Science is not a pick and mix

Potholer54 has a another brilliant YouTube video called How to Argue with Assholes. It’s entertaining and clever and provides some good advice when faced with arguments that, in his words, make you want to chew off your own leg. Some of the main points are:

* Don’t treat your adversary like an asshole
* Don’t argue with them
* Be polite and ask questions
* Ask for sources
* Play dumb and be respectful

He groups creationists with climate change “Skeptics” and explains that accepting evolution but not climate change is not something to be proud of: science is not a pick and mix. Here’s a quote from the video:

Now you’ll notice that I’m lumping all these various junk science beliefs together even though I often get emails from people who tell me they accept the theory of evolution but not the theory of plate tectonics or climate change. That’s like telling me you believe witches fly on broomsticks but you’re not gullible enough to believe tooth fairies leave money under pillows. That’s not something to be proud of. Science isn’t a pick and mix based on your religious or ideological beliefs.

But the reason I lump you altogether for the purpose of this video is that your approach in arguing your case is exactly the same no matter what scientific theory you don’t like:
* Cherry-pick or distort the evidence to fit the conclusion you’ve already reached.
* Get your science information from blogs that share your beliefs and never check them.
* Find a couple of experts who disagree with the majority of researchers and quote them endlessly to give the impression the scientific community is divided.
* Get someone with Dr or Professor in front of his name and pretend he’s an expert even if he’s never published anything in his supposed field of expertise.
* Say that all you want is for both sides to be heard.
* Draw a petition of scientists who support your case even if they have no qualifications in the relevant field – how to explain the fact that few scientific papers support your case? Claim censorship!

The main take-home message for me is: Don’t argue with them!

27 thoughts on “Science is not a pick and mix

  1. I love this. It begs the question as to how much of one’s day one should devote to engaging with the scientifically challenged, but I guess some of us have to, especially as we find that they are not confined to the blogosphere – the same abuse of science and argument are to be found by ‘mainstream’ writers in The Times, Wall Street Journal and even The Independent (eg. Dominic Lawson, the Lord of Denial).

    It is also worth looking back to how others used to confront fallacies in argument. It is an old discipline.

    The sadly out of print, but once very popular little book by Thouless, “Straight and Crooked Thinking” ( ) contains a wealth of crooked ways to argue and how to counter them. I often think it would be a good project to process the articles published by the Lawsons and others and run it passed the Thouless tests, but perhaps augmented with a little bit of a Potholer update for the blogosphere.

    Thanks again Rachel for the share. Happy cycling.

    1. Richard,

      He didn’t say we shouldn’t engage with the scientifically challenged, just that we shouldn’t argue with them. There’s a difference. Arguing will only drive you nuts whereas asking them probing questions will hopefully make them think and if not, anyone listening to their answers will realise they’re full of shit.

      Straight and Crooked Thinking looks great! I’ll have to find some time to read it. Thanks!

  2. Thanks Rachel for this insightful post. It came seconds after I had read a thread of comments about the Brazilian presidential elections, which discouraged me. There were lots of misinformed journalists, playing last second political scientists, using the power of their brandname to spread opinions that had no objective or factual data to support them. Worse even was to know that there are enough evidences to prove them wrong but they keep inciting hatred amongst people and creating divisions in the country. Exactly as you very well described.

    1. I’m glad you liked it. It’s frustrating reading nonsense in the media especially from journalists who have a code of ethics to be objective and use reliable sources so they can report the facts.

    1. True. But it just doesn’t work that way. I’ll often let people have the last word when I think what they’re saying is complete nonsense and I can’t be bothered continuing a discussion with them.

  3. A few years ago I saw some research results to the effect that at the root of what drives (or enables, perhaps) deniers is their pleasure centers being activated by assertion of falsehoods. I’ll try to locate it.

      1. No. I’d tried once before, too. The study wasn’t specifically about climate, and the obvious search terms pick up the (vast) addiction literature. But I’ve never read Mooney’s “Republican Brain” book, so this is an excuse to do so and see if it picked up that study. The book is from 2012, so perhaps not, but hopefully one or more of the citations will provide a path to access it or similar work.

  4. I don’t agree and want my money back. 🙂

    Quite right, engage but don’t argue. Unfortunately we have to engage otherwise they perpetrate their nonsense on others. Often it’s fear of anything they cannot handle and/or understand and/pr control. Such things make them feel diminished. Pathetic isn’t it.

    1. Is that what it is? Fear? We all lie to ourselves a little bit but some people do it more than others and some people probably aren’t aware they’re doing it. I read Dan Ariely’s book “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty” and it was very eye-opening. He’s got a good talk about it:

  5. It’s an amusing and entertaining video from potholer54 as always, but I’m afraid not of much use when it come to the more sophisticated varieties of denier.

  6. there is perhaps also a good rule of thumb.. don’t make videos calling people you don’t like/disagree withwhatever, calling them names on the internet… because people will just think you are what you say. whilst videos might speak well to the tribe, but the average member of th epublic will just think what of ‘you’ exactly?

    bit like – Deniers – Halls of Shame – fun for the tribe, but ever so counterproductive..

    1. I suppose he could have titled the video “How to argue with people who reject science in favour of whacky theories” but it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. It’s not specifically about climate “Skeptics” by the way. Most the examples in the video are creationists.

      1. Yes and no.

        Ultimately the purpose of a discussion is to communicate, yet the purpose of these people is to block communication.

        More times than I can count I’ve beaten my head on the “Where did you get that?” wall. Its like they’ve been instructed en mass, not to say anything. Potholer asked one guy 19 times (several pages) before finally resorting to making up an answer? I’m not that patient, and it is time consuming.

        So for splatting some bullshit in a comment thread (i.e. “James Hansen really said there was no Global Warming in his 1988 paper”), a denier can spread a meme, fill a comment section with crap, bluster till he’s blue. If I take the time to locate or understand what he’s up to, its time consuming and it tries my patience. To top it off they will still argue there point even if handed a link, and a quote saying the exact opposite.

        I’ve recently tried a number of techniques other than being my usual obnoxious self. Miker613’s techniques were awesome he was well rehearsed. “I don’t understand the math but the math is seriously wrong…” “Don’t tell me, I’m just the messenger…” I have had some luck in just making stuff up. It’s less stressful, and takes no effort. For the first time in my life, I told a denier to find his own source. I mean.. if he’s an expert in the area, he should know. Right? 🙂

        This was me being very very polite… it went no where.

        Whatever I do, it seems that their goal is own the internets, and fill them with memes. Nonstop. It is that which I am concerned about. If you don’t play then they all seem to hang out and fling poo at pretty much everything.

      2. I don’t have the patience either and try not to have discussions with Skeptics anymore. They are futile. It’s like trying to reason with someone who doesn’t vaccinate their kids. I’ve had disagreements with people in this group before and they have lots of similarities with climate Skeptics.

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