Refusing to Provide Evidence? Here are Some Productive Alternatives

Paper, Research, Evidence

One of the most substantial problems with pseudoscientific cranks is that their beliefs and opinions are irrational and not based on any kind of credible scientific evidence. To prevent themselves from truly coming to terms with this, they have to invent a large number of after-the-fact rationalizations to explain away the massive amount of scientific evidence that runs contrary to their position in order to ease their cognitive dissonance. However, pseudoscientific cranks have learned that interactions with scientific skeptics are rarely beneficial for them. The evidence against their quackery is there, they cannot refute it and some people are starting to see through their nonsense. Thus, there is often an urgent need to develop other means to defend their flawed assertions. This is done by demonizing their opponents in order to justify rejecting everything those critics bring to the table, such as calling them shills for large corporations. In some cases, the mere request for evidence is considered to be some kind of attack against their person.

There is a disturbing tendency coalescing in many online communities (such as blogs, forums and social media website). It is based on misrepresenting skeptics as “a mob of harassers” and all critical questions or requests for supporting evidence are assumed to be asked in “bad faith” to only serve as dishonest methods to “demean or destroy” people. It is not just that rational discussion of ideas has been even more difficult to maintain than they already are, but that even the initiating of such an exchange is met with suspicion, thinly veiled hostility, and sometimes outright anger. After all, if you cannot successfully present supporting evidence for your beliefs, why even bother interacting with scientific skeptics? It is not like there is anything in it for the crank.

This article examines some common methods that pseudoscientific cranks use to avoid exchanges with scientific skeptics. Several generally applicable and productive alternatives to refusing to provide evidence is discussed.

How pseudoscientific cranks try to avoid discussing evidence

So how do pseudoscientific cranks attempt to avoid critical exchanges with skeptics? Here are some examples (although there are many more):

Mind reading: mind reading is a common cognitive distortion that is based on deducing exaggerated negative intentions, thoughts or motives from the behavior of others without clear evidence from direct communication about the issue. In the context of refusing to provide evidence, mind reading is used to infer that scientific skeptics ask their critical questions “in bad faith”, even when the questions are neutral.

Playing the martyr card: pseudoscientific cranks often make use of a well-characterized denialist tactic called playing the martyr card. This occurs when they, without any evidence, portray themselves as oppressed and skeptics as malicious harassers.

Misunderstanding the nature of critical exchanges the skeptical examination of crank claim is not about making friends and sitting by the fire and singing Kumbaya. It is not about “understanding other people” or “valuing” the input of cranks. It is about exposing frauds and scams. It is about determining the degree to which cherished beliefs is supported (or not supported) by evidence and arguments.

Attribution of personal failings: it is quite common for skeptics to be told that they are “close-minded”, radiating too much “negative energy” or similar.

Rejecting the burden of evidence: they often claim that they are not here to educate skeptics, that skeptics lack the required spiritual background to understand the mystical experiences involved or reject the burden of evidence in other ways. The fact is that they were the ones who put forward the claim, and therefore have the burden of evidence to demonstrate that it is accurate.

Appeals to consequence: this comes in two different kinds: (1) assert that skeptics are playing with forces beyond their understanding and that questioning those powers will only lead to mischief or (2) trying to maintain that the mere act of questioning those beliefs is immoral and contribute to negative consequences (e. g. “why do you want to take away the last hope a parent of a dead child has?” in reference to a psychic reading).

Ad hominem circumstantial: pseudoscientific cranks often dismiss the critical questions posed by skeptics by accusing them of being shills for large corporations or claim that the skeptic is disposed to make certain arguments.

How can skeptics disarm these dishonest tactics used by pseudoscientific cranks? A simply way is to simply repeat the question: “What is the evidence for X”, “How do you know that X is true?” and so on. This generally makes the crank pretty annoyed and will either shut down the exchange and block the skeptic or cave and attempt to provide the “evidence” (usually in the form of a testimony or a blog post, or rarely, flawed scientific studies). Skeptics can respond to mind reading and ad hominem circumstantial with “stop speculating about motives, provide the evidence or concede”, to paying the martyr card with “asking for evidence is not harassment” or “if you are an oppressed genius it should not be hard to fork up that evidence”, to attribution of personal failings with “my personal character is not relevant for your claim”, to rejecting the burden of evidence by reaffirming it, to appeals to consequences with “there is nothing immoral about asking for evidence”, to the misunderstanding of the nature of skeptical exchanges with “skeptical evaluation is not about making friends, but about critically evaluating evidential basis for beliefs” or similar.

Why is it problematic to refuse to provide evidence?

So what exactly is the problem with refusing to engage critics? Surely, there is nothing wrong with choosing not to respond to people who constantly question one’s beliefs? A pseudoscientific crank is free to ignore skeptics, of course, if he or she wants to. But that behavior comes at a high cost.

People will think you have none: when refusing to provide evidence after being asked a skeptical question, it is not possible to reliably distinguish between being incapable to provide evidence or just unwilling to do it. Many will see it as a tacit admission that there is no such evidence (because if there were, they could easily have been provided when asked).

People will think you are a jerk, and have less confidence in your claims: a lot of people will walk away thinking that not only is the person incapable of providing any evidence, he or she is also a very unpleasant person, which will reflect negatively upon the position under scrutiny due to the cognitive bias known as the Halo effect. Sure, the nasty behavior might be psychologically understandable as the person might have gotten the skeptical questions dozens of times already. However, you represent your position and it may be the first time that this specific person has asked it.

You concede the rational argument: refusing to provide evidence means that you have conceded the argument. This is because if evidence existed, you should be able to provide them. Not being able to provide them then logically entails that there are none.

You do not play by the rules: if you expect that people should accept your claims as true, then it is your job to educate them and you must be ready to defend them against criticisms. When you have entered into the area of rational discourse, there is no option called “I want to spew my nonsense all over the place, have it be unquestionably accepted by everyone / be protected from any and all criticisms / never have to justify anything”. You cannot have all of the benefits, but none of the responsibilities. You play the game, you follow the rules. It is that simple. You can ignore the rules of course, but then we can ignore you.

You apply selective skepticism: when someone makes an astonishing claim, you expect them to provide evidence for it. But why should they do it if you refuse to provide evidence for your claim? Thus, you are guilty of selective skepticism: you are considerably more skeptical of claims that contradict your position that you are of those claims that support your position.

You protect bad ideas: it is precisely those beliefs that we find too obvious to bother to support with evidence that needs to be examined the most rigorously. By shielding some beliefs from skeptical scrutiny, you are protecting at least some flawed positions that you should not hold.

Alternatives to refusing to provide evidence

Both cranks and skeptics often feel frustrated by interacting with each other. So if the refusal to provide evidence is a bad thing, then how can pseudoscientific cranks and skeptics avoid having to fall down the drain of frustration? There are several productive ways to accomplish this:

Develop one-liners: some answers require a paragraph, but many intelligent responses can be summarized as a one-liner.

Link to a FAQ: if it truly is a basic introductory question that has received detailed treatment elsewhere, then go ahead and link to it. This can be done with even less effort by posting a tweet with the link, then pinning it and referring all critical questions “see pinned tweet”.

Write a blog post about it: if you keep getting the same critical questions over and over again and there are no FAQs written about it, then go ahead and channel that frustration into writing an explanatory blog post. Then you can link that every time the question is asked in much the same way you can link to a FAQ entry. This also fills a much-needed gap, since there were no FAQs or FAQ-like treatment about it.

Use automatic text replacement: there was a time when cranks did nothing else than wander between forums and Usenet newsgroup to post identical copy/paste text, some skeptics started using automatic text replacement software. If a crank copy/pasted the claim that evolution was “just a theory”, the skeptic could just type something like “evoarg1” and that text would be replaced by a pre-written paragraph explaining that a scientific theory is a strongly evidence-based explanation for the origin of the diversity of life. With this tool, the skeptic could be just as fast as the crank, but post more coherent and intelligent material. This saves the hassle with writing the same response over and over again. Just use automatic text replacement and it is done with just a couple of letters.

Most of these suggestions do not require much more effort than blocking hundreds of individuals over the time period of several years. It is often well worth the effort and saves a lot of frustration.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

%d bloggers like this: