Hello and welcome to denialism blog.
Here we will discuss the problem of denialists, their standard arguing techniques, how to identify denialists and/or cranks, and discuss topics of general interest such as skepticism, medicine, law and science. I’ll be taking on denialists in the sciences, while my brother, Chris, will be geared more towards the legal and policy implications of industry groups using denialist arguments to prevent sound policies.
First of all, we have to get some basic terms defined for all of our new readers.
Denialism is the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one’s viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing, but ultimately empty and illogical assertions.
Examples of common topics in which denialists employ their tactics include: Creationism/Intelligent Design, Global Warming denialism, Holocaust denial, HIV/AIDS denialism, 9/11 conspiracies, Tobacco Carcinogenecity denialism (the first organized corporate campaign), anti-vaccination/mercury autism denialism and anti-animal testing/animal rights extremist denialism. Denialism spans the ideological spectrum, and is about tactics rather than politics or partisanship. Chris will be covering denialism of industry groups, such as astroturfing, and the use of a standard and almost sequential set of denialist arguments that he discusses in his Denialist Deck of Cards.
5 general tactics are used by denialists to sow confusion. They are conspiracy, selectivity (cherry-picking), fake experts, impossible expectations (also known as moving goalposts), and general fallacies of logic.
Throughout this first week we’ll be discussing each of these 5 tactics in turn to give examples of how they are used, and how to recognize their implementation. We’ll also introduce our handy little icon scheme that we’ll attach to each post discussing denialists. If you just can’t wait a whole week, well, visit our old blog’s definition to see what we’re talking about.
Finally, some ground rules. We don’t argue with cranks. Part of understanding denialism is knowing that it’s futile to argue with them, and giving them yet another forum is unnecessary. They also have the advantage of just being able to make things up and it takes forever to knock down each argument as they’re only limited by their imagination while we’re limited by things like logic and data. Recognizing denialism also means recognizing that you don’t need to, and probably shouldn’t argue with it. Denialists are not honest brokers in the debate (you’ll hear me harp on this a lot). They aren’t interested in truth, data, or informative discussion, they’re interested in their world view being the only one, and they’ll say anything to try to bring this about. We feel that once you’ve shown that what they say is deceptive, or prima-facie absurd, you don’t have to spend a graduate career dissecting it and taking it apart. It’s more like a “rule-of-thumb” approach to bad scientific argument. That’s not to say we won’t discuss science or our posts with people who want to honestly be informed, we just don’t want to argue with cranks. We have work to do.
Second, denialism isn’t about name-calling or the psychological coping mechanism of denial. The first reaction of any denialist to being labeled such is to merely reply, “you’re the denialist” or to redefine the terms so that it excludes them (usually comparing themselves to Galileo in the process). However, denialism is about tactics that are used to frustrate legitimate discussion, it is not about simply name-calling. It’s about how you engage in a debate when you have no data (the key difference between denialists and the paradigm-shifters of yesteryear). There are a few more common defenses that we’ll discuss in time.
So while the denialists will inevitably show up and suggest my belief in the validity of carbon dating shows I’m a Bible denialist, or my inability to recognize the wisdom of some HIV/AIDS crank shows I don’t understand biology, we won’t tend to engage them. They’re cranks and we aim to show how you can instantly recognize and dismiss crank arguments.
Finally, just because some people believe in stupid things, doesn’t make them denialists. A lot of people get suckered in by denialist arguments and benefit from having the record corrected or being shown how to recognize good scientific debate versus unsound denialist debates. We aren’t suggesting everybody who has a few wacky ideas is a crank, part of the reason denialists abound and are often successful in bringing the masses over to their side is that their arguments don’t necessarily sound insane to the uninitiated. Denialist arguments are emotionally appealing and work on a lot of people. We’re trying to inform people about denialism and how to recognize denialist arguments so that ultimately they will be less effective in swaying those that may not be fully informed about science. Hopefully, by creating awareness of the ground rules of legitimate scientific debate, citizens, policy makers, and the media may better distinguish between sound and unsound scientific debate.