To debate or not to debate, that is the question.
Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous quackery
Or to take arms against a sea of quackademia,
And, by opposing end them.
Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1, paraphrased badly.
The question of whether it is worthwhile to debate cranks, quacks, and advocates of pseudoscience has long been a contentious issue in the skeptic community. Those of you who’ve been reading my posts for a while know that I’ve always come down on the side that it is not a good idea One thing I’ve learned in my more than a decade of blogging, both here and at my not-so-super-secret other blog, is that advocates of pseudoscience love public debates. Indeed, whenever you see a skeptic agree to a public debate with an advocate of pseudoscience, it’s a damned sure bet that it wasn’t the skeptic who proposed it. I suppose it’s possible that there have been such instances that I’m unaware of, but I do know of a lot of instances where it was the other way around. I’ve even witnessed one myself, when our fearless founder Steve Novella debated antivaccine quack Julian Whitaker about vaccine safety at FreedomFest in Las Vegas while we were at TAM three years ago. Steve mopped the floor with Dr. Whitaker so dramatically that it almost changed my mind about the value of debates with quacks because, witnessing the debate, I saw that the arguments Dr. Whitaker marshaled were such hackneyed antivaccine talking points that I knew I could also have demolished them. Still, in the end, no minds were likely to be changed, and the question of vaccine safety was clearly being used as a tool to oppose school vaccine mandates or, as antivaccinationists like to call them deceptively, “forced vaccination.” Whether vaccines are safe and effective or not is a separate question from whether the government should mandate certain vaccines as a precondition for attending school or being in day care.
Over the years, I myself have been “challenged” to similar debates myself. Perhaps the most bizarre example occurred when someone claiming to represent HIV/AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore contacted me claiming that she wanted to arrange a debate between us. Maggiore, unfortunately, died a mere two years later of—you guessed it—AIDS-related complications. Although occasionally the ego gratification of being asked to participate in such events vied with my longstanding belief that debating cranks doesn’t sway anyone, sharing the stage with a real scientist does unduly elevate the crank in the eyes of the public. Besides, whatever the seeming outcome of the debate, you can count on the crank to declare victory and his believers to agree. In any event, science isn’t decided by the metrics used to judge who “wins” a public debate, which rely more on rhetoric and cleverness rather than science to decide the outcome. Finally, such debates are not without risks. Although Julian Whitaker, for example, was terrible at it, other cranks are adept at the Gish Gallop, and an unprepared skeptic or scientist can be made to appear clueless in front of a crowd that is almost always packed with supporters of the crank, not the skeptic.
Just last week, there was another “debate” challenge that led me to question my resolve not to debate cranks. It came from a most unexpected source.