Debunking debunking

09 May

I don’t like the words “debunked” or “debunking”. They seem to be invoked often, and by simply stating them you have somehow disproved your opponent and won the argument. What does debunking mean?

Here is an example. There are two bloggers, Joe and Roger. Roger has made a claim. Joe disagrees with that claim. Now, Joe is presented with two choices:

1. Joe can point out how Roger is wrong, opening a dialogue with Roger and discussing the issue. This is called discourse, discussion, or communication. It might get heated but both sides have a say and readers can decide for themselves whether or not Roger’s claim was false.

2. Joe can point out how Roger is wrong, call his claim “debunked”, and never discuss the issue again. Or, if Joe decides to discuss Roger’s claim, he’ll simply refer to it as “debunked” and dismiss it. This is called debunking. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether or not Roger’s claim was accurate based solely on Joe’s debunking.

Claims of ‘debunked’ or ‘debunking’ are an attempt to claim that your opponent’s position is utterly and hopelessly wrong, with no value whatsoever. End of story.

It’s childish. Simply pointing out the errors in someone’s position does not automatically dismiss it. What if those errors aren’t really errors, and the debunker has made a mistake? You need to get a response from the person you are criticizing before you settle the issue! And even if you do find an error, does that error necessarily make then entire claim/paper/study worthless?

To be sure I wasn’t being hypocritical, I searched back through my blog for the term “debunked”. As far as I can tell, I’ve never used it. I have pointed out errors in studies before, but I don’t pretend that now these reports are “debunked”. I personally wouldn’t rely on those studies, and I suggest that others don’t, but I don’t throw on that label as if my word is the final arbiter of accuracy.

However, other bloggers have no problem with using that label. You might have already guessed, but the Joe vs. Roger example above is based in reality. Joe Romm of Climate Progress has gone debunk-crazy over some of Roger Pielke Jr.’s claims. I won’t get into details (it really seems like quite a boring contention), but Romm’s use of the debunking terminology has reached dizzying heights. Here is the article. All from that article (links not included):

Roger Pielke, Jr. has repeated on his website several false accusations against Al Gore from 2 years ago, which I debunked here and here.

Pielke remains one of the most debunked people in the blogosphere:
[List of his debunkings]

One of Pielke’s most famous false claims in 2009 concerns one slide Gore used in his famous PowerPoint presentation. That false claim led to NYT reporter Andy Revkin falsely equating George Will with Al Gore in an infamous article, “In Climate Debate, Exaggeration Is a Pitfall,” which I debunked at the time.

I am amazed that Pielke would repeat his false claims now — and quote Gore’s office in his defense. He knows that Gore’s office utterly debunked those charges two years ago, and I assume he must know that I would call Gore’s office to confirm once again that Pielke’s entire characterization is false. And I did.

The breakthrough bunch — which includes Pielke and Matt Nisbet — have a very specific false narrative about Gore that is essential to their “blame the victim” attacks on environmentalists and scientists. They want to convince people that environmentalists in general and Gore in particular have knowingly exaggerated the science and purposefully pursued a polarizing message. It isn’t true, and that’s why I’m going to debunk it again. I will deal with Nisbet’s false narrative on this later, though it bears repeating that 2 of the 5 original expert reviewers Nisbet chose disputed his attack on Gore.

There is no way to explain just how utterly false this all is in a short post. That’s because three separate things that need debunking:

Pielke’s original false accusation on his blog about what Gore said (debunked here)
Revkin’s spinning it up into a major NY Times article accusing Gore of “exaggeration” (debunked here)
Pielke’s counterfactual history of events, which you just read

There you have it. It is so easy to see why Joe is right. Look how many times Romm has debunked Pielke! It is obvious that Pielke has no leg to stand on any longer after that vicious round of debunking.

I can’t pick on Romm though. A quick google search reveals that in the online climate change discussion, Romm is far from alone in his use of the term. It is everywhere. What does this mean?

I think it is proof that much of the discussion is really just talking past each other. When someone debunks another, they aren’t looking for a discussion. They are looking to end the discussion on their own favorable terms.

Pointing out errors is essential if we want to know the truth about climate change, but only if coupled with discussion of those errors. Without discussion, we look only at how valid the entirely of the claim/paper/study is, and we don’t even attempt to understand the particular issues being discussed.

A good real world example is the Nisbet paper. Romm came out immediately and “debunked” it. Then the discussion became about the validity of the paper as a whole, instead of having a discussion about the actual details of the paper. If we only debunk instead of discuss, we are ignoring any potentially beneficial information within.

Shutting down discussion by debunking might be the goal of those who use the term. If not, I think they should reconsider the impact it has on the discussion. It boils down to this:

Person A: Hey did you see that new report by X? He brought up the interesting issue of Y. I think that if you look at the numbers….

Person B: …No, that was debunked by C.

Person A: Oh. Nevermind.


Posted by on May 9, 2011 in Uncategorized


3 responses to “Debunking debunking

  1. Donna Laframboise

    May 11, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    I’m with you. The word “debunked” is used so frequently it has become meaningless. I always thought it stood for a really unusual, really thorough trashing of a position. The kind that occurs only rarely.

    But these days, anyone who disagrees with someone else seems to think they have, by definition, debunked them. Childish.

  2. offdb

    October 18, 2011 at 7:35 am

    I am amazed that Pielke would repeat his false claims now — and quote Gore’s office in his defense. He knows that Gore’s office utterly debunked those charges two years ago, and I assume he must know that I would call Gore’s office to confirm once again that Pielke’s entire characterization is false. And I did.


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