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In the battle for ideas, scientists could learn from Christopher Hitchens

Science values data and statistics and champions the virtues of evidence and experimentation. Those of us “viewing the world with a rational eye” (as the new descriptor for this column reads) also have another, underutilized tool at our disposal: rapier logic like that of Christopher Hitchens, a practiced logician trained in rhetoric. Hitchens—who is “leaving the party a bit earlier than I’d like” because of esophageal cancer, as he lamented to Charlie Rose in a recent PBS interview—has something deeply important to offer on how to think about unscientific claims. Although he has no formal training in science, I would pit Hitchens against any of the purveyors of pseudoscientific clap­trap because of his unique and enviable skill at peeling back the layers of an argument and cutting to its core.

We would all do well to observe and emulate his power to detect and dissect baloney through pure thought. To wit, after watching a quack medicine man fleecing India’s poor one Sunday afternoon, the belletrist scowled in a 2003 Slate column, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” The observation is worthy of elevation to a dictum.

Of course, as scientists we prefer to tether evidence, when it is available, to logical analysis in support of a claim or to proffer counterevidence that disputes a claim. A radiant example of Hitchens’s insightful thinking, coupled to the effective employment of counterevidence, is his reaction to an episode of the television series Planet Earth. As he watched, he had a revelation of creationism’s profound flaws. The episode was on life underground, during which Hitchens noticed that the blind salamander had “eyes” that “were denoted only by little concavities or indentations,” as he recounted in a 2008 Slate commentary. “Even as I was grasping the implications of this, the fine voice of Sir David Attenborough was telling me how many millions of years it had taken for these denizens of the underworld to lose the eyes they had once possessed.”

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