When Debunking Goes Bad


Debunking is the process of determining natural causes for unknown phenomena. If your anti-bias detector isn’t ringing yet, going into an investigation to find only natural causes is problematic. If you look hard enough for a natural cause you can find one, even if it doesn’t fit. This is called confirmation bias. 

Compare this to a heuristic. A heuristic method like Occam’s Razor or ACH is a tool to help analyze competing hypotheses. These tools are far from perfect, but they are light-years beyond debunking. And ultimately the scientific method, which requires strict controls and testing, is the gold standard. 

Debunking is the the lowest form of investigation methodology. Debunking typically has no controls for bias, no structured process, no documentation for others to review, and overall is far too subjective to use to evaluate claims. Debunking is a great tool to fit a natural explanation to a phenomena, but it is not a fair evaluator. This of course explains why some biased skeptics love debunking – it is a great tool to find a natural cause to a claim, even if the cause doesn’t fit. 

Now there are some instances where I think debunking can be reasonably used. If the investigator can establish an exact cause-effect relationship, debunking is reasonable. In other words the investigator needs to demonstrate that the natural explanation directly results in the exact same reported phenomenon. If the natural cause produces significant deviations from the reported claim, a heuristic method should be used, or better yet, scientific testing. 

An example of this would be creaking noises caused by loose pipes. This could be demonstrated by turning on the water, or waiting for the water heater to refill and ask any witnesses if the noise generated matches what they experienced. If it does it is reasonable to say the pipes caused the creaking noises. 

Now let me give you another example: You believe creaking pipes are responsible for noises heard by the occupants of a building. You wait for the water heater to refill or open a tap to get the pipes to creak. The creaking is minor: The witnesses report being familiar with the creaking pipes and further claim that the creaking pipes do not account for the noises they experienced. In this case debunking cannot be used to develop any reasonable conclusions. 

Debunking is not useless but it should only be applied in very strict circumstances. Don’t fool yourself!