Three can keep a secret if two are dead.
What are denialist conspiracy theories and why should people be instantly distrustful of them? And what do they have to do with denialism?
Almost every denialist argument will eventually devolve into a conspiracy. This is because denialist theories that oppose well-established science eventually need to assert deception on the part of their opponents to explain things like why every reputable scientist, journal, and opponent seems to be able to operate from the same page. In the crank mind, it isn’t because their opponents are operating from the same set of facts, it’s that all their opponents are liars (or fools) who are using the same false set of information.
But how could it be possible, for instance, for every nearly every scientist in a field be working together to promote a falsehood? People who believe this is possible simply have no practical understanding of how science works as a discipline. For one, scientists don’t just publish articles that reaffirm a consensus opinion. Articles that just rehash what is already known or say “everything is the same” aren’t interesting and don’t get into good journals. Scientific journals are only interested in articles that extend knowledge, or challenge consensus (using data of course). Articles getting published in the big journals like Science or Nature are often revolutionary (and not infrequently wrong), challenge the expectations of scientists or represent some phenomenal experiment or hard work (like the human genome project). The idea that scientists would keep some kind of exceptional secret is absurd, or that, in the instance of evolution deniers, we only believe in evolution because we’ve been infiltrated by a cabal of “materialists” is even more absurd. This is not to say that real conspiracies never occur, but the assertion of a conspiracy in the absence of evidence (or by tying together weakly correlated and nonsensical data) is usually the sign of a crackpot. Belief in the Illuminati, Zionist conspiracies, 9/11 conspiracies, holocaust denial conspiracies, materialist atheist evolution conspiracies, global warming science conspiracies, UFO government conspiracies, pharmaceutical companies suppressing altie-med conspiracies, or what have you, it almost always rests upon some unnatural suspension of disbelief in the conspiracy theorist that is the sign of a truly weak mind. Hence, our graphic to denote the presence of these arguments – the tinfoil hat.
Another common conspiratorial attack on consensus science (without data) is that science is just some old-boys club (not saying it’s entirely free of it but…) and we use peer-review to silence dissent. This is a frequent refrain of HIV/AIDS denialists like Dean Esmay or Global Warming denialists like Richard Lindzen trying to explain why mainstream scientists won’t publish their BS. The fact is that good science speaks for itself, and peer-reviewers are willing to publish things that challenge accepted facts if the data are good. If you’re just a denialist cherry-picking data and nitpicking the work of others, you’re out of luck. Distribution of scientific funding (another source of conspiracy from denialists) is similarly based on novelty and is not about repeating some kind of party line. Yes, it’s based on study-sections and peer-review of grants, but the idea that the only studies that get funded are ones that affirm existing science is nuts, if anything it’s the opposite.
Lately, there’s been a lot of criticism of the excess focus on novelty in distribution of funding and in what gets accepted into journals. I encourage all scientists and those interested in science to watch this video of John Ioannidis giving grand rounds at NIH on how science gets funded, published, and sadly, often proven wrong. I put it up at google video. He is the author of “Why most published research findings are false” published in PLoS last year. It’s proof that science is perfectly willing to be critical of itself, more than happy to publish exceptional things that often turn out wrong, but ultimately, highly self-correcting.
I realize it’s an hour long, but it’s really a great talk.