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Debunking (The Method)

  1. Feb 14, 2008 #1
    I am interested to know if there is a set procedure in which to follow when trying to debunk something or someone claiming to have paranormal abilities. I would have thought the method would be pretty specific to the case but there must be boxes that must be ticked for any case.

    I would be quite interested if anyone had some information on how someone would go about debunking a psychic, I am interested in how you could actually prove this, or what your results have to show to dissagree with psychic ability.

    Thanks. I know Psychics are probably talked about all the time, but this thead is trying to find the method in which someone must follow to debunk something.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 14, 2008 #2
    Probably the best debunker was James Randi since he could frequently duplicate the hoax and then show exactly how it was done. There is a pretty good site at www.randi.org

    At the end of the day, almost nobody will believe the debunking. If you have enough critical thinking ability to follow and accept the debunking demonstration, you probably weren't dumb enough to believe the hoax in the first place.

    I think the answer is pretty clear that there have been no proven psychic abilities up to this point. So, it's a lot like believing in Santa - if you do, you do; if you don't, you don't. There's no rational way to discuss an imaginary figure.
  4. Feb 14, 2008 #3
    Well that is what I thought, it probably wouldn't make a big difference if you got some well supported evidence that Psychic did not exist, as believers are not interested in changing their mind.

    After thinking about this a bit longer, you could probably debunk Psychic ability but probably not Psychic belief...

    Thank you for your help.

    Let me then change my question then, how would someone go about trying to debunk something? I will ask this as a general question, though this may be a mistkae as I don't know if you can talk about it so generally.
  5. Feb 14, 2008 #4

    Ivan Seeking

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    Scientific investigations do not include the notion of debunking. If you can test a claim, then you may or may not find evidence to support the claim. Debunking is motive based in that the intent is to show fraud or error. So this is more a fringe notion than a scientific one.

    I tend to think that reasonable people seek to explain, not debunk. Debunking is for TV shows.
  6. Feb 14, 2008 #5
    Do you mean explain an alternative for how it may work?
  7. Feb 14, 2008 #6

    Ivan Seeking

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    The idea is to approach any claim with objectivity and not a biased motive. Randi tends to debunk frauds, and that's great, but not all false claims are fraud. And sometimes stories that sound incredibly silly can make perfect sense given the proper context and information.

    As for psychic claims, I personally tend to think that there may be rare and uncontrollable psychic phenomena that don't lend well to testing because like lightning, no one knows when it will happen. The reason for this is that I have heard accounts from people that I believe in spite of the lack of repeatability or proof. I find at least a few stories more compelling than the lack of scientific evidence. But I wouldn't bet the farm on it. :biggrin:

    We have a recent thread about "psychics" who find murder victims and such. There is always a way to doubt stories like that, but there is evidence that they have some success in that bodies have been found. There is really no way to know if any of these were legitimate psychic finds or just flukes.
    Last edited: Feb 14, 2008
  8. Feb 14, 2008 #7


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    Dunno, that sounds like a pretty good description of a piece of the scientific method to me!

    Thus, the ideal way to debunk a claim is the same way you disprove any hypothesis or theory: by applying a scientific test and seeing if it fails. If it fails, then you can evaluate the failure for fraud and error.

    The problem, however, with many claims of the paranormal is that they are not debunkable because it is not possible to examine them scientifically. This is similar to the crackpot perpetual motion claims we get here regularly. We typically are not given sufficient information to scientifically evaluate the claims (we aren't going to do the tests and generally they haven't done them either). So the scientifically appropriate thing to do with a claim that can't be evaluated is to simply summarily reject the claim, but without prejudice: if better information becomes available, it can be re-evaluated.
    Last edited: Feb 14, 2008
  9. Feb 14, 2008 #8

    Ivan Seeking

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    The scientific method is about finding evidence. Debunking often involves cherry picking the evidence [which usually involves ignoring evidence] to produce an alternative explanation that can no more be proven than the original claim; and then insisting this is the real explanation when there is no way to know. This is the result of motive. And this is when we usually see an improper reference to ocham's razor.

    So perhaps the real test is whether the debunking claim can be tested, or if is no more provable or compelling than the original claim. There is also the issue that claims may or may not be interpretations of events. Is the debunker debunking a claim of an event, or a claim of the proper interpretation for an event?

    For example, if you watch and listen you will hear this time and time again:
    Claim: I saw a UFO
    Response: You couldn't have seen a UFO because it would take too long for aliens to get here.

    This is a classic debunking trick intended to discredit witnesses by putting words in their mouths. "I saw a UFO" does not neccessarily equate to the claim "I saw an alien spacecraft". But many debunkers can't seem to tell the difference. Or, they take the claim competely out of context, as is discussed next.

    Many debunkers would be far more respectable if they just admitted that are predisposed to disbelieve anyone who makes a claim that they find to be objectionable. But instead they produce silly theories that aren't even consistent with the claim. We often see this when there is no other way to dismiss the claim. One example would be when a pilot says that he saw a UFO the size of an aircraft carrier [JAL 1628], and Phil Klass responds by saying that the stars were bright that night and that he probably saw venus. Or when an Air Force security person [supported by the deputy base commander - Woodbridge AFB] claims to have spent thirty minutes with a UFO that was sitting on the ground, while on duty, [he even claims to have touched it] and the debunkers respond by claiming that he really saw the light from a local lighthouse.

    Or one of my favorites: There couldn't have been a UFO that night because we would have seen it on RADAR... as if this is a reasonable objection. If there really are alien spacecraft [or whatever] flying around from time to time, and these are what some people see, then to assume that RADAR would detect them is lame in the extreme considering that even we can evade RADAR.

    Next, there are many phenomena that are not repeatable on demand. It is silly to link these all with perpetual motion claims because perpetual motion claims could easily be tested. The claimant has the choice to allow proper testing or not. By your logic, NASA photos of sprites should be debunked because NASA can't produce a sprite. Nor can they tell us when or where we may witness one - just like UFO claims, and, perhaps, just like some claims of psychic phenomena.

    What we often have are alleged witnesses to an event that can no more recreate the event than a witness to a murder can recreate the murder. The only difference is that with a murder we usually have a body, but not always.

    I once saw a woman running madly throught the streets claiming that someone had stolen her child, but I could never prove that I did. She disappered before I could even call the cops. Does that mean my claim is false? [it's not btw]
    Last edited: Feb 14, 2008
  10. Feb 15, 2008 #9


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    If you read Randi's accounts of the tests he performs for claimants of the million dollar prize, you will see that he considers most of the candidates to be honestly deluded people. Frauds know they are frauds and don't accept to be tested by a magician, someone that knows everything about deception.
    But frauds can mislead scientists, that is why so many researchers claim to have evidence of paranormal events.
    Psychics that claim to see the location of bodies use general arguments like: The body is in a wooded area and not far from a body of water.
    Of course, the preferred location to hide a body is in the woods and not in plain view of people. And, except in the desert, any place you choose is near an unspecified body of water: a river, a creek, a lake, a pound, a reservoir...
  11. Feb 16, 2008 #10

    Ivan Seeking

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    I am talking about "psychics" who find bodies.

    I have yet to see a bebunker or Randi find a body that the police can't.
  12. Feb 16, 2008 #11


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    If you read carefully what I wrote, I only mentioned Randi in response to your previous allegation that he only debunks frauds. Most people that accept the challenge are honestly deluded and this is recognized by Randi.

    As for the alleged psychic detectives, some of them may be also honest people that believe they have paranormal powers, but others are vultures praying on suffering people. I don't think Randi has ever debunked any, but what they provide is general informations that fit dozens of places.
    Can you cite some psychic that really found a body?
  13. Feb 16, 2008 #12


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    Common sense can get us a long way toward evaluating "psychic" abilities. Was there a big surge in warnings to law-enforcement or governmental agencies leading up the the attacks on the world trade towers? If not, why not? Those towers had eclipsed the Empire State building and the statue of Liberty as icons of Manhattan. Certainly, their destruction was an event significant enough to trigger "some" latent predictive abilities, if they exist.

    How many lives could have been saved if a few self-proclaimed psychics had managed to work up a prescient image of those towers burning and collapsing?

    This is not proof that psychic abilities do not exist, and proving a negative is impossible in any case. It is strong evidence that any claims for prescient ability in humans has to be viewed very skeptically.
  14. Feb 16, 2008 #13

    Ivan Seeking

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    Okay, frauds and deluded people. But I do take exception to debunkers that constantly lie by saying that there is no evidence for any of this. Clearly they are more interested in their opinion than any potentially credible evidence, which is a hallmark of a crackpot debunker.

    We had one thread recently and have had a number over the years. Since this keeps coming up I guess I will have to dig up some more examples. It is difficult though because many of these reports are in local papers and the links go dead. But anyone who follows this stuff has probably seen dozens of examples at least; with the supporting testimony of the police officials involved.

    Here is the recent thread.

    Please continue this specific discussion about psychics in the thread linked above.
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2008
  15. Feb 16, 2008 #14

    Ivan Seeking

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    Here is another key identifier for crackpot debunking:

    Evidence for a claim is presented, such as a a body found by a "psychic", and the debunkers provide an alternative explanation that may or may not account for the facts. Given that we can always imagine an alternative explanation [often by citing luck and long odds] we recognize that we have no proof for the claim, but the debunker then interprests this as meaning that there is no evidence. Wrong! We have evidence but no proof. Crackpot debunkers can't seem to tell the difference between the two. Or, they fail to understand that there are different forms of evidence. For example, what many people call weak evidence or no evidence may be highly compelling in a court of law. And to demand scientific evidence for claims like psychic claims [as discussed here] is a logical trap because the scientific community never considers these claims in any professional sense, so there is no way to achieve the status of being scientific. At this time there is no practical way to study this sort of thing in a lab.

    Untestable alternative explanations for a claim do not nullify the evidence for that claim. They merely stand as alternative explanations that can't be tested.

    Whether the evidence is "good evidence" can be a highly subjective call and debatable ad infinitum.
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2008
  16. Feb 16, 2008 #15


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    What counts as good evidence in a court of law is highly subjective, mainly because the jurors are laymen and judge emotionally. Scientific evidence must be much stronger. Proof has meaning only in mathematics. Empirical sciences cannot have proves, they rely only in evidences, but the evidences must be strong in order to be accepted as scientific.
    Scientific community has being testing psychic claims for more then a hundred years. There are both believers and skeptical scientists doing research and until now there is no strong evidence for psychic phenomena.
    There is no way to prove that psychic phenomena don't exist. You cannot prove a universal negative. You are entitled to believe them, but if more than a century and millions of dollars expended failed to show evidence, allow me to be skeptical.
  17. Feb 20, 2008 #16
    Lets try this.

    Rational thinking
    Confrontation bias.

    What information is presented , knowledge, facts, feelings, opinions, and thoughts to sort out and clarify. What do you know about the situation, and what do you still need to know?

    Put aside the common assumption that you "already know what the problem is

    People don’t like to be wrong and that anything which shows them to be wrong will be harder to accept. Also, emotional beliefs. confirmation bias aren’t all negative. It also seems likely that information which supports our beliefs is simply easier to deal with on a cognitive level — we can see and understand how it fits into the world as we understand it, while contradictory information that just doesn’t “fit” can be set aside for later.

    Often when we look evidence that supports what we believe, we only ask that it leave the door open for our beliefs. But when we find evidence that contradicts what we believe, we hold it to a higher standard. We ask that it prove its findings beyond a reasonable doubt. We hold others to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.

    One way that people try to confirm their beliefs is to search for evidence until they find something that supports them. They may do a very detailed, in-depth study of something, but they do not stop and evaluate what they have when they uncover evidence against their beliefs. Instead, they continue on and stop only when they've found enough evidence to support their side to relieve their conscience.
    Showing evidence to be not true or to be inconclusive does not, by itself, show a conclusion to be false, but it shows it unreasonable or unwarranted to believe it on the basis of that evidence.
    Other people's evidence that your conclusion is false must itself be faulty in some way if your conclusion is true; otherwise your conclusion must be false and there must be something wrong with YOUR evidence for it. Whenever there is evidence that a belief or a conclusion is true, and other evidence that it is false, there must be something wrong with at least one of those sets of evidence.
    So, if someone challenges the truth of any of your reasons, you need to be able to give the evidence you believe that reason itself is true, and you then need to show why you think their challenge is itself faulty. In other words, you will be looking at the reason under attack as a conclusion itself -- a conclusion of a "prior" argument or of prior evidence

    Evidence and conclusions can be disputed as being either false, unproved, improbable, unclear, or meaningless.

    We shouldn't expect everyone to reevaluate their beliefs every time a new piece of evidence comes along.

    However, we should draw a distinction between a belief that is well supported by evidence over time, and a belief that only has traditional or popular support.

    Reinterpreting Evidence - When people are presented with ambiguous information, they often interpret it to support their established beliefs. When people are presented with unambiguous information that contradicts their beliefs, they tend to pay close attention to it, scrutinize it, and either invent a way of discounting it as unreliable, or redefine it to be less damaging than it really is.

    Let's not use bad reasoning or bad science to promote good ideas
  18. Feb 21, 2008 #17
    Houdini was good at debunking too.
  19. Feb 22, 2008 #18

    Ivan Seeking

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    I'm not arguing for proof of a universal negative; I am saying that only a certain types claims can be tested properly. Nor am I trying to convince anyone that psychic events actually occur. My point is that we can't rule out all claims just because people like Sylvia or John Edwards are frauds or because some people delude themselves. And since some types of claims [really entire classes of claims] can't be tested but continue to be made by seemingly credible people as they have been for centuries if not millennia, to flatly deny these claims as false is a leap of faith, not skepticism. Also, to misrepresent the interesting claims or all claims by selecting only chosen claims, such as those tested by Randi - claims that are easy to debunk and only impressive to the most gullible people - is nothing but crackpottery.

    True skepticism, or at least credible scientific inquiry requires that one seek out the good cases and not just point fingers at the bad ones. Debunkers only want to see the bad cases that are easy to dismiss. This is why, for example, we almost never see UFO debunkers talking about cases like Iran 76.

    Instead they focus on "fuzzy lights in the sky" and easily dismissed cases that are found in the pop media.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 23, 2017
  20. Mar 4, 2008 #19

    Get this link - that guy seems to debunk every fake video or shot in Web. He's now working at "man on Mars" sensation

    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  21. Mar 4, 2008 #20
    AFAIK there are a few people who use the scientific method to investigate unexplained phenomena. I've even attended lectures where they present interesting investigations. They are pretty rigorous I've got to admit, and number amongst themselves a host of people from the interested, to the downright skeptical to the believer, they model themselves on the Fortean approach, open minded but scientifically rigorous.

    Of course science wont recognise them atm, as this field isn't considered scientific, but some people forgo the need for debunking by actually going out there, setting up recording equipment, and sensors, and then using methodology to evaluate it. As of yet they have not found any evidence of ghosts or other psychic phenomena. But that hasn't stopped them from trying. As one of the lecturers once said though, if you think science demands a high level of scrutiny, then the sort of things we have to do to ensure our experiments are not biased or based on false testimony, is even more extreme. Interesting to know there are some organisations that are doing testing based around science at least.

    As for debunking, well to be frank, if 99% of the phenomena weren't a total con, then it wouldn't be necessary to expose them in graphic detail. I mean crossing over with I am so psychich honest is just a cold reading trick. Easilly demonstrated by people such as Derren Brown.


    Cold reading.

    Making yourself invisible.

    Hypnotising a crowd of people.

    Most of this is done simply by using mental techniques, yes it's TV but the principles are the same. This guy really exposes how easy it is to fool people into believing all sorts of things, by suggestion, misdirection, and simple psychology. Every trick - although very clever and equally arduous to learn to do as adeptly as he does - is easily explained, if not easily replicated.

    Derren Brown would of been burned as a Witch not so long ago. He's a master of psychology and manipulation.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
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