“All truth comes from public debate”: A corollary to crank magnetism

A long, long time ago in a ScienceBlogs far, far away (well, it seems that way anyway, given the halcyon times back then before Pepsigate), Mark Hoofnagle coined the term “crank magnetism.” It was a fantastic term used to describe how susceptibility to one form of quackery, pseudoscience, or just plain crankery tended to be associated with other forms of quackery, pseudoscience, or crankery. It explains why so many creationists tend to be into quackery and/or antivaccinationism, why so many 9/11 Truthers also tend to flirt with Holocaust denial or anthropogenic global warming denialists go birther, why so many quacks tend to be susceptible to the anti-GMO hysteria, creationism, and anthropogenic global warming denialism. The examples are legion, and I’ve documented quite a few of them over the last eight years, as have many other skeptical bloggers. Sometimes, many, many forms of crankery congregate in a single individual, such as Michael Egnor, whose activity led to a corollary to the principle of crank magnetism, namely the “vindication of all kooks,” which implies that, if one kook or crank is ever vindicated, then science is hopelessly screwed up and they all could be vindicated. It’s all of a piece with the unified theory of the crank.

There’s another corollary, though, that I’ve been thinking about this week. Unfortunately, it brings us back to Stanislaw Burzynski, but I can’t help it. Basically, it’s what I like to refer to as the “all truth comes from live public debate” corollary to crank magnetism. Many are the examples when I’ve come across this corollary. For instance, just last week, antivaccine guru Andrew Wakefield challenged Dr. David Salisbury to a “live public debate” about whether the MMR vaccine causes autism or not. (Hint to Wakefield: It doesn’t.) Indeed, it was this incident that was echoing in my fragile eggshell mind when I came across the same behavior just last night. Other examples regular readers might remember through they years include Suzanne Somers’ doctor, antivaccinationist, and all around supporter of all things quacking, Julian Whitaker, debating Steve Novella at FreedomFest last summer; an HIV-AIDS denialist trying to trick me into a “debate” with HIV-AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore back in 2007; Michael Shermer’s “debate” with Deepak Chopra; antivaccine propagandist David Kirby debating author Arthur Allen; and, of course, antivaccine activist Nick Haas’ challenge to have a blogger from Science-Based Medicine do a live public debate about vaccines. As I’ve pointed out before, time and time again, I don’t “debate” cranks, at least not live on stage in such artificial events, because such events (1) make it appear that there is an actual scientific debate when there is not and (2) give the crank the freedom to Gish gallop to his or her heart’s content.

This very same corollary is on display in spades among Burzynski followers right now. Well, at least it’s on display in spades among at least one Burzynski follower plus a couple of his fans, but the others are picking it up. It began with the Twitter rantings of a former commenter here, Didymus Judas Thomas (DJT). Most of you probably recall DJT. He was a commenter so prolifically annoying and trolling that he actually earned one of the very rare, very coveted (among cranks, at least) Respectful Insolence ban hammers. I know, I know, it’s amazing! Only maybe four or five commenters in the entire eight-plus year history of this blog have ever achieved this level of troll greatness, and often it took many moons, but Didymus did it in a mere month or two. In any case, DJT quickly stalked off to WordPress to form his own blog, where he continued his ramblings in much the same way that he did in the comments of this blog, thus demonstrating for me that banning an obnoxious troll does not in any way harm that troll’s First Amendment rights (although it does make the comment threads so much more pleasant for the rest of us). In addition, he burns through Twitter accounts with reckless abandon. Most recently, he has appeared as @QbertQbert, where he is currently posting bizarre Twitter poetry challenging my blog bud Peter Lipson (a.k.a. PalMD, who wrote a very good post about how Eric Merola used a bogus DMCA takedown notice to remove a video by C0nc0rdance critical of The Burzynski Clinic) and The Skeptics™ to a live debate:

I kind of have to give DJT “credit” for his rather stream-of-consciousness Twitter poetry, but my puzzled pseudo-admiration for his prestidigitation with 140 characters doesn’t change the fact that he’s following a tried-and-not-so-true crank playbook. Elsewhere, on a public pro-Burzynski group called the Burzynski Facebook Patient Group, a man named Randy Hinton also called out Peter Lipson:

The only way to ever successfully deal with a growing number of medical mafia internet propaganda minister’s trying to smear and undermind Stanislaw Burzynski is to do exactly what I have tried to do for the last 24 hour’s. Call these maggot’s out and publically dare them to debate the topic of ANP verses chemotherapy in front of a large live audience with no restriction’s or sensoring of information or statement’s. Multiple attempt’s yesterday to get Peter Lipson who wrote that pile of crap in Forbes to agree to this got virtually no response. The same will true of the other pharmawhores doing the same thing all across the country right now. These INTERNET KEYBORAD GOBLIN’S will never agree to it because they cann’not CONTROL the conversation the way they do on their blog’s. CALL THEM OUT TO A PUBLIC DEBATE AT EVERY TURN.

Later in the comments after his post, Mr. Hinton says:

I have got money that say’s they run from a live debate like scared rabbit’s. I have told Eric he need’s to CALL THEM OUT!!!

Mr. Hinton is obviously referring to Eric Merola, Stanislaw Burzynski’s propagandist, who has in the past unwisely characterized your humble blogger host here as a white supremacist and someone too busy eating puppies to bother to read the scientific literature about Burzynski. I had actually never heard of Randy Hinton before in all my reading about Stanislaw Burzynski and his patients, having only first seen him in the comments of Peter’s post about the Burzynski Clinic. The reason, it turns out, is that neither Randy Hinton nor any of his family were apparently ever patients of Burzynski. This is who he is:

A little over a month ago, I personally met with newly elected Congressman Jeff Duncan of South Carolina. The meeting was organized by SC resident Randy Hinton, whose daughter died of a DIPG (diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma) brain tumor a few years ago. Randy Hinton has been a staunch supporter of Dr. Burzynski after he later realized that not a single oncologist in the state of South Carolina bothered to inform him that there was another option available to his daughter other than chemotherapy and radiation—after his daughter had already died. That coupled with the fact that a DIPG is essentially incurable with some of the only cures in history being demonstrated exclusively through Burzynski’s Antineoplastons FDA clinical trials.

As I’ve said on many, many occasions, my heart goes out to anyone who has lost a child to cancer, even someone who apparently views me as his enemy because of my skepticism and criticism of Stanislaw Burzynski. I can only imagine the pain, as I tried to do with the family of Amelia Saunders when she died. However, it must also be said that Mr. Hinton also seems to have latched on to Burzynski as the only person who could have saved his daughter. Since he seems to believe this sincerely, his anger is understandable, but just because he sincerely believes it and the pain he feels is real does not make it true. One also can’t help but note a similarity here between DJT and Mr. Hinton, but what that means I will leave to each individual reader to decide for him or herself. In any case, I don’t so much blame Burzynski patients for thinking that Burzynski saved them as Eric Merola and Stanislaw Burzynski for cynically using them as “human shields” to deflect scientific criticism and deserved criticism of their behavior. The patients’ and patients’ families’ behavior is understandable. They sincerely believe that the man who saved their lives or the lives of their loved ones is being unjustly attacked. Merola, Burzynski, and Burzynski’s other sycophants, toadies, and lackeys cynically use that sincere belief to defend themselves, in essence using patients and families as cannon fodder in their war against skeptics.

In any case, DJT and Randy Hinton demonstrate once again the “all truth comes from live public debate” corollary to crank magnetism. I’ll call it the omne verum est a forensem principle. (Latin sounds so much more cool for this, but I have no idea whether this is the best translation—or even grammatically correct; maybe Latin scholars out there can suggest better.) They seem to think that science is decided in public debates and view the quite proper reluctance among scientists like myself and skeptics to engage cranks in such spectacles as “cowardice.” It is not, but cranks continue to labor under the delusion that science is somehow decided in such forums, which are a variant of a sort of argumentum ad populum, in which something is argued to be true because it is popular or, in a debate, an argument is thought to be closer to the truth because it is more popular. Science doesn’t work that way. It is decided on evidence presented at scientific conferences and peer-reviewed journals, where the real scientific debate plays out until it is temporarily settled and scientists come to a provisional consensus. That provisional consensus, of course, is always subject to change as new observations, data, and experimental results come to light, but it takes observations, data, and experimental results to change the consensus, not “live public debates.” Such “live public debates” are meant for one thing and one thing only: To sway public opinion to a viewpoint not supported by science, in the process elevating pseudoscience or the unproven to the same plain as the scientific consensus as a scientifically viable “alternative.”

If Stanislaw Burzynski—or antivaccinationists, purveyors of “alternative medicine,” HIV/AIDS denialists, creationists, 9/11 Truthers, or the like—want to convince scientists, there is one way to do so: Publish their data and do battle where scientists normally do battle, in the scientific literature and in scientific conferences. “Live public debates” might sway a few souls when the odd hapless scientist or skeptic unprepared for the Gish gallop makes the mistake of going up against a smooth talking crank, but the scientific consensus remains unchanged. Burzynski can change my mind and the minds of my fellow Skeptics™. It just takes him publishing all the evidence from his completed phase 2 clinical trials. If we find the data compelling, we will start to rethink our positions. Skeptics thrive in uncertainty, while those whose views we criticize crave certainty. I’ve said this all along, and nothing has happened to change that. In the meantime, cranks do not deserve debate, and Eric Merola, at least, is definitely a crank.