Wednesday, September 10, 2008

CRNU on "The Agenda!" ...And the whole “we have no idea what we’re talking about” thing

Our debate on Toronto’s popular current affairs program The Agenda went spectacularly and I had a lot of fun working with Jefferson Flanders. For those keeping score, general consensus among viewers so far is that the skeptics won, though after debates there are always things you wish you could’ve said better (the skeptics definitely let the conspiracy theorists off when it came to the ridiculous “war games” claims). These same viewers also brought up another point that is probably more important: no one on the show was in any way qualified to be saying what they were saying.

As one poster on the show’s forum wrote:

if you are going to do an oddball topic, at the very least please round up a credible panel of people with some real expertise. The only upside to this group was that it gives me a start on some new joke material. A religious studies instructor, a journalist and a blogger walk into a bar...

This is a trenchant (if sarcastically-phrased) insight that I’ve had to clarify many times. I’m not an expert and I hope none of my fellow skeptic friends are claiming to be experts (unless they are!). Michael Keefer and Graeme MacQueen aren’t experts, either – not when it comes to complex structural engineering, the physics of disasters, or the inner workings of the highest branches of government. I’m not an expert on any of these.

What I am an expert on, however, is knowing that something I just heard sounds fishy.

We live on a planet populated by believers in UFOs, tasseography, homeopathy, Bigfoot, free energy, estoerics, AIDS denial, telepathy, anti-vaccinationism; by people who believe there were government conspiracies to kill John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Tupac; by people who have at some point or another in their lives surrendered intellectually to Stalinism, theocracy, juche, personality cults, militias. If you lack the ability to simply say “HUH?” when you hear something that offends your sensibilities, your chances of passing on your genes on this planet are probably significantly diminished. That’s what Jefferson Flanders and I do: we go, “wait a second, that doesn’t sound right.”

It’s as much an indictment of the conspiracy theorists that their supposed “evidence-based” claims about the physics of 9/11 can evidently be fundamentally undermined by laymen, one of whom is a college undergrad. There were two main questions that popped up in response to our appearance on the show: the first was, “why are these guys qualified at all?” The second was, “why are we even pretending that these amateur conspiracy theories are worth fifty-two minutes out of our day?”

But that’s just an aside. The fundamental fact is that I went on this show and said what I thought was correct because I looked into the claims those guys made and found them to be utterly wrong to the degree that I could learn about them. You don’t need advanced degrees to feel like you’ve just listened to a ranting conspiracy theorist. You just need basic skeptical faculties to know when it’s time to speak up. I'm no expert – they have better things to do. I'm just some kid who happens to know when he's being had.

If someone defends themselves by claiming you're "not an expert," courteously remind them that that has nothing to do with whether or not they're utterly full of bologna.


Jim said...

Well stated. I have a website debunking the Moonlanding hoax hoax ( and run into many of the same issues. And, like 9/11, the hoax and conspiracy claims are almost trivial to debunk. I do have an advantage on you, apparently. I consider myself an expert on the Apollo program, having studied it since I watched it happen live on TV as a child and I am now a Planetary Scientist thanks to the inspiration Apollo provided.

GoodNewsAtheism said...

Word on the street is that the skeptics trounced the truthers rather handidly

b. j. edwards said...

The psychology, motivation, and methodology of 9/11 Denial is no different than that of flat-earth believers, Holocaust deniers, moon-landing hoax believers, and every other nonsensical conspiracy theory beleivers. Only the subject matter differs.