Mike the Mad Biologist

ScienceBlogling Matt Nisbet argues that scientists* shouldn’t call science denialists, well, denialists. I listened to the audio clip he linked to, and I’m unconvinced.

Leaving aside the issue that denialism (or calling someone a denialist) actually has a use–according to the clip, the term describes a certain set of behaviors, which the clip splits into three categories:

  1. “Strategic denialism” or cynical denialism. The speaker knows something is correct, and lies anyway.
  2. Fear-based denialism. The denialist is afraid to confront a known fact. For example, if you were vomiting blood, you don’t call a doctor because she will tell you that you’re sick.
  3. Worldview denialism. This is avoidance of inconvenient truths (to steal a phrase), or what I’ve called willful ignorance. Creationists do this a lot.

Again, it’s clear denialism has a very useful descriptive function. What’s also clear from the clip is that the only people who are offended by being called denialists are the denialists. This has always been what I think is my fundamental problem with Nisbet’s approach: the perceived need to convince everyone.

That’s a foolish strategy, and it’s what I call the Kumbaya Fallacy. During the 80s and 90s, there was a popular revisionist version of the history of the Civil Rights movement that claimed that we all one day just realized that denying black people the vote and lynching was bad and that it needed to stop (i.e., we just held each others hands ’round the campfire and began singing Cumbaya).

Not exactly. The Civil Rights movement shamed enough people into forcing the end of segregation–often at the point of a federalized guardsman’s bayonet. If the Civil Rights movement had waited to convince the overwhelming majority of Americans of the justness of its cause, black people still wouldn’t be able to vote. There will always be those who don’t want to face reality, whether it be cynical self-interest, fear, or slavish devotion to a worldview. No mystical or mythical incantation of the right, focus-group tested, perfect phrase will alter this. The effort would be far better spent politically organizing.

At times does better language help? Sure. I’ve accomplished what I have, in part, because I am a reasonably good communicator to different audiences (although no one, not even the Mad Biologist, is perfect).

Finally, the piece focused on global warming denialists. How has the environmental movement failed? I would argue, with the exception of the movement conservatives who are not a majority, most people think global warming is real and man-made. Also, some candidate won an election rather handily (even though he was black) with environmentalism as a major part of his platform. Most editorial and op-ed pages are dominated by those who accept the reality of global warming (even though op-ed pages seem to often serve as a bastion of wingnut welfare in the name of political balance).

It would appear the denialists aren’t doing so well….

*It might not be the best communication strategy to hector scientists about their failures rather than showing us how it’s done. We do have science to do. If your approach works, then use it.

Comments

  1. #1 Sam C
    November 24, 2008

    There is, I think, one huge difference about climate change science compared with denialism related to evolution, vaccine, homeopathy, mercury-induced autism, faked moon landings etc. With most of these, it does not require much more than an mind open to reason and a willingness to judge evidence fairly to determine that the scientific view appears to be correct. For example, if the moon landings were faked, how come the evidence for it is so poor and that not one of the thousands of people involved have ever confessed? Easy for a layman or non-specialist to understand and evaluate.

    But climate science is different. There are complex mathematical models, built in assumptions that might or might not be correct, projections that might or might not take into account poorly understood issues, etc. And we do know that the earth heats up and cools down over long periods anyway.

    I’m not a denialist; I accept the conclusions generally (certainly on a precautionary principle), but I think it is important to appreciate that climate scientists are effectively asking people to take their conclusions and recommendations on trust because most non-specialists do not have the skills to evaluate their arguments – they might be able to understand pop versions of the arguments, but that’s not the same thing as being able to evaluate them.

    In effect, on climate science, for laymen it’s partly a beauty contest, partly a case of saying “well, I hope I can trust these guys because I don’t understand it well enough”.

  2. #2 CRM-114
    November 24, 2008

    Liars are liars. It may or may not matter why they are lying, but they should be called for what they are, liars. The only people who resent that are the liars themselves.

  3. #3 Becca
    November 24, 2008

    “shaming people” is fine, insofar as it’s just changing hearts, and assuming the minds will follow.
    But when hearts and minds aren’t aligned, you get cognitive dissonance. I think that state, in and of itself, constitutes a cost of the strategy that produces it.

  4. #4 Sigmund
    November 24, 2008

    Does anyone actually communicate with denialists with the intention of convincing them to accept rationality?
    I certainly don’t. I don’t think they are reachable. Its the other members of the public I’m more concerned about. Adopting a debating strategy that allows denialists to Gish-Gallop around the facts is exactly the wrong path to take in my opinion, as it will give the mistaken impression to members of the public that both I and the denialist are approaching the subject on the basis of all the facts available, whereas that is not the case.

  5. #5 MikeB
    November 24, 2008

    Ever since Nisbet took seriously a NYT article where Lieberman blamed everything on the ‘far left blogosphere’, I’ve had my doubts about where he’s coming from. Accommodating denialism and using ‘false eqivalance’ seem to be coming from the same mindset.

  6. #6 Comrade PhysioProf
    November 24, 2008

    Nisbet’s a self-serving dumbfuck idiot pulling ribbons out of his ass. Why are you even wasting your time addressing anything he says? If he had more than like 50 people even listening to him, he’d merit a Sadly, No! takedown. Given his irrelevance, it’s not worth your time or effort.

  7. #7 Edward
    November 25, 2008

    I’m not a climate scientist and I have to take issue with what Sam C says above. Climate change isn’t that complicated, but the denialists want to make it seem more complicated than it is so that they can pull the wool over people’s eyes and deny human-caused climate change. For years, Exxon-Mobil and other vested interests spent a lot of money in a move of cynical denialism to promote and fund climate change skeptics. As a result of this disinformation campaign, a lot of people have some mistaken notions leading to worldview denialism. But, with glaciers receding, polar ice vanishing, plant climate zones shifting northward, and so on, along with plenty of data to link it to human-caused greenhouse gas production, I am very comfortable labeling as a denialist anyone who says we don’t have a major problem with human-caused climate change.

  8. #8 DuWayne
    November 26, 2008

    Comrade PhysioProf -

    I have to disagree that Matt isn’t worth the time. I think the thing that makes me most angry about him, is the ownership that a great many scibloggers have allowed him to take, of a very valid and essential tool – framing. It is really depressing to me, that something so important has been coopted by a supposed expert in communication, who fails utterly to understand one of the most fundamental principles of the communication (read, sales) of ideas; different demographics react differently to different approaches.

    Matt’s failure isn’t in the notion of framing, it’s in the assumption that the general public is a singular organism with a hive mind. This is compounded by a great many who disparage the notion of framing, who assume basically the same thing. Different strokes for different folks and never forget, there are those who just aren’t ever going to buy, no matter what. But also never forget, there are those you might think will never buy, who can become your very best customer.

    On a totally different vein, I quite often wish I was a denialist of the second variety. Frankly, I find GW fucking terrifying – especially as I have brought other human beings into this fucking mess.

  9. #9 george.wiman
    November 27, 2008

    Have to agree, it is obnoxious that Nisbett has apparently taken possession of the term; “Framing”. It’s ruined; I never use it anymore. Like he spit on the steak so no one else would eat it.

  10. #10 Blair T
    November 28, 2008

    Both my father and a good friend of mine are Global Warming ‘sceptics’, but I would characterize them as coming from a libertarian, contrarian position. Essentially, they see the Global Warming doomsayers as overhyping the case in order to affect public policy. This grates on their world view, so they embrace those who rally against it.

    I can engage both of them in productive conversations on the topic. Though, their position is essentially a denialist one – that is, one that seeks out arguments that allign with their point of view and reject those that contradict it – I would not call them deniers.

    I think that term is properly used to describe those who publicly advocate a case against global warming that is intellectually dishonest. For example, my friend sent me a link to a Canadian group called “Friends of Science” that produced a video against global warming. What I noticed was that they just throw any objection they could at the issue, even if it contradicted other objections they made. For example, they would produce evidence that there was no climate change, then make agruments that if there was climate change it couldn’t be from humans, and if there was human created climate change then there is nothing we can do about it. These are not consistent positions, but are tactics to undermine debate.

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  15. #15 might
    September 4, 2009

    There are complex mathematical models, built in assumptions that might or might not be correct, projections that might or might not take into account poorly understood issues,

  16. #16 muhtar
    February 13, 2010

    Nisbet’s a self-serving dumbfuck idiot pulling ribbons out of his ass. Why are you even wasting your time addressing anything he says? If he had more than like 50 people even listening to him, he’d merit a Sadly, No! takedown. Given his irrelevance, it’s not worth your time or effort.

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