Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 8, 2010

Is Debunking a Fringe Person Still Worth It?


Introduction

This morning, I received an IM from a friend congratulating me on the 100,000+ reads on my blog. I responded with a bit of surprise, saying that I didn’t realize she read my blog. Her response was that she has an RSS feed of it and skims what I write when there’s a new post.

This particular friend happens to be the person I briefly consulted for my two-part (eventually three-part) series on the astrologer Terry Nazon (here and here), because this friend practices astrology as a hobby.

Somewhat fearful, I asked her what she thought of the two blog posts about Ms. Nazon. Her response was, “I think that you were probably debunking a hack astrologer.” That led me to quickly justify why I did it, but I think it does raise a decent question: Should one spend the time debunking someone who is on the fringe of their particular pseudoscientific belief system?

Why I Think the Answer Is “Maybe”

I think that there are several reasons both do to this and not to do it. On the “not” side there’s the obvious time-waste component for relatively little gain if they’re on the fringe. There’s the lack of applicability to the underlying field you’re trying to refute. Another con is that you run the risk of presenting a straw man argument – though I try to make very clear that I am only addressing specific claims, not the entire field.

On the “do it” side, I think there are stronger arguments, providing you have the time. The first I thought of is that this person is still making their claims and they do have an audience. In Ms. Nazan’s case, she was going to be featured on an internationally syndicated radio show that reaches literally millions of people every night on over 525 radio stations. Many of her website page headings (her site, her blog, her Facebook) bill her as “Terry Nazon World Famous Astrologer” with the word “Celebrity” sometimes thrown in there. She also apparently makes enough money to run her website.

That led me to the second reason: She’s bilking people out of a heck of a lot of money. I’ll repeat the numbers – at least the current ones on her website – which are $4.99 per minute, $75 for an e-mail reading, $75 for a 15-minute reading, $150 for a 30-minute reading, and $330 for a 60-minute phone reading. I am still amazed at that – I cannot grasp that people are willing to throw that much money at her for something that says at the bottom of her website in very small print, “For entertainment purposes only,” and for someone who was absolutely so demonstrably wrong in her claims (as I illustrated here and here). A three-hour reading from her costs more than my month’s rent.

Third – and this is more minor – you get experience picking through arguments in a logical, methodical way.

And for me, that’s really enough. If (1) the person has a name for themselves and an audience, and (2) there actually is harm being done – in this case separating people from their money during a recession – then I think they’re fair game. It doesn’t matter whether they’re on the fringe of their particular field. You still get the experience of debunking someone, and hopefully some of the people being harmed will at least begin to doubt what they’re about to do. If by my blog posts I have stopped one person from contacting Terry Nazon for a reading, then I will be pretty happy and consider it worth it.

Similarly, despite using some of the more fringe claims of 2012 and Planet X stuff to address some of the more basic claims people make, my blog generally gets ~150-250 hits a day from people searching for information on the subject, or linking to my blog from forums or bulletin boards as a resource to learn what’s really not going to happen. I have actually received e-mails from people who say that they were very worried and my blog helped them to calm down from the hysteria that they were approaching. And of course the Comments section posts are nice, too.

What Do You Think?

This is where I normally sum up my position, but I think I already did that. Rather, I’ll use this quick ending to ask you, the reader, what do you think about this? Should people bother to spend time debunking more fringe claims in a field? Or is it just a waste of time? Please answer in the Comments!

5 Comments »

  1. This is a very good question and probbaly not one that is easily, or succintly, summarised.

    My immediate thoughts are probably not far removed from your own, in that ‘it depends’. It depends on so much, like what it is that should or shouldn’t be debunked, and how important that subject is to the debunker. The New Atheists seem to be asking themselves this question too, with some saying religion is bad full stop, and others being more moderate in there response and advising caution.

    My feeling is that once you start telling people what is right and wrong and what they can belive or not you are treading into dangeroous territory at which the extreme is dictatorship at its worst.

    Yes people who hold view that are demonstrably wrong, they should be challenged on that, and corrected if possible, especially if they are actively misleading others down the same road. When it comes to the fringe I think friendship should trump ideology because if all we do is hang around with people who share our own beliefs then we are fostering extremism. Its only by exposing ourselves to those who beleive other things that we are able to have our own beliefs challenged and checked.

    Comment by limey — March 9, 2010 @ 4:07 am | Reply

  2. I do think it is occasionally productive to debunk the more fringe claims, but personally I find that skeptics go after the fringe edge of pseudoscience much more often than they really should. Often I find myself wanting a refutation of the most reasonable interpretation of claim X, but skeptics will go after the silliest version. Although it’s fun, educational, and in Nazan’s case potentially very productive to go after the “weird ones”, ultimately this approach gives too much wiggle room for the pseudoscience and too much room to accuse the skeptics of being unfair. Hence your astrology practicing friend can just say Nazan is one of the hacks, sort of like how some scientists commit fraud; meanwhile, there is no real evidence for the validity of any form of astrology.

    All that said, as you pointed out sometimes the ridiculous stuff is really important to refute. I remember back in 2001 or so (I was thirteen) being terrified of the now abandoned prediction that some rogue planet would pass earth and wreak all sorts of destruction in 2003 (I heard it on Coast to Coast, of course. Loved that show back then). Even today it frightens people, usually children and teens it seems, so the “fringe” causes real harm (loosely defined) in the main stream.

    So, well, it depends. I greatly enjoy what you do with this blog, but with a slight change of tack it might be more broadly successful. But sometimes you just want to have fun/go through something methodically. Ultimately it is a preference.

    Comment by Nasikabatrachus — March 10, 2010 @ 1:29 pm | Reply

  3. The main problem with debunking fringe beliefs seems to be (from reading the blogs) that they do not use science as their method, ie. repeatable evidence. When asked to produce evidence they seem to use the “I really really believe it” arguement, and so the discussion goes nowhere.

    Having said that the scientific arguements are limited by their own methods. Speculation just does not seem to be allowed and the basic case is the only evidencable case. EG The oldest thing we found at Stonehenge was a coke can so we can only prove an age of at least fifty years. It puts science in a straight jacket which they have to wear to prevent belief dominating science. Inspite of this we know present science is destined to be proved wrong. Evidence dark matter, dark energy, dark flow. Non of which can be detected but must exist for any of the other material phenomena to make sense eg gravity being strong enough to produce the structure we see in the universe.

    I don’t know where science goes from there but it does have a problem which is what the ‘fringe’ belief system prey upon.

    Comment by Sarah — March 11, 2010 @ 4:29 am | Reply

  4. I wanted to add something now that a few of you have responded. This is not a direct response/reaction to any of you, except possibly Nasikabatrachus. One reason that I tend to go after more of the fringe claims – Flat Earthers (though that was one post), Billy Meier / Michael Horn, apparently this astrologer – is because I get a lot of ideas for this blog by listening to Coast to Coast AM and they tend to have a lot of fringe people on.

    Another reason is that while there are more “mainstream” claims – such as UFOs in general, astrology in general – there is no one view of them to go after. Everyone has their own ideas, just like 2012/PlanetX. I spent a month doing over a dozen posts on 2012 and Planet X and going through most of the main claims about them by using various people and their claims as case studies. In my estimation, astrology would require similar treatment, while UFOs would require significantly more time. And I honestly don’t really have the time at the moment.

    It’s the same with creationism in astronomy. So many claims, which are really just pointing out (usually) where “secular” astronomers learn something new that shows they were wrong before. Hence why I generally just make new posts about them when I see a new article over at ICR or AiG dealing with astronomy. And the Moon Hoax … same thing.

    Is there a better way to go about this that you think would make this blog better?

    Comment by astrostu206265 — March 11, 2010 @ 10:11 am | Reply

  5. You should check your own grammar.

    Comment by Petra66 — July 10, 2011 @ 10:31 am | Reply


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