I’m very proud to be on Scienceblogs with Mark, and for my first posts, I’m going to be introducing the Denialists’ Deck of Cards, a humorous way to think about rhetorical techniques that are used in public debate. Those who pay attention to consumer protection issues, especially in product safety (especially tobacco, food, drugs), will recognize these techniques. The goal of classifying them in this way is to advance public understanding of how these techniques can be used to stifle reform in consumer protection or on other issues. So, the Denialists’ Deck is extremely cynical. But it is a reflection of and reaction to how poor the public policy debates in Washington have become.

First, the big disclaimer: Arguments in the Denialists’ Deck can be cogent. In many circumstances, they are legitimate arguments in a debate. For instance, many of the cards deal with appeals to competition, and the ability of the market to solve problems. Of course, competition is a very strong force for reform, but appeals to this force are often false because a certain market isn’t actually competitive, or because the problem is too nuanced or important to just be left to the market.

With that, allow me to introduce the 2 of Clubs, “No Problem.”

i-e80414ff40124a19710b000fc9c565bc-2c.jpgPublic policy debates on consumer protection and the environment almost always start with the “no problem” theme. The argument emphasizes that whatever consumer reform being debated is unnecessary. This is because there is no problem.

“No problem” is the chorus of a denalist argument. The skilled denalist, even after engaging in a debate for an extended period of time, will never concede that a problem exists. One should get used to hearing it if on the consumer protection side, and one should practice saying it if on the industry side. “A solution in search of a problem” is a typical 2 of Clubs saying.

Here’s an example from the network neutrality debate: “‘The proponents of network neutrality regulations have yet to show there’s a problem,’ says Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. ‘It’s truly a solution in search of a problem.'” Grant Gross, Advocates push for network neutrality policy, Network World, Apr. 5, 2004.

Another example from the genetic discrimination debate: “The health insurance group denounces the genetic discrimination bill as ‘a solution in search of a problem.’ According to HIAA President Dr. Donald Young, ‘health insurers do not currently use genetic information in determining coverage or in setting premiums, nor do they plan to do so in the future.'” Ira Carnahan, Gene Policy, Forbes.com, Oct. 22, 2003.

Comments

  1. #1 MikeJ
    April 30, 2007

    One way you often heard it from the Scooter Libby trial was, “unprosecuted noncrime” (Safliar’s Mr. Language guy column used it just yesterday).

  2. #2 G Felis
    April 30, 2007

    Chris, I don’t see what the problem with denialism is…

    Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

    Nice to hear from you, so to speak. Glad to see you’re continuing to make a career – or at least a semi-professional hobby – out of critical thinking and related issues. I was just thinking a few weeks ago that I should toss a few Google queries in your general direction to find out what you were up to, and you show up on my scienceblog doorstep. Does that mean I’m clairvoyant?

  3. #3 hiero5ant
    April 30, 2007

    Evolution-denial also trades in this brand of handwaving. Tell a creationist that the twin nested hierarchy is a problem to which common descent is a shockingly elegant conclusion, and for which ID doesn’t even pretend to have a theory about, and they will simply deny the need for any explanation of the data at all. I think (nonprofessional) creationists literally do not understand why common descent is a needful posit, or how hopeless biology would be without it.

  4. #4 Ted
    April 30, 2007

    Here’s an example from the network neutrality debate: “‘The proponents of network neutrality regulations have yet to show there’s a problem,’ says Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. ‘It’s truly a solution in search of a problem.'” Grant Gross, Advocates push for network neutrality policy, Network World, Apr. 5, 2004.

    This probably has something to do with the corporate state of the media in the US and this strategy works because the media and regulatory government agencies allows the consumer to be subjected to a PR dump as news or valid information.

    We get our information from basic education, from daily access to information (media) and ongoing social interactions. In many of these areas, integrity fails to sustain because competing interests do not encourage information to be truthful, but to serve specific interests.

  5. #5 MattXIV
    April 30, 2007

    Arguments in the Denialists’ Deck can be cogent. In many circumstances, they are legitimate arguments in a debate. For instance, many of the cards deal with appeals to competition, and the ability of the market to solve problems. Of course, competition is a very strong force for reform, but appeals to this force are often false because a certain market isn’t actually competitive, or because the problem is too nuanced or important to just be left to the market.

    Then why, pray tell, are they called the Denialists’ Deck of Cards rather than the Potentially Valid Arguments Against Novel Regulations Deck of Cards?

  6. #6 Chris H
    April 30, 2007

    @MattXIV,

    It will become clear, as the other cards are introduced, that as a whole, these are tactics often used to avoid a dialogue completely. It’s a web of tactics that have nothing to do with thinking responsibly about public policy; instead it’s all about winning a political debate regardless of the facts. The tactics are completely predictable, and I hope that through this blog, we can help people see the patterns and see through the PR.

  7. #7 Chris H
    April 30, 2007

    For instance, the two examples–one from net neutrality and the other from genetic discrimination: can you really believe that there is no problem with net neutrality, and that insurers will not discriminate based on genetics? Anyone who knows the issues knows that it isn’t as simple as “no problem,” but that tactic provides fodder for Members of Congress and agencies to do nothing at all. I’ve seen this tactic over and over again. Information security is a great example. Prior to California’s security breach notification law, many companies claimed “no problem”–they had perfect security. It was not true at all.

  8. #8 Ted
    May 1, 2007

    Prior to California’s security breach notification law, many companies claimed “no problem”–they had perfect security. It was not true at all.

    It was true in the sense that they (the companies) had less of a problem. The problem and the consequences rested with the consumer, and the problem needed to be shifted so that it became a shared problem with the corporation. That was done through reexamining public policy.

    This type of problem has to do with the perception of who is granted ownership of the datapoints. I believe that the Europeans are a lot clearer on this and much less submissive to corporate interests vs. individual privacy rights.

    May Day: Workers of the World Unite!

  9. #9 MattXIV
    May 1, 2007

    Chris,

    The fact that you cite the net neturality debate when talking about “denialism” indicates that you’re just as interested in using rhetorical tactics to shut down debate as the people you’re critiquing. The implications of non-content neutral treatment of packets are many, some potentially positive, some potentially negative. Dietz, on the facts of the matter, is right – most of the scenarios outlined by net neutrality proponents are speculations about how the technology will evolve, as are the arguments of its opponents, so to its opponents, it may indeed seem like a “solution in search of a problem.” Of course its proponents will disagree, but the necessity of government action on net neutrality is a valid subject of debate, but you seem to have no qualms about sticking those who disagree with you with a label associated in the public mind with Holocaust denial.

  10. #10 Chris H
    May 1, 2007

    You’ve straw manned me. Where have I done that?

  11. #11 David
    May 1, 2007

    You’ve straw manned me.

    I’m new here. I can see I’m going to enjoy it. (And learn a great deal.)

  12. #12 MattXIV
    May 1, 2007

    Chris,

    In this very article you cite Dietz’s statements as an example of a “denialism” based on defensible statement that is in full accord with legitimate arguments about net neutrality.

    The definition of “denialism” seems to shift to accommodate whatever is expedient. In your PDF you say that it sometimes can be a good thing in order to justify applying it to potentially valid arguments that hew to your description, yet in dicussion with mark the other day, he claimed that denialism only encompasses illegitimate arguments made to obscure the lack of legitimate arguments and he has repeatedly asserted that “denialists” should be ignored out of hand rather than confronted on the merits on their arguments.

    If your criteria for denialism are incapable of discrimating between legitimate and illegitimate arguments, what end does this serve other than to delegitimize opposition to net neutrality legislation and the other issues you cite when discussing it? And if your criteria don’t include legitimate arguments, then isn’t it dishonest to tar legitimate arguments with that brush?

  13. #13 Chris H
    May 1, 2007

    That’s not a charitable read of my argument. Maybe the disclaimer needs to blink or something. What is the blink tag in HTML? Is it blink>

  14. #14 MattXIV
    May 2, 2007

    Chris,

    I don’t think you’re addressing the substance of my criticism, which is that you’re turning around and doing what your disclaimer says you don’t intend to – categorizing legitimate disagreements over policy as examples of “denialism.” I don’t have any problem with you using the term “denialism” to describe cases where uncertaintly over clear cut factual issues is being deliberately propagated with an alterior motive, but I don’t see how it is appropriate to apply it in cases where the position being expoused is defensible. This is why I’m harping on the net neutrality example – people’s opinions on whether there is a “problem” are going to be based on legitimate differences in what the proper role of government in determining the usage of communications infrastructure is and their speculations on what uses the non-neutral priortizations is likely to be applied to and the cost and benefits of those applications, etc rather than as part of an attempt to create uncertaintly regarding the facts of the matter. Try putting yourself in the shoes of someone who holds the opposite position – if cited the net neutrality debate as an example in a discussion of baseless alarmism by “consumer advocates”, how would you interpret it?

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