In an open society, and especially in scholarly research, we are used to discussing the merits of ideas. In doing so we judge their merits using a variety of factors, but most important are evidence and logic. People should change their minds when they are confronted with evidence that contradicts their position, rather than reject the evidence. It may take a long time, and prejudice never seems to go away, but science and is based upon the assumption that through discussion and review the illogical and implausible will be eclipsed by ideas which are supported by better evidence, or evidence at all. This process has served us well, the scientific method has provided innumerable benefits. Moreover, democracies are based upon similar assumptions – the best policies can be selected through debate and the ballot box. Politics is a lot more messy, but even so, through rational discussion and appeal to evidence and logic, democracy has proved to be far more resilient and successful than any of its competitors (and it is worth noting that its most virulent opponents such as fascism or communism were based upon wholesale delusion and denial of the patiently obvious).
But what happens when people make extraordinary claims – their new pill will prevent ageing, big pharma and governments are conspiring to make people ill, they can generate free energy, or 9/11 was an inside job – but are uninterested, unwilling or unable to engage in reasoned debate? The problem is that when people resolutely deny the relevance of evidence or logic, or insist that what ever theory they believe in has replaced all we know about physics, chemistry, biology etc. we will ultimately be left with a choice between relativism, or criticising their integrity or mental faculties.
I’m not writing about people who read horoscopes, think that there might be something in homeopathy, or once saw a ghost in the moonlight. Of course we all understand the world through our subjective experience and from learnt knowledge (which can be pretty unreliable). We all have cognitive biases which mean that we interpret the world differently. I’m concerned with people who actively propagate the wildly improbable on a full-time basis. Such people don’t just accept received wisdom or misinterpret some ambiguity. They are actively engaged in developing, maintaining and propagating some very extraordinary claims, it’s very difficult to explain their actions through normal cognitive biases.
For example, look at this video by ‘Psychic John Green’. It’s of him sitting in a dark room describing the spirits that he can ‘sense’ around him. He also invites viewers to see ‘orbs’ on the video. John Green teaches ‘psychic development’ classes, claims to be able to heal strokes, and according to his website has appeared on the stage and on TV as a psychic. Unfortunately, no one can sense spirits, because they don’t exist. To reiterate, John routinely claims to sense things that can’t possibly exist. How do we engage with John and his ilk?
Relativism is the easy way out – they have their epistemology and I have mine. But that leaves a very bad feeling in my gut. We have two other responses. Either they are lying or they sincerely believe in the impossible. People making extraordinary claims have been caught lying: sceptic James Randi and colleagues discovered that faith healer the Reverand Peter Popov was not receiving his miraculous information from god, but from radio broadcasts. People have a strong financial incentive to exaggerate or invent their powers, or the benefits of whatever pill they happen to be selling, because they can create a market and enrich themselves. If we ignore such bogus claims, or routinely assume that they are due to incompetence rather than duplicity, we risk being over lenient or even complicit in the deceit.
It’s more difficult to find cast iron evidence that people who make such claims are deluded. Unlike frauds we don’t have any court judgements to draw upon. A delusion is a false belief held in contradiction to the evidence, and can be a symptom of mental illness. Dawkins entitled his most recent book The God Delusion, and delusions can clearly be held by many people and be generally accepted in society. They are often very much in contradiction with a mountain of evidence. To take the example of Psychic John Green, I’m prepared to accept that he sincerely believes that he can sense spirits, and that he believes that they produce the ‘orbs’ he claims are apparent on the videos. But then we have little choice but to describe him as being deluded – unless we want to relativistically accept that his belief in the supernatural is just as plausible as our disbelief.
However, explicitly or implicitly suggesting that people are liars, frauds or deluded without proof is at the very least considered uncool. Ad hominem attacks are a low form of argumentation. It isn’t very ethical to criticise people by implying, or explicitly stating, that they are mentally ill – and terms like loon, nutter, fruitcake, nutjob etc really are just popular euphemisms for poor mental health. More importantly, attacking someone’s integrity or mental health risks undermining the open discussion that one wishes to defend – you aren’t going to win many converts by calling people frauds, mad, or both.
We can try to limit criticism to ideas and not the person. Most academics are used to rarefied discussions, but even their discussions (especially in the blogosphere) can get very personal and abusive. More importantly, the identities of the practitioners and ardent believers of the extraordinary are often tied strongly to their beliefs – in the same way that many people’s identities are closely linked to their jobs. If someone criticises the ideas behind their belief, they are going to take it personally. Moreover, one can’t really separate the idea from the person. It was the person that created and nurtured the belief. If we say that their cherished idea is based on gobbledygook and shoddy research, we are directly criticising their competence.
I would like to believe that we can create a space where we can discuss various aspects of the extraordinary in a polite and rational manner. But the question is – how do play a game with people who reject the rules? If someone’s whole belief system is based upon a rejection of normal standards of evidence and logic then it becomes difficult not to accuse them of being either liars or deluded. Ben Goldacre called for some new ethics of bullshit. Can there be a language of bullshit? How do we criticise people ardently making extraordinary claims without ultimately suggesting that they are either liars or lack the ability to reason?