The New Scientist Debates Denialism

Luckily they don’t make the mistake of actually debating denialists. The feature of last weeks issue, “Age of Denial” is a series of articles by skeptics and one laughable rebuttal, discussing the nature of denialism and tactics to use against it. They do quite a good job covering the basics, starting with Deborah MacKenzie and her article “Why Sensible People Reject the Truth“:

Whatever they are denying, denial movements have much in common with one another, not least the use of similar tactics (see “How to be a denialist”). All set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people. This conspiracy is usually claimed to be promoting a sinister agenda: the nanny state, takeover of the world economy, government power over individuals, financial gain, atheism.

All denialisms appear to be attempts like this to regain a sense of agency over uncaring nature: blaming autism on vaccines rather than an unknown natural cause, insisting that humans were made by divine plan, rejecting the idea that actions we thought were okay, such as smoking and burning coal, have turned out to be dangerous.

Here she has it exactly right. Denialism starts with ideology, which most of us possess to some degree or another, and a conflict between that ideology and reality – at least so far as science allows us to understand it. In order to regain control of one’s beliefs, and protect them from being challenged, one has to prove that the science is wrong. And that requires one to believe in some form of non-parsimonious conspiracy theory, after all, how else could it be that science has come up with such an answer if not for the concerted malfeasance of thousands of individuals, all working together to undermine the TRUTH?

Further she cites these as tactics of denialists:

How to be a denialist
Martin McKee, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who also studies denial, has identified six tactics that all denialist movements use. “I’m not suggesting there is a manual somewhere, but one can see these elements, to varying degrees, in many settings,” he says (The European Journal of Public Health, vol 19, p 2).
1. Allege that there’s a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
2. Use fake experts to support your story. “Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility,” says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
3. Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
4. Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
5. Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.
6. Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.

Sound familiar? That’s because McKee cites us in his paper. We’ll forgive her for not identifying the original source, after all McKee gives the credit.

She does get a few things wrong, likely due to her unfamiliarity with just how absurd some denialists are. For instance when she says:

The first thing to note is that denial finds its most fertile ground in areas where the science must be taken on trust. There is no denial of antibiotics, which visibly work. But there is denial of vaccines, which we are merely told will prevent diseases – diseases, moreover, which most of us have never seen, ironically because the vaccines work.

This is demonstrably false, as we have encountered denialists who do deny the efficacy of antibiotics and all of Western medicine, as their particular ideology requires them to believe in the primacy of religion (Christian Science, New Age Nonsense) or in the magical properties of nature. She goes on to describe the work of our good colleague Seth Kalichman and the good things he’s done to fight HIV/AIDS denialism. Overall, a good summary of the problem. I also like how she stays non-judgmental and reflects on how pseudoscience is ultimately a complement to science:

This is not necessarily malicious, or even explicitly anti-science. Indeed, the alternative explanations are usually portrayed as scientific. Nor is it willfully dishonest. It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts. Denialist explanations may be couched in sciency language, but they rest on anecdotal evidence and the emotional appeal of regaining control.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, this certainly applies to pseudoscience. After all pseudoscience is a reflection of the authority science has as the arbiter of truth. If being on the right side of science wasn’t so important, cdesign proponentsists and global warming denialists wouldn’t fight so hard to warp it to fit their ideology, and by doing so, implicitly seek its approval.

Jim Giles contributes an interesting article on an example of how a lie travels twice around the world before the truth gets its boots on with Unleashing a Lie, but then the series gets a bit more problematic with the contributions of noted skeptic Michael Shermer (also anerstwhile global warming denialist and persistent libertarian) and an amusing counterpoint from the otherwise wonderful Michael Fitzpatrick, a British GP who fights the good fight against autism quackery.

Starting with Michael Shermer, who ostensibly flipped back from the dark side of denialism with his 2006 piece The Flipping Point, but who, I imagine due to his well-known libertarian ideals, inspired by Ayn Rand no less, still seems to reject the need for any kind of top-down societal change to address the problem. In recent writings – in particular his “5 questions” he still seems to be playing the same game (not to mention promoting the work) of Bjorn Lomborg. Admit global warming is real, sure, but deny we should do anything about it. Or certainly nothing difficult or requiring sacrifice. This is the well-known minimalization approach common to libertarians who “accept” the science. This is the strategy of the Lomborgians and the scam of the Copenhagen consensus, admit the problem exists, just minimize its significance, blow the costs out of proportion and create a consensus from a minority of like-thinkers. Shermer also clearly still has warm feelings for Rand even if he’s rejected Randians as being a creepy cult. His recent work the mind of the market, is primarily lauditory of the free-market solves-all view of things, and these hints and others suggest the ideological source of his problems with the theory. And even though he’s come around (very late I might add) to accept the science of AGW, you can tell he’s still sore about being once labeled a denier:

Though the distinction between scepticism and denial is clear enough in principle, keeping them apart in the real world can be tricky. It has, for example, become fashionable in some circles for anyone who dares to challenge the climate science “consensus” to be tarred as a denier and heaved into a vat of feathers. Do you believe in global warming? Answer with anything but an unequivocal yes and you risk being written off as a climate denier, in the same bag as Holocaust and evolution naysayers.

What is so interesting is that Shermer clearly gets denialism and the problem ideology plays in its promulgation:

Denial is different. It is the automatic gainsaying of a claim regardless of the evidence for it – sometimes even in the teeth of evidence. Denialism is typically driven by ideology or religious belief, where the commitment to the belief takes precedence over the evidence. Belief comes first, reasons for belief follow, and those reasons are winnowed to ensure that the belief survives intact.

In particular his baloney detection tool kit ends with the question “is the idea being promoted fueled by personal belief?” While I think it’s wonderful that he’s came around about 40 years after the science, I think he still has to own up to the fact that his rejection of the science, perfectly strong science in the 1990s and 2000s, was due to anything but his ideology. There wasn’t a new piece of data that arrived in 2006 to change him, just, according to him, Al Gore’s presentation of it that finally worked to change him. Why would a true skeptic reject the scientists and the IPCC only to convert after seeing the Vice President give a TED talk? I think it likely was easy to be skeptic given his distaste for the environmental movement and the perceived infringement on individual liberties that environmental regulation entails. It is also still questionable if his support for Lomborg and the other libertarian minimizers doesn’t represent that he hasn’t just morphed his denial into a new strategy that admits the science is real then happily undermines any of its significance. Anyway, that’s too much time trying to get into someone else’s head, but I’d be happier if Shermer, who is a leader in promoting true skepticism, could just say, “yes I was being irrational”, after all, that’s the whole point of what real skeptics are trying to achieve and what we are trying to achieve with denialism blog. That is, explaining the fact that even very smart, highly skeptical people can be tricked into thinking irrational things when reality conflicts with their ideology. It’s not that denialists are stupid, it’s that they’re irrational and can’t face changing certain core ideals or overvalued ideas that conflict with reality. Given his continued support for Lomborg and falling for his slight-of-hand I’m not sure he’s out of the woods yet on this issue.

Secondly, the denialism rebuttal, by noted autism quack-fighter Michael Fitzpatrick misses the point, and oddly channels some of the classic crank arguments against the very notion of denialism in his article, “Questioning Science Isn’t Blasphemy“. Note the offhand Gallileo Gambit in the title, in fact, that’s little more than the entire argument:

THE epithet “denier” is increasingly used to bash anyone who dares to question orthodoxy. Among other things, deniers are accused of subordinating science to ideology. In his book Denialism: How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet, and threatens our lives, for example, Michael Specter argues that denialists “replace the rigorous and open-minded scepticism of science with the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment”.

How ironic. The concept of denialism is itself inflexible, ideological and intrinsically anti-scientific. It is used to close down legitimate debate by insinuating moral deficiency in those expressing dissident views, or by drawing a parallel between popular pseudoscience movements and the racist extremists who dispute the Nazi genocide of Jews.

Isn’t it telling that the only argument against using the terminology of denialism is an irrational Galileo Gambit, and completely missing the point? We’re not shutting down debate, or censoring anyone, or even insinuating moral deficiency. Quite the opposite, we’re showing how even well-meaning smart people fall for irrational arguments and try to describe which arguments aren’t worth listening to or accepting as legitimate. Denialism is not actual healthy debate, it’s the art of creating the appearance of a debate when facts are settled. Recognizing denialism is just recognizing that some tactics are flawed, and that their use does not represent actual healthy debate. Clearly some denialists aren’t honest brokers in a debate, but the fact is a lot of people fall for and use these arguments simply because they don’t know better. And until everyone understands what represents healthy debate and logical arguments, little progress will be made in advancing legitimate scientific views against the nonsense being peddled by the HIV/AIDS denialists, the autism/vaccine cranks, and AGW denialism. Every success I’ve ever had in changing someone’s mind on these topics has been in explaining how the denialists have twisted facts and relied on conspiracies to promote nonsense. And I have these arguments with good, smart people. I’ve argued AGW once with a surgeon and an anesthesiologist during a case, I’ve gotten into it in bars with the tipsy and opinionated. And usually, if I explain the origins of the opposition (see Naomi Oreskes work on this), factually explain the science, and explain the common canards like global cooling, warming has stopped, etc., I usually close the deal when you explain how absurd the denialists’ conspiracy theory ultimately is.

As philosopher Edward Skidelsky of the University of Exeter, UK, has argued, crying denialism is a form of ad hominem argument: “the aim is not so much to refute your opponent as to discredit his motives”. The expanding deployment of the concept, he argues, threatens to reverse one of the great achievements of the Enlightenment – “the liberation of historical and scientific inquiry from dogma”.

How very cranky, sound like someone is feeling oppressed? All denialism is is a description of a flawed but common type of argument. Here the author suggests that calling flawed arguments flawed will bring the enlightenment to a screeching halt, and we will have a new dark age of scientific orthodoxy being filtered down from our evil leader, Al Gore. Not likely.

Dr. Fitzpatrick seems to think the problem of denialism is caused by a scientific establishment that is too slow to respond when denialist arguments rear their ugly heads, he cites Duesberg and Wakefield as examples:

Both Duesberg and Wakefield were reputable scientists whose persistence with hypotheses they were unable to substantiate took them beyond the limits of serious science. Though they failed to persuade their scientific peers, both readily attracted supporters, including disaffected scientists, credulous journalists, charlatans, quacks and assorted conspiracy theorists and opportunist politicians.

In both cases, scientists were dilatory in responding, dismissing the movements as cranks and often appearing to believe that if they were ignored they would quietly disappear. It took five years before mainstream AIDS scientists produced a comprehensive rebuttal of Duesberg. Though child health authorities were alert to the threat of the anti-vaccine campaign, researchers were slow to respond, allowing it to gather momentum.

Social psychologist Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut in Storrs mounts a typical defence of this stance in his book Denying Aids: Conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and human tragedy. According to Kalichman, denialists often “cross the line between what could arguably be protected free speech”. He justifies suppression of debate on the feeble grounds that this would only legitimise the deniers and that scientists’ time would be better spent on research.

Such attempts to combat pseudoscience by branding it a secular form of blasphemy are illiberal and intolerant. They are also ineffective, tending not only to reinforce cynicism about science but also to promote a distrust for scientific and medical authority that provides a rallying point for pseudoscience.

As Skidelsky says, “the extension of the ‘denier’ tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people”. What we need is more debate, not less.

I’m not sure exactly what he’s arguing here. Is labeling bogus tactics of argument fascist? Should we create a science PR wing that rises to meet all these challenges? We already have a private version of such a thing with folks like Orac and Ben Goldacre, but your average researcher is usually completely unaware of the pseudoscientists out there causing harm. In the case of HIV/AIDS denial in South Africa, the body count from this harm can be counted in the hundreds of thousands and the debate over the cause of AIDS is long over. The damage by Mbeki and others occurred a decade after scientists in an organized way addressed Duesberg’s bogus ideas and he still kept at it! At what point do we call these poisonous ideas what they are and stop acting like more talk fixes the problem? And what else do you call arguments that rely on conspiracy and cherry-picking and fake experts, logical fallacies and constantly moving goalposts? At a certain point you have to stop acting like you’re facing an honest broker and explain that your opponent isn’t even arguing anymore, because denialism isn’t debate. It’s just rhetorical parlor tricks, a performance designed to confuse and spread doubt where there should be none. If you don’t point out to people how not to fall for the crank arguments these arguments will continue to have resonance and work on the uninitiated (and even on seasoned skeptics like Shermer).

This whole argument reeks of false persecution to me. Fitzpatrick argues we should keep playing cards with a trick deck. At some point you have to point out the cheats for what they are. It’s not suppressing debate, it’s defining what legitimate debate is and refusing to engage unless we’re agreeing to use the same set of facts. If the denialists have a problem with that the solution is simple. Stop alleging idiotic conspiracy theories. Stop cherry picking and moving the goalposts. Stop making things up. When you stop acting like a denialist, you’ll stop being called one.


  1. #1 Mac
    May 24, 2010

    If you’re done bashing libertarians for a moment, allow me to paraphrase Ed Brayton: Please keep it about the argument, not about the label. For instance, there are gay, pro-choice republicans and there are quite many fundamentalist, pro-life, climate-denialist democrats. There are libertarians who are environmentalists and there are libertarians who are climate-denialists. Denialism makes use of broad brush-strokes, something we should avoid ourselves. When you do it (vis-a-vis libertarians), it detracts from the readability and enjoyment of your articles. But thanks for a good summary of the New Scientist material, which I otherwise found informative and engaging.

  2. #2 Kagehi
    May 24, 2010

    However, all Libertarians, to one degree or another, believe in the idea that the market can manage itself, with limited, far less, or **no** outside control. They are wrong on all counts. If they where arguing that some controls being attempted are misguided, and flawed, that would be one thing. But that isn’t what is being argued. In almost all cases, the controls/regulation being argued against are invariably the ones that let them do something they want to do, while ignoring the consequence to others from being allowed to do so, and very real denialism crops up when you point out *any* of those consequences. A good example being how some argue that raising the minimum wage is a bad thing. Sure.. If the moment you do that, every business up and raises prices, to maintain their own profit, then all the CEOs give themselves raises for doing so, thus a) eliminating the gain made by the lowest income makers, while b) widening the already existing gap between some guy making 18,000 a year on a part time job, because the company will **not** allow them to become full time (like mine), and someone making 1 billion a year, because they are the one deciding to a) not allow full time employees, or b) pay them a living wage. When ever you bring it up, its always, “Well, if we didn’t have to pay people minimum wage, we wouldn’t have to raise our prices, and people could afford things!” Bullpucky!! If that where true, the minimum wouldn’t have needed to be created, never mind raised, in the bloody first place.

    No, I haven’t met, read anything by, or seen anything about, *any* libertarian which suggested to me that they have a damn clue what the reality is for people that don’t share their philosophy, never mind what the world did, and would, look like, back before the government decided *to* regulate anyone, and everyone was either living in company owned housing, with company owned clothes, and a company owned credit line, they couldn’t ever pay off on their wages, or **owned** the company. Show me one that has a clue why things got to where they are, and why places that are considered pro-libertarian, like Arizona, are no better, or worse, that the rest of the country, and I might stop, personally, thinking that libertarian = clueless twit.

  3. #3 CW
    May 25, 2010

    libertarian = clueless twit

    That goes too far. Folks like Ed Brayton, Penn Jillette and Michael Shermer are certainly not “clueless twits”. They are smart people who’s ideology simply overcomes their skepticism and rationality when certain ideas are considered.

  4. #4 Mike
    May 25, 2010

    @Kagehi – your absurd characterization of libertarians is almost enough to turn me into this guy: It’s a personal victory for me to recognize that there is absolutely no way I could ever correct you personally. So good luck with your belief in the problem solving abilities of a monopoly on the use of violence.

    But seriously, your minimum wage argument shows how poorly you understand the libertarian stance. We oppose the minimum wage because we believe in the right of individuals to work at any pay rate (and to hire workers at any pay rate). Of course, we also oppose government policies and programs that have made the wealth gap what it is today. Evidently, we have conflicting interpretations of the history, but to say that we libertarians simply don’t have a clue is a bad guess at best.

    There may be no hope for you; I just hope no one else reads your post and thinks, “gee, this guy has a point about libertarians”.

  5. #5 Mac
    May 25, 2010

    Kagehi: Firstly, my sympathies, that you feel your labor is undercompensated.

    I still disagree with your broad brush stroke, though. Not all libertarians are against all regulation. Even if they did, they are not bad people just because you disagree with them.

    You sound like you’re attacking a group of people, not an idea here. Per my original point, I believe it is more productive to focus on the arguments and not the labels. Your negative experience with your bosses does not mean, however, that they are libertarians. If they are, you haven’t explained that. They seem to be businessmen who could be democrats or republicans or socialists for all I know.

    I think your message is drowned out by your frustration. It might be more productive for you to focus on logical arguments against core libertarian doctrine, instead of directing anger against people who you perceive to be libertarians.

    I recently attended the talk of a Cato Fellow (which, somewhat surprisingly, wasn’t completely incoherent, heh) and the speaker admitted to being a “squishy libertarian.” He felt that certain regulations in particular were sorely needed on our financial institutions. And he’s from the Cato institute! Apparently not all of them are dyed-in-the-wool objectivists.

    Good luck with your job.

  6. #6 Orac
    May 25, 2010

    Unfortunately, Dr. Fitzpatrick seems to have a bit of an iconoclastic streak in him that leads him to root for outsiders beyond what they deserve. Despite his attacks on Wakefield, for instance, he still managed to write this article as the idea of bringing Wakefield up before the GMC for a fitness to practice hearing:

  7. #7 MarkH
    May 26, 2010

    Mac, per your original point, I think it is useful to point out how one’s ideology gets one into trouble with science. Much of the post focuses on how the basis of all denialism is conflict between ideology and reality. Evolution denialists are the way they are because reality conflicts with the religious origin stories of people whose identity is wrapped up in a literal reading of the bible. Holocaust denial is a reflection of anti-semitism. And global warming denialism largely comes from libertarians. The type of denialism we see doesn’t just come at us at random, no, people believe these things because their simplistic ideology and black-and-white thinking gets them into trouble.

    Now, everyone has some degree of infection with ideology and how extreme their views are corresponds to how desperately they need to reject reality. There are libertarians who accept science and acknowledge that there are important regulations and government agencies that keep us healthy, prevent corporate malfeasance, clean our water, protect our food and drugs etc. These are called reasonable people, they just want smaller government, fiscal responsibility whatever. I wonder when I meet these people why they even bother with the label.

    Then there are the ideologues like the George C. Marshall folks or the AEIs and CEI hacks who are largely responsible for the creation of global warming denialism. Naomi Oreskes work on the history of AGW denialism is telling, this was a concerted effort on the part of extremists to undermine science that they felt would lead to world government, more regulation, and loss of US sovereignty. This is the source of the problem, sorry. It is the ideology you share in common with these folks we are trying to reign in.

    Then there are those individuals in-between, those smart enough not to outright deny the science, but just minimize it’s significance. Enter Bjorn Lomborg, and promoters of his nonsense like Shermer. Now, why would a rational, skeptical person like Shermer fall for Lomborg’s sleight-of-hand? Because he’s been duped by his ideology into believing what he wants to be true, rather than what is true.

    I’m sorry I pick on libertarians so much, but a few things factor into that. One is, I despise Ayn Rand. She is the worst kind of black-and-white thinker and has spawned generations of Randtards who think she’s the height of intellectualism. Her books are dreck. Her ideas promote the worst of human venality, like unenlightened self-interest, as the highest form of morality, and the resulting cult (even Shermer calls it a creepy cult) gives me the willies. Second, libertarianism just happens to be the basis for a major form of denialism that we write about a lot and kind of a serious threat to the environment. They also fall into the anti-medicine anti-FDA anti-CDC anti-vaccine wackiness lot that’s just as annoying but a little more marginalized compared to the AGW denialists. Finally, because it is a fringe belief system, it already walks a finer line between rationality and insanity than other more moderate political leanings. You guys have to own up to the fact that a significant portion of people that call themselves libertarian say some crazy stuff. Look at what the teapartiers are like, or the truther who is up to be their national chairman.

    I promise, I dislike dirty-hippy, liberal, ecofanatical animals-deserve-equal-rights, green-our-vaccines, crystal-waving left wing fanatics just as much. But their denialism isn’t as big a societal problem right now as AGW denialism is. Every ideology has its wackos. It’s just a matter of proportion. Seems like the libertarian party needs to work on that ratio.

  8. #8 Bee Pee
    May 27, 2010

    Here, I think you omit to reflect on your own ideology/beliefs/prejudices:

    “In order to regain control of one’s beliefs [ideology?], and protect them from being challenged, one has to prove that the science is wrong. And that requires one to believe in some form of non-parsimonious conspiracy theory, after all, how else could it be that science has come up with such an answer if not for the concerted malfeasance of thousands of individuals, all working together to undermine the TRUTH?”

    The “conspiracy theory” is only necessary to some thing that is already politicised. Nobody needed to create a conspiracy theory to challenge science / the reality of something that was inconsequential.

  9. #9 JakeS
    May 30, 2010

    Libertarianism is obviously a broad church that does include reasonable people. That said, common to most or all versions of libertarian ideology are descriptions of the nature of power and the structure and function of the modern business enterprise that cannot readily be reconciled with reality.

    Specifically, most libertarian ideology promotes an atavistic reverence for forcible coercion as the only (or at least premier) way to exercise power. This is flatly contradicted by common experience, as well as a number of important results from the social sciences of the 20th century. It is perfectly possible to exercise considerable power over other people without ever even hinting of the threat of forcible coercion. Using concerted propaganda to shape another person’s frame of reference controls him at least as reliably (and much more cheaply) as placing a man with a whip behind him at all times. So clearly, those who are in a position to shape other people’s frame of reference wield power, regardless of whether they wield physical force.

    Similarly, libertarian ideology displays an anachronistic affection for the profit-maximising firm. Modern large business firms do not slavishly maximise profits. To suppose that the CEO of Goldman Sachs is in the business of maximising profits for the shareholders, most of whom he has never met and none of whom hold any real, actionable power over him (when was the last time a general assembly of Goldman’s stockholders ousted a CEO?) is to suppose that he voluntarily hands money and power over to perfect strangers for no comparable favour in return.

    He is not even in the business of maximising his own personal profits (although he is in a position to remunerate himself quite handsomely, and frequently does). He is, in every sense but the title, in the business of a politician; that is, in the business of balancing the often conflicting interests and power relationships inherent in the large bureaucracy that is required to successfully run a large business. And, like elected officials in relation to the civil service, his power is rather less absolute than the organisational flowchart would have you believe: The company’s technical specialists, middle managers, sales representatives and accountants all hold a very real power, because they can shape, sort and restrict the information that the CEO has access to about the inner workings of the firm. And indeed they must do so – no single person can handle all the raw data, so it has to be filtered. But the process of filtering data is a process of exercising power over the recipient, by shaping and restricting the range of decisions available to him.

    In short, the modern large business enterprise functions more like a private, unelected government than like the business enterprise of libertarian imagination.

    And no, you cannot simply resolve this problem by making businesses small enough that they comply with free-market fantasies – no small company has ever produced a modern microprocessor, a modern windmill, a nuclear reactor, a modern cargo ship or even synthetic fertiliser in the volume required for modern industrial society. And there are excellent technical reasons to believe that no small company ever will produce any such thing. To demand that all firms comply with the early 19th century picture of a small, independent workshop under the aegis of a single or small group of proprietors is to demand that society de-industrialises to the level of the early 19th century.

    - Jake

  10. #10 Mac
    May 30, 2010

    Mark: Thank you for a well-reasoned response. You make many good counterpoints. I do agree that today’s political Libertarian party is in a sorry state. Being “libertarian” (ie supporting individual freedom, small-as-necessary government, “enough rope to hang yourself” philosophy) does not ever excuse one from acknowledging science & factual truth. But many use libertarianism as an excuse for their own ill-conceived ideas. But the libertarian party of today is different than that of 10 years ago or 10 years in the future, just like the democrats & republicans. Some people in the past would be really surprised to learn that today’s democrats are the liberals, as an example.

    @10: Thank you for acknowledging the diversity within libertarianism. Strictly speaking, I tend to think your description of capitalism is more of an objectivist characteristic, although yes there are an awful lot of libertarians who ascribe, to some degree, to that as well. And it is indeed a fuzzy line with lots of overlap. But as you acknowledge, there are plenty of libertarians who don’t care about money, and aren’t businessmen, they just want their civil liberties, and would never buy into coercive manipulation. Maybe the rich ones are the noisy ones though. Or at least the ones who buy the political ads.

    I happen to think of political libertarianism and philosophical libertarianism as separate, but related, concepts.

    Strict, puritanical libertarianism, like any other dogma, is going to be a poor rule for practical living. After all, no matter what your political philosophy, it’s nothing but a tool to help you live a better life and can be used to good or bad effect. Anyway, just my $0.02. Thanks for sharing your good ideas.

  11. #11 JakeS
    May 31, 2010

    I’m not familiar with Rand, except in the second person. My personal experience with self-described libertarians is limited to people like Ed Brayton (who is clearly on the sensible end of the spectrum) and the Austrians (who are clearly more than a little deranged). That said, I think you will have a hard time finding even self-described dirigists who will argue against “as small a government as necessary.” The question is what is necessary.

    In that respect, many libertarians make two objectionable assertions: First, a narrow identification of “small government” with “small government budget.” What this government budget is *used* for is apparently of lesser consequence than its existence. To this perspective, government spending on wiretapping its own citizens is equivalent in its oppression of the citizenry to government spending on superconductor research. This is clearly absurd.

    Second, an insistence on reducing said government budget to levels that are incompatible with maintaining a functioning industrial state. There is currently no sustainable industrial model that permits of a sovereign budget that isn’t on the order of half the economy, give or take ten percentage points. And even if there were, from a democracy perspective there is something distinctly troubling about having private corporate bureaucracies with more lawyers on their payroll than the elected government…

    - Jake

  12. #12 3h
    June 4, 2010

    “Denialist” = new term for someone who does not sheepishly conform to the opinion of the masses. The term is itself a logical fallacy. It says, in essence, if I am correct, and I obviously am, and you disagree with me, then you are obviously in denial. It’s a simple ad hominem attack. This whole blog is built on a silly logical fallacy.

  13. #13 Collin
    June 6, 2010

    3H: I think you may be confusing validity with truth. If the claim of denialism only hinged on question-begging, then it would be a fallacy, but it’s dealing with a particular kind of rebuttal that proceeds from false premises and uses certain rhetorical strategies to obfuscate empirical, consensus-driven facts.

    That’s not a fallacy, but a description of a type of evasion.

  14. #14 Three Chord Monty
    June 6, 2010

    I started a thread on Bad Science after seeing Orac’s piece on Michael Fitzpatrick; I was eager to see their reaction. Later I dropped a link to this post and found their reaction to it interesting as well. It’s currently a dead thread, but I thought you might find the discussion interesting.

  15. #15 walter
    June 10, 2010

    The problem is that, at heart, we are not rational creatures. We are intensely emotional creatures. Our beliefs are of an emotional nature; it is only when we try to convince others of the superiority of our ideas that we try use reason. But it is even more complicated than that. Most of our emotions are hidden from us. Yes, we are aware of those few emotions that break through to our conscious awareness, but they are just the tip of our emotional iceberg, the great bulk of our emotional entity is hidden below awareness. So we are at the mercy of forces we cannot even directly measure. It is those emotions, I think, that determine our political, religious, or philosophical leanings. Libertarians are, at heart, entrenched Social Darwinist. They believe that market forces separate the good from the bad. Their mindset is that of a moral religion. Puritans believed in the saved and the damned, separated by God’s grace or wrath. Libertarians believe in the moral and immoral, separated by the invisible hand of the market. Of course, most Libertarians will no present their ideas as such; most will probably deny such an ideology even to themselves. But, once again, the true origins of our assumptions are hidden from us. Of course many Libertarians believe in Humanism. Social Darwinism is at odds with Humanism, so many Libertarians, such as Michael Shermer, do intellectual back flips to reconcile their true closeted sentiment with their public image. Denialism is the outcome of this emotional conflict. When our hidden emotions collide with our own expectations, or reality, we create sophisticated self referential syllogisms to justify our continued refusal to capitulate. We impose ourselves in the world. We are all capable of this, but Libertarians more so than others, their intellectual summersaults give my mind back pains.

  16. #16 Bryson Brown
    June 11, 2010

    3h: The superficial symmetry between denialists and their opponents creates an illusion of a debate where there really isn’t one. When you examine the claims that are made by denialists, you find a miscellany of conflicting and incompatible assertions– yet they focus all their attention and criticism on the view (evolution, the dangers of second hand smoke, ACC) they’re criticizing/ trying to resist.

    It doesn’t take a lot of time to see that (for instance) Richard Lindzen doesn’t accept common ACC denialist claims that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas, or that human emissions are not changing CO2 levels. Yet he doesn’t (for instance, in the Wall Street Journal) point out these fundamental agreements with climate science and explain that his main difference from the mainstream is his confidence– as yet unsustained by actual evidence– that climate feedbacks will be minimal or even negative. Instead, he adopts a grossly ad-hominem denialist trope, speculating loosely about the motives of other climate scientists (all the while steering around the point that he has taken money from fossil fuel interests– though not to support his research). The parallel with Michael Behe, who accepts common ancestry and the geological time scale but focuses all his public interventions on attacking the sufficiency of natural selection to explain adaptations, is striking.

    Denialism is not a form of inquiry–its practitioners show no concern for consistency, for resolving differences, for correcting errors and rejecting bad argument forms (such as the removal of trends in graphs by shifting to first differentials). Denialism is about resistance to well-supported conclusions, so the label is perfectly apt.

  17. #17 Martov
    July 15, 2010

    Interesting discussion. Of course, there is an honourable tradition of serious libertarian political and philosophical thought, so not all libertarians are “twits”.

    For example, I remember as a student admiring the lucidity and elegance of Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State and Utopia”, even while strongly disagreeing with it.

    But libertarians are particularly prone to put ideology ahead of science, and a fundamental reason for this is that the theory of the beneficial effects of “free markets” (more accurately, the benign consequence of the totality of free agreements and contracts between individuals) is just wrong, for a number of reasons. For example, it does not address the impact of consequent social inequalities, passed down through generations. It does not properly address externalities – for example, the environmental effects of production and distribution.

    And all too often libertarians respond to these negative consequences – man-made climate change, pollution from road traffic, passive smoking – by simply denying the problem exists in the face of all scientific evidence. Thus they exclude themselves from rational debate on these issues.

    However, libertarians are by no means the only current of political and social thought guilty of putting ideology before facts. Communists around the world refused to accept the truth about Stalin and the Soviet Union. Environmentalists may be right about climate change, but wrong in absolute opposition to genetically modifed food. Authoritarians continue to proclaim that “prison works” in the teeth of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    “Denialism” is therefore not the province of any particular ideology, but of all ideologues who refuse to accept the primacy of reason and facts. All ideologies that provide “total” theories of politics and socieities have this inherent weakness.

    Denying science is an important part of this mindset but not the whole of it.

  18. #18 2012hoax
    July 27, 2010

    I am struck by the similarities in tactics between your cited cases of denialism and the people who promote hoaxes in general, and the “2012 doomsday” hoax in particular (see the forums on our website for numerous examples). It appears to me that these tactics can be, and are being used to not only deny certain scientifically validated positions (as in your examples) but advance the causes of pseudoscience.

    I suppose this could be an example of some kind of weird “reverse denialism”?