A Guide to Giving Airtime to Cranks – part 1 of many

I’m no media expert; I leave such matters in the hands of the producers and interviewers I have worked with. My only areas of expertise, formally, are in teaching critical thinking (and the philosophy of science) and the epistemology of conspiracy theories.

That being said, I’m not just an interested amateur when it comes to the presentation of ideas in the media; due to my speech hesitancy I have had over a decade of speech therapy and drama training, a large proportion of which was aimed at making me not only a rhetorically-successful public speaker but also a speech writer (my speech coach, Elspeth Hitchings, wanted me to write political speeches. I shudder to think for what purpose). I was also trained as a debater, and I was always made to argue against positions I supported; I was trained, from an early age, to be a Devil’s Advocate ((Which is a shame, as the Roman Catholic Church no longer uses them and thus I have no job opportunity there any longer)).

This is why, on Twitter last night, I was incredibly scathing of John Campbell’s interview with Ken Ring, an astrologer who claims he predicted the recent Christchurch earthquake/aftershock. Campbell harangued Ring and came off looking angry and arrogant in front of a calm and collected Ken Ring. Given that I think I have a justified belief that Ring is a crank, this displeased me.

So, here are some pointers for future interviewers of cranks. As I said, I’m not a qualified expert on this matter, so, like Ken Ring’s “predictions,” these are just my opinions ((Opinion which, admittedly, have been formed from years of debating and analysing conspiracy theorists and their like.)).

Point 1. You cannot debate a crank

Cranks have more data than you, the journalist. Cranks have, by the time they are worthy of making the news, engaged in debates with qualified experts. You, as a journalist, are probably not a qualified expert. You might have some incredibly talented researchers working for you and you might have the time and be able to bone up on some of the details in the few hours you have as preparation, but you will not have the array of data at your finger-tips that the crank has and is used to. Expect to find that every time you say “Authority X has said this” that the crank will be able to provide three counterexamples, one to show that the authority isn’t an authority, one to show that other authorities disagree with that authority and one to show that the authority has been inconsistent in what they have said.

Point 2: Cranks think anecdotes trump data-sets

What the crank asserts as counter-examples to your argument might not be true or plausible or even very logical. The crank might make stuff up, confuse issues, or mistake what some authority has said. It doesn’t matter; even if you can say “But, Mr. Crank, I have the data right here!” or “This is what the best minds of our day believe!” the crank will respond by moving on to another anecdote, upon which they will splurge more and more data (inaccurate or not).

Cranks are not interested in arguments based upon good inferences ((This, I admit, is a gross generalisation.)) and plausible data-sets; they like anecdotal data which looks to undermine some official theory and which they can use to claim that their own theory must be better.

Point 3: Cranks with theories will out talk you

As I noted before, cranks who make the news are more than likely to be used to debate with experts. If they have a theory, then they will have jargon to go with that theory. Cranks who have theories often use jargon in non-standard ways. If you challenge them on their theory they can either claim that you do not understand the theory or that you are not giving them enough time to explain it a way that a layperson will understand.

Point 4: You can hoist a crank by his petard

The most effective way to counter a crank is not to argue with her but ask her questions that will expose just how inconsistent her views are. This, with respect to the soundbite or the ten minute interview, is your only option. Look for the inconsistencies in their theory (or get your researcher(s) to do that) and ask questions to which you already know what their answer will be so you can ping them with “But if you think that X is the case, why do you also say not-X?” or “If that’s true, why doesn’t this example fit your theory?” If you can get the crank to twist herself in knots over her own theory and you can do it with the voice of calm reasonableness, you might make it out of the interview not just with your dignity but also with a small victory.

Right, back to thesis writing.


Ross Marsden says:

Good information and good advice.

Hodo Kwaja says:

Fantastic! Thank you for this article and this blog.

It’s funny, I often do exactly what you recommend when debating cranks – examine their ideas closely and find the inevitable flaws and contradictions. They will always be there because the crank’s worldview is like a bird’s nest constructed out of fragments and scraps that sounded good at the time.

However I’ve always felt sort of lazy about using this technique even if it works. I wonder if what the world needs is a central CT debunking database. There are already several such sites that debunk scientific crankery. I’d love to see a site that does the same for LaRouche / Webster Tarpley / Alex Jones and their lesser known allies – showing the genealogy of CT and the relationships between Birchers, LaRouchism, Protocols based anti-illuminism like William Guy Carr etc. Chip Berlet’s site is pretty good for this but it’s very disorganized.

If you’ve ever browsed the conspiracy forum at JREF you’ll notice that much of the time cranks and their ideas are dismissed out of hand. I think this is a profoundly bad approach because it lends credence to the conspiracist’s likely rejoinder that the skeptics are closed minded and perhaps frightened of examining his theories in detail.

Anyways, just a few thoughts… thanks again for this blog!

I must admit I find the JREF forums to be very frustrating; many of the posters have an instant “That’s a conspiracy theory dismissal” response to some claims and a lot of the posters are also fairly ignorant of the scientific method and the various issues inherent to it.

What we need is a wiki about conspiracy theories, ideally one that deals with both vapid conspiracy theories and warranted ones (like the explanation of the Moscow Show Trials) so there is a resource readily available for skeptics, conspiracy theorists, historians and the like to work with.

Edward says:

Sounds like a good idea to me Matthew, perhaps someone should set one up? What is the wikipedia entry on conspiracy theories (and sublinks to case studies) like?

It’s not bad as Wikipedia articles go, but fairly broad and not particularly deep.

Edward says:

I only just watched the Campbell footage…not near as bad as Brian Edwards suggested in the Herald, but still quite a train reck (even if I do agree with what Campbell said). I don’t know why they bothered giving it airtime/oxygen. Turned into a bit of a streisand effect. By the by, I like Ring’s claim that a rugby player doesn’t require formal tertiary study so hence neither does a seismologist. It’s like a mixture of anecdote with illogic…anillogic?