Unified theory of the crank

A crank is defined as a man who cannot be turned.
– Nature, 8 Nov 1906

Here at denialism blog, we’re very interested in what makes people cranks. Not only how one defines crankish behavior, but literally how people develop unreasonable attitudes about the world in the face of evidence to the contrary. Our definition of a crank, loosely, is a person who has unreasonable ideas about established science or facts that will not relent in defending their own, often laughable, version of the truth. Central to the crank is the “overvalued idea”. That is some idea they’ve incorporated into their world view that they will not relinquish for any reason. Common overvalued ideas that are a source of crankery range from bigotry, antisemitism(holocaust deniers), biblical literalism (creationists – especially YEC’s), egotism (as it relates to the complete unwillingness to ever be proven wrong) or an indiscriminant obsession with possessing “controversial” or iconoclastic ideas. Some people just love believing in things that no one in their right mind does, out of some obscure idea that it makes them seem smart or different.

The OED definition of a crank seems to be a little old-fashioned:

5. colloq. (orig. U.S.). A person with a mental twist; one who is apt
to take up eccentric notions or impracticable projects; esp. one who is
enthusiastically possessed by a particular crotchet or hobby; an
eccentric, a monomaniac. [This is prob. a back-formation from CRANKY,
sense 4.] Also attrib. and Comb.

The OED etymology suggests it’s been in use for about 180 years, but I don’t think it was defined well until that Nature quote in 1906 (which very poetically describes the problem) that the definition seems to take shape. Cranks aren’t interested in debate, nor do they respond to reason, they’ll just blather on about their idiotic pet theory until everyone in the room has fled or opened a vein. Another take on that quote might be that a crank can only be turned one way, which would fit with the mechanical metaphor and suggest they’re only ever interested in spouting one line of reasoning.

Wikipedia has an excellent wiki on cranks; I find their criteria are more modern :

  1. Cranks overestimate their own knowledge and ability, and underestimate that of acknowledged experts.

  2. Cranks insist that their alleged discoveries are urgently important.
  3. Cranks rarely if ever acknowledge any error, no matter how trivial.
  4. Cranks love to talk about their own beliefs, often in inappropriate social situations, but they tend to be bad listeners, and often appear to be uninterested in anyone else’s experience or opinions.

Now, in our terminology not every denialist is a crank, but cranks use pretty much exclusively denialist arguments to make their point. Cranks are a bit more deserving of pity, a bit closer to delusion and mental illness than the pure denialist, who knows that they are spouting BS to sow confusion.

Most people have a pretty good gestalt for what one is, and the standard definitions are pretty accurate. But we’re more interested in how people, sometimes perfectly reasonable people, turn into cranks. An interesting resource to understand the phenomenon is this article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Justin Kruger and David Dunning about how people who are incompetent not only have an inflated sense of their own competence, but are also incapable of even recognizing competence. Take for example this figure from the paper (it’s not Wiley so hopefully I won’t be sued). It’s pretty self-explanatory

i-f0026d2c4414eeb4960eae9202eeb8dd-krugeranddunningfig2.jpg

What’s even more amazing is that when they then shared the performance of other participants with the people who performed poorly (hoping that they would then adjust their self-perception downward) people who scored poorly failed to adjust their self-perception of their performance. In other words, they are completely unaware of their own incompetence, and can’t detect competence in others.

Now, doesn’t this explain a lot? It explains the tendency of cranks not to care if other cranks (and denialists in general for that matter) have variations on their own crazy ideas, just as long as the other cranks are opposing the same perceived incorrect truth. Cranks and denialists aren’t honest brokers in a debate, they stand outside of it and just shovel horse manure into it to try to sow confusion and doubt about real science. They don’t care if some other crank or denialist comes along and challenges the prevailing theory by tossing cow manure, as long as what they’re shoveling stinks.

For instance, you notice that Dembski doesn’t spend a whole lot of time attacking Ken Ham, nor does the DI seem to care a great deal about any kind of internal consistency of ideas. Michael Behe, for example, is a raging “Darwinist” compared to Michael Egnor, who any scientifically competent person would recognize as well, this:

i-83ab5b4a35951df7262eefe13cb933f2-crank.gif

So what we have from the DI, the other denialists and their organizations, is evidence of people with no competence in understanding science, who overestimate their own abilities, and are incapable of recognizing competence in others.

Next time I think we’ll discuss how people might start out as reasonable people and then become cranks because they’re more interested in being “right” than actually pursuing any kind of scientific truth. Some cranks seem to be defined not so much by incompetence, but by their obsession with their overvalued idea that ruins their ability to think rationally.

P.S. I wrote this piece over the weekend and then PZ published this piece on a crank named Gilder on Sunday. He’s a real textbook case. Crazy, gibbering, throwing out lingo and jargon, and clearly not competent to recognize that he’s completely wrong about information theory.

**Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, Cornell University, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 77, no 6, p 1121-1134 (1999)

Comments

  1. #1 Dave S.
    April 30, 2007

    It explains the tendency of cranks not to care if other cranks (and denialists in general for that matter) have variations on their own crazy ideas, just as long as the other cranks are opposing the same perceived incorrect truth.

    Indeed.

    Take a look at the positions of the AIDS denialists Peter Duesburg and the Perth Group. Duesburg claims that the HIV virus exists, but it does not cause AIDS. The Perth Group believes the HIV virus is non-existant, but if it did exist, then the conclusion that it causes AIDS would be inescapable. Two groups holding mutually contradictory positions … and yet since they both are fighting against ‘The Man’ (the mainstream theory that the virus HIV is causitive for AIDS), they almost never critique one another.

  2. #2 factician
    April 30, 2007

    I love that paper: “Unskilled and unaware of it”. I used to hang the abstract for it above my bench. I think it explains a lot. However, one issue that the paper raises that I think is missing in many of the hardest core cranks is that in the paper, training someone in the area that they were being tested actually changed their ability to recognize their own ability. That is, after taking a class in math (which I think is what they were measuring?) that the folks who had previously done a miserable job at ranking their own ability now had a better idea of what their ability was.

    True cranks are able to be exposed to gallons of data and still fail to recognize their own deficiencies. I think the “Unskilled” paper doesn’t entirely encompass the outliers that are the folks at the DI and the Peter Duesburgs of the world.

  3. #3 Mark H
    April 30, 2007

    I’m not so sure factition. It might just be that people in the study were open-minded about the type of training being offered. I don’t think you could train someone like Egnor or Dembski in the same way since they’ve erected too many walls.

    But in general their incompetence in even understanding the basics of what the theories say are telling since I think it demonstrates why they can’t seem to figure out who they should allow to shill for them, and who they should not. For instance, the DI thinks Egnor is an asset! Just because he has MD credentials. The fact that they can’t recognize that he’s probably their worst spokesman yet just makes me think of this paper every time.

  4. #4 Boo
    April 30, 2007

    “For instance, you notice that Dembski doesn’t spend a whole lot of time attacking Ken Ham, nor does the DI seem to care a great deal about any kind of internal consistency of ideas.”

    In the DI’s case this is probably less likely due to incompetence, than a political strategy to not alienate anyone in the anti-evolution “big tent.”

  5. #5 Ian
    April 30, 2007

    Welcome to ScienceBlogs!

    Ian (- Integrity of Science blog

  6. #6 Brian Thompson
    April 30, 2007

    One position I’ve seen has been the refusal to examine evidence contrary to their position:

    Skeptic: “What evidence would be necessary for you to change your mind on the subject?”
    Denialist: “I know that I am right, and thus no evidence could ever change my mind.” OR “I would need to see … (insert evidence here) …, but since I’m right, that evidence would never come.”

    The futility of the argument is nearly absolute.

  7. #7 Mark H
    April 30, 2007

    In the DI’s case this is probably less likely due to incompetence, than a political strategy to not alienate anyone in the anti-evolution “big tent.”

    I did conflate 2 problems at once here, and maybe it was a little bit sloppy.

    Problem #1, Denialists/cranks don’t care about the internal consistency of their arguments as long as confusion is being sown on the legitimate science. This is probably an issue of science incompetence since people who get science wouldn’t ally themselves with just anyone who spews BS. It might be a sign of political competence however.

    Problem #2, Denialists/cranks can’t recognize when they shouldn’t support other cranks because the other cranks are so nuts it makes them look bad. This is a direct issue of both scientific and political competence.

    So, I see the two things as inter-related. They won’t attack other creationists even when those other creationists make them look bad, and they can’t recognize incompetence in their own tent from people like Egnor who also make them look bad. Not distancing themselves from Ken Ham might demonstrate political savvy, but it also greatly diminishes any patina of scientific legitimacy they hoped to acquire (they don’t seem to see this problem). Thinking that Egnor is an asset is a sure sign of all sorts of incompetence in thinking.

  8. #8 Colugo
    April 30, 2007

    I discussed my problem with the term “denialist” on Orac’s blog:
    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2007/03/uncommon_descent_meet_the_galileo_gambit_1.php

    I’m not here to restart the denialist label argument. I just want to commend you for using the term “crank” more, and to encourage you to continue to use that term in place of “denialist.”

    In hindsight, ideally the term “denialist” would have been restricted to deniers of the Holocaust (and Stalin’s Reign of Terror, Dutch Congo genocide and the like). “HIV/AIDS denialist,” which appeared years ago, was somewhat acceptable, and after that it started getting hopelessly watered down and applied to all kinds of things.

  9. #9 Mark H
    April 30, 2007

    Colugo. I get what you mean, the term carries baggage and some, like you, would like it to carry that full weight of condemnation that the holocaust deniers deserve. The problem is two-fold.

    1. We settled upon the terminology of denialism because the tactics of the disparate groups, including holocaust deniers is the same. It’s not to generate guilt-by-association, but to demonstrate the intellectual bankruptcy-by-association.
    2. We don’t think all denialists are cranks. A crank is really almost a diagnosis of a type of person who simply can’t think correctly. However denialism is practiced by more than just cranks, it’s also used by industry lobbies, by PR campaigns like the DI etc. A crank is someone who believes their own BS, whereas someone who is merely a denialist might be fully aware that they’re full of it but has an ulterior motive.

    For instance, the wedge document from the DI. This is a very interesting document. It suggests that they themselves don’t even really believe in ID as a theory more than just a tool to force religion back into schools. What do you call that? It’s clear they don’t even believe their own BS (although they clearly have found some cranks that will promulgate it) but they’re using deception to spread this message for a political purpose.

    Or, what do you call tobacco company experts who won’t acknowledge carcinogenicity of cigarettes? Or in general the use of astroturf groups to misrepresent public opinion and science?

    It seems to beg for a broader description than just “crank”. If someone is a crank, we’ll call them one. But the practice of denialism, the methods, the intellectual dishonesty etc., are a set of tactics that are used much more broadly and not just by cranks.

  10. #10 Mark H
    April 30, 2007

    I just read through those comments on Orac’s post again.

    You’re right, no need to rehash this debate. Part of the misunderstanding seems to be from our initial list of denialists including various industry groups which you thought was watering down the description of denialism. I see your point.

    What I tried to do, inadequately, was distinguish the astroturfers and the fake expert groups from the more ideological denialists in general, and I agree that should be done better. I actually wasn’t intending to refer to them as “denialist” per se, but rather that they used the tactics.

    I’ll work on this distinction, but I don’t have the same issue with the baggage of the word that you do. I see people using the same old tricks as the holocaust deniers and I’m going to stick with denialism as a description of those tactics. Holocaust deniers create the most black-and-white example, but they’re by no means the only ones who have these features.

  11. #11 MattXIV
    April 30, 2007

    Mark H,

    I don’t want to take this thread anymore off-topic than it already is, but since you read the thread at Respectful Insolence, I hope at some point you may address the argument I made regarding distinguishing the tactics used to express legitimate objections to regulation from “denialism.”

  12. #12 Mark H
    April 30, 2007

    I think it’s really simple Matt. Legitimate to me means non-deceptive, and not using the 5 tactics I describe. If you use data and facts to demonstrate the efficacy of deregulation that’s great. If, instead, a libertarian group uses the denialist tactics or those that Chris describes (you can argue with him separately when he posts), I’m unimpressed. Remember also, that the mere presence of these tactics doesn’t mean that the person is wrong, that would be an appeal to fallacy after all, what it does mean is that their argument is BS and they need to try harder.

    I’ve seen your comments a lot of the scienceblogs and you strike me as an on the level defender of libertarianism. I hate to say it though, libertarianism attracts a lot of serious cranks, as do most ideologies. We’ll go after lefties too at some point, notice I include animal rights extremists as a major source of cranks.

    I think the problem with libertarian groups comes when there was a response to a major flaw in the market, (say the poisoning of 107 kids with ethylene glycol), a regulatory response (the FDA saying you can’t use fraud to sell drugs), and some libertarians still won’t acknowledge the need for some regulation of that particular market (argue that FDA should be eliminated). The complete failure to recognize that the market fails at some things, and the religious belief that markets can do anything seem to be the source of libertarian crankery. One should always beware of any idea that purports to explain everything, especially in such a soft scientific area as economics/public policy.

    Examples abound of the failures of markets to prevent catastrophes for human beings, one merely needs to look at a examples of the pre-regulatory state of affairs (The Jungle) or several examples of deregulatory schemes (California/Enron) and you see that markets exist to make money, not necessarily protect humans from real harm. Right now we’re suffering not so much from the failure to regulate our food supply, but the absence of any real regulation in another country – China.

    So, I hope that helps, but I think you’ll find we’re not big fans of hardcore libertarianism for these reasons.

  13. #13 Blake Stacey
    April 30, 2007

    Earlier today, Orac said something I found insightful about crankery:

    Based on my experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that at least one true mark of a crank, particularly medical cranks but certainly not limited to them, is that they are obsessed with who the opposition is. Pseudonyms drive them crazy. When they find someone posting material refuting their pseudoscience to Usenet, discussion boards, or a blog under a pseudonym something that criticizes their views, their first reaction is to try to unmask that person, not to refute their criticism. Because their position is so tenuous and because there is no legitimate scientific rationale for it, their only fallback it to attack the person, which is why they obsess on who I am and to find any way they think they can embarrass me or even (at least in their minds) threaten my career.

    I ran into a couple nasty physics-and-math trolls on Wikipedia. (No subject is sufficiently obscure to be immune to trolling.) As it happens, WP is my only Internet haunt where I don’t use my real name — no particular reason, I just started with a real-life nickname which not many people actually used and kept going with it until it became a habit. I wasn’t the prime target of the troll aggression, which is fortunate, since I’m not very suave about such things, but what I witnessed matches Orac’s description to a jot and tittle.

    There was an interesting twist: the trolls were themselves fanatically fetishistic about preserving their own anonymity. I’m sure that this was because they were trolling pages about their real-life selves, and so if their identities became common knowledge, they would have gotten an even harsher treatment than they did. Thanks to IP-address geolocation, their identities became an open secret, but they weren’t mentioned in the eventual Arbitration Committee smackdown.

  14. #14 MarkH
    April 30, 2007

    It’s funny you say that Blake. On the previous blog I just went by “mark” – which is fine people don’t need to use the H – but one crank immediately mentioned that we we’re an “anonymous outfit”.

    Anonymity is fine by me. If you’re not full of it, it’s usually pretty easy to tell and who you are is a lot less important than how you say things.

    I added the H with the move here so people wouldn’t get any Marks confused.

    Also your story reminds me of a radio-astronomer I know who at his facility they have what they call the “crank file” full of all the crazy theories people have over the years. Apparently the stuff people come up with is really great.

  15. #15 Zeno
    April 30, 2007

    Here’s an amusing side note to the discussion of why cranks don’t see themselves as cranks. It’s from Caesar’s Women, a historical novel by Colleen McCullough (published in 1996). These are the words the author puts in Caesar’s mouth as he confers with Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great):

    Magnus, a man has only one instrument whereby to measure intelligence — his own mind. So he measures everyone by the greatest intellect he knows of. His own. When you sweep Our Sea clear of pirates in the space of one short summer, all you’re actually doing is showing him that it can be done. Ergo, he too could have done it. But you didn’t let him. You denied him the opportunity. … If he admits he couldn’t do it the way you did, then he’s telling himself he’s worthless, and that he won’t do. It isn’t pure conceit. It’s a built-in blindness coupled to misgivings he dare not acknowledge.

  16. #16 MattXIV
    April 30, 2007

    Mark H,

    Remember also, that the mere presence of these tactics doesn’t mean that the person is wrong, that would be an appeal to fallacy after all, what it does mean is that their argument is BS and they need to try harder.

    But that isn’t what has been said in other fora.

    Denialism: 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

    The second quote clearly says that “denialism” is when the tactics are used to create the appearance of argument when there is no legitimate debate on the topic. I don’t have a problem with the sentiment you express in this thread, but the definition on the original site sounds a lot like poisoning the well.

  17. #17 MarkH
    April 30, 2007

    Subtle distinction to be made here.

    These are tactics that one uses when there is nothing legitimate left to use. Recognition of them is, as a rule of thumb, a bullshit detector. However, someone could easily defend evolution using poor logic and crazy conspiracy theories, that doesn’t invalidate evolution. It just means the person arguing doesn’t know what they’re doing.

    When these are the only tools that are used though the situation changes. Then it’s pretty clear cut, your opponents do not have a leg to stand on. For the topics that we address one’s opponents don’t use data, or good logic, it’s just an unending barrage of these five tactics. There isn’t a legitimate forum that’s just being ignored, there’s really only cranks spewing endless BS. You can’t change their minds, no evidence will ever satisfy them, and they’ll just go on, and on and on, no matter what. Take for example the autism/mercury people. They could have been right – about 15 years ago. Then we studied the problem, took thimerosal out of vaccines even but have they stopped? No. They’ve just moved the goalposts and kept on yelling about mercury. A crank can’t be turned.

  18. #18 PattyP
    April 30, 2007

    It explains the tendency of cranks not to care if other cranks (and denialists in general for that matter) have variations on their own crazy ideas, just as long as the other cranks are opposing the same perceived incorrect truth.

    Thanks for pointing this out. I’ve only recently started in earnest to learn how to refute denialist talking points about climate change. But I never noticed this phenomenon, that they don’t attack each other’s absurdly divergent ideas.

  19. #19 Mel
    April 30, 2007

    My favorite crank du jour is George Shollenberger. (I’m lazy but you can google him if you haven’t come across him yet). He comes across as your basic egotistical crank with a little bigotry thrown in. Basically, he goes through the misunderstood genius rant, makes crazy claims about his life’s work and its value, and then every now and then blames atheists or people of a different ethnicity from him for all of the world’s problems.

    But the interesting thing about him is that he attributes most of his flaws (which he thinks are largely trivial) and a little bit of his genius to brain damage. Really. I didn’t encounter him before he was brain damaged and haven’t met anyone else who did either, so I don’t know if he was a crank before.

    Some cranks comes across as brain damaged, but this one freely admits to it. He would make a wonderful case study if somebody could get a decent pre-morbid history on him.

  20. #20 Hello
    April 30, 2007

    Sorry if everyone’s seen this before and that’s why it hasn’t been mentioned, but John Baez has put together a very funny self-test to determine if you are a crackpot or not. This is an internet classic that’s been kicking around for a while I think:

    http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/crackpot.html

  21. #21 HMS Beagle
    April 30, 2007

    A crank can’t be turned.

    Waitaminute, Mark, I thought you said a crank can only be turned in one direction? Which is it? Dammit, quit moving the goal posts!

    Just kidding, of course, fascinating blog. Keep it up. I’m looking forward to when you take on PZ, him and his ID Denialism. Heh, man I crack myself up.

  22. #22 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 30, 2007

    This was tremendously useful for me. So congrats on putting the new blog at sea, it made a splash over here.

    When these are the only tools that are used though the situation changes.

    So we have cranks and denialists. But while cranks pretty much does antiscience among socio-political activists and ignorants, “denial” is a common method for doing so.

    But the above definition of “denialism” pretty much puts a one-to-one correspondence between the method (denialism) and the result (denied science). I think I have missed that closure before, so the identification passed me by. Perhaps I was in, ehrm, denial. I will not be a denialist, however.

    I like it. Now, identifying cranks is easily done with a crank index. I look forward to your detailed descriptions of the methods denialists use, I hope it will be as clear cut and illuminating.

    Hello:
    Actually, Baez’s Crackpot Index is implicitly referenced to in giving the Wikipedia “crank” link.

    Wikipedia is often strong on internet facts.

    “If something happens without the internet listening, is it really happening?” – Ancient Wikipedia Adage. (At least, by the time you read this it will be internet ancient.)

  23. #23 Kevin
    May 1, 2007

    Why even coin the term “denialism” if not to smear someone through guilt by association? There are plenty of relevant terms to deal with liars, frauds, etc. Nothing about denial per se is even dishonest, so what else could the import of the term be?

    If someone is denying a fact you think critical, why even lump them into a group to be dismissed rather than refuting their argumentation? The whole enterprise of categorizing people into ‘denialists’ and ‘cranks’ just smacks of mental laziness, i.e. ‘here’s a quick way to lump all manner of people with a point of view different than my own into a conceptual category I can ignore completely.’

    I can see grouping people by the type of denial, argument from design, argument from necessity, whatever, and refuting the shared premises they would found their denial upon, but I just don’t get denialist as anything but a clunky neologism with nothing going for it except either a nasty rhetorical strategy or just plain overgeneralization. You are denying whatever theory the crank is putting forth; the difference is you think your denial is well-founded.

  24. #24 Andrew Dodds
    May 1, 2007

    Kevin –

    The main reason is that may anti-science people and groups have been misappropriating the term ‘Skeptic’, the most common form being ‘Global Warming Skeptic’. ‘Denialist’ should be used instead, because whilst someone who is truly skeptical of a given scientific theory would argue using things like evidence, logic and testable alterative theories, and importantly be able to admit if their alternative theory or argument was wrong, a denialist cares little for the correctness of their arguments, and seeks only to undermine a scientific theory in the eyes of a lay audience, for pre-existing political reasons.

    So using the term ‘denialist’ reclaims the term ‘skeptic’ for those who are willing to abide by the rules of scientific debate. It is true that it should always be justified and not used as a simple ad-hom.

  25. #25 Munin
    May 1, 2007

    The most depressing thing about the Kruger and Dunning paper is that everyone who sees that graph, no matter how incompetent they are, thinks, “Look at all those dumb people who don’t know how incompetent they are. I reckon I’m in the 3rd quartile.”

    Me, I reckon I’m in the 3rd quartile …

  26. #26 Hank Roberts
    May 1, 2007

    > what do you call … the use of astroturf groups to misrepresent public opinion and
    > science? …the practice of denialism, the methods, the intellectual dishonesty etc.,
    > are a set of tactics that are used much more broadly and not just by cranks.

    Well, you can sort the above into two groups; those who are for sale, and the volunteers.

    Those who are for sale are businesspeople, lawyers (the “aw” is silent, if you’re reading aloud), public relations, and advertising professonals — those in the business-as-usual of deception and misrepresentation, for whom omitting information necessary to understand a statement is not considered unethical. Often they’ll tell you cheerfully, outside of work hours, that they know the truth and their job is to obscure it. They change “sides” cheerfully as well, in the ‘revolving door’ between government and business. Distinguish them from career professionals whose job is to produce good and reliable information, from which management can pick the political line to be followed.

    Am I missing something here? Before I left academia I had absolutely no clue the world worked like this. Looking back, it was quite common there as well, but denied better. Many decades later, I know for sure I’m not cynical enough yet.

  27. #27 Andrew Dodds
    May 1, 2007

    Hank –

    I think it’s in the nature of human organisations to end up with a set of beliefs (or a ‘World-view’) to explain the world outside the organisation. Denialism comes in when this world view starts to depart from reality to the extent that it becomes harmful and/or obvious.

    Now, in theory, we have protective mechanisms against this – for example, a political party that is patently wrong can get voted out in a democracy, private companies that depart too much from reality go bust, Academia has things like peer review and grant competition; these mechanisms mean that, hopefully, those who deny reality tend to find it breaking down their door.

    Of course, this is not infallible. Without a strong and independant media, and strong separation of politics and business, you can end up with connective organisations that are increasingly immune from reality.

  28. #28 Lab Lemming
    May 1, 2007

    A discussion of cranks is not complete without mentioning the Pseudoscientific Method:
    http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/2007/03/pseudoscientific-method.html

  29. #29 MarkH
    May 1, 2007

    Lemming, that link is pretty awesome, but there needs to be some kind of recursion after “publish”.

    As far as the criticism of denialism as a neologism or as a guilt-by-association or that it is unhelpful as a term, this is a frequent refrain as part of the “McCarthy defense” against being called a denialist (not saying you are one Kevin – but we hear this a lot in that context).

    It’s wrong, IMHO, for a few reasons. Look at any group of people that is trying to distort science, and their methods, and they will almost always be using several of these methods. Further, lay people, especially in the press, seem completely unaware that these methods simply aren’t valid forms of reasoning for a scientific debate.

    If anything our use of the word “crank” is the sloppy and general dismissiveness of a person and their arguments. But you know, sometimes you have to be dismissive of things that simply aren’t worth your time. Do we really need to sit around though and devote our lives to refuting every claim cranks can come up with? I think my radio-astronomer friend has the right idea (or his librarians do), when they get one of these crank books you put it in the crank file and don’t think about it too hard.

    Recognizing denialism though, is somewhat helpful, as most who have visited have noticed, because it’s pattern recognition for these bad arguments. There isn’t really any difference between an evolution denier and a global warming denier, why develop arguments and websites and unions of concerned scientists for each one? They use the same BS tactics every time.

    Recognize the tactics, raise awareness that they don’t represent legit debate, get everybody on the same page and hopefully when the next form of anti-science denialist BS pops up it won’t be half a century before it dies again. We believe if these tactics are made recognizable and instantly illegitimate in the eyes of most people, the BS merchants will be disarmed of their best tactics. And it’s not like it will stifle real debate against scientific consensus. If you have data, you don’t need BS tactics, maybe the ID people will end up working at the bench one day instead of bothering us and discover something useful. Anything is possible.

    That, to me, is why understanding denialism is helpful.

  30. #30 Sastra
    May 1, 2007

    It explains the tendency of cranks not to care if other cranks (and denialists in general for that matter) have variations on their own crazy ideas, just as long as the other cranks are opposing the same perceived incorrect truth.

    The image that came to my mind here was one of those New Age-ish “Alternative” Healing/Psychic/Wellness/Spiritual Faires. Booth after booth, one crank theory after another, making opposing claims. One person thinks illness is caused by bad energy, another claims it’s lack of vitamins, another points to liver flukes or poor self-esteem or subluxations or whatever. But you don’t see one booth disputing another booth. There are no debates.

    No, they are all friends, all smiling, all supportive of each other. It’s all good, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff. The enemy is Mainstream Science and those nasty skeptics who don’t think trusting your instincts and relying on your own personal experience is the REAL way of doing “science.”

  31. #31 Jonathan Vos Post
    May 1, 2007

    My understanding of cranks has gone through 3 phases.

    (1) Reading, as a child, about “mad scientists” and the insane of other stripes in Science Fiction and in “mundane” literature, my parents having stocked the home with roughly 5 thousand books, in their capacity as editors in the New York City publishing industry.

    (2) As an undergraduate at Caltech, cranks kept materializing with bizarre manuscripts, claiming to have squared the circle, trisected the angle, or disproved Einstein, and thus were geniuses who should immediately be hired as professors. The Math and Physics department secretaries were trained to recognize them and politely disarm them. Feynman had his own corson of protection.

    (3) In the corporate, governmental, and academic life thereafter, I was shocked to discover cranks not only on the payroll, but sometimes promoted to management, professorships, and even Dean positions.

    Now I meet cranks more often online than at conferences, where I am sometimes participating in, or even moderating, the sessions designed to attract all cranks to one place and time to free the rest of the conference.

    See also (for why psychopaths get promoted in business):

    Hand out the garlic, grab the crosses, and hope for the best: A review of Snakes in Suits
    http://www.kathryncramer.com/kathryn_cramer/2006/11/hand_out_the_ga.html

  32. #32 Kevin
    May 2, 2007

    “There isn’t really any difference between an evolution denier and a global warming denier, why develop arguments and websites and unions of concerned scientists for each one? They use the same BS tactics every time.”

    Umm, ok. Then why not term them “creationists” or categorize them by whatever theory of climate they espouse? Denial tells you nothing more than what they are rejecting, and is not inherently objectioanble. Your objections, sound as they are, are really about faulty assertion, not denial per se.

    In the same manner you might term the creationist a denier of some given evolutionary theory, why couldn’t they term you, with equal justification, a denier of a given creation theory? The problem isn’t with the denial but with the invalid or unsound character of their argumentation. Noting someone’s theory is illogical or counterfactual is not a rhetorical device, unlike labelling them “denialists” which harkens to likening them to holocaust deniers who operate in ignorance of some very clear documentary evidence.

    And despite your tentative assertion that disliking neologisms is a McCarthyite tactic, I despise rhetoric, which is why I dislike the term. It is calculated to end rational inquiry; how to tell when someone is a crank or is positing false theories, if not by investigating their arguments? I find very little more odious than the intentional attempt to be persuasive in a manner that short circuits logic and reason; I think the term “denialist” is a perfect example of such an attempt.

  33. #33 MarkH
    May 2, 2007

    In the same manner you might term the creationist a denier of some given evolutionary theory, why couldn’t they term you, with equal justification, a denier of a given creation theory? The problem isn’t with the denial but with the invalid or unsound character of their argumentation.

    Kevin, are you being purposefully obtuse? This is exactly what we’ve said, we’re describing a system, a pattern, a common strategy common to people arguing against science. The reason they can’t just call us a “denier” is we don’t argue for evolution using conspiracy theories and picking what we want out of the literature. We don’t use these tactics, the label simply does not apply. Further, I wasn’t calling you a McCarthyite, but I’m wondering about your reading comprehension here now since it should have been obvious in the context I used the label. I specifically singled out this issue and explained why it isn’t a problem, and you’re just repeating it over and over. It’s not helpful and you’re not exactly reading our argument in a charitable manner.

    Not everyone has the time to find out everything about everything. Not everyone has the training, the education, or even if they are highly trained and educated, the time to go through the pros and cons of every argument. There is a value to helping people develop a “smell test” for poor scientific argument. Given how pervasive and how effective these tactics are, it’s not unreasonable to create an interest in the identification and dismissal of poor rhetoric so that people generally understand how to dismiss BS without having to do a graduate thesis on why it’s complete BS.

    Noting someone’s theory is illogical or counterfactual is not a rhetorical device, unlike labelling them “denialists” which harkens to likening them to holocaust deniers who operate in ignorance of some very clear documentary evidence.

    I see that you’re bothered by the use of “denialist” as there is baggage on this term from holocaust and HIV/AIDS deniers, who are widely considered the bottom of the barrel in terms of unreasonable crankery. But that’s part of our point. The tactics that allow one to defend these completely unreasonable ideas are the same that the creationists, global warming deniers, anti-vax, what have you are using the same tactics. Not just bad tactics, but the same tactics. Therefore it’s helpful, generally, to point out why these specific tactics are used in common by denialists, why they aren’t valid, and why people should reject arguments prima facie on such terrible rhetorical garbage.

  34. #34 David Marjanovi?
    May 2, 2007

    In hindsight, ideally the term “denialist” would have been restricted to deniers of the Holocaust (and Stalin’s Reign of Terror, Dutch Congo genocide and the like).

    I deny the Dutch Congo Genocide!

    The Congo was Belgian private property of the King of Belgium. :-]

  35. #35 David Marjanovi?
    May 2, 2007

    Oops, the strike tag isn’t allowed here. “Belgian” was supposed to be striked through.

  36. #36 Kevin
    May 2, 2007

    “Kevin, are you being purposefully obtuse? This is exactly what we’ve said, we’re describing a system, a pattern, a common strategy common to people arguing against science. The reason they can’t just call us a “denier” is we don’t argue for evolution using conspiracy theories and picking what we want out of the literature.”

    You’ve proven my point with your objection above. The semantic substance of ‘denialist’ is not denial, even in your estimation, but intentionally poorly founded theories and ignorance of counter arguments. Why invent “denialist” then? Denial doesn’t entail fraud, but your objections to “denialism” do. I can’t be much plainer; I’m not objecting to you personally, I just don’t like the invention of the word “denialism”.

    Many other words in English better serve the purpose for which you are hunting, like ‘charlatan’, ‘fraud’, etc. I don’t see another purpose to inventing a new word when so many already exist that are more precise and accurate. Rather I do see a reason, the rhetorical goal to equate denial of certain orthodox positions with immorality. As I said, I dislike that aspect of rhetoric intensely. Even if you are right and the other person is wrong, your larger interests are not served by discouraging others from intellectual rigor.

    I have also bemoaned the fact of life that if you don’t want to get ripped off you need to research. It applies to everything involving other people you don’t know intimately, not just I.D. or climate change. So what? That’s life among the non-telepathic. Encouraging people to take a shortcut and lump everyone *denying* a certain position [as implied by the root of ‘denialist’] is a rhetorical device which serves a different purpose than pointing out tips to spot frauds.

  37. #37 MarkH
    May 2, 2007

    We’re not inventing this word at all. It’s been used for decades for holocaust deniers, and for about a decade for HIV/AIDS denialists. It was getting applied to all sorts of instances in which rhetoric was being used effectively to frustrate sound science and policy. Just a couple of months ago, Michael Specter wrote a piece called “The Denialists” for the New Yorker about HIV/AIDS denial. We by no means invented denialists or denialism. This has been around in discussions of anti-science or generally anti-factual argument for quite some time.

    It was a combination of George Monbiot’s piece “The Denial Industry” tying the organized denialist campaign of the cigarette companies to current efforts to undermine the scientific basis of global warming that really made us sit down and empirically define the common elements. Tons of people were using the word, writing articles (the Wiki has dozens of references to its use) but no one had clearly defined the methods to which it referred.

    It became clear to us as we worked on creating a standard definition that the critical aspects of what people were referring to as “denialism” or “denialists” were people who were able to confound the public’s understanding of science or an established set of facts using campaigns designed to sow confusion and doubt – Monbiot was a big help on this. It wasn’t the contribution of data or research that was being used, but cheap rhetorical tactics that were emotionally appealing to people and represented a cheap way to avoid factual discussion or argument. Our only contribution to understanding denialism, and we’re somewhat proud of it, was to really sit down and identify the common elements that occur in virtually all arguments that the various denialists used, from the Holocaust deniers, to HIV/AIDS deniers, to evolution deniers.

    That’s why it’s not really possible to just retort that we’re just creation denialists. We have data, facts, research, papers, a scientific field that backs us up etc. What do evolution denialists have? Bad analogies, conspiracies about “materialist Darwinists against G-d”, cranks like Egnor that are supposed experts, arguments that will never be satisfied, and a bunch of cherry-picked facts and quotes.

    Our ultimate goal is to arm the people who are getting flustered by this stuff (and denialists can effectively confound even very informed scientists because their approach is often so shocking) with some simple tools that let you cry “bullshit” when these things pop up. In an ideal world, for instance, a journalist researching some topic wouldn’t end up interviewing one scientist and then some flat-earther for balance. They’d recognize that the flat-earther types have nothing to contribute, and the real discussion should be between those with a credible understanding of science. Recognizing a denialist when you see one would, ideally, allow the media, politicians, and lay people be able to dismiss crank arguments without a great deal of effort.

    Put simply, by pointing out the weak rhetorical basis for denialist arguments, we hope to defang them in the public debate.

  38. #38 Eli Rabett
    May 3, 2007

    Get thee to http://www.crank.net the best on line collection of all around nut jobs.

  39. #39 MarkH
    May 3, 2007

    I’ve been actually. They do what I would never have the time to, that is attempt to catalog internet crankery.

    Now that’s a Herculean task.

  40. #40 Harald Korneliussen
    May 4, 2007

    Brian Thompson, I’m not so sure your definition works, because I have real trouble imagining evidence that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, or that the world is really only 6000 years old. That would almost have to be the revelation of an impossible conspiracy or something.

  41. #41 Doug Rozell
    December 9, 2007

    I’ve been through this thread a couple of times looking for a summary statement of the five diagnostic signs of denialism. It would help if the host would publish them, as I am dealing with a crank here (and I appreiate the differences between a crank and denialist).

    DR

  42. #42 Anonymous
    July 10, 2008

    This page is wonky, the text appears at the top for a second then disappears and you have to scroll down to the middle of the page to see it again.

  43. #43 Marilyn Mann
    December 25, 2008

    “an indiscriminant obsession with possessing ‘controversial’ or iconoclastic ideas”

    This is a perfect description of Uffe Ravnskov.

  44. #44 gary
    January 16, 2009

    Unfortunately, as humans we know fuck all. Everything is just made up in our own heads.We all have such different realities. Nothing is real

  45. #45 zayıflama
    June 21, 2009

    That’s why it’s not really possible to just retort that we’re just creation denialists. We have data, facts, research, papers, a scientific field that backs us up etc. What do evolution denialists have? Bad analogies, conspiracies about “materialist Darwinists against G-d”, cranks like Egnor that are supposed experts, arguments that will never be satisfied, and a bunch of cherry-picked facts and quotes.

  46. #46 Andre
    July 15, 2009

    I know that it may look pedantic, but I can’t help myself. The paper by Kruger and Dunning that you refer to concludes that people with low competence in a given subject will tend to overestimate their own competence in that field. Since we are all incompetent in many fields, that includes you, me and everyone else, not only those you define as Cranks. In addition, the paper describes that when shown the right answers to the questions which they responded poorly (neither telling them that they got it wrong nor that they were actually staring at the correct answer), they could not recognize that those were the right answers. This is a bit of a tautologic conclusion, isn’t it? A person who doesn’t know the right answer for a given question cannot recognize whether an answer to that question is right…dah! – by the way, this conclusion was reached based on a questionary on Grammar. They did not perform this specific test in the logic reasoning bit of the research. But the important part here is that the research did not test whether the “incompetent” folks would have recognized the right answers to the questions as such had they been presented with the argument on why those answer are right. My point is not that I desagree with you in what concerns Cranks, but rather that the paper you mention is irrelevant as an argument to support your case.

  47. #47 Stephen Wilde
    September 5, 2009

    I am a sceptic, you are a crank.

    I am a believer, you are a denialist.

    I am adequately qualified to express an opinion, you overestimate your own competence.

    I have relied upon relevant data, you are a cherry picker.

    I am right, you are wrong.

    I am good, you are bad.

    If a crank is someone who cannot be turned then every person confident in their own judgement is by definition a crank.

    This thread is an utter waste of space.

  48. #48 GOTURKEY
    February 22, 2010

    I’m not here to restart the denialist label argument. I just want to commend you for using the term “crank” more, and to encourage you to continue to use that term in place of “denialist.”

    In hindsight, ideally the term “denialist” would have been restricted to deniers of the Holocaust (and Stalin’s Reign of Terror, Dutch Congo genocide and the like). “HIV/AIDS denialist,” which appeared years ago, was somewhat acceptable, and after that it started getting hopelessly watered down and applied to all kinds of things.

  49. #49 T. Currie
    May 18, 2012

    Hoofnagel, you are a pretentious twit. (Ad hominem at the level of your blog so your fans will understand) Please re-read the definition of a crank, re-stated below:
    Cranks overestimate their own knowledge and ability, and underestimate that of acknowledged experts.
    Cranks insist that their alleged discoveries are urgently important.
    Cranks rarely if ever acknowledge any error, no matter how trivial.
    Cranks love to talk about their own beliefs, often in inappropriate social situations, but they tend to be bad listeners, and often appear to be uninterested in anyone else’s experience or opinions.

    This behavior accurately describes You and the alarmist commenters of this blog (echo-chamber)… It’s comical that alarmists tend to argue a perpetual straw-man fallacy (it feeds their confirmation biases) and then fail to recognize this counter-productive behavior in themselves. It becomes pathological in people afflicted with OCD. Please seek help, so others aren’t exposed to or influenced by your deluded mania(s). After all, you and your alarmist friends are saving the Earth, help is a small price to pay. Your like a superhero! Hahahahahah….

  50. #50 Wow
    May 18, 2012

    “I am a believer, you are a denialist.”

    Logical disconnect here. Believer and Denialist are not opposites.

    “If a crank is someone who cannot be turned then every person confident in their own judgement is by definition a crank.”

    Yes. For example, someone who is confident in their own definition by DEFINITION is not a sceptic.

    But someone who tries to call themselves a sceptic despite being confident in their own judgement is a crank. They get cranky if you don’t agree to let themselves describe themselves as a sceptic.

    “and the alarmist commenters”

    Unable, however, to describe what is alarmist.

    Is the bleach bottle alarmist by telling that you MUST IMMEDIATELY seek medical help if you drink some of it?

    Or is it warming you of an alarming danger you may be unaware of?

  51. #51 Wow
    May 18, 2012

    “In hindsight, ideally the term “denialist” would have been restricted to deniers of the Holocaust (and Stalin’s Reign of Terror, Dutch Congo genocide and the like).”

    When was denialism coined as a term.

    Freud.

    1923.

    Before WWII.

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