Framing Science

A few bloggers have registered their reaction to last week’s PRI radio segment that questions the wisdom of calling climate change and evolution opponents “deniers.” Most notably Orac, Mike the Mad Biologist, and Mark Hofnagle argue that their preferred brand of name calling remains the best communication strategy.

But Orac, Mad Mike, and Mark overlook that the key audience in these rhetorical fisticuffs is not the small group of so-called “denialists” but rather the wider spectator public who may otherwise be ambivalent about a complex, seemingly remote issue such as climate change.

As I explain in a recent interview with Big Think, snarling, finger-in-the-eye responses to opponents in these debates risks alienating middle-ground publics, or at a minimum keeps the debate locked in a conflict frame, missing the opportunity to more persuasively connect the issue to commonly shared values.

This same theme has been picked up by several commenters at this blog. For example, Jeremy writes:

This may sound cliched but that detract from its truth in my opinion. Using words that puts each side of a debate into neat little categories might be fun, like in a zoo. “Ooh. Look at that little denialist in his little box.” But it doesn’t help bridge gaps. When I manage to get through to people who believe in pseudoscience or the paranormal, it’s not by emphasizing how we differ but what we have in common. I’ll agree it’s hard with the most far out extremists and maybe nothing can bring those people back, but when you’re talking to your old-fashioned dad who think that climate change isn’t happening, it’s not constructive to call him a denialist. Trust me on that one.

Besley also articulates this point:

I wonder if those of you (which seems to be many you) who insist on terms like “denier” are clear on who you are talking to when you use the term. The person you are calling names certainly doesn’t care; indeed, you’re just as likely to give them material with which to paint science as absolutist and uncaring.

The real audience we need to think about is those people who are observing the debate from the sideline who may use a range of heuristics or schema (and not necessarily full arguments) to decide whom they support. If your side gets pegged as ideologues, I would expect your odds of support dimninsh substantially.

The point is to use the opportunities created by public forums to speak PAST the ideologues towards the people with whom you truly want to communicate; the people who have not yet staked a position.

Ignore the bait. Think about your audience. Craft a message that appeals to the broad middle. Or, of course, you could just yell at each other.

So instead of engaging in the same self-defeating name calling, what is an alternative strategy?

Two video segments from the Big Think interview explain the basics of the research and the arguments I have published in recent articles and book chapters. The first segment is on communication and framing generally. The second segment on climate change specifically.

These topics and more will be the focus of my talk next Thursday at the New York Academy of Sciences. The event is free to the public. Already more than a 100 attendees have signed up. It should prove an interesting discussion with reception to follow.

Comments

  1. #1 Coturnix
    November 26, 2008

    Everyone who responded to you is aware – and stressed it strongly – that the audience are not denialists themselves, but the silent audience who listens in. You did not discover that yourself.

    By accepting the denialists’ assertion that the term “denialism” is somehow offensive to them, and by accepting their assertion that “denialism” has associations to Holocaust, you accept the opponents’ framing. They win. According to the framing theory which I agree with but which you butcher here daily (and give it a bad name in the process).

    The silent audience needs to see that otherwise normal, educated, respected people get angry when they see the denialists and their dishonest so-called “arguments”. There is definitely a role for displays of rightful and righteous anger and contempt for these liars – it shows the silent audience that the denialists are such despicable scum of lying shit that even mellow people cannot stand it.

    Read this for an example of why angry rhetoric has its place and why it is more useful than being all mealy-mouthed, compromising, and in this giving the opponents undeserved respect:

    “If I get my facts wrong, let me know. If you don’t like my tone, tough. At this bus stop in the blogosphere, I’m Queen Cunt of Fuck Mountain, and I’m mean for a reason. Once we get our country back on the right track, there will be plenty of time for nursery rhymes.”

    “Denialist” is actually too meek and mellow term for them. I am looking for something harsher that will show the audience that nice, little ole’ me will get riled up by their lies. How about “scumbags”, “douchenozzles” or “wackaloons”? This will give the silent audience the right message – that these guys are to be laughed out of court, not considered a part of any kind of “conversation” or debate.

  2. #2 Orac
    November 26, 2008

    Most notably Orac, Mike the Mad Biologist, and Mark Hofnagle argue that their preferred brand of name calling remains the best communication strategy.

    That’s a huge straw man argument. I never argued that name calling is the “best communication strategy.” Neither did any of the other bloggers whom you cited. Really, if you’re going to respond, please at least do us the solid of responding to what we actually argued, rather than your caricature of it where any use of terms that might be the least bit confrontational suddenly become “juvenile name calling.”

    I argued that you have utterly failed to convince me that your way is better. Worse, I started out more favorable to your viewpoint than hostile. Indeed, I defended you guys at the beginning. But as I saw what your idea of “framing” seemed to mean when put into actual practice, sorry to say, I became less and less impressed with it and you.

    You want to do us a favor? You don’t like the term “denier”? Then tell us a better term to use to describe cranks of the sort that use fallacious and deceptive arguments and are not amenable to science and reason. Tell us why it’s better, what evidence supports your contention.

    I challenge you.

  3. #3 John S. Wilkins
    November 26, 2008

    The use of the term “denier” can be simply descriptive and not (so far, that is – terms gain connotations over time) as a necessary insult. Let me desplain:

    If I want to talk about the collective group of those who are defined by their disbelief of Darwinian theory of any kind, and yet not want to give in to the framing of their making that acceptance of evolution is all about “belief” (thereby making evolution a religion as they wish to portray it), I can avoid it by talking about epistemic commitments, and using a term like “accepters” and “deniers”.

    I do not think it follows this is insulting. One might wish to discuss things dispassionately using that term. I agree that insults are not a good idea, at least for swaying the uncommitted, but I do not agree this term is an insult.

  4. #4 Orac
    November 26, 2008

    In fact, here are a couple of excerpts from my post that demonstrate quite clearly that your characterization of my argument that “name calling is the best strategy” is a blatant strawman argument (and not even a very good or clever straw man argument at that):

    Getting along and not insulting your opponent unnecessarily are worthy goals, but sometimes they interfere with winning. Sometimes it’s necessary to be blunt and tell it like it is. I also tend to agree with Mark Hoofnagle that “denialism” (perhaps a better term than “deniers” because it sounds less like “Holocaust denial” but conveys the same idea) is not about the science. It’s about specific and fairly easily recognizable deceptive techniques of argument used by deniers to deny a scientific or scholarly consensus for which there is a large amount of supporting data based on ideological reasons.

    And:

    In the end, though, whatever term you choose to use, denier, denialist, or pseudoskeptic, they all refer to maintainers of a false debate, a pseudodebate, based on a caricature of science and reason, all to support their world view when it is in conflict with reality. Mark Hoofnagle makes an additional point that I tend to agree with. “Framing” may be useful for short term persuasion, but in the long term it’s bound to fail. A far more effective way to combat denialism is to teach people what good science is and what it is not, what constitutes sound arguments and what constitutes logical fallacies and bad arguments. Then they’ll be more able to recognize for themselves when someone is trying to snooker them with ideologically-motivated pseudoscience. Finally, Matt’s “framing” business seems to shun diversity. To Matt, it seems to me, it’s his way or the highway. Yet, often different techniques are required for different situations. Sometimes the diplomatic “framing” approach may be effective; other times a more blunt, full frontal assault is required. We should not put all our eggs into one basket of rhetorical armaments, so to speak, any more than the U.S. military would rely only on fighter jets and get rid of armored vehicles and infantry. Different weapons are required for different battles, often different combinations of weapons are needed for different battles. Matt’s framing thesis seems utterly oblivious to that simple observation, and that’s why I’ve decided, after having supported it, that, even though it probably has value in a number of situations, as practiced by Matt, framing equals spin equals defeat.

    As I said, I’m very disappointed. You’ve engaged in a blatant logical fallacy, the straw man argument. Ditto your lumping Mark Hoofnagle’s and Mike the Mad Biologist’s response. Why don’t you try addressing the actual arguments we made, rather than your straw man caricature of them?

  5. #5 Wes
    November 26, 2008

    So instead of engaging in the same self-defeating name calling, what is an alternative strategy?

    Careful there. This question is being posed by the same guy who refers to several of his fellow sciencebloggers as “Borat Atheists” and “Don Imus Atheists”. It seems to me that you, like anyone else, sometimes use name-calling to get your point across.

    As for the term “denialist” or “denier”, it’s not just name-calling. As I understand the term, it refers to those who use a specific, identifiable set of rhetorical tactics. It’s not about content, politics or personality, but about tactics. I think this could be a useful term, because we actually don’t have any other term to use to refer to those tactics. At least, it seems to me that that’s how Hoofnagel and others intend the term to work.

    I’m not saying your framing approach is wrong. I don’t think it is. I just don’t think that your approach and Mark’s approach are mutually exclusive. Different situations call for different strategies and tactics. If someone is using deceptive rhetorical tactics, sometimes it’s good to have a term you can use to point out, “Hey! This guy’s using deceptive rhetoric!” In other situations, the more gentle approach that you are advocating would be more appropriate. I don’t see why you and Mark can’t both be right, in a situation-specific sense.

  6. #6 Jay De Lanoy
    November 26, 2008

    The points you make in the videos are interesting (although they don’t seem significantly different from what you have conveyed before in other fora, such as this blog).

    However, to my reading, in neither this post nor those videos do you address any of the points that are made in the critiques you link to.

    Also, while I certainly appreciate why your way is likely to be effective, I don’t see why the strategies they elucidate aren’t likely to be effective as well.

    Can you either explain, specifically, why the logic or evidence behind the strategies they present are incorrect or misguided, or else point to specific examples or evidence that shows your strategy is the best (or better) for the situations they describe?

  7. #7 Mark Powell
    November 27, 2008

    Interesting set of points and counterpoints here. As an environmentalist, I frequently work on issues where it’s tempting to stand tall and shout strongly-worded oaths about opponents being somehow deficient. My opponents are either arguing against “the facts” or fighting to preserve anachronistic jobs that despoil resources. Etc.

    It often feels good to shout and call names, but it doesn’t look good to persuadable onlookers.

    There are approaches to persuasion that can work, and they never involve name-calling of opponents and trying to ridicule the opposition.

    So, in a situation like this debate over the term “denier” or it’s variations, you have to ask yourself:

    Do I want to shout epithets and feel really righteous and powerful? Or do I want to drop the name-calling and work to persuade and create change?

    It’s tempting to go with the shouting and the rush of FEELING powerful, but real power lies in persuasion and change.

    There’s one more interesting point about the posessors of climate change facts that get so angry when others deny the facts about climate change. They want to attack climate change deniers, and in so doing they deny the facts about how to persuade undecided audiences.

    Why are the deniers of climate change facts bad, while the deniers of persuasion facts are righteously correct?

  8. #8 yogi-one
    November 27, 2008

    It’s best to avoid name calling of course. You get more sane people to agree with you if you can show your viewpoint is the more sane, logical view.

    However, denialism is real and it exists, and there are actual denialists out there. There is a sane and logical way to demonstrate what denialism is and who qualifies as a denialist without reducing your argument to name-calling (and therefore appearing to be weak).

    It is like this: you don’t want to call other people racists of you want to have a productive discussion with them. However, racism is real and their are certain characteristics and activities which define people who engage in them as racists.

    You have to be realistic about that. The people who are following the arguments and are smart enough to think for themselves will see you have a valid point, and a logical way of proving your point.

    You can do all this with out resorting to mud-slinging.

    For example: “Mr X has been found with a closet full off nude child photos and several respected psychologists have testified about the damage to specific children’s lives that he has been involved with. Moreover, the children themselves testify about being terrified of Mr X.”

    Have you called Mr X a pedophile directly? No. Have you shown that pedophilia is real, has certain defining features, and that they apply in the case of Mr. X? Yes. The reader can pretty quickly figure out what labels apply without you needing to resort to name-calling.

    All done, valid point made, logical and backed up with checkable facts.

    Most of the time, if you stick to valid rational arguments and keep a cool head, your opponent will eventually either lose his composure or start sticking his foot in his mouth. The observers will see this very clearly.

    There is also an appropriate time to call a spade exactly what it is. After you have set the frame, made your valid argument, and covered the objections, you can say “Mr X is a pedophile (or denialist, or racist, etc),” and be right and be standing on solid ground. This also will not be lost on the discerning observer.

    But coming out of the gate slinging mud will, of course, get you nowhere.

  9. #9 kyuss
    November 27, 2008

    did you get your doctorate in concern trollism? seriously, i think you’re the biggest concern troll ever. that’s all your arguments ever amount to. how many different times and different ways can you frame “won’t someone please think of the children???”

  10. #10 Matthew C. Nisbet
    November 27, 2008

    Orac,
    No one is constructing a straw man. I pointed readers to your reactions to the interview and linked to the pages long postings. Readers can judge those responses and then move on to the rest of my post.

    I personally don’t have the motivation or the time to engage in an endless blog debate about these issues. I’ve linked my main post to a forthcoming 30 page book chapter that explains in detail my alternative strategy. I’ve also linked to video interviews and on my side bar there are links to other audio interviews and articles. I’m also giving a number of public talks this spring in New York, DC, and other cities where readers can turn out to listen, discuss, and debate.

    It’s Thanksgiving weekend. Monday I get back to the office with teaching to wrap up and various research projects to finish. I think we’ve articulated our positions and discussed our differences. Time to move on!

    –Matt

  11. #11 Vagueofgodalming
    November 27, 2008

    I found your linked ‘second segment’ helpful to understand your position (so, those who are calling for you to suggest an alternative label to ‘denier/denialist’ are going to be disappointed, because as far as I can tell you’d rather pursue a strategy of not mentioning these people at all).

    However, I also found it unconvincing. What’s interesting though, is that it looks as like it’s going to be put to the test, judging by Obama’s statement to the State Governors.

    For example, he rather conflates combatting global warming with achieving US energy independence, as you seem to recommend. I regard the former as an essential global survival imperative, the latter as an undesirable and unachievable local distraction.

    From an international standpoint (I’m British) I really don’t want Americans to be in the anti-GW game because it helps their energy independence: I think both the US and the rest of us are better off when the US feels it has to take account of the views of other nations.

    Objections can be raised to your other frames, too, but I don’t want to prolong this comment. Thank you for at least putting them forward.

  12. #12 Orac
    November 27, 2008

    No one is constructing a straw man. I pointed readers to your reactions to the interview and linked to the pages long postings. Readers can judge those responses and then move on to the rest of my post.

    No, Matt, you are constructing a straw man, and your denying that it is a straw man is simply ludicrous. It was, in fact, an outrageously obvious and blatant straw man.

    You explicitly said: “Most notably Orac, Mike the Mad Biologist, and Mark Hofnagle argue that their preferred brand of name calling remains the best communication strategy.” Nowhere did I say that name calling “remains the best communication strategy.” For one thing, what I was doing was not “name calling,” but rather choosing an appropriate label. Isn’t the selection of a good label important part of “framing”? For another thing, I never said it was the “best” strategy, only one effective strategy that it’s foolish to take off the table a priori, especially since you have failed to make your case that your way works better more often than that of successful science communicators who may be too blunt for your liking. I cited paragraphs from my post that clearly show that you misrepresented my argument. I also assert that you misrepresented Mark’s argument as well. Indeed, it’s also completely disingenuous of you to say that “people can go read for themselves” and decide after you misrepresented my point.

    Think on this Matt. I was behind you when you first introduced your framing hypothesis back in April 2007. It made sense to me at the time. I wrote two long posts defending it shortly after the article by you and Chris was released. I still think the concept has value, but after having seen it in your hands I’m afraid you’ve lost me. How did you manage that? You did it through your actions, in which it appears that, to you at least, framing seems to mean sucking up to the opponents of science and trashing those who are two blunt for you at every turn. It also seems to mean hypocrisy. Yes, hypocrisy. You castigate me, Mark, and Mike for “name calling,” but you are not above some name calling yourself when it suits your purpose. The difference is that you direct it at those who would be your natural allies far more often than you direct it at those against whom we should be united.

    For example, what on earth could have been your purpose with this post? In it you pick an intentionally unflattering picture of P.Z. Myers and portray him as the unwanted “face of atheism,” likening him to the shock-jock Don Imus and saying:

    They’re usually angry, grumpy, uncharismatic male loners with a passion for attacking and ridiculing religious believers. Any fellow atheist who disagrees with their Don Imus rhetoric, they label as appeasers.

    Now, believe it or not, I was not down with P.Z. on the whole “cracker” incident. I lost a huge measure of respect for him that day and viewed his stunt as childish and crass. The only reason I never blogged about it is because other things were going on in my life at the time, and, quite frankly, the whole stunt disgusted me. However, your intentional use of his appearance in that picture, along with a few choice names, shows me that you are behaving hypocritically. You castigate those with whom you disagree for being too negative or calling people “names,” but when it suits your purpose you are perfectly happy to sling the mud yourself, “framing” be damned! You’re perfectly willing to cite a radical ideologue like Bill Donohue, if it suits you to attack P.Z.

    In fact, your behavior seems to be an implicit admission that “framing” isn’t always the right tool for a given argument. Certainly you seem quite willing to abandon it either when you become angry or when you think you can gain some sort of tactical advantage by doing so. Why should it be that, when it comes to anti-evolutionists, antivaccinationists, global warming denialists, or various other opponents of established science and proponents of ideology-driven ideas that it’s never right to call bullshit bullshit?

    I doubt any of this will make any difference to you. In fact, your response tells me that, having provoked the desired reaction from a few of us, you’re going to hide again behind the “I’m too busy” canard, coupled with the “look how many talks I’m giving to promote my idea aren’t I awesome?” bit. Indeed, I doubt you’ll even approve this comment. But at least I’ll know you’ve seen it.

    Again, remember that I used to be down with your whole framing idea. I still see some potential value in it. However, you clearly don’t have the faith in your own idea to stick with it consistently, as your own penchant for name calling when it suits you to do so shows.

  13. #13 Richard Eis
    November 27, 2008

    Have you called Mr X a pedophile directly? No. Have you shown that pedophilia is real, has certain defining features, and that they apply in the case of Mr. X? Yes. The reader can pretty quickly figure out what labels apply without you needing to resort to name-calling.

    Yes, and then THEY will call him a pedophile.

    THAT is your “middle-ground publics” that you are trying not to alienate by calling a spade a spade. Instead of a spade shaped object which may be used to dig into the ground and which may be called a spade under certain circumstances.

  14. #14 rpenner
    November 27, 2008

    “Don’t worry if I make sense on my blog or not, buy my book!” is the message, yes?

  15. #15 Johnny Vector
    November 27, 2008

    I personally don’t have the motivation or the time to engage in an endless blog debate about these issues.

    Huh?

    Apparently there’s been a terrible error at Seed. They’ve accidentally titled your blog “Framing Science”. Apparently you wish to talk about something else.

    I read the postings by Orac and Mark (and it’s Hoofnagle, BTW; two o’s), and I’m sorry but yes, you are constructing a strawman. I judged those responses and moved on to the rest of your post, and it does not follow.

    I’ve linked my main post to a forthcoming 30 page book chapter that explains in detail my alternative strategy.

    For someone who thinks it’s vitally important to accurately convey the results of our research, that sure sounds like a cop-out. PZ doesn’t make us read his papers, he summarizes the arguments so that even physics people like me can understand. Why can’t you do the same?

    But okay, I went and skimmed it, and here’s the thing: It’s got no research. We are asking for some proof that your claims are correct, and all we get is a list of what people did, and your classification of stuff into various frames. How about some evidence that certain frames actually work better at persuading people in the long run? You know, science.

    Until you provide some evidence, you’ve got no business telling other people to shut up.

  16. #16 TTT
    November 27, 2008

    I fail to see how condescension is a useful communications strategy.

    No one is using the term “denier” towards a neutral, persuadable audience. The term is being applied, honestly and correctly, towards people who have already engaged in denialism–cherrypicking, argument-from-anecdote, conspiracy theories, and outright fraud.

  17. #17 Coturnix
    November 27, 2008

    I see my comment is still in moderation a day later. What do you have to hide? Are you massaging your comment threads to look better? You know that is Cardinal Sin #1 of the blogosphere, don’t you? What Creationist blogs do.

  18. #18 awh
    November 27, 2008

    Matt, you must me joking!

    “Most notably Orac, Mike the Mad Biologist, and Mark Hofnagle argue that their preferred brand of name calling remains the best communication strategy.”

    Even though you linked to the posts, you still said: “…argue that their preferred brand of name calling remains the best communication strategy.” You just told the reader what their supposed position is – and it was incorrect.

    I try to stay out of these things because of my relatively young age (lets just say I can finally drive!), but holy shit, if you can’t recognize that strawman, you need to take a logic class.

  19. #19 Aerik
    November 27, 2008

    There was no name calling in the 3 posts you’re responding to. So I’ll go ahead and do it for you: Matt Nisbet you are a liar.

  20. #20 Brian X
    November 28, 2008

    Matt, if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about your work it seems to involve bending and accommodating, defending and (attempted) desensitizing, but it constantly and consistently shies away from going on the attack and trying to reclaim the high ground from the anti-intellectuals and shills who have stolen it. We’ve seen from the last three US Presidential elections that your strategy tends to fail miserably in politics; the main reason Obama succeeded where Kerry failed had at least as much to do with promoting his message in states where no one expected it to take hold as it did any of the candidate’s personal charisma (even though Obama has way more of it than Kerry).

    It’s as if you’re teaching an MBA course and telling your students the importance of turning a profit without explaining how to create income. There are no tools for success in your concept of framing, only those to keep the skeptical side from being marginalized too quickly. (And not only that; you’ve shown yourself to be terrible at the very communication skills you’re trying to convince people to have.)

  21. #21 ObsessiveMathsFreak
    November 28, 2008

    I understand what you are trying to say. In these days where euphemisms and equivocating language are the norm for public discourse, even a previously mild and acceptable word like “deniers” will stand out as a being relatively, relatively, harsh if used in a modern debate. Obviously, this is a subjective thing.

    Whether these words alienate people or not is another matter. I can see an argument that they might, based on the premise that the publics expects scientists to be “above” petty sniping and “name calling”. But then again as terms go “deniers” is a pretty accurate description of what these people actually go about doing.

    One solution might be to euphemise the terms “denier”->”denialist”->”rejectionist”->”rejector”->”pertinationistismist”. But as the new terms become common, they will probably end up becoming perjorative themselves and you will be back to square one.

    The best way of dealing with these people is to simply say that their ideas and theories are wrong/uniformed/misleading/dishonest/unscientific/ or have been refuted/disproven. That’s responding to the message.

    But ultimately as the attacks persist, one should, should, respond to the messenger as well. As this occurs, accusations of name calling will inevitably arise. To try not to alienate the public, one should of course try to remain as magnanimous as possible, but it is important to tackles these people as well, and this can be done in a fairly polite way. The best way to do this, is of course, with wit.

  22. #22 Shirakawasuna
    November 28, 2008

    Matt, you very obviously constructed a straw man because *no one* is advocating name-calling, which clearly implies a mere pejorative, but accurate labeling. The fact that you’re still defending what amounts to a lie is just pitiful.

  23. #23 Milton T
    November 28, 2008

    Dr. Nisbet,

    Excellent post. Many of the self-appointed guardians of truth on ScienceBlogs, enjoy name-calling, enjoy demonizing opponents, have rigid points of view, and are unwilling to have open minds on purely scientific issues.

    You have identified them aptly.

    As for global warming, it is a truthful, fair statement to say this:

    Most climatologists think that there is a phenomenom called global warming, which causes negative effects on our natural environment, and is likely caused by man-made activities.

    However, there are notable, qualified, well-credentialed skeptics of this view, who believe that there is natural variability of climates over time, that have nothing to do with man-made activities.

  24. #24 naught101
    November 28, 2008

    Does look like a straw man to me, and poorly defended at that. Orac’s point remains, and your article would be significantly lessened without the apparent strength of opinion portrayed in the first two paragraphs.

    Calling someone a denier and telling them to shut up is problematic: it makes you look dogmatic, insensitive, arrogant, and all the rest, and sure, that can brush off on the science in general.

    But “denier” is also short-hand for “we’ve heard this crap before, and rebutted it, and you probably know it’s tenuous at best, a lie at worst, and look, we’re just tired, alright?” Most people who read blogs and other media relating to science understand that.

    Combining that with a detailed argument about why the specific point is invalid (again), and providing paths to more information is the best way of dealing with it. It shows that you’re willing to put in the effort, and aren’t simply arrogant.

    Besides which, most people are generally hesitant to label someone a denier without significant reason: For example, Richard Lindzen is still widely called a “skeptic”, although he has used blatantly false information to push his views for years.

  25. #25 LesserOfTwoWeevils
    November 28, 2008

    Uh, Yogi.. – 2 of the three pieces of data you offered are evidence that your ‘Mr. X’ is a child molester, not (or at least, in addition to) a pedophile.

    Have people stopped caring what words MEAN anymore? Do you understand the difference between a thought and an (illegal) action? Do you understand the difference between an average heterosexual male and a rapist? Quite a difference between the two, isn’t there? That’s -exactly- how much difference there is between a ‘pedophile’ and a ‘child molester’. One is pure thought – a sexual orientation, the other, a criminal action against another human being.

    Should I try and frame this, hunt for common ground, and take care not to say anything mean, or will all of my argument be lost if I just say ‘You’re WRONG. The facts are all against you. Please stop using the wrong word, you’re only furthering the confusion.’

    Sheesh. I can really clearly see why gay people get so upset when ignorant people make the argument that gays shouldn’t be teachers or scoutmasters. One perfectly legal and law-abiding group is constantly conflated with criminal action.

    Back on topic; Personally, I think ‘denialists’ is a perfectly good label to describe the group in question. These are people to whom all the facts are available, but who continue to deny the preponderance of freely-available peer-reviewed evidence. Sometimes calling them out on their failure to deal with the facts is just the thing to do! Even if it never convinces *them*, other readers can see the clear dichotomy between fact and fiction and make up their own minds. Sometimes an entirely factual but caustic reply is exactly what the situation calls for.

    Why waste so much time trying to tone down the message from the side that’s RIGHT, when you could be adding your voice to their side and framing it exactly as you think it should be, as an example to that side and to see if your ‘properly-framed’ missive gets any better response than all the others?

    Personally, I have to agree with Orac, Matt. Your post was a complete strawman, and you did NOT give any satisfactory response. When asked to point out where ANY of them have said that their strategy was the BEST strategy, you wibbled off into ‘oh, I’m FAR too busy to answer!’ and decided that it was finally time to move on, now that you’d had the last word.

    Serious FAIL in my eyes, chum.

    Weevil

  26. #26 Art
    November 28, 2008

    I think there is some confusion about the desired result.

    If both, all, sides were bringing valid and pertinent evidence and all were open to a fair and open airing of the facts with some willingness to be convinced then communication would be the desired process.

    But denialists are not interested in facts, open debate of valid evidence and they cannot and will not ever change their views. The core of their argument is non-negotiable. Their goal is not a pursuit of knowledge or exchange of information.

    Theirs is a simple rear guard action. An attempt to falsify reality, and promote ignorance and superstition. Their goal is to make their explanations seem more coherent, logical and beneficial than they really are while presenting the actual facts as unclear, incoherent and less beneficial.

    These are not people who can be profitably communicated with. Compromising with them just undermines your own case and credibility.

    Name calling may not help convince these obdurate people. But it provides a useful shorthand and label to make it clear to your allies that engagement is unlikely to be profitable. It also makes it clear that until they are willing to come to the table in good faith and pursue understanding based on facts and evidence they will be discounted and excluded.

    In this case the term ‘denialist’ is as good a label as any. Largely because the core of their case is predicated upon a denial of the preponderance of the fact, evidence, and scientific consensus.

  27. #27 Schwartz
    November 28, 2008

    Orac states: “I never argued that name calling is the “best communication strategy.””

    This is quite funny. This is what I read: “Getting along and not insulting your opponent unnecessarily are worthy goals, but sometimes they interfere with winning. Sometimes it’s necessary to be blunt and tell it like it is.”

    I see Orac grudgingly agrees avoiding namecalling is a worthy objective, but then goes on to say that it interferes with winning, winning what I’m not sure. The “sometimes” sentence that follows is completely hypocritical because I’ve never read a post from Orac that doesn’t invoke vitriolic name calling. Orac’s writing speaks quite loudly that name calling is not only the preferred method of debate, but should almost always be invoked. I suppose instead of saying he thinks it is the “best” method, perhaps you should have said “strongly preferred”. If that constitutes a strawman, that’s pretty funny.

    The true irony is that he seems to completely miss the logical fallacy of his every argument. When engaging in a logical argument, name calling serves no logical purpose and alienates the party you are trying to engage. Calling names — which is effectively invoking stereotype — is almost always a logical fallacy and also has the effect of driving any discussion into an irrational emotional discourse which naturally moves everyone away from any logical discussion or thinking.

    Great for wedge politics and entertainment as it pleases the peanut gallery. Poor for scientific discource.

  28. #28 Josh Rosenau
    November 29, 2008

    “Time to move on!” No.

    Look, you say that “denialist” is a bad word to use. Mike, Orac, and Mark all disagree (so do I). If you had a better option, you might be able to convince people to switch, but right now, you’re just telling people that they’re doing it wrong, without any constructive advice on the immediate issue.

    Your advice about how to reframe the issue is fine, and I agree with it in general, but you haven’t told people what name they should use instead of “denialist”/”denier” when they want to refer to people employing the Luntz strategy of obfuscating the science and denying the well-established link between human actions and climate change.

    I understand that you want to switch the conversation to your preferred turf, and talk about how scientists should switch to a responsibility framing, etc., but that’s not the discussion you started on the 21st. In the post that kicked this off, you wrote that people should “Never Use ‘Denier’ Again,” and then inquired: “What do readers think? Convinced yet that ‘denier’ should be dropped from our lexicon?”

    The consensus seems to be that readers think you’re wrong, and that “denier”/”denialist” is a useful part of the lexicon. By trying to shift the terms of discussion, you are either quietly accepting that result, in which case it would be nice if you clarified which arguments changed your mind, or you are simply ignoring the answers you got to the fairly specific questions you asked. Because I respect your honesty, I’m inclined to hope it’s the first.

    Unfortunately, your reply to Orac doesn’t support that view. Having asked for people’s responses to your ideas, it strikes me as deeply disingenuous to turn around and declare that “I personally don’t have the motivation or the time to engage in an endless blog debate about these issues.” Don’t start something you can’t finish. Don’t order people to abandon a term in common use without offering a better alternative. It’s not fair to others, and it tends to make people less willing to hear your good advice on other topics.

  29. #29 bob
    November 29, 2008

    You don’t feel like talking about it anymore, so it’s “time to move on”? I’m sorry, you’re supposedly a communications expert? Yeah, that’s an amazing example of communication on your part.

  30. #30 Lora
    November 30, 2008

    I think you are not really listening to your colleague Dr. Sandman’s analysis.

    He points out multiple cases where people might deny facts:

    -When people are frightened of the possible outcomes (as in the case of a patient who finds a breast lump but is frightened of a potential cancer Dx)

    -When people are lying through their teeth (as in the case of Exxon-Mobil claiming there is no such thing as climate change)

    -When people use an inappropriate heuristic to deal with the situation.

    It is possible that hugs and presenting plain facts will work on the last case, but in the first two cases–not so much.

    You’re too bizzy to tell us your actual position and suggestions on the matter, and you redirect us to the eightymillion links, although you’re never too bizzy to say, “you guys are meanies.” I guess you didn’t figure on anyone bothering to click on those links–many of which, when searched on, do not support your assertions or give conflicting reports. Most of those links actually confirm Mike’s point that the only people who get het up about being called denialists ARE the denialists, and the rest of the universe agrees that it’s just a word.

    Here is a simple suggestion from my cheesy undergrad communications class: Identify who your audience is, and how best to communicate with them. Scientists communicate in a very rigid format, and we expect a large amount of mathematically meaningful facts. If you are interested in convincing scientists to do something, this is going to require a different approach than if you were convincing the American University undergrad PoliSci majors. We expect facts (retrospective history is OK, an actual study is better) showing that in a group of a zillion people trying to solve an issue on which there were facts and propaganda at odds with each other, Method XYZ worked best to re-focus the people on the facts and discredit the propaganda/disinformation.

  31. #31 Don
    December 1, 2008

    Dear Dr. Nisbet: Will you mention in your talk the conservative think thanks and the industries that have funded them to spread disinformation about the environment in general and global warming in particular?
    Don

  32. #32 Anonymous
    December 2, 2008

    I trust and respect people who say things I disagree with instead of those who say that others should stop speaking.

  33. #33 Huckleberry
    December 3, 2008

    Orac,

    Calling somebody a “denialist” has nothing to do with confrontational argumentation. It is a slur, a smear designed to circumvent Reason by appealing to Passion.

    This quote from you clearly shows that you are not interested in exchange of ideas but in “winning”:

    Getting along and not insulting your opponent unnecessarily are worthy goals, but sometimes they interfere with winning.

    This is not an isolated incidence; your language is full of martial imagery concerning strategies for employing overwhelming force in order to crush your opponent at any cost:

    Sometimes the diplomatic “framing” approach may be effective; other times a more blunt, full frontal assault is required. We should not put all our eggs into one basket of rhetorical armaments, so to speak, any more than the U.S. military would rely only on fighter jets and get rid of armored vehicles and infantry. Different weapons are required for different battles, often different combinations of weapons are needed for different battles

    When the goal becomes winning, when the end is seen to justify the means, that is when you have crossed the line between reasoned debate and championing an ideology.

    You even issue your typical chest-thumping challenges here,which merely goes to prove Prof. Nisbeth’s point:

    You want to do us a favor? You don’t like the term “denier”? Then tell us a better term to use to describe cranks of the sort that use fallacious and deceptive arguments and are not amenable to science and reason. Tell us why it’s better, what evidence supports your contention.

    I challenge you

    Well my bellicose friend, I guess you can think of me as your token denier, crank, crackpot, extremist, religious fanatic etc., and I accept your challenge. But first you must prove to the distinguished audience that I really do trade in,

    fairly easily recognizable deceptive techniques of argument used by deniers to deny a scientific or scholarly consensus for which there is a large amount of supporting data based on ideological reasons.

    That is because your challenge was an example of the Guantanamo Fallacy. You ask, “what should we call a crank, if not a crank?” That correponds to, “why should we not detain the terrorists at Guantanamo indefinitely without giving them access to habeas corpus or ever proving that they really are terrorists?”.

    In short, Orac, I don’t accept your premise; it is nothing but an attempt to clear yourself of the burden of proof – a strawman challenge.

    You state,

    A far more effective way to combat denialism is to teach people what good science is and what it is not, what constitutes sound arguments and what constitutes logical fallacies and bad arguments.

    I have already called you on your bad arguments and your questionable motives. Does that mean that you are the real denialist, Orac?

    Since you were the one to challenge, let me choose the practical example – something close to your profession and your heart. Let us see who has the good arguments, and who must resort to logical fallacies, on the issue of the relationship between HIV and AIDS. Would that topic be cranky enough for you?

    All that’s required before we decide what (and who) we should call a denialist is for you to demonstrate the “fairly easily recognizable deceptive techniques of argument” I shall no doubt employ as we proceed.

  34. #34 Jeff
    January 8, 2009

    Personally I do not see a problem calling me a “Denier” for the simple fact I call cimate change alarmists, “Complete morons,devoid of any sort of common sense or logic, as well as totally incapable of using real science to reach their idiotic myths.”

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