The Sciences

I have arrived as a skeptic

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitJan 8, 2010 2:30 PM


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I've been a skeptic a long time, maybe 25 years or more now. It didn't happen all at once, though there have been sudden world-shift moments for me. I've been an active skeptic -- outspoken, that is, willing to talk about this stuff -- for about 10 years now. But now, finally, I feel that I have arrived at the Holy Grail of skepticism: a goofball antiscience promoter has quote mined me. Quote mining is a tradition among the antireality crowd: they find something a scientist has said, and then leave out certain words, or edit out the context, making it look like the quote is the opposite of what the actual intention was. Creationists are notorious for this, but others do it as well. On a bulletin board site called Christian Forums, there is a user who goes by the name "Agonaces of Susa", and this person has the usual antiscience CV stocked with creationism and such, but also, apparently, is a supporter of Velikovsky's ridiculous and long-ago-debunked claims about astronomy. For those of you who are happily unaware, Immanuel Velikovsky wrote a series of books decades ago saying that the events in the Bible were literally true, and caused by various astronomical things like planets careening around the solar system like billiard balls, interacting in impossible ways, and doing many impossible things. He'd have been better off just saying those were all miracles of God, but still, a lot of people swallowed his nonsense whole. It's mostly dead now, with just a few reality-denying holdouts. I wrote a chapter in my first book, Bad Astronomy, dealing with the Velikovsky affair. In this post on the forums, AoS says this little gem:

You trust the pseudoscientist Phil Plait that, these are his words, "Magnetism is...a joke in astronomy"?

Wow! That makes it seem like astronomers are idiots, doesn't it? As if we don't believe in magnetism at all, and that we think it has no role in astrophysics. But wait! Look at what he wrote. It has the magic wand of quote mining pseudoscience: the ellipsis! That means he left something out of what I said. And so what was it he left out?

Magnetism is a very important topic in astrophysics (despite some pseudoscientists lying and saying this force is ignored), but it’s not well-understood. It’s fiendishly complex, so much so that it’s a joke in astronomy: when giving a colloquium about an astronomical object’s weird features, saying it’s due to magnetism will always get a chuckle out of an audience. And it’s a standard joke that if you want to derail a talk, ask the speaker about the effects of magnetism. In three dimensions, magnetism is ferociously difficult to model.

I bolded the part that was quote mined, and as you can see, AoS completely took out of context what I was saying. He also misinterprets what I said about Velikovsky. While I did say that Velikovsky was wrong about everything, I meant that he was wrong about his science. Sure, he said Venus would be hot, but the reason he said it would be hot was completely wrong (Velikovsky claimed it was ejected whole from Jupiter, which is about the wrongest wrong you can ever wrongly wrongify). Even if you drop a shotgun you might have one pellet hit the target, but that ain't skill. That thread on the forum goes on and on, and AoS is joined by others who appear to willfully misunderstand what I'm saying, or at least pick and choose from what I've said to make it look like I'm wrong. That might work for the flock (or the Simpsons), but the rest of the world sees right through them. But will these people listen? Of course not! Because this is their arguing tactic:

Still, it's an honor to have been quote mined. Thank you, gentlemen, for reminding me just why I fight this fight every single day.

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