevent them from seeing the bigger picture. If you immediately start out with condemning creationism they may stop listening from the very start.

The best angle I have found is to talk about what convinced you to adopt the position you currently hold. Explain the science and the lines of evidence that led you there. Hopefully, when someone compares the two models they will see the deficiencies in one of them. Also, try to illuminate the difference between claims and evidence.

Should Christians embrace embryology? Same question, different spelling of the words.

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In the context of this thread, Josh is being invited to discuss things for a creationist audience. So, it is Josh’s position that is being given an air of legitimacy that it otherwise does not have, at least for that audience.

As far as the time investment, I would argue that some in the audience probably have a more open mind, and some will have ambitions for study in fields impacted by evolutionary theory. As much as anything, direct exposure to and interactions with a scientist like Josh counteracts years of indoctrination about how evil evolutionists are. This will empower students to look outside their bubble. While not true for everyone, most students who start to explore outside their comfort zones come around to varying degrees. (Again, that is my experience.) So the time spent is well worth it.

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Good questions @paul.b.rimmer, especially because they reveal some practical questions you are working through.

Here is the starting point of my thoughts:

How We Engage Matters

Your question was if we should or not. The question, as I see it, is very different. We should engage, but only in effective ways. Engaging in ways that reinforce the problem should be avoided. Engaging in ways that open new ways forward should be done where-ever and whenever we can.

Take a Trust Building Approach, Rather Than Knowledge Deficit

There is an immense amount of work done on how to do effective public engagement on science. I encourage you to look some of it up.

We’ve been putting this into practice here. This is one reason that many scientists engage deeply at PS. Here are some examples that some have considered effective public engagement.

See here too: Behe and Swamidass: Texas A&M on Feb 20, 2020. @art had some comments here I’d hope he would share.

Don’t Call Them Pseudoscience

We should not call ID and YEC “pseudoscience”, even if you are convinced its true, for four reasons.

  1. Some of their claims are not pseudoscience. Calling a whole movement “pseudoscience” paints with too broad a brush because some of their claims are often legitimate. Some of their hypotheses are worth testing. It is better to use higher granularity in discussing their claims and actions.

  2. They will never accept the term "pseudoscience for themselves, but they will accept other terms. For example, most will agree that “the vast majority of scientists disagree with them” and that “they are outside the mainstream view” in science. That is a critical concession that they will agree to and we want them to say to their base.

  3. Using the term “pseudoscience” reinforces their persecution narrative (which is critical for their survival) and supporting their goals it destroys trust with their base. In the end, being right is just not enough. You also have to be trusted. That is why these groups make trust-oriented arguments all the time, and why they are so difficult for more fact-oriented groups to engage.

  4. There are better alternatives. In addition to “outside mainstream science,” in focused cases, where you can justify it, it is also valid to call it “bad science” or based on bad information, etc. @jammycakes’s work here is really good.

Relationships with Thought Leaders Matter

With McDowell, see how my relationship developed with him:

  1. McDowell and Swamidass: The Proper Relationship Between Science and Theology

  2. Sean McDowell Endorses the Genealogical Adam and Eve

  3. McDowell, Rana and Swamidass: Livestreamed on Sunday

And now he is deeply motivated to understand where I am coming from and and to put me in dialogue with ID.

@Nlents, also, has dug deep, attending several events with leaders in ID and OEC. His comments, I am sure, will be helpful too.

So Engage, Rightly

So, in summary, you should certainly engage. Just do it the right way. One reason PS exists is to serve as a community of practice where you can learn how to do just this.

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I’ll discuss such things with friends and acquaintances, as seems appropriate. But I won’t try to publicly embarrass them over their beliefs.

However, if people try to push pseudo-science into the classroom, then I will oppose that. And I won’t hold back from publicly embarrassing them, if that is what is needed to defend science.

In summary – I’m happy to keep it private, if that works. But if the pseudoscience advocates don’t keep it private, then I won’t constrain myself to private discussion.

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Thanks for the thoughtful and detailed reply. I finally got around to watching that conversation between you and Sean McDowell.

While thinking about what you say regarding the label ‘pseudoscience’, I happened to see a conversation between two people who had fundamental disagreements about a political hot topic. The conversation was friendly and constructive, until one of the people used a loaded term. Immediately, the other person started yelling and soon left the conversation, and it appears unlikely the two of them will talk with each other in the future.

I can see now that ‘pseudoscience’ is a loaded term, and in retrospect, it’s had the same effect in some of my own conversations.

I also think your public engagement, both with your book and your speaking engagements, is very responsible, which is one of the reasons I asked you the questions.

I agree with you that everyone who thinks these issues are important should engage. The question is how, just as you say. And there’s a corporate and personal dimension. I think you are well suited to public engagement. I’m not sure I am so well suited.

But I’m here, and I am thinking about this carefully. And I am learning.

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