When defenders of a pseudoscience want to put down critics, they like to call them "debunkers." The implication is that debunkers are not open- minded skeptics, eager to learn the truth. The skeptics are accused of relying mainly on ridicule and name-calling instead of rational arguments. Should we skeptics take offense when we are accused of debunking?
The origin of "bunk" is amusing. I happen to live a few miles from Buncombe County, in the mountains of western North Carolina. Back in 1820 the county's representative in the U.S. Congress had a habit of putting colleagues to sleep with long speeches "for Buncombe." Shortened to "bunkum" or "bunk," the word became a synonym for political claptrap. In today's dictionaries bunk is defined as nonsense, and debunking as the exposing of sham or falsehood. Who could object to that? Nevertheless, it may be that debunk is becoming a term of reproach, like the old word muckraker, now replaced by the more dignified "investigative reporter."
Stephen Jay Gould is among the many top scientists who do not mind being called debunkers. His splendid book The Mismeasure of Man--an attack on historic efforts to link intelligence to race, sex, or the shape of the head--has a section headed "Debunking as a positive science." Gould sees debunking not only as admirable but as essential to the health of science.
Have you noticed that believers in a pseudoscience are all in favor of debunking pseudosciences in which they don't believe? Indeed, many times they themselves ridicule believers of other doctrines. Frequently, when they reply to their own detractors, they hurl insults of the very sort they condemn their critics for using.
The thoughts above circulated through my brain while I was reading Beyond Velikovsky, by Henry H. Bauer ( University of Illinois Press, 1985). A Vienna-born chemist, Bauer is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, in Blacksburg, and the author of several technical books. "Many scientists derisively attacked Velikovsky's theories . . .," says the book's jacket. "But they seriously undercut their case by resorting to innuendo, ridicule, misrepresentation, ad hominem