Legitimizing Woo

Benjamin Radford

I was sent a link to your article about the Sandy Hook conspiracies (https://tinyurl.com/y747c2gf), and my question is: Why even give these people the time of day? I unfortunately watched the [pro-conspiracy] YouTube video before realizing what I had done: contributed to helping the creator make money off of YouTube. Why help drive traffic to these people’s business ventures?

—Jason R.

You bring up a good question, one that I and other skeptics and media literacy educators struggle with. The answer is that it’s a no-win situation: If you ignore the claims (of UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts, conspiracies, etc.) then believers say to themselves and others: “See? There must be something to it…. No one is refuting the claims or answering these questions. The skeptics can’t answer our arguments!” People will often assume that if they are not hearing a solid, categorical rebuttal that it’s not because scientists and skeptics think it’s too silly to bother with but instead that they can’t or won’t address the claims.

But the reason that psychic powers, Bigfoot, ghosts, and other phenomena are not accepted by the scientific community is simply because there is little or no good evidence for them—not because scientists haven’t looked at the evidence. Better research follows better evidence, and as one prominent scientist and Bigfoot researcher, British primatologist John Napier, noted, “There are no shortage of problems to tackle, and it is not surprising that scientists prefer to investigate the probable rather than beat their heads against the wall of the faintly possible.” Because scientists (with rare, notable exceptions such as Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye) generally don’t spend their time addressing seemingly supernatural or paranormal claims, that job often falls to skeptics. In fact, it’s one of the most important roles of organized skepticism.

Science-fiction author and skeptic L. Sprague de Camp once wrote that Erich von Daniken’s books are “solid masses of misstatements, errors, and wild guesses presented as facts, unsupported by anything remotely resembling scientific data.” Though desiring to refute von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods arguments, de Camp realized that a thorough analysis would “take years of my time; and, if I were mad enough to write it, who would read it?” This conundrum is emblematic of the skeptic’s dilemma.

This tension also emerges in the discussion about whether scientists should debate pseudoscientists, for example when Bill Nye debated creationist Ken Ham on February 4, 2014 (Ham briefly referenced me during the debate, much to my amusement). By putting a scientist and a nonscientist on the same stage together, there is a real danger of legitimizing creationism and giving the appearance that “both sides” are equally valid. Anyone is free to hold whatever beliefs or opinions they like, no matter how unscientific or false. But there is no obligation by the news media to portray both sides as having equally strong or valid scientific arguments, when by any measure they do not.

The concern about indirectly promoting the very information skeptics are trying to combat has long been recognized; one method devised to address the problem was DoNotLink, an online tool used among skeptics. Tim Farley wrote about this on his Skeptical Software Tools blog (see https://tinyurl.com/ydynubhw). However, DoNotLink’s effectiveness was disputed and by 2016 the service was defunct; other online tools are emerging.

Ideally, the best way to treat these people would be to ignore them, but in practice that’s counterproductive. In the case of the Sandy Hook conspiracy, my research allowed people to link to an informed critical analysis. Mine wasn’t the only of its type, of course—there were other rebuttals available online on smaller blogs and videos—but mine was among the highest profile. I did my best to address the topic while minimizing any promotion of the claims.

This problem is compounded when journalists misleadingly cite the number of views, hits, or shares on social media as evidence of given content’s support. But just because a conspiracy or crank pseudoscience video has five million views, for example, does not necessarily imply that five million people watched the video or agreed with anything in it. It just means that according to online metrics—whose accuracy has been called into question by advertisers and others—a button was (or may have been) clicked five million times. People routinely “like” and share memes and information on social media that they haven’t read, or at least not past the headline. Since so little online content is actually read, mere page views cannot be considered genuine endorsement.

The larger question of how to critique content without supporting it is difficult. Any commentary, no matter how harsh or skeptical, may inadvertently help promote it, for the same reason that a scathing review of a film may encourage some people to see the movie, either because they would not have heard about the film otherwise or just to see if the critique is accurate. But the goal of a review or skeptical analysis—whether of a film or a conspiracy theory—is not necessarily to prevent people from seeing the film or viewing information about the conspiracy, but instead to give context and analysis to help people evaluate it. In my career in investigative skepticism, I rarely if ever tell people what to believe. Instead, I offer the results of my analysis (supported by arguments and evidence) to explain the mystery or situation and leave it to the reader to decide.

In my articles, I provide references (and links when appropriate) to original sources so that readers can more easily evaluate for themselves what information I used and whether I fairly characterized the content. Readers, of course, are under no obligation to buy (or borrow) the books I reference or watch the videos I link to. This also highlights an inherent imbalance in skepticism: in order to fairly and accurately analyze believers’ arguments on a given topic, skeptics must necessarily read and engage with their materials. Believers, on the other hand, only rarely even consult skeptical commentary much less take the effort to substantively refute it.

For skeptics who research unseemly topics and must consult books and videos in order to evaluate the material they’re critiquing, I have three suggestions: see if your local library can get them; contact friends and local skeptics groups to see if anyone has and will loan you the materials; and peruse used book and secondhand stores (and Amazon.com) to find used materials whose sale will not directly result in royalties for the author. The same problem bedevils social media, of course, in which people “like” and share all sorts of dubious information, inadvertently promoting it. The best thing to do is simply be more diligent about what you share on social media, and when in doubt about the veracity of the information, just ignore it. As always, the best advice is to be skeptical.

Benjamin Radford

Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).

I was sent a link to your article about the Sandy Hook conspiracies (https://tinyurl.com/y747c2gf), and my question is: Why even give these people the time of day? I unfortunately watched the [pro-conspiracy] YouTube video before realizing what I had done: contributed to helping the creator make money off of YouTube. Why help drive traffic to …

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