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.
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.