To Debunk or Not to Debunk?

Posted on by Brooke

Christopher Hays commented on my link to PaleoBabble, and my answer became  convoluted textured enough that I thought I’d bump it up into a post. Chris writes:

…imagine Dan Brown sitting on the deck of his Malibu home (or wherever he lives off all the money his craptastic books and movies earn) laughing about all the religious people “debunking” his crap.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying “debunking” makes the situation worse. It could not be worse. But damn, why add to the noise?

That is a really good point. My analogy here isn’t quite right, but for example, when some hate group publicly demonstrates, my view is that everyone should just stay the heck home and let the haters stand around by themselves. Why dignify their claims by engaging them? Why “add to the noise” as Chris says?

In the case of pseudo-scientific woo, or pseudo-historical “paleobabble,” or pseudo-linguistics, or whatever, there are for me a couple of considerations that could tilt me toward engagement:

  1. Does the misinformation threaten real harm, especially to definable groups under my care? For example, some crazy stuff on YouTube about biblical Hebrew turns out to be a platform for some ugly anti-Semitic propaganda. Further, in my Hebrew class, I am already encouraging students to search the Web for info on biblical Hebrew—the point is to give them a chance to exercise their developing skills of critical assessment. In this case, I have a responsibility to do the frankly tiresome work of anticipating some of what’s out there. Nobody to blame but myself, of course: I made my bed.

  1. Does the misinformation offer biblical studies an opportunity to raise its public profile in an attractive way? Dan Brown’s book a good example: he has already drawn the press and the crowds, all we have to do is step into the spotlight and be heard. Sadly, it turns out that a decade of graduate work in philological-linguistic biblical studies does not an able marketing executive or a sexy talking head make. Hundreds of biblical-studies folks found a familiar platform doing adult education talks at churches about Da Vinci Code, but I don’t know of any who became darlings of The View and the Today show. Still, the opportunity is there. In theory, an entertaining and attractive dialogue with the Bible woo could, over time, translate into funds for academic jobs for my ilk (cue swelling strains of “The Impossible Dream”).

All this said, Chris’s point stands as long as our engagements with bunk profit them more than us. There are some skill sets to be sharpened here, and I’d take Chris’s words as a notice that the burden is on the debunker to show that she does more good than harm with her engagement. Do any shining examples of public biblical debunking come to mind for you? Or any less-shining examples from which there are lessons to be learned?

Post coming (I promise) on pseudo-biblical-history and pseudo-Hebrew-linguistics as a species of “woo.”