What Do Plausible Explanations Really Debunk? Nothing

Debunked: True or False?

Debunked: True or False?

Check into any argument between extremist groups divided over any given set of topics and it won’t take you long to find examples of one side “debunking” the other side’s arguments with plausible explanations. Plausible explanations are tools employed in pseudoscientific debatery to discredit ideas and/or distract attention away from inconvenient statements. Plausible explanations fall into that category of pseudoscientific tricks where you can find Occam’s Razor, demands for citations, and creating reasonable doubt.

When people set out to “debunk” ideas they disagree with they may very easily be thinking of the wrong word. In classic dictionary definitions the word debunk means “to expose the falseness of an idea”. In order to prove that an idea is false you have to prove that something which directly contradicts it is true. Not every idea can be tested for falsifiability by today’s credible scientific methods.

For example, you cannot prove either of these statements true:

  1. There is a God
  2. There is no God

Logic tells us that by common agreement of the approximate meaning of “God” at most only one of these statements can be true. There either IS or is NOT a God, but today no human being can prove either statement to be true. If you could prove either statement to be true, you would be proving the other statement to be false. But even when you try to boil the argument down to two completely contradictory statements you are still running on slippery ground because you have to use a precise, iron-clad definition that everyone accepts or acknowledges, not withstanding pure stubbornness on the part of some people.

Is/Is Not falsifiability works in many cases but not in all cases simply because of the limits of our knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. You cannot use reason alone to falsify an idea that stands at least partially outside the scope of our collective human knowledge. Of course, I am only talking about scientifically verified human knowledge; there is a vast untapped wealth of human knowledge that lies beyond the reach of scientific investigation, if only because there are so few scientists, fewer scientific fields of investigation, and so many people who know something. Humanity loses a piece of human knowledge every time a person who has lived long enough to accumulate any experience (and form memories of it) dies.

So What is Plausibility?

People often claim to have debunked other people’s ideas simply by showing there are alternative plausible explanations for some phenomenon. But this is a flaw of false logic.

Let us say that you throw a baseball through your neighbor’s window. Your neighbor hears children playing outside and concludes they must have thrown the baseball. That’s a plausible explanation but it’s clearly false since you know that you threw the baseball. Now another neighbor comes along and tells your neighbor with the broken window, “My house was vandalized yesterday and they broke a window. I don’t know who did it.”

Now your neighbor with the unwanted baseball has another plausible explanation for his broken window. He might ask the kids if they were playing with the baseball and when they deny doing so without looking guilty, he concludes they are telling the truth and then deduces that it may be the same person who vandalized the other neighbor’s house.

With a believable denial from the children the first plausible explanation is debunked. But if your neighbors never ask the kids if they threw the ball, then they are left with two plausible explanations; they may conclude (reasonably) that the unknown vandal threw the baseball, thus assuming they have debunked the first idea (that the children threw the baseball).

That’s a well-organized example, conveniently fabricated to illustrate my point (which means it is not a plausible explanation). Plausibility is the degree or measurement of how believable a claim (or counter-claim) may be. But believability does not determine facts. You are not proving anything to be false by showing there is a plausible alternative explanation.

If Debunkery is Proving an Idea False, How Do You Do That?

You cannot disprove an idea on the basis of a lack of evidence. Merely pointing out that there is no evidence to support an idea does not prove the idea false. But that at least shows that it’s a pretty weak explanation for anything.

Absence of evidence neither proves nor disproves a specific assertion.

Neither can you disprove an idea by attacking the credibility of its supporting evidence. Although this is often exactly the way some people say science works, what the science is doing is challenging the science, not the idea. In other words, by discrediting the evidence used to support an idea all you accomplish is to restore the idea to a previous state of unprovenness.

Discrediting evidence neither proves nor disproves a specific assertion.

What you have to do is condense or refine the idea into a theory, a rational explanation of what the idea represents and how it is supposed to work. By creating a theory you transform an idea into something that can be tested for falsifiability.

Composing a theory is not so simple. What most people call “theories” are in fact hypotheses or mere conjectures. A theory requires more than just a conjecture at what will happen if you push the big red button. A theory calls for fundamental or axiomatic information that is indisputable. These axioms (there can be as few as one) are the starting point for your theory. Your theory has to explain how one or more axiomatic things produce a result such as that predicted by your conjecture.

When we say things like, “In theory it should work this way” or “theoretically speaking, this should happen next” we are often really using a much broader meaning of the word theory, a meaning that is hybridized or blended with conjecture and hypothesis. In theory we may be using the expression correctly from time to time, but the theory is that most people don’t realize they are using words and phrases differently from the way they were originally used.

So, assuming you can compose a simple, testable theory, you begin devising tests. It’s not enough for a test to fail. The test must actually succeed in showing WHY the theory itself is failing. A theory may explain 90% of something, but if you can show definitively that the theory has failed to explain the remaining 10% then you have shown that the theory is false. It is trivial to argue that a theory so failed could be revised (they often are) but the original theory has been falsified. Your work is done.

Plausibility Does Not Falsify

Let’s take a look at a couple of common Internet controversies. We’ll start with vaccinations and children. Some people (including elected government representatives) have made statements about vaccines leading to some sort of impairment in children. This point of view has been fueled by a pseudoscientific study that was thoroughly debunked (proven false) in the 1990s (the doctor who published the study lost his medical license). Nonetheless some people today (including a few doctors) continue to associate vaccinations with impairment (or autism, among various assumed side effects) in children.

“We have seen children who were vaccinated and subsequently experienced this transformation,” they say to us. Well, we’re in no position to call them liars. Let’s assume that they did indeed know children who after receiving vaccinations began showing signs of some form of impairment. The association of impairment with recent previous vaccination is a plausible explanation, but it does not disprove the safety of vaccinations (which has been measured through countless medical studies and reviews).

The plausible explanation itself, in order to be true, must be confirmable through credible, scientific investigation. If you fire a gun with your bare hand, then throw the gun aside, are subsequently arrested, and the investigators find the residue on your hand and match it with residue from the gun, they have established a credible connection between you and the gun. The plausible explanation that it was YOU who fired the gun has been proven (of course in a real investigation ALL the evidence will be collected and, hopefully, properly evaluated).

So people who believe that vaccines are causing problems in children need to bring the science to show that their plausible explanation is true. Otherwise nothing is proven or disproven.

Another controversy is the alleged existence of ghosts. You have paranormal societies all around the world sharing on the Internet evidence they have collected from their investigations into alleged hauntings. A lot of people, unconvinced by the presented evidence, attempt to debunk it by showing there are plausible explanations for the recorded phenomena (such as car lights passing through windows, unbalanced floors, warped door-frames, natural electrical phenomena, etc.).

While it’s true that some spectacular video footage has been shown to be false simply through careful examination of the videos themselves, attempts to recreate some of these events via special effects trickery only serve to show there is more than one possible explanation for what is being shown. Again, nothing is disproven, nothing is proven true.

The claims remain unscientific because the investigations themselves are unscientific, but the fact that a claim is unscientific does not make it false. You cannot debunk something merely by pointing out that the method of investigation was faulty. You have to show there is contrary evidence which disproves the claim being made.

But an unscientific reconstruction of a proposed event is no more reliable than the original evidence. You can take any famous stage magician and have him walk you through the steps he would take to create a convincing illusion; that creates a plausible explanation. But to debunk the original claim you have to show how the event itself happened (and this is often impossible to do, and that is why so many paranormal claims can never be scientifically debunked).

The science does not support the plausible explanation any more than it supports the original claim. Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that a body of scientists prove beyond all doubt by 2025 that ghosts exist. We will further assume these scientists develop all sorts of equipment and mathematical proofs that can be reliably used to show that ghosts exist. Hooray for people who believe in ghosts! They win the argument.

However, none of the evidence (not yet debunked, or proven false) collected in all the decades and centuries prior to the scientists’ own investigations proves anything and that evidence would therefore remain in the category of “unconfirmed and undebunked”. Scientific confirmation of the idea that ghosts exist would not necessarily vindicate all previous claims of hauntings and spirit communications.

In fact, we have a lot of evidence to show that many of these claims were indeed false. But the fact that many such claims were debunked does not mean that all such claims are false. It just doesn’t work that way.

If you want to prove that all claims of any specific nature are false you must thoroughly investigate and debunk them all, one by one. There is no one-argument-beats-all-claims in true debunkery.

Debunkery is limited to the available evidence and limited by the available methods for discovery and evaluation. A lot of these claims simply cannot be proven false.

But the fact that they cannot be proven false does not in any way prove them true or inch them toward being proven true. If you have a False-o-Meter that moves from (-1, FALSE) to (0, undebunked/unproven) to (+1, TRUE) then for every claim that cannot be proven false the meter is reset to 0 until such time as it can be proven true. That is just the way it works.

Debunkery is Not the Exclusive Right of the Skeptic

By “skeptic” I do NOT mean anyone who identifies him- or herself with that loosely knit community of people who have been inspired by people like James Randi to seek out the truth and debunk the falsehood. By “skeptic” I simply mean anyone who, when presented with a claim they find unbelievable, demands proof before they will believe the claim.

You have the right to demand proof before accepting the claim you doubt. But you cannot use such a demand for proof to disprove anything. Oftentimes when people make a statement of fact in the “heat of battle”, as it were, someone will step in and immediately demand some sort of citation to back up the statement.

Citation-based challenges are a way to set people up for failure. After all, if you are presented with the citation you demand you can then argue with the citation. This is, unfortunately, a logical trap that backfires on the trapper. In other words, you discredit yourself by resorting to such trickery. Who are you, after all, to dispute a cited source?

Now, in the course of many arguments and debates we often find ourselves presented with citations for which we can point to counter-citations. Studies versus studies, scientific hypotheses versus scientific hypotheses, claims of debunkery versus claims of extraordinary things. In a fair and unbiased discussion all such claims and counter-claims are subject to the same level of scrutiny and vulnerable to the same kinds of challenges.

For example, pointing to a book by a self-confessed fraud (wherein the fraudster explains in meticulous detail how the fraudulent activity was conducted year after year) does not disprove the extraordinary claims someone else may make, even if those claims are exactly the same claims that the self-confessed fraudster made. If CHARLIE claims to be psychic and does public psychic readings 100 times a year, you cannot debunk Charlie’s claims by handing out copies of DAVID’s book wherein he explains how he made $499,000 through posing as a psychic.

You have to catch CHARLIE in the act to debunk Charlie’s claims.

There is value in teaching people to be skeptical of extraordinary claims, and using past examples of debunked pseudoscience and self-confessed frauds is a very good way to help people see that things are not always as they seem. But you cross the line when you imply or claim that you have debunked an idea simply because you have proposed a plausible explanation (such as “if Charlie was a fraudster then most likely David is a fraudster too”).

Frustrating as it may seem, you and everyone else may have to wait 30-50 years before David is exposed as a fraud, but he may never be proven a fraud. Your disbelief doesn’t make that so, whether David claims to be psychic or to have found a miracle cure for cancer.

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