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How can we trust any of the claims enough to debate them?

Stephanie Zvan made a crucial point yesterday about inviting a certain kind of (contrarian or “controversial” or anti-consensus) speaker to give a talk. She started from something LeftSidePositive said in a previous comment.

(or indeed if the audience should be expected to have the tools to critique it thoroughly if it is not in their field)

QFT. If you have a speaker who is willing to misrepresent the conclusions of a paper, how does an audience who’ve never seen the paper properly question the speaker?

Charlotte and Amy amplified the point today on the Leeds SITP Facebook page. In response to a suggestion that

The only way SITP can come out on top is if the members take him to task; it’s recorded and publicised in order to counteracts any publicity claims he makes himself.  It needs to be clear that this is an exercise in critical analysis and the application of skepticism and not a sounding-off platform.

Charlotte objected

But when he’s so badly misinterpreted his references, how can we trust any of the claims he makes enough to debate them? We’d have to do extensive homework for this and read most of the things he references in his book, and I don’t honestly have the time to do more on this.

You know what that’s exactly like? David Irving. That’s what Irving did, except that he didn’t misinterpret, he outright falsified. A judge has ruled that, so I can say it without fear of being sued for libel. A judge ruled it because a historian did the hard work of checking Irving’s references – thousands of them – and finding systematic falsification. That happened only because Irving was stupid enough to sue Deborah Lipstadt for libel for saying he did the very thing he ended up being shown to have done. That happened only because Penguin defended the case and could afford to pay the historian Richard Evans and two grad students to do the time-consuming work.

All skeptics should read chapter 2 of Evans’s book on the trial and his investigation, Lying About Hitler. It’s all about this crucial epistemic issue of the difficulty of demonstrating misinterpretation and/or falsification.


  1. LeftSidePositive says

    Thanks for the shout-out! But to be fair, I should acknowledge my comment was very heavily informed in the first place by Stephanie and Bug_Girl who raised those issues about the “rape adaptations” talk with CFI Michigan…so no wonder Stephanie thinks it’s worthy of QingFT, since she highlighted the issue for me in the first place!

  2. julian says

    Not much to add but,

    Putting this kind of debate (on the existence of Stereotype threat) in the hands of laypeople is a mistake. We do not have the knowledge base necessary to make anykind of honestly formed opinion on the matter. It’s outside our expertise.

    If the goal is to inform, invite an expert on the subject (or better yet a few) and have them discuss/explain the topic.

  3. says

    This is a good example of the problem of expertise–how do non-experts identify who has genuine expertise and is making accurate claims, in the absence of having that expertise themselves? It’s a widespread problem, perhaps most frequently seen in jury trials that involve expert testimony. In my opinion, this problem is a defeater for individual epistemology in favor of social epistemology–that is, you *can’t* solve these problems with a theory of justification or knowledge which works at the individual level like Cartesian foundationalism, you need a theory that recognizes that our systems of knowledge are social, that our reasons for belief involve dependence upon others, and where there is a cognitive division of labor and an institutional framework that facilitates trust. (Bruce Schneier’s recent book, _Liars and Outliers_, is a big-picture sketch of how law, moral norms, security mechanisms, and reputation combine to produce such a framework.)

    One of the purposes of the skeptical movement has been to (a) take the time to examine fringe claims (like Evans’ analysis of Irving) in order to accurately analyze and assess them, and identify defects, and (b) responsibly communicate those assessments to the general public, lawmakers, the media, and so forth. Just giving a forum to fringe claimants without doing (a) or (b) is likely to be counterproductive.

    An issue is that I think the skeptical movement largely holds to an individual epistemology, that we can all figure things out on our own and get to the right conclusions with the right small set of critical thinking tools and “science” (without looking at the details of science as a large set of methods and practices, a large body of knowledge, and a complex set of social institutions). The term “science” gets used as an evaluative label for “what I agree with” or “what confirms my beliefs” rather than unpacked.

  4. says

    LSP – well exactly. We learn these things from each other, and the first learning can be hard to pin down. So thank you Stephanie! And thank you LSP for re-circulating it.

    Seriously: we underestimate the value of repetition. I for one need to be told things a hundred times before I remember them. (There’s another gift to the trolls. Enjoy, trolls! I say things like that about myself all the time. Knock yourselves out.) I have no illusions about having original thoughts (another troll-gift! I’m nothing if not generous) but I think I do some useful repetition.

    (Excuse troll-bitterness but they’ve been thick underfoot lately.)

  5. says

    Jim, thanks very much, great comment.

    Susan Haack’s book from a few years ago, Defending Science – Within Reason is also about the interlocking web of knowledge that science (along with other fields) depends on. She uses the metaphor of a crossword puzzle.

    If you’re right about the skeptical movement that’s interesting and…surprising.

  6. says

    My friend Allen Esterson is another example of the hard work involved in finding mistakes (to put it cautiously) in other people’s claims. The work he did to follow up references in claims about Einstein’s first wife Mileva Maric! I think it took him at least a year. He does it pro bono. He’s heroic.

  7. says

    Indeed. The trouble with an on-the-spot debate is that one doesn’t have time to go away and check the veracity of one’s opponent’s fact-claims. Someone can “win” a debate by making claims which sound superficially plausible and convincing but are, in fact, wrong; the audience, unless they’re all experts in the field, are unlikely to be able to judge this.

    That’s why I’m leery of the idea of “debating” far-right racist and sexist wingnuts. Inviting them to speak tends to be a mistake. Better to dismantle their claims in writing, IMO.

  8. says

    Sure, follow the science, no matter where it leads. But epistemic vigilance is an expensive burden, and especially so with such an emotionally charged issue. I get a visceral disgust reaction from this misogynist crap, and as such could be at risk of missing a valid point hidden somewhere in the mire.

    Furthermore, even if inequality was proven by scientism, I’d advocate we transcend reality in this case, just because we can! Does this make me closed minded?

    Epistemic Vigilance – DAN SPERBER et al.

    Abstract: Humans massively depend on communication with others, but this leaves them open to the risk of being accidentally or intentionally misinformed. To ensure that, despite this risk, communication remains advantageous, humans have, we claim, a suite of cognitive mechanisms for epistemic vigilance. Here we outline this claim and consider some of the ways in which epistemic vigilance works in mental and social life by surveying issues, research and theories in different domains of philosophy, linguistics, cognitive psychology and the social sciences.


  9. Dan says

    I think the point about expertise, or rather the inability in this kind of setting to do the checking and reading and whatnot that is necessary to really get to grips with what someone is saying, is very important.

    Most debates that are not between real experts who are immersed in their literature are really contests of rhetorical ability. The idea that a lay audience is always going to be capable, using “science” or skeptical tools, of dealing with anything a speaker throws at them, is naive.

    People who debate creationists know this. The creationist just has to keep saying “well, what about X?”, and eventually they’ll come up with something you’ve never heard of before and you have to say, “well, I don’t know”, and you lose in the eyes of many.

    I was reading the transcript of an 1887 debate this week entitled “Is socialism sound?” It’s between Annie Besant and her erstwhile secularist colleague GW Foote (founder of The Freethinker). What’s interesting is the detail it gives about how the debate was arranged and conducted.

    It seems Foote and Besant, in arranging the debate, were careful to make sure that the terms of the debate were closely nailed down at the outset. To the extent that even the books/articles they were both going to be referring to were declared to each other in advance.

    In my experience, this just doesn’t happen now. Maybe it wasn’t even that common back then, I don’t know. Whenever Besant quoted statistics, Foote knew exactly the ones she was talking about. Whenever Foote cited an author, Besant had it to hand.

    It’s an attractive approach.

    And that’s just what makes for better debates. There’s not much you can do in advance to guard against disinformation from an invited speaker.

  10. says

    Walton #9:

    The trouble with an on-the-spot debate is that one doesn’t have time to go away and check the veracity of one’s opponent’s fact-claims. Someone can “win” a debate by making claims which sound superficially plausible and convincing but are, in fact, wrong; the audience, unless they’re all experts in the field, are unlikely to be able to judge this.

    When Occupy was getting started, I was very active on the Occupy Vancouver FB page and noticed something: quite a few heavily entrenched idiots (mostly righty/libertarian conspiracist types, though there were some lefty-wooists and a few concern/tone trolls too) would eventually abandon any point and try to ‘call me out’ (with varying standards of politeness) for a debate/discussion in person.

    I got fed up with it eventually and wrote this post on the uselessness of live debate.

  11. avh1 says

    Dan that sounds like a pretty good idea. The problem is that you’d need a degree of respect and trust between the two (or more)parties who were debating and I’m not sure that would be the case with a lot of far-rightists, homeopaths, anti-vaccers and the like.

    Isn’t this all symptomatic of a greater problem though – that a debate is usually not a very good way of getting to the truth of an issue? I don’t have any personal experience to draw on so I guess this would be an open question to those who do have this experience – have you ever seen a debate give an audience the truth?

  12. says

    Side note.

    It’s between Annie Besant and her erstwhile secularist colleague GW Foote (founder of The Freethinker).

    I just finished my first column for The Freethinker. Two degrees of separation from Annie Besant, or something. I think that’s cool. (Sorry.)

  13. says

    The idea that a lay audience is always going to be capable, using “science” or skeptical tools, of dealing with anything a speaker throws at them, is naive.

    Norman Levitt included a chapter in Prometheus Bedeviled about that fact with regard to juries.

  14. says

    @13 avh1

    … have you ever seen a debate give an audience the truth?

    There was a debate club that would randomly ring a bell, and you had to switch sides (even mid sentence). Debates are mostly about rhetorical skill.

  15. 'Tis Himself says

    Richard Evans’ Lying About Hitler is eminently readable. Evans started his work having a great deal of respect for Irving as a historian. When he was finished, Evans determined that Irving had lied on numerous occasions to further a right-wing, anti-Semitic agenda. Evans describes how and why he reached his conclusions.

  16. says

    Hmm – I think that’s overstating how much respect Evans had for Irving as a historian even before the trial. He respected his command of German and his industry, but his historiography not so much. Just for one thing there was the way Irving wrote Hitler’s War from Hitler’s point of view, and what that meant he left out. For another thing there was the silly way he was always announcing that he alone went into the archives while academic historians just read secondary works, which is ludicrous. All historians work with archives, but they just do it, they don’t shout about it the way Irving did.

  17. avh1 says

    Sorry that’s sort of what I was arguing – that who wins a debate is (usually) about who is the more skilled speaker. A lot of the big-name creationists (just to give one example) that I’ve heard or seen speak are very good rhetoriticians and realising that their actual content is ridiculous can be hard to do in the limited timeframe of a debate (incidentally that’s one of many reasons I’m grateful to FTBorg – I think these blogs have taught me more about science than I ever learned in High School).

  18. Lyanna says

    This is such an insightful thread. The comments from Dan, avh1, Walton and Jim Lippard have pointed out something I’ve struggled to articulate for a while, which is that “debate” and “argument” only goes so far.

    For me, an argumentative person, it’s been a slow realization that “debate” (without the opportunity to check citations, reflect on implications, and pin down logical fallacies) is just verbal ping-pong. What matters is a snappy answer, not correctness.

    Instead of debates, perhaps book-centered or expert-led discussions would be better for skeptics? Like, skeptics could meet up once a month to discuss a book they’ve all read. And any discussion would be centered around the book. Anyone who wanted to make an argument about the book’s thesis would be able and required to back it up by pointing to a page number. If they misinterpreted or misrepresented what the book said, others could point it out. If they feel that the book is ignoring contrary evidence, they can bring in another article or book that shows that evidence.

    This wouldn’t be perfect either, but I think it’d be better.

  19. says

    I do posts that match that description here pretty often, Lyanna – something based on a book with page numbers for each reference. They tend to lead to fruitful discussions, I think.

  20. Lyanna says

    That’s cool. I’ll have to keep an eye out for those.

    Another person who does that semi-frequently is Ta-Nehisi Coates. He’s not a skeptic. Or he may be, but his blog isn’t a “skeptical” blog in the sense of countering superstition or pseudoscience. It’s a blog about politics. But he’s posted excerpts from whatever political book he’s reading and the comments section discussion is generally pretty good.

  21. avh1 says

    Lyanna, I wish I could take some credit for that but it’s been recognised for a long time. We even have a name for it – sophistry. I’m very envious that you feel confident arguing and debating – it’s not something that has ever come naturally to me.

    The book idea is a pretty good one and I’ve actually gone out and gotten a few of the books Ophelia has dissected. It does make for good discussions – I love reading but I also like being able to discuss books with other people who have read them.

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