Scientific Skepticism and One-liners

skeptical one-liners

The great power many of pseudoscientific myths is that they are often short, simple, memorable, emotionally influential and cognitively attractive. These are beneficial traits in the modern media world, where people can have short attention spans and frequently browse a lot of information. Scientific rebuttals, on the other hand, are usually hard, complex, cold, long-winded and can include a lot of technical information such as crowded graphs, large tables and statistics. It takes a lot of reading effort to get through the material and a lot of cognitive effort to really understand the science. In addition, the problem of different backfire effects looms over any attempt at correcting pseudoscience.

Right from the start, scientific skepticism (and science at large) face uphill terrain. How can the scientific skeptic throttle his or her way out of the situation?

Evidence-Based Debunking

One such possibility is the use of evidence-based debunking: emphasize core fact in the headline, provide a general explanation, state a warning that a myth is about to be mentioned, mention and explain the myth, provide a short and cognitively simple refutation that fills the gap.

Here are two examples I composed previously:

Evolution is a well-substantiated scientific explanation for the diversity of life

A massive amount of scientific evidence from areas such as paleontology, genetics, molecular biology, biogeography, biochemistry, embryology converge on the conclusion of evolution. It is a unified explanation for the biological diversity and explains the formation of new species.

A favorite myth promoted by creationists is that the term “theory” means speculation. However, words sometimes have different meanings and in science, a theory is defined as an explanation well-substantiated by the evidence.

Vaccines provide only a very small challenge to the immune system

Vaccines undergo stringent testing before being licensed and are therefore generally very safe. Due to new recombinant technologies, scientists do not need to use the whole organism anymore and so can only pick out the special parts that are important for use in a vaccine. Therefore, even the combination of all vaccines currently given only provide about 200 or so immunological challenges.

A common myth among anti-vaccine advocates is that vaccines overwhelm the immune system. But this is false because even a single bacteria has more immunological challenges (~2000) than all the vaccines given combined and humans are exposed to literally billions of microbes every day since birth.

However, compare the time it takes to write, say or read “evolution is just a theory” or “vaccines overwhelm the immune system” compared with the relatively short refutation above. It probably twenty times as long. While evidence-based debunking is a huge improvement, there is still work that needs to be made.

One-liners: effective tools or dangerous oversimplifications?

Many of the core claims of different sorts of pseudoscience often come in the form of one-liners, such as the two discussed above. Can scientific and skeptical rebuttals also be made into one-liners? That could potentially improve the effectiveness of promoting skepticism and good science. They could be easier to understand, more memorable, be easily spread on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter and so on.

Alternatively, they might make important scientific points oversimplified to the point of being technically inaccurate. Another way that skeptical one-liners might fail is that they some might be too uninformative; instead of containing arguments, they are just the exact negation of the corresponding pseudoscientific one-liner.

Clearly, a lot of effort has to be put into constructing meaningful and roughly accurate skeptical one-liners.

One-liners against climate change denial

The wonderful website Skeptical Science, which is a repository of refutations of the assertions made by climate change deniers (easily comparable in scope and depth to Talk.Origins) has recently constructed one-line refutations of around 150 climate denier myths. In addition, they have also constructed short paragraph-level refutations for each one-liner as well as linked both to the full page-long refutation. Here are a couple of examples from Skeptical Science of different quality.


“Animals and plants can adapt”


Global warming will cause mass extinctions of species that cannot adapt on short time scales.


A large number of ancient mass extinction events have been strongly linked to global climate change. Because current climate change is so rapid, the way species typically adapt (eg – migration) is, in most cases, simply not be possible. Global change is simply too pervasive and occurring too rapidly.

This is a great example. The one-liner is not just a vacuous negation of the myth: it states the fact (mass extinction) and provides a short explanation (lack of short time scale adaptation). The paragraph gives additional details and justifications (e. g. link between global climate change and past mass extinctions and that it is too fast and extensive that adaptation is not going to be as easy).

Here is another one, perhaps even better:


“CO2 lags temperature”


CO2 didn’t initiate warming from past ice ages but it did amplify the warming.


When the Earth comes out of an ice age, the warming is not initiated by CO2 but by changes in the Earth’s orbit. The warming causes the oceans to give up CO2. The CO2 amplifies the warming and mixes through the atmosphere, spreading warming throughout the planet. So CO2 causes warming AND rising temperature causes CO2 rise.

Despite not having an explanation, the one-liner is short and accurate. The paragraph provides a complete explanation. So that were some of the examples that I liked. What about those that were not so good? Here is one example:


“Mars is warming”


Mars is not warming globally.


Martian climate is primarily driven by dust and albedo and there is little empirical evidence that Mars is showing long term warming.

The skeptical one-liner is merely a negation of the myth, without any explanation. This is unfortunate, because it makes it fairly inert in terms of impact compared with the myth one-liner. The paragraph is good, though, as it provides a complete explanation and justification.

In summary, a good skeptical one-liner has to be sufficiently simple, yet accurate, as well as provide a short explanation instead of just asserting the negation of the myth.

One-liners against other forms of pseudoscience

How can this approach be applied against other forms of pseudoscience? What skeptical one-liners can we come up with? Here are a few of my attempts:

– Zyklon-B is a carrier for hydrogen cyanide that kills people.
– A single bacteria is more challenging than all vaccines combined.
– There are documented cases of harm and death from THC intoxication.
– P values do not provide information about effect size or precision of estimate.
– Genetic modification is safer, faster and more precise than traditional breeding.
– If zombies are real, why don’t they eat each other?
– If vampires are real, why don’t they die from lamp light?

What skeptical one-liners can you come up with?

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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