1. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    I enjoy the process of debunking: the investigation into claimed evidence, and then communicating the results of that investigation to the public. But are there any claims that are simply too silly to even bother investigating?

    We've all seen videos on Youtube that make you shake your head in disbelief that the person in the video might actually be serious. There's older classics like Rainbow Sprinkler Lady (2008), there's people who spray the sky with vinegar to ward off "chemtrails" (2011), there's the burning snow (2014), and now we've got fireproof GMO cabbage (October 2016).

    Should we debunk silly things like fireproof cabbage? Well I did, and I'll explain why. But first, here's the video explaining what's going on with the cabbage.

    Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VHVZrAcJHc

    So the question here is if there's any value in even addressing these claims. The natural response for most people is simply to laugh and even to mock the people making the claims. After all it seems obvious that rainbows have always formed in sprays of water, that a tiny bit of vinegar is not going to have an effect on clouds miles away, that snow does not burn, and that cabbage does not burn because it's mostly water.

    The natural response might even include questioning the honesty or the mental faculty of the person making the claim. Surely, you might say, only crazy people or liars would believe such a thing. And generally there's not much point in trying to argue with crazy people.

    But something that becomes apparent the more you look into this is that many of the people who believing these claims are neither crazy nor liars. The people who fell for the burning snow story were often just people who had not seen much snow, or perhaps not played around with fire much, so when they held the flame of a lighter under a snowball and saw the snow turn black then it was not a huge leap in their minds to accept that the snow was burning.

    People who frequently fall for "conspiracy theory" explanations of events have been described as having a "crippled epistemology" in that they are operating with a limited number of information sources. In each of the four examples given above it might not seem like a conspiracy theory, but at the beliefs are deeply rooted in conspiratorial thinking. Rainbow sprinklers mean that "they" are adding chemicals to the water. Vinegar spraying is necessary because "they" are spring the sky with chemicals. Snow now burns because it's infused with toxic geoengineering chemicals. Cabbage is now fireproof because GMOs are harmful, and the government is not telling us.

    The crippled epistemology here is twofold. Firstly there's a limited life experience, or an overly optimistic assessment of their own memory. People have either not come across the phenomena before, or they simply don't remember it. Since they are amazed by it now, the assume they would remember seeing it in the past.

    Secondly there's a lack of experience with things that makes it hard for them to accept the actual explanation. Rainbows happen in sprinklers for the same reason rainbows occur in the sky. The sun's rays bounce around in little drops of water and get split into the colors of the spectrum and reflected back at you, creating a rainbow. But if you don't know anything about refraction, then that's pretty meaningless - you just see a rainbow in water, and the only time you've see that is with oil on water, so you go with that.

    Should we bother debunking these things? Debunking is a two step process: investigation and communication. Now with claims like these the "investigation" part seems pointless - after all it's perfectly obvious what is going on. So many skeptics would ignore things like this simply because they don't need any investigation.

    However we are still left with the "communication" part. I think that even if there's not need for investigation, the need for communication still remains as important as ever. If people believe in something false then the harm is just as great if it's a silly thing as is it's a more plausible thing.

    I also think that the "investigation" part should largely be replaced with a "demonstration" part that in many respects resembles an investigation. A demonstration is something you do to help explain what is going on by setting up what essentially is an experiment, but one you know the answer to. In the cabbage video it's not really an experiment to see if cabbage burns - it's a demonstration of the fact that cabbage leaves are tough and mostly water. I show that it does not burn. I note that it's organic cabbage. I show the water steaming off the leaf when it's heated. I show that the leaf does burn, but only when it has fully dried out. I then repeat the demonstration with a piece of wet paper and a piece of dry paper. There's no investigation, but there essentially is an illustrative experiment. A demonstration.

    Perhaps the greatest example of a "silly" belief is homeopathy. The vast majority of scientists don't think there's any need for investigation into homeopathy as it has been shown time and time again that not only does it not work, but that it's impossible for it to work. And yet skeptics generally still have no problems communicating these facts to people. They even do demonstrations, like taking an entire bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills to show that they have no effect.

    Homeopathy of course causes harm, both financially from wasted money, and physically when it is used instead of effective treatments. A belief that snow burns does not have such an obvious harm. But one false belief leads to another. If we can show people that one of their beliefs is wrong, and teach them a tiny bit of common sense science along the way, then it moves them one step closer to a less crippled epistemology, and one step closer to a more rational and less fearful life.
    • Like Like x 8
    • Agree Agree x 2
    • Informative Informative x 2
  2. Whitebeard

    Whitebeard Senior Member

    I think the trick is to monitor the conspirsphere and watch what's trending, then go for it when it appears to gain traction. To a old sceptic like me even stuff like like controlled demolition on 9-11, chemtrails, false flag shootings and the Illuminati are irrational to the point of kookiness, let alone flat earth, alien lizard people, ancient aliens and the rest. But people throw this bunk around as fact so it needs to be debunked. One factor I feel is important is the fact some CT types tend to think that if the sceptics don't address something then it can't be debunked and adds credence to their claims. As metabunk is one of the leading rationalist debunking sites, our inaction over a subject could potentially add strength to the bunky claims.

    When it comes to burning cabbages and the like I would address it, but give it a low priority until it starts popping up all over social media like the 'plastic snow' stuff did a few years ago. After all the explanation is simple and there a few good rebuttals out there already, so all we need is a very basic, this is what's claimed, this is why it's bunk and here's a demonstration, and most of the senior members here can manage that if and when the need should arise. :)
    • Winner Winner x 1
  3. deirdre

    deirdre Moderator Staff Member

    i think 'GMO' stuff is more mainstream than false flags, or far out stuff like chemtrails. i dont think there is any harm in explaining such things early.
    With the cabbage or plastic snow, even if people don't fear 'gmo' or chemtrails, they might google an explanation just because they dont think it through (re: the 95% water content) and find it odd.

    I google 'silly' stuff like that all the time and it bugs me if i cant find a quick simple explanation. I think any exposure to science or technical type learning is helpful to the general population. Anytime someone thinks "huh, that's interesting. I never thought of that", it's a good thing. For some people the only thing "interesting" in their lives is what Kim Kardashian had for dinner.. and that is not good.

    If it takes "plastic snow" or "cabbage that won't burn" to entice them to look something up, that's fine. At least they might remember "i should look that up" the next time they see something that sounds or seems odd.

    Of course the rainbow sprinkler or spraying vinegar to break up clouds... hard to imagine many people needing to look those up :)
    • Agree Agree x 3
  4. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    Here's another example of "too silly to debunk" posted in a "chemtrail" group:


    Her belief is that the water was contaminated with chemtrails, which somehow make water freeze unnaturally - a belief promoted by Dane Wigington on Geoengineeringwatch.org.

    This seems to be an example of someone with limited experience of watching ice melt, who expects the same things to happen every time - although it's not entirely clear what she's comparing it against.

    How quickly should ice melt? It depends on several factors, like the mass of the ice and the surface area, but also the combination of the what it is in contact with, the surface area of contact, the temperature of those things (the air, and the ground), the thermal conductivity of those things (particularly the ground), and the effect of sunlight. (Ice will also sublimate away even below freezing temperatures, if humidity is low enough, but that's probably not a factor here).

    That's all quite complicated though. Perhaps the simplest way of explaining it would be to note that snow quite often stays around for several days, if left in the shade. It simply takes time to melt.

    In this particular case you might also note that the uneven ground (looks like decomposed granite) means that the ice has very little surface area contact, which greatly limits how much heat can flow in from the ground. Dry DG also has air content (note the cracks) so acts as an insulator . So much of the melting effect is from the air contact, and air conducts heat poorly. Further factors come from how much the air moves, and the cooling effects of evaporation of the melted water.

    The temperature of the air is obviously a significant factor, a forecast high of 65° does not mean that's what the actual temperature was, or even what the high was. It's also affected by the temperature of the ground - if the ground froze and was not in sunlight, then that can keep the air a lot cooler for a lot longer down near the surface.

    This type of thing would be a good school science experiment.
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2016
  5. 3crows

    3crows New Member

    Why is the woman commenting about the ice, "Too silly to debunk"? Why do you even need to call it "debunking" in that patronizing way? Why not call it explaining and do it respectfully? A person cannot be expected to know everything and if they comment on-line about something they don't understand, they might appreciate an explanation from someone who does know.
  6. 3crows

    3crows New Member

    I love your Barksdale quote!
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 8, 2017
  7. deirdre

    deirdre Moderator Staff Member

    he does:

    he only put the "too silly to debunk" there in quotes because it is the title of the thread. Showing his title also means "explain". Many metabunk threads have "explained" in the title, when "explain" is appropriate.

    • Agree Agree x 1
  8. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    Yes, as deirdre noted, that's really the point of the first post. While you could arguably describe it as bunk, it's really just a mistaken understanding of how things work. Hence the best approach is not mocking, but a polite explanation.