Julian Sanchez, writing about global warming, makes an excellent point about how denialists are able to be so successful (italics original; boldtype mine):
Come to think of it, there’s a certain class of rhetoric I’m going to call the “one way hash” argument. Most modern cryptographic systems in wide use are based on a certain mathematical asymmetry: You can multiply a couple of large prime numbers much (much, much, much, much) more quickly than you can factor the product back into primes. A one-way hash is a kind of “fingerprint” for messages based on the same mathematical idea: It’s really easy to run the algorithm in one direction, but much harder and more time consuming to undo. Certain bad arguments work the same way–skim online debates between biologists and earnest ID afficionados armed with talking points if you want a few examples: The talking point on one side is just complex enough that it’s both intelligible–even somewhat intuitive–to the layman and sounds as though it might qualify as some kind of insight. (If it seems too obvious, perhaps paradoxically, we’ll tend to assume everyone on the other side thought of it themselves and had some good reason to reject it.) The rebuttal, by contrast, may require explaining a whole series of preliminary concepts before it’s really possible to explain why the talking point is wrong. So the setup is “snappy, intuitively appealing argument without obvious problems” vs. “rebuttal I probably don’t have time to read, let alone analyze closely.”
I don’t really have anything to add to that–anyone who has had to deal with creationists (or reads those who do) is intimately familiar with this problem. What I found useful was the next bit:
If we don’t sometimes defer to the expert consensus, we’ll systematically tend to go wrong in the face of one-way-hash arguments, at least our own necessarily limited domains of knowledge. Indeed, in such cases, trying to evaluate the arguments on their merits will tend to lead to an erroneous conclusion more often than simply trying to gauge the credibility of the various disputants. The problem, of course, is gauging your own competence level well enough to know when to assess arguments and when to assess arguers.
The only hard and fast rule of thumb I can think of when choosing whether to assess arguments or arguers is if you dislike the implications of reaching a conclusion with one strategy and like the implications using the other strategy (by ‘like’, I mean that the conclusions match a preconceived notion). That should, at least, give one pause. Any thoughts on how to gauge “your own competence level well enough to know when to assess arguments and when to assess arguers”?