It can be draining and time-consuming to argue against quacks and cranks on the Internet. A lot of the time, they just copy/paste the same old garbage claims over and over that have already been debunked thousands of time before. These claims are probably taken from some anti-vaccine blog or some Facebook group filled with conspiracy theories and shady supplements.
Many science advocates want to stop wasting time on having productive exchanges on social media, but do not want to give free rein to pseudoscience and quackery that harms people and misleads millions of people. Is there are way that one can keep debunking nonsense while avoid having skeptical activism steal time and effort and leave you exhausted?
Yes, there is, and it is called text replacement.
What is text replacement?
With text replacement, you can connect pre-written refutations of the most common pseudoscientific claims to a text shortcut combination of your choice. Anytime you type out the text shortcut, a text replacement program replaces that text with the full refutation. If you are used to writing out full refutations from scratch each time, using text replacement will save you considerable time.
Even if you have pre-written texts that you have written in a text document, using text replacement will still be advantageous because you will not have to spend time looking for it and manually copy/paste it. This saves even more time if you debunk multiple claims in the same response.
So how do you debunk with the help of text replacement?
Text replacement speeds up debunking
Let us use the software AutoKey (more software listed in the next section) to illustrate how this is used. Add in a refutation and assign a short abbreviation that is not normally used in written text.
In the above example, the full refutation is a statement that multiple vaccines are safe and a link to a review paper showing this in the journal Pediatrics. The full statement is:
Multiple vaccines are safe. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/109/1/124
The above is the text that will appear when the user types out the abbreviated text “shortvaxmulti”. You can decide the file name, the abbreviation and the refutation text and store as many such entries as you want.
This particular example is optimized for Twitter, but you can write refutations of any length you would like because it will just get stored in a text file. It is easy to see how this can speed up debunking pseudoscience with many orders of magnitude and also save you the hassle of looking up crucial references to back up your statements.
For instance, you can easily make a longer refutation on the same theme:
Multiple vaccines are safe. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/109/1/124 A single bacteria contains more immunological challenges than all vaccines given on the childhood vaccine schedule. Due to advances in biotechnology, the number of antigens in vaccines have actually declined.
If you pick your abbreviations in a predictable way, they are easy to remember and it becomes even easier if you practice using them. Because each pseudoscience only relies on a couple of dozen core claims, it is relatively simple to make abbreviations and refutations for all of them and boost debunking effectiveness by an order of magnitude.
If you make a habit of spending 20 minutes per day using this system to debunk misinformation on Twitter or Facebook, you can boost the signal of reason and evidence to help crowd out the noise of pseudoscience and quackery. This can be done by randomly selecting one of the myths in the text replacement library and just searching for it in the social media search field. Since pseudoscience keeps repeating the same nonsense over and over again, there is always nonsense ready to be debunked.
This is especially useful if you include references in your refutations, because then you offer reasons for why anyone should accept your claims. If you only rely on a few high-quality references, you will also look more credible than those conspiracy cranks that spam dozens of links in an effort to flood the conversation. It may seem daunting at first, but it is quick to learn and improves debunking for those who are already in the trenches.
There are even some websites, like Skeptical Science, that offer handy tweet-ready refutations to climate denial myths for almost 200 refutations. Debunking Denialism has previously covered the issue of skeptical one-liners to refute false claims. Adding on automation will substantially boost efficiency for that kind of approach.
Text replacement software
So what different kinds of text replacement software are useful? It depends a bit on what operating system you use and what specific features you want.
There are currently no user-friendly and free text replacement software available for OS X.
There are a number of objections that people sometimes use against the use of text replacement. Here are brief responses to those objections.
“But it degrades the conversation!”: Look, the conversation was already degraded by pseudoscience activists spamming their garbage over and over again. Countering it with science-based information, even if it is done by automation, actually increases the quality of the information available. It is also exceptionally naive to insist that anti-science pushers are at all interested in a conversation.
“You will not learn anything!”: What do you hope to learn against someone who just insists that evolution is untrue because no one has seen a dog give birth to a cat? They are often not interested in learning anything and you are better off reading scientific material if you want to learn it.
“You will never convince the true believers, so why bother trying?”: the point is not, and has never been, to convince the true believers. Rather, the point is to boost the signal of science and reason amid the noise. Automation improves the efficacy in doing this.
“People might get annoyed”: …and people might get scammed, harmed or killed by quackery.
“You might get banned”: maybe, but there are always methods to vary the content you post or use a separate account for debunking activities. It is unlikely to be a problem.
“It is polarizing!”: polarizing is not necessarily a bad thing in situations where the stakes and consequences are very different. If some science advocates appear cold and distant, it might make quacks and cranks feel a little bit less warm and fuzzy. If some quackery proponents influence very sick people with their nonsense, people can get scammed, harmed or killed.