Whenever I see the word “debunking” I’m immediately put off. It’s almost as bad as “trolling”. But is this a CLUE perhaps? Are “debunkers” people who deliberately set out to discredit something, while people who “refute” try to remain objective? Would you agree with this characterization?
Even though the technical definition of the word “debunking” means “to expose or ridicule falseness or exaggerated claims,” a different and altogether more pejorative meaning has emerged over the past few years, where “debunking” is no longer seen as a process of searching for truth, but rather quite the opposite: falsifying it!
I think this is largely due to the generous use of this term when dealing with popular conspiracy theories where the “official” versions are so greatly discredited that continued defense of them is seen as disingenuous and agenda-driven. Perhaps the most famous example is the JFK assassination where (depending on which poll you believe) anywhere from 75% to 90% of the population do not believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone – if he even acted at all – so any new book, article or statement claiming to “debunk” that popular counter-opinion is automatically taken to be “spin”, especially if the arguments used to back the discredited story appear to be specious and selective.
Thus, the debunkers’ frequent, eager and aggressive use of the word “debunking” in reference to those cases has, over time effectively achieved a result which is opposite to what was intended.
More and more people now begin to realize that a different word, backed by a more honest and methodological approach is needed, and thus “refutation” is, for the moment at least, a preferred word when used in the context of dispelling myths or correcting falsehoods. But when using this word, it is incumbent upon the writer or commentator to thoroughly document his or her case, refrain from invective and baseless accusations, and provide objective sources without “forcing” or leading to conclusions. In other words, do what the overwhelming majority of “debunkers” fail to do.
- In the sense discussed here, “refuting” is thus, essentially, a form of argument, where each controversial thesis is methodically analyzed and shown to be false, without resorting to invective, derision or ad hominem attacks.
- In the same sense, therefore, “debunking” is a process where the means justify the ends, i.e. where an agenda is to disprove something, anything goes, including ad hominem attacks.
- In an absolute sense, debunking a popular misconception for example, is certainly not a bad thing. But in the sense that this word is used in an overwhelming number of cases over the past dozen years or more, “debunking” is a sensationalist, negatively charged word. “Refutation”, for the moment at least, still manages to have a good degree of respectability and objectivity.
Beware of “debunking”. If someone purports to disprove something by “debunking” it, make sure he/she presents rational, logical, factual, historical, scientific and any other objective arguments and sources, before you decide you’ve been convinced. In other words, look for “true refutation” and avoid like the plague anything which is agenda-driven and sensationalizes the “debunking”. Seek truth for its own sake, no matter where it leads.
Typical giveaways of “agenda-driven” debunking is the use of ridicule, invective and ad hominem attacks. If you hear references to “tin foil hats”, “truthers”, “conspiracy theorists”, “third rail” and so on, take extra care when parsing that information. In life rarely, if ever, are there absolute certainties. Any writer or commentator who fails to acknowledge that, is usually suspect. Reject the demagogues, please!