6/21/02 7:18:46 PM Pacific Daylight Time
HOW TO DEBUNK JUST ABOUT ANYTHING
* Before commencing to debunk, prepare your equipment. Equipment
needed: one armchair.
* Put on the right face. Cultivate a condescending air that
suggests that your personal opinions are backed by the full faith
and credit of God. Employ vague, subjective, dismissive terms such
as "ridiculous" or "trivial" in a manner that suggests they have
the full force of scientific authority.
* Portray science not as an open-ended process of discovery but as
a holy war against unruly hordes of quackery-worshipping infidels.
Since in war the ends justify the means, you may fudge, stretch or
violate the scientific method, or even omit it entirely, in the
name of defending the scientific method.
* Keep your arguments as abstract and theoretical as possible. This
will "send the message" that accepted theory overrides any actual
evidence that might challenge it--and that therefore no such
evidence is worth examining.
* Reinforce the popular misconception that certain subjects are
inherently unscientific. In other words, deliberately confuse the
process of science with the content of science. (Someone may, of
course, object that since science is a universal approach to
truth-seeking it must be neutral to subject matter; hence, only the
investigative process can be scientifically responsible or
irresponsible. If that happens, dismiss such objections using a
method employed successfully by generations of politicians: simply
reassure everyone that "there is no contradiction here!")
* Arrange to have your message echoed by persons of authority. The
degree to which you can stretch the truth is directly proportional
to the prestige of your mouthpiece.
* Always refer to unorthodox statements as "claims", which are
"touted", and to your own assertions as "facts", which are
* Avoid examining the actual evidence. This allows you to say with
impunity, "I have seen absolutely no evidence to support such
ridiculous claims!" (Note that this technique has withstood the
test of time, and dates back at least to the age of Galileo. By
simply refusing to look through his telescope, the ecclesiastical
authorities bought the Church over three centuries' worth of denial
free and clear!)
* If examining the evidence becomes unavoidable, report back that
"there is nothing new here!" If confronted by a watertight body of
evidence that has survived the most rigorous tests, simply dismiss
it as being "too pat".
* Equate the necessary skeptical component of science with all of
science. Emphasize the narrow, stringent, rigorous and critical
elements of science to the exclusion of intuition, inspiration,
exploration and integration. If anyone objects, accuse them of
viewing science in exclusively fuzzy, subjective or metaphysical
* Insist that the progress of science depends on explaining the
unknown in terms of the known. In other words, science equals
reductionism. You can apply the reductionist approach in any
situation by discarding more and more and more evidence until what
little is left can finally be explained entirely in terms of
* Downplay the fact that free inquiry and legitimate disagreement
are a normal part of science.
* Make yourself available to media producers who seek "balanced
reporting" of unorthodox views. However, agree to participate in
only those presentations whose time constraints and a priori bias
preclude such luxuries as discussion, debate and cross-examination.
* At every opportunity reinforce the notion that what is familiar
is necessarily rational. The unfamiliar is therefore irrational,
and consequently inadmissible as evidence.
* State categorically that the unconventional may be dismissed as,
at best, an honest misinterpretation of the conventional.
* Characterize your opponents as "uncritical believers". Summarily
dismiss the notion that debunkery itself betrays uncritical belief,
albeit in the status quo.
* Maintain that in investigations of unconventional phenomena, a
single flaw invalidates the whole. In conventional contexts,
however, you may sagely remind the world that, "after all,
situations are complex and human beings are imperfect".
* "Occam's Razor", or the "principle of parsimony", says the
correct explanation of a mystery will usually involve the simplest
fundamental principles. Insist, therefore, that the standard
explanation is the correct one, since it involves no additional
assumptions! Imply strongly that Occam's Razor is not merely a
philosophical rule of thumb but an immutable law.
* Discourage any study of history that may reveal today's dogma as
yesterday's heresy. Likewise, avoid discussing the many historical,
philosophical and spiritual parallels between science and
* Since the public tends to be unclear about the distinction
between evidence and proof, do your best to help maintain this
murkiness. If absolute proof is lacking, state categorically that
"there is no evidence!"
* If sufficient evidence has been presented to warrant further
investigation of an unusual phenomenon, argue that "evidence alone
proves nothing!" Ignore the fact that preliminary evidence is not
supposed to prove anything.
* In any case, imply that proof precedes evidence. This will
eliminate the possibility of initiating any meaningful process of
investigation--particularly if no criteria of proof have yet been
established for the phenomenon in question.
* Insist that criteria of proof cannot possibly be established for
phenomena that do not exist.
* Although science is not supposed to tolerate vague or double
standards, always insist that unconventional phenomena must be
judged by a separate, yet ill-defined, set of scientific rules. Do
this by declaring that "extraordinary claims demand extraordinary
evidence"-- but take care never to define where the "ordinary" ends
and the "extraordinary" begins. This will allow you to manufacture
an infinitely receding evidential horizon; i.e., to define
"extraordinary" evidence as that which lies just out of reach at
any point in time.
* In the same manner, insist on classes of evidence that are
impossible to obtain. For example, declare that unidentified aerial
phenomena may be considered real only if we can bring them into
laboratories to strike them with hammers and analyze their physical
properties. Disregard the accomplishments of the inferential
sciences--astronomy, for example, which gets on just fine without
bringing actual planets, stars, galaxies and black holes into its
labs and striking them with hammers.
* Practice debunkery-by-association. Lump together all phenomena
popularly deemed paranormal and suggest that their proponents and
researchers speak with a single voice. In this way you can
indiscriminately drag material across disciplinary lines or from
one case to another to support your views as needed. For example,
if a claim having some superficial similarity to the one at hand
has been (or is popularly assumed to have been) exposed as
fraudulent, cite it as if it were an appropriate example. Then put
on a gloating smile, lean back in your armchair and just say "I
rest my case".
* Use the word "imagination" as an epithet that applies only to
seeing what's not there, and not to denying what is there.
* If a significant number of people agree that they have observed
something that violates the consensus reality, simply ascribe it to
"mass hallucination". Avoid addressing the possibility that the
consensus reality might itself constitute a mass hallucination.
* Ridicule, ridicule, ridicule. It is far and away the single most
chillingly effective weapon in the war against discovery and
innovation. Ridicule has the unique power to make people of
virtually any persuasion go completely unconscious in a twinkling.
It fails to sway only those few who are of sufficiently independent
mind not to buy into the kind of emotional consensus that ridicule
* By appropriate innuendo and example, imply that ridicule
constitutes an essential feature of the scientific method that can
raise the level of objectivity and dispassionateness with which any
investigation is conducted.
* If pressed about your novel interpretations of the scientific
method, declare that "intellectual integrity is a subtle issue".
* Imply that investigators of the unorthodox are zealots. Suggest
that in order to investigate the existence of something one must
first believe in it absolutely. Then demand that all such "true
believers" know all the answers to their most puzzling questions in
complete detail ahead of time. Convince people of your own
sincerity by reassuring them that you yourself would "love to
believe in these fantastic phenomena". Carefully sidestep the fact
that science is not about believing or disbelieving, but about
* Use "smoke and mirrors", i.e., obfuscation and illusion. Never
forget that a slippery mixture of fact, opinion, innuendo,
out-of-context information and outright lies will fool most of the
people most of the time. As little as one part fact to ten parts
b***t will usually do the trick. (Some veteran debunkers use
homeopathic dilutions of fact with remarkable success!) Cultivate
the art of slipping back and forth between fact and fiction so
undetectably that the flimsiest foundation of truth will always
appear to firmly support your entire edifice of opinion.
* Employ "TCP": Technically Correct Pseudo-refutation. Example: if
someone remarks that all great truths began as blasphemies, respond
immediately that not all blasphemies have become great truths.
Because your response was technically correct, no one will notice
that it did not really refute the original remark.
* Trivialize the case by trivializing the entire field in question.
Characterize the study of orthodox phenomena as deep and
time-consuming, while deeming that of unorthodox phenomena so
insubstantial as to demand nothing more than a scan of the
tabloids. If pressed on this, simply say "but there's nothing there
to study!" Characterize any serious investigator of the unorthodox
as a "buff" or "freak", or as "self-styled"-- the media's favorite
code-word for "bogus".
* Remember that most people do not have sufficient time or
expertise for careful discrimination, and tend to accept or reject
the whole of an unfamiliar situation. So discredit the whole story
by attempting to discredit part of the story. Here's how: a) take
one element of a case completely out of context; b) find something
prosaic that hypothetically could explain it; c) declare therefore
that that one element has been explained; d) call a press
conference and announce to the world that the entire case has been
* Engage the services of a professional stage magician who can
mimic the phenomenon in question; for example, ESP, psychokinesis
or levitation. This will convince the public that the original
claimants or witnesses to such phenomena must themselves have been
(or been fooled by) talented stage magicians who hoaxed the
original phenomenon in precisely the same way.
* Find a prosaic phenomenon that, to the uninitiated, resembles the
claimed phenomenon. Then suggest that the existence of the
commonplace look-alike somehow forbids the existence of the genuine
article. For example, imply that since people often see "faces" in
rocks and clouds, the enigmatic Face on Mars must be a similar
illusion and therefore cannot possibly be artificial.
* When an unexplained phenomenon demonstrates evidence of
intelligence (as in the case of the mysterious crop circles) focus
exclusively on the mechanism that might have been wielded by the
intelligence rather than the intelligence that might have wielded
the mechanism. The more attention you devote to the mechanism, the
more easily you can distract people from considering the
possibility of non-ordinary intelligence.
* Accuse investigators of unusual phenomena of believing in
"invisible forces and extrasensory realities". If they should point
out that the physical sciences have always dealt with invisible
forces and extrasensory realities (gravity? electromagnetism? . . .
) respond with a condescending chuckle that this is "a naive
interpretation of the facts".
* Insist that western science is completely objective, and is based
on no untestable assumptions, covert beliefs or ideological
interests. If an unfamiliar or inexplicable phenomenon happens to
be considered true and/or useful by a nonwestern or other
traditional society, you may dismiss it out of hand as "ignorant
misconception", "medieval superstition" or "fairy lore".
* Label any poorly-understood phenomenon "occult", "fringe",
"paranormal","metaphysical", "mystical", "supernatural", or
"new-age". This will get most mainstream scientists off the case
immediately on purely emotional grounds. If you're lucky, this may
delay any responsible investigation of such phenomena by decades or
* Ask questions that appear to contain generally-assumed knowledge
that supports your views; for example, "why do no police officers,
military pilots, air traffic controllers or psychiatrists report
UFOs?" (If someone points out that they do, insist that those who
do must be mentally unstable.)
* Ask unanswerable questions based on arbitrary criteria of proof.
For example, "if this claim were true, why haven't we seen it on
TV?" or "in this or that scientific journal?" Never forget the
mother of all such questions: "If UFOs are extraterrestrial, why
haven't they landed on the White House lawn?"
* Similarly, reinforce the popular fiction that our scientific
knowledge is complete and finished. Do this by asserting that "if
such-and-such were true, we would would already know about it!"
* Remember that you can easily appear to refute anyone's claims by
building "straw men" to demolish. One way to do this is to misquote
them while preserving that convincing grain of truth; for example,
by acting as if they have intended the extreme of any position
they've taken. Another effective strategy with a long history of
success is simply to mis-replicate their experiments--or to avoid
replicating them at all on grounds that "to do so would be
ridiculous or fruitless". To make the whole process even easier,
respond not to their actual claims but to their claims as reported
by the media, or as propagated in popular myth.
* Insist that such-and-such unorthodox claim is not scientifically
testable because no self-respecting grantmaking organization would
fund such ridiculous tests.
* Be selective. For example, if an unorthodox healing practice has
failed to reverse a case of terminal illness you may deem it
worthless--while taking care to avoid mentioning any of the
shortcomings of conventional medicine.
* Hold claimants responsible for the production values and
editorial policies of any media or press that reports their claim.
If an unusual or inexplicable event is reported in a
sensationalized manner, hold this as proof that the event itself
must have been without substance or worth.
* When a witness or claimant states something in a manner that is
scientifically imperfect, treat this as if it were not scientific
at all. If the claimant is not a credentialed scientist, argue that
his or her perceptions cannot possibly be objective.
* If you're unable to attack the facts of the case, attack the
participants--or the journalists who reported the case. Ad hominem
arguments, or personality attacks, are among the most powerful ways
of swaying the public and avoiding the issue. For example, if
investigators of the unorthodox have profited financially from
activities connected with their research, accuse them of "profiting
financially from activities connected with their research!" If
their research, publishing, speaking tours and so forth, constitute
their normal line of work or sole means of support, hold that fact
as "conclusive proof that income is being realized from such
activities!" If they have labored to achieve public recognition for
their work, you may safely characterize them as "publicity
* Fabricate supportive expertise as needed by quoting the opinions
of those in fields popularly assumed to include the necessary
knowledge. Astronomers, for example, may be trotted out as experts
on the UFO question, although course credits in ufology have never
been a prerequisite for a degree in astronomy.
* Fabricate confessions. If a phenomenon stubbornly refuses to go
away, set up a couple of colorful old geezers to claim they hoaxed
it. The press and the public will always tend to view confessions
as sincerely motivated, and will promptly abandon their critical
faculties. After all, nobody wants to appear to lack compassion for
* Fabricate sources of disinformation. Claim that you've "found the
person who started the rumor that such a phenomenon exists!"
* Fabricate entire research projects. Declare that "these claims
have been thoroughly discredited by the top experts in the field!"
Do this whether or not such experts have ever actually studied the
claims, or, for that matter, even exist.
* In the event of a worst-case scenario--in which a formerly
anomalous phenomenon is suddenly embraced by the scientific
mainstream--just remember that the public has a short memory.
Simply hail this as a "victory for the scientific method" and say
dismissively, "Well, everyone knows this is a monumentally
significant issue. As a matter of fact, my colleagues and I have
been remarking on it for years!"