Combatting antiscience denialism and quackery

I spent a nice long weekend in New York at NECSS, which has grown to quite the big skeptical conference since the last time I was there five years ago. The Friday Science-Based Medicine session went quite well and, as far as I could tell, appeared to be well-received; so hopefully we will be doing something like it again next year. And, heck, I got to meet Bill Nye. How cool is that?

One topic that came up over and over at NECSS had to do with what is the best way to communicate science and, in particular, contrast it to the unfortunately all-too-common denialist antiscience doctrines of the day, such as denial of anthropogenic global climate change, vaccine safety and efficacy, and evolution. It's not an easy task, because antiscience and pseudoscience of theses sorts are ubiquitous. Some of them, such as climate change denial, are promoted through popular media outlets by powerful people and organizations. Others, like antivaccine pseudoscience, tend not to be promoted so much through the media, but the media has been guilty of facilitating its spread through one its most annoying tendencies, to apply the concept of "balance" to scientific stories, turning it into false balance. While telling both sides is usually a good thing when it comes to the majority of stories, in particular political stories, covered by the media, in science there are actually right and wrong answers. Representing "both sides" of a manufactroversy in which pseudoscience is being pitted against science gives pseudoscience the appearance of being an equally valid viewpoint to the scientific consensus when it is not. It's something I've complained about many times right on this very blog.

That's why an article by Julia Belluz over at caught my interest yesterday. Entitled How should journalists cover quacks like Dr. Oz or the Food Babe? the article presents the viewpoints of several science communicators about how the media should cover such cranks. My first thought upon reading it was gratitude that I'm a blogger. I can basically write about what I want when I want and how I want. I have no editor watching over me; I don't have to pitch ideas to anyone; and I don't have people telling me what to cover. Of course, on the other hand, as a result I'll always be considered "second tier," always at least somewhat (and often a lot more than somewhat) less than legitimate when compared to the "real" press.

Belluz's description of her first encounter with Vani Hari's (a.k.a. The Food Babe's) ignorance rather mirrors mine, except that it happened later (I think) than mine because it started when she received a review copy of Hari's book, which was released a couple of months ago. Here was her reaction:

Everything about this reeked of pseudoscience: the suggestion that people can reinvent their bodies with quick fixes. The notion that we're being attacked by chemicals and in need of a thorough detox. I didn't want to dedicate any reporting energy to addressing Hari's nonsense.

A couple months later, I wondered if I'd made a mistake. Profiles of the Food Babe were turning up in the New York Times and the Atlantic. Her audience now numbered in the millions, and her mostly insane tirades against the toxins in our environment seemed to be catching on. Some were even calling her the next Dr. Oz.

The Food Babe was now impossible to ignore, so I wrote a quick item highlighting some of the reasons scientists think she’s completely off-base. It's a tactic I've used a lot in reporting on people like Hari. Highlight the gap between what a misinformed celebrity says and what the science says. Point out how they're hoodwinking the public, when necessary. Advocate for science and rational thinking.
But even then, I wasn't sure if that was the right way to deal with Hari. Perhaps I should have dedicated many more reporting hours to debunking her ideas. Or perhaps I should have continued to ignore her altogether. Maybe drawing any attention to Hari would help popularize her message — making me complicit in spreading misinformation.

Belluz makes the point that the media need to get better at dealing with pseudoscience, and wonders:

The debate over how to handle peddlers of pseudoscience comes up again and again in the newsroom. With every Food Babe, Dr. Oz, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Jenny McCarthy, we mull some combination of the following: Do they deserve to be addressed? Should we seriously engage their ideas? And if we cover them, what’s the best way to do so: mockery? Earnest debunking?

My answer to these questions would be a simple: Yes. Of course, the devil is in the details; i.e., knowing how to match the tactic to the crank and the situation. If it were easy, every scientist or science advocate could do it. Belluz points out that everyone she contacted agreed that it probably isn't worth it to engage cranks before they break through to the mainstream. The rationale seems to be that because such cranks thrive on attention.

I would tend to agree—if you are a journalist for a mainstream news outlet. However, ignoring such seeming "low level"—or perhaps "sub-mainstream" would be a better way to put it—cranks leads to a terrible problem. That "sub-mainstream" crankery can be very, very influential even if it never reaches the mainstream, like the messages of Dr. Mehmet Oz, The Food Babe, or Jenny McCarthy have done. Think, for example, Mike Adams, a.k.a. The Health Ranger, and his website,, which reaches as many people as a lot of the mainstream media outlets. His articles espousing quackery and attacking science percolate through social media to wide audiences. The same is true, for instance, of Joe Mercola. If their quackery and pseudoscience are never addressed by the mainstream media, there it remains on the web for people doing Google searches to discover, high on the list of their search results and unopposed.

That's where I—and skeptical bloggers—come in. Yes, we know that there is the risk of giving cranks more attention, but consider an example. Several months ago, our old buddy, one of those whose crankery has gone mainstream, the ever-annoying, reiki-loving, quackery-spouting Dr. Mehmet Oz, did a segment in which he gave considerable credence to the idea that cell phone radiation can cause cancer, featuring a young woman who happened to carry her cell phone in her bra a lot and later developed breast cancer on the same side. Her mother was convinced that the cell phone had caused it, and Dr. Oz managed to find a breast surgeon who believed in the same crankery, publishing a rather crappy case series of four to make his point. Now, if you search for "Mehmet Oz cell phone cancer" on Google, what you will find on the first page is a link to Oz's original segment and a whole lot of links to stories basically presenting the story without one whit of skepticism. You will find only two skeptical links. First, you will find my deconstruction of this story, entitled Fear mongering over cell phones and cancer by Dr. Oz. Second, you will find a link to a different version of the same post that was published on my not-so-super-secret other blog. And that's it!

That. Is. It. (Well, other than a Google Plus link to one of my posts.)

That's not the only issue where this has happened, either, be it posts by other skeptical bloggers or myself. Now, granted, to achieve this, you have to achieve a certain level of traffic and Google juice, but that's what I've achieved in ten years, and I'm not alone. We can do this because we are not mainstream media.

But back to the mainstream media, and I do like the various principles Belluz lays down:

  1. Don't just go after cranks — hold their enablers accountable.
  2. Be clear on where the balance of scientific evidence lies.
  3. Beware of turning cranks into martyrs.
  4. Don't overstate the influence of cranks.
  5. Critical coverage is important — but avoid creating controversy for its own sake.

In particular, I agree whole-heartedly with #1. A great example was Oprah Winfrey. After all, she created Dr. Oz, bringing him in as her regular go-to doctor and ultimately launching him on his own show. She shilled for the faith healing quack John of God. She promoted the New Age woo known as The Secret, which influenced at least one woman with breast cancer to eschew effective treatment in favor of wishful thinking. She paid with her life. Then there's America's quack Dr. Oz, who has, over the course of his show, featured an amazing panoply of quacks, including homeopaths, Joe Mercola, faith healers, and even psychic scammers John Edward and Theresa Caputo. The list goes on.

I also can't argue with #2. It's the sort of thing I've said time and time and time again: No false balance. Sometimes, even presenting a crank or a quack in the same segment as a real doctor or scientist, gives the impression that that crankery or quackery is somewhere near the same level as the real science. That's bad, and I really wish journalists would knock it off.

I'm less concerned about #3, because I don't quite buy the argument used to justify it:

A similar dynamic occurred with Andrew Wakefield, the fraudulent physician who popularized the autism-vaccine link. He fabricated his research — research that was retracted, research that is blamed for stoking vaccine fears and bringing back preventable diseases. But all along, he has insisted he's the victim of a witch hunt and PR campaign, and some vaccine deniers see him as a sacrificial lamb. "The more press coverage, the more scrutiny, the more you end up with these martyrs and with people saying, Everyone is against us,'" Oransky said.

The other difficulty is that these martyrs often wade into areas that relate to our very deepest fears and desires. Wakefield exploited parents' worries about vaccines and autism. Dr. Oz trades on the near-universal pursuit of better health and weight loss and mistrust of Big Pharma. Food Babe Vani Hari has built her brand around the worry that unseen and ubiquitous toxins are slowly killing us all.

When these figures are ridiculed and struck down by critics, their audiences can interpret the criticism of their work as diminishing or making fun of their own, often understandable concerns, thus helping to fuel the crank-to-martyr transformation.

In actuality, for several years, it was the press in the UK, mostly the tabloid press, that facilitated Andrew Wakefield, that spread his message. Without the press, Wakefield's message would never have spread throughout the UK and Europe and beyond, nor would it have sparked the fear of the MMR vaccine as a cause of autism that led to MMR uptake in the UK plummeting and the resultant entirely predictable resurgence of measles. In fact, it was a single journalist who went beyond skepticism and actually did the years of hard work it took to prove Wakefield's conflicts of interest (he took hundreds of thousands of pounds from a lawyer suing vaccine manufacturers to do his study) and his scientific fraud. In fact, arguably the press didn't truly turn against Wakefield until the British government began hearings to revoke his license to practice medicine, and didn't truly become as hostile as it is now until after Wakefield's original Lancet case series from 1998 that started the whole thing was retracted.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that martyring cranks is not a risk. It's just that fear of "martyring" a crank like Andrew Wakefield should not be a particularly large consideration in deciding whether to engage in critical reporting on him. Think of it this way. Conspiracy theories in which proponents of antiscience views are viewed as martyrs are part and parcel of denialist antiscience movements like the antivaccine movement. They already think they are martyrs and that the mainstream press is "persecuting" their heros. They already think that denialist leaders like Wakefield are "Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one." There's no real reason to go easy on them for fear of such a reaction, because the reaction is going to be there no matter what. It's baked in, so to speak.

I do, however, agree with #4. Those of us in the science blogosphere have a tendency to attribute more influence to certain cranks than they, in fact, actually have. The antivaccine views of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., for instance, are virtually unknown outside of the antivaccine circles that admire him. To most people (at least those who even really know who he is), he's rather annoying as a person and an environmental activist. Most people (in the US, at least) have no idea who Andrew Wakefield is. On the other hand, I'm not quite down with this:

I asked Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale, how he would suggest covering this event. He said it was important to consider the broader context here: "The fortunate truth of the matter is that there's tremendous confidence by the American public in vaccines," he said. "We have had 90 percent coverage for well over a decade. There are enclaves of people who are concerned. But most parents vaccinate and don't give it a second thought."

Well, yes and no. If you average over states or large swaths of the country, this is true, but in the case of vaccines there are enclaves of people who are more than just "concerned." They're "concerned" enough to go to the trouble of getting personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates or to sending their children to antivaccine-friendly private schools like Waldorf schools. It is a big problem, and Kahan is far too blase about the threat that even that small contingent of antivaccine parents is, because that small contingent tends to concentrate into groups where it causes the biggest hit to local vaccination rates.

Finally, who could disagree with #5? Of course you don't want to cause controversy just to cause controversy. Personally, though, I look at it this way. My target audience is not the hard core committed crank, such as Andrew Wakefield or the parents who worship him. It is the fence-sitters, the undecided, those who might be persuadable. I also reserve to myself all reasonable strategies ranging from presenting facts, dissecting bad arguments, pointing out the flaws in crank arguments, and, yes, mocking mercilessly particularly dumb crank arguments. Of course, I'm a blogger; I can do that. Mainstream press can't, although the five suggested rules presented by Belluz are, except perhaps for #3, a good set of guidelines.

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"In actuality, for several years, it was the press in the UK, mostly the tabloid press, that facilitated Andrew Wakefield, that spread his message. Without the press, Wakefield’s message would never have spread throughout the UK and Europe and beyond, nor would it have sparked the fear of the MMR vaccine as a cause of autism that led to MMR uptake in the UK plummeting and the resultant entirely predictable resurgence of measles."

Science reporting in the UK is (with notable exceptions) abysmal, it's not simply that Quackery is tolerated but overly credulous and at times outright misrepresentation of medical research clouds the whole atomosphere in which science, particularly health science, is discussed. The effect is to leave the reader/viewer befuddled by an endless stream of contradictions in crass reporting which lacks nuance, logic and any attempt at insight. Everything is told in absolutes which tell a story of science not knowing whether up is really down or vice versa. Ultimately it's an appeal to ignorance because only that is constant.

By Orlac not Orac (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

Great article. I would only add that an under-rated part of what people like you do is preach to the already converted. This can be vital. It convinces the silent majority to not be silent in the face of pseudoscience. And it gives us the ammo to combat it. I must admit I was quite struck when I saw those anti-vaccine graphs showing how death rates were falling before vaccines. It was reading your work and others that convinced me that was the wrong primary metric with which to judge vaccines.

So thanks.

Orlac #1 is quite right: the quality of reporting of scientific and medical stories over here is awful.

Even worse is that if one challenges the writer or an editor over accuracy of stories, interpretation of statistics and the like they never seem to acknowledge any errors or responsibility on their part and next to never publish any retraction or correction - I have challenged a number of stories in The Guardian and on the BBC's website, which contained some very obvious errors; they just don't want to know; click bait is all important.

Science reporting in the UK is (with notable exceptions) abysmal

This is also true of the US. So-called journalists in this country have internalized the notion that there must be two sides to every question. This is emphatically not true: on some (mostly political) issues there can be more than two sides, but on others (many scientific topics, but it happens with distressing frequency on political matters as well) the facts demonstrate that one side of the so-called debate is FOS. Too many journalists don't bother to tell us what the facts are. Thus the joke (which is in "ha ha, only serious" territory) that if certain prominent people were to start claiming that the Earth was flat, the headline on the story would be, "Opinions Differ Regarding Shape of Earth".

That's how people like Wakefield get traction in the US media, and that's how people can claim with a straight face that adding lots of CO2 to the atmosphere won't affect global climate. To believe the latter, you have to think that if more energy enters a system than leaves it, the energy content of the system need not increase--or in other words, that the Law of Conservation of Energy is wrong. I seldom if ever see anybody (and especially not journalists) pointing this out.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

To add to what Yvette said, one thing that came up at NECSS was that when it comes to science, we need to make it more visible. So even though us bloggers may not be given as much respect or weight as mainstream media, the more we write, the more visible a subject is.

BTW, Orac, it was nice to meet you, if only briefly, at the conference!

Unfortunately, as we discuss the issue, Ginger Taylor crows about how she and Meryl Nass were given a position equal to mainstream medical professionals ( see AoA,) in a debate sponsored by a CBS affiliate and a local newspaper which was broadcast on television. If Taylor was happy about how 'fair and balanced' the presentation was, it must have been somewhat problematic for reality-based viewers.

I know, I know, "let the people decide" and all that.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

I know, I know, “let the people decide” and all that.

I know you aren't advocating that position yourself, but there are (at least) two major problems with it.

1. Science is not a democracy. Physics is said, only half in jest, to have a totalitarian principle: that which is not forbidden is compulsory. It's not as extreme in other fields, but facts are facts. We can disagree on what those facts mean (scientists often do), but they are still facts.

2. As Alan Sokal (among others) has been at great pains to point out, letting people decide what the facts are is anti-democratic, at least in the long run. A properly functioning democracy requires the citizens to have access to the facts so that they can decide which candidate will be better able to enact the policy they want. Obscuring the facts makes it easier for those who wish to manipulate the populace to do so. See also the works of George Orwell.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

I once came across an article discussing poll results about the level of understanding and ability to communicate science in various occupations. What was striking (this was about 20 years ago) was it listed the 3 lowest rungs as Journalists, Lawyers and Politicians (in decreasing ability.) I have always found that this helps put in proper context the public discourse around science (consider the state of patents; legislation involving health and any reporting on pseudoscience related topics.)

I suspect (I will look), that a current survey would yield similar results. The consequences have proven to be very bad for public policy and, in my estimate, appear to be worsening at an alarming rate.

What's worked in the past?
Have particular branches of pseudoscience become unpopular because of individual efforts, and if so, what were their tactics?
For example, seances used to be much more popular, were Houdini's debunking efforts a major part of that? He turned debunking into entertainment - so maybe that works.

I would also suggest that your audience includes the skeptical, but who really don't have the time or expertise to find all these facts in journal articles or other places. Because of the kind of heavy lifting here and in similar blogs, I can do some pretty quick fact-checking when a friend posts something anti-vaccine, gluten-free, paleo, or similar pseudoscience. In fact for a long time I had a strategy of checking Science-Based Medicine first when I heard something that set off my skeptical red flags.

By John Johnson (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

Great picture to illustrate the post - a balanced crank...

It has some bearing on the matter. *cough*

By Roadstergal (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

The scientific value is lost through these programs intended for mass media, as the information and research is dumbed down for the audience. Science is a Field of STUDY not a hobby.

Yes, Mandela, Jesus, Galileo--that's all coming from the adherents anyway.

I'm trying to think of a case where inappropriate martyrdom had any worse consequences than just the typical stuff that comes from non-critical reporting.

I've also been asking scicomm chatterati (many of whom are opposed to the calling-out sort of methods) if they thought that the moderate sort of stuff was working on the FoodBabe, or Oz. Hell, Oz was called to the Hill and that has had little impact. I'm not getting any answer from them on what they see as effective short of the full body slams.

It hasn't been my experience that the major misinformers are even slightly swayed by toned-down commentary. The only response has been to major mockery and smackdowns.

Great picture to illustrate the post – a balanced crank…
It has some bearing on the matter. *cough*

Something something CAMs something.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

Just a reminder to the Californians to call the office of your state senator and your assemblyman and tell the person who answers the phone that you are asking the representative to support SB277 for mandatory vaccination of school children. We may have to do followups at some later time about keeping out exceptions made available through naturopaths and the like. Right now it is useful to get a few thousand calls logged in favor of the bill.

{ V W nerd} Technically, it's counter-weighted, hence the large flanges opposite the rod journals. Looks to be an aftermarket part for a horizontally opposed 4 cylinder air cooled Volkswagen, would be my guess. {/ V W nerd}

By Ray, rude-ass yankee (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

Roadstergal @12

When journalists give cranks too much credibility their readers get the shaft.

By Militant Agnostic (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

Something something CAMs something.

Cranial manipulation is a type of overhead CAM.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

I recall a sign at one establishment saying "Cam shafts ground". I never did go in asking for a pound of ground cam.

By Mephistopheles… (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

Following step is more difficult since cranks have their own journals.

MOB @19
If you had asked, they would give you a pound of floor sweepings.

By Militant Agnostic (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

“Cam shafts ground”
I do not know who Cam is, and his intimate relationship with the soil is none of my business.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

Mephistopheles -- it's probably sold next to the prop wash.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

And what of legislators succumbing to crank pressure? It is my understanding that HR4432 failed last year because anti-GMO advocates were able to rally a record-setting phone campaign as the bill came up for a vote. Legislators quickly cried uncle and said the issue was just too hot to handle. A somewhat less GMO-friendly bill, HR1599, is now on the table.

When the rubber meets the road, our elected officials often violate #4. Who in D.C. besides Claire McCaskill represents hope to skeptics?

BobG @ 16: The night SB277 was announced, I emailed support to the co-authors, my state Senator, and the Governor. Second round of emails plus phone calls to start after I put my tax forms in the mail tomorrow.

Re. how to give unbalanced cranks the shaft:

1) Derail the small ones before they get big.

2) Use the big ones as targets for educating the public.

3) Work both the "supply side" (take down the quacks & cranks) and the "demand side" (persuade their audiences to abandon quackery and embrace reality).

4) Most important: Emotional messaging works (see also the entire advertising industry):

We need a thorough analysis of the emotion-language the quacks use. For example we all know they use combinations of paranoia, tragedy, hope, persecution, pity, in-group tribalism, appeal to faith, appeal to vanity, the appearance of empathy, etc. Meeting those with dry explanations or with mocking doesn't hit the target audience: instead it hits a different audience.

Humans seek emotions, and there is cultural, subcultural, and individual variation in the emotions sought. Some people seek to have a specific set of emotions directly reinforced (e.g. watching a "romance" film in order to feel romantic). Some people seek out opposite emotions in order to enjoy the "rebound" after they wear off (e.g. watching a "horror" film in order to enjoy the feeling of "snug and safe" when the "horror" wears off).

Humans also seek to be told that their emotions are "good" and "right" and "justified." Telling someone, directly or otherwise, that they "shouldn't feel that way" is a losing move: it fails to grasp the fact that emotions are primary data for the individual, and that individuals use emotional agreement as a "truth test" or means of measuring and judging the credibility of people and positions.

Emotions are separate from "content" in the same manner that the form of a story plot is separate from the details of a story and characters. The lead in a "hero's journey" story can be a "good guy/gal" or a "bad guy/gal," the setting can be Medieval Europe or interstellar space, but the emotions of struggle, discovery, battle, and victory are the same and they are what define the narrative.

For example someone gets a cancer diagnosis, and suddenly hope becomes all-important to them. They can invest that feeling of hope in a surgeon or a naturopath, and all too often they will tend to go with the person who gives their emotional needs the most affirmation, including support for secondary reinforcing emotions. The naturopath's emotonal narrative is: "I can give you more hope than the surgeon." The naturopath reinforces that with the emotion of suspicion directed at "Western medicine." The surgeon can counter that effectively with an emotional narrative of "I can give you real hope rather than fake hope," and reinforce that by directing the emotion of suspicion toward "purveyors of fake hope." In each case the hope is the primary emotion sought, and the suspicion serves as a "meme vaccine" against the other practitioner's message.

That type of pattern can be applied to each stage at which people evaluate health messages. The generalization is, meet people on their existing emotional ground, and associate their desired emotions with the desired outcome.

By Gray Squirrel (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

3. Beware of turning cranks into martyrs.

I got a big dose of that the other day. Some anti GMO enthusiast is, even at this late day, pushing the Seralini study as proof that GMO food is in fact poisonous.

While I tried to get him to look at the Seralini paper itself, to lead him stepwise through the demonstration that the whole setup was fundamentally flawed from the beginning, he hosed me down with the classic wall of text: dozens of linked articles, every one a testimonial to the saintliness of Seralini and his martyrdom at the hands of the scientific establishment.

In the worldview of these people, who sadly are legion, the truth of a proposition is established by the number of people who speak of it favorably - and Monsanto would not have troubled to ambush and slime their hero if the truth of his ideas were not a threat.

Literally, you can not argue with these people: some other rhetorical technique is needed.

By Robert L Bell (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) enrolled about 650,000 students in k-12 in 2014.

Tonight, the LAUSD board of trustees voted unanimously to endorse Senate Bill 277, the one that eliminates personal belief exemptions.

There were large and rather vehement anti- SB277 crowds in attendance.

I hope this bodes very, very well for the Education Committee hearing tomorrow. I'll be there.

You know who else has endorsed SB277? According to,

AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF)
Children’s Defense Fund- California
Alameda County Board of Supervisors
Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland
American Academy of Pediatrics, California
The Children’s Partnership
American Lung Association
Children’s Specialty Care Coalition
American Nurses Association (ANA)
City of Beverly Hills
County Health Executives Association
Café de California
County of Los Angeles
California Academy of Family Physicians
County of Marin
California American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP)
County of San Francisco
California Association for Nurse Practitioners (CANP)
County of Santa Clara
California Black Health Network
County of Santa Clara
California Children’s Hospital Association
County of Yolo
California Coverage and Health Initiatives (CCHI)
First 5
California Hospital Association
Health Officers Association of California
California Immunization Coalition
Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones
California Medical Association (CMA)
Kaiser Permanente
California Optometric Association
March of Dimes
California Pharmacists Association
National Coalition of 100 Black Women
California Primary Care Association (CPCA)
Pasadena Public Health Department
California School Boards Association (CSBA)
Providence Health and Services Southern California
California School Employees Association (CSEA)
San Francisco Unified School District
California School Nurses Organization (CSNO)
San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD)
California State PTA
Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors
Child Care Law Center
Secular Coalition for America
Children Now
Silicon Valley Leadership Group
Solano Beach Unified School District

@Gray Squirrel
What about the evidence as it applies to this question?
What has worked in the past?
James Randi recorded the faith healer Popoff getting messages from his wife about audience members. That ended Popoff's career.
In that case, it was a dramatic revelation that made a good story.
Some response that's dramatic enough to get into the news media. Something with flair, something memorable.
James Randi and earlier, Houdini, were debunkers who were also entertainers.
Were their efforts especially effective because they were entertainers and knew how to get attention?
What works?

Robert @ 26: "...some other rhetorical technique is needed."

See item (4) in my my comment 25. It's all about the _emotions_. Chances are that you met that person's "aah!" with "blah!," in other words you "harshed their buzz" and that put them on the defense.

Next time you encounter a situation like that, try starting out by using language that matches what you observe or infer about the other person's emotions. Tone and rhythm of voice, facial expression, and body language, all count as much as actual words. Start by matching their emotions, then switch to expressing curiosity, and they'll also become curious. Then you can dig into the paper: examine each point in the paper and see if you can get the other person onboard with understanding exactly what was said. Then you can criticize each point, one at a time. Use a tone that doesn't condemn but is non-committal. The goal here is to get them to think about each point from the perspective of curiosity, and then come to their own conclusion.

Very often the best that can be accomplished is to plant the seeds of skepticism, using a non-committal attitude. Time will tell if those seeds sprout into anything like a capacity for critical thinking, but any time you can raise criticism without triggering defensive attitudes is a sign that you're making progress.

This isn't much different than what a good therapist does: demonstrates that they understand their client's feelings, and then seeks to get the client to examine their behaviors with an open mind and without getting defensive. And as with changing any other attitudes and behaviors, it takes time and reinforcement.

By Gray Squirrel (not verified) on 14 Apr 2015 #permalink

In the worldview of these people ... the truth of a proposition is established by the number of people who speak of it favorably ...
Literally, you can not argue with these people: some other rhetorical technique is needed.

That's a crucial point - when someone's method for determining truth is flawed, it's their method that needs to be addressed.
The Socratic questioning method is useful to teach critical thinking. Asking questions helps because a question is a signal to someone to think - at least, if it's not a sarcastic question. Asking questions is also a way of giving someone attention, and people like attention.
Peter Boghossian is a philosopher who teaches "street epistemology" - meaning, how we can teach critical thinking in everyday life. He uses the Socratic method for this.
He applies this to religious faith, and he wrote a book "A Manual for Creating Atheists" about using the Socratic method to question people's religious faith.
Even if you aren't into the religious angle, this book would is still useful. It's full of examples of the Socratic method, his techniques for creating doubt, etc.
I've heard a couple of examples of Peter Boghossian illustrating his technique. He is never insulting; actually he creates a pillow-like impression. But the pillow contains questions and it induces thinking rather than sleep.

James Randi recorded the faith healer Popoff getting messages from his wife about audience members. That ended Popoff’s career.

Popoff should have been a televangelist.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 15 Apr 2015 #permalink

The issue of false balance in the media is one that I and my colleagues at SAVN have, I think, successfully tackled - at least when it comes to vaccination. It hasn't been easy, and it's been a long road, but we have held media outlets to account. There are holdouts, of course, one major network in particular seems to be holding on to its belief in presenting two sides no matter what. There are also the fringe conspiracy radio shows, but they are increasingly the only place that the antivax mob here can get a platform.
One tactic that has been really successful is refusing to be on the radio/TV with someone like Meryl Dorey engaged to present the 'other side'. My colleagues who do this public face work are adamant about that, and the refusal is always back up with an explanation that includes false balance. Sometimes this has lead to the good current affairs shows cancelling the appearance of the antivax person.
We've seen a credulous, non-critical nedia here as enablers, and we've strived to change that and hold them accountable. I think, for the most part, we've had a little success :)

There's a new book out by Alice Dreger that sounds like it would appeal to the skeptical mind. From the N.Y. Times review:

"When a motivated group with a playbook of ugly tactics spots a scientific finding they don’t like, they can often dominate public discussion in a way that replaces a factual story with a false one. Only scientists of Galilean character can weather the storm. And even they, like Galileo, might be effectively exiled."…

Hey, it's the Galileo gambit turned back on the people who typically employ it!

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 20 Apr 2015 #permalink

Please check out "The Desperation of Skeptics" at
Cranks may deserve criticism, but skeptics often are far worse.

By (not verified) on 25 Apr 2015 #permalink

Please check out “The Desperation of Skeptics” at

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