Creationists and cranks: Ignore, Engage, or Insult?

Via Pharyngula, I see that Scientific American has posted a number of reviews of the creationist propaganda film Expelled, and as one would suspect, none of them are good. One statement by John Rennie on the matter caught my eye, though, and seemed worth mentioning in a post:

Rather, it seems a safe bet that the producers hope a whipping from us would be useful for publicity: further proof that any mention of ID outrages the close-minded establishment. (Picture Ben Stein as Jack Nicholson, shouting, “You can’t handle the truth!”) Knowing this, we could simply ignore the movie—which might also suit their purposes, come to think of it.

Emphasis mine. I found these observations particularly wise, and pertinent to an issue that constantly plagues the comments of various science blogs: when dealing with creationists and cranks, should scientists ignore them, engage them, or simply insult them? Which strategy avoids playing into the hands of the propagandists?

The quote above suggests that there is no straightforward strategy, and that the best answer one can typically give is: “It depends.”

This should be obvious, but somehow escapes plenty of commenters (possibly “concern trolls“) on sites such as Pharyngula, whose constant refrain is: “Ignore them; you’re just giving them attention.”

The reality is, no matter what the response (or lack thereof) of the scientific community is, propagandists will attempt to use it to their advantage. There’s no foolproof strategy to effective refute their nonsense any more than there’s a foolproof strategy for winning at chess. (Nim, however, is another story.) The best we can do is look at their tactics and find the best, truthful, method for countering it.

That being said, there’s probably a few rough guidelines for dealing with cranks:

  1. Ignore: If the crank doesn’t have any audience to speak of, and you do, bashing him will probably bring him to the attention of a few like-‘minded’ people; here it’s probably best to ignore.
  2. Engage: There are people out there without an agenda whose crankery is the result of a genuine misunderstanding of a scientific principle. I would say that trying to engage such people politely and explain to them the errors in their arguments is the best strategy; you might actually bring someone “into the light”, so to speak.  (Keep in mind that most people probably view scientists as being kin to the main character in this video clip.)
  3. Insult: Then there are those nutjobs who are either pushing an agenda (“Darwin = Hitler”) or full of deluded arrogance (“Einstein was wrong! I’m the smartest man alive!”). These are the sorts who have really earned all the ridicule one can muster. Some would probably argue that insults demean the discourse, but I believe that treating such crackpots politely gives them false credibility: if someone is spouting hackneyed nonsense, engaging them politely makes it look as if he – and by extension his ideas – deserve the respect given. Most people, I suspect, are swayed more by emotional arguments than by actual facts. A major goal of science is to educate people to the point that this isn’t the case, but in the meantime we at least have to make it clear to a hypothetical unbiased observer that we believe the crackpot’s ideas are utterly without merit. One important caveat: insults and ridicule should always include a justification for their use. “Crackpot X is an idiot” is not a productive statement; “Crackpot X is completely ignorant of this list of facts, and misunderstands the ones he is aware of, and is therefore an idiot” is a productive statement.

In all these cases, the devil is, of course, in the details. I don’t pretend to know the best way to enlighten people about reality and dissuade them from believing in nonsense, but I use the guidelines above in dealings on my blog, in my class, and in my personal life. (Fortunately, in my class I usually only have case #2.)

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2 Responses to Creationists and cranks: Ignore, Engage, or Insult?

  1. I appreciated your blog entry on dealing with cranks. It dovetails well with a favorite book of mine, “Authority: Construction and Corrosion” by Bruce Lincoln . The contextual factors of authority in which speakers exist and speech occurs–including crackpottery, is something speakers can and do make use of in putting forward their arguments. A side-note: It is interesting that “idiot” has an early root meaning that more accurately describes the outsider status of a person with regards to a group far more than one’s level of intelligence. Thanks again.

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