The denialists


The Give Up Blog has a post outlining a general problem: denialists. The author is putting together a list of common tactics used by denialists of all stripes, whether they’re trying to pretend global warming isn’t happening, Hitler didn’t kill all those Jews, or evolution is a hoax, and they represent a snapshot of the hallmarks of crank anti-science. Most of the examples he’s using are from climate change, but they also fit quite well with the creation-evolution debates.

Here are the key features:

  1. Conspiracy. Accuse the mainstream scientists of all being in it to defraud the government of grant money, or fame and glory, or because they hate Christianity. There must be some underhanded reason the vast majority of scientists support evolution, after all—it couldn’t possibly because that’s where the evidence leads them.
  2. Selectivity. The scientific literature is full of failed hypotheses—that’s the way science works, throwing out ideas and testing them, and testing always implies a possibility of failure. Creationists love to cherry pick the ideas that didn’t work out and pretend they stand for the field as a whole; Haeckel’s ideas about evolution and development are largely ignored now, but from people like Wells you’d think all of biology was founded on a faked diagram in a 19th century book.
  3. The fake expert. That’s the Discovery Institute’s whole schtick. Bring in a menagerie of Ph.D.s in philosophy and theology and mathematics, and pretend they’re experts in biology. Take on people like Jonathan Wells who explicitly sought out biology credentials at the behest of Reverend Moon so that he could more effectively discredit evolution.
  4. Impossible expectations. We also call this shifting the goalposts. One good example: the incredible proliferating gaps, in which every fossil discovery means we now have two new gaps in place of one; creationists love to make the impossible demand that the pedigree of every lineage must be traced down to the last individual, or there is no evidence of descent.
  5. The metaphor. Yeah, mousetraps and little trucks and outboard motors inside the cell. One of the funniest phenomena going on right now, though, is that the creationists seem to believe their metaphors are literally true—Michael Behe is fond of throwing that word, “literally”, into his excessive paeans to the machinery of the cell.

There is one that isn’t on the list, but that we see all the time: the quote mine. If you don’t have an expert of your own, and if the experiments and observations of the other guys all oppose your ideas, start plucking sentence from the other side’s experts, and pretend they support your denialism. Creationists made a little industry of doing this to Colin Patterson (who protested strongly when he was alive), I documented a case of this being done to Bill Ballard, it was just done to Nick Matzke, and even Stephen Jay Gould had his words hijacked to pretend he was supporting creationist assertions (Answers in Genesis, in wrenching irony, notes his protests while going on to plunder his writings for more out-of-context quotes). It’s a cute trick to simultaneously pretend that the entire field is conspiring to hide the truth, while claiming that all the leaders of the field were publishing disproofs of evolution…but consistency isn’t essential when you’re a denialist kook.

Another that might be important is the appeal to consequences. We hear all the time that if evolution were true, there’d be no reason for people to be lawful, because they’re just animals, after all. Or that it would cost too much money to reduce CO2 emissions, so let’s not hurt our industry with this global warming talk (or conversely, it would be better for us all if it were warmer, so keep pumping out the greenhouse gases). Ultimately, the reason people are in denial is that they have some concern other than the honest evaluation of the data that drives them to avoid looking at that data. I don’t think most people like to invent conspiracy theories or lie and distort, but must have some other agenda that they consider important enough to justify avoiding the truth. In creationism, it’s an honest fear of social change and apostasy/heresy, while with something like climate change it’s clearly short-term thinking about profit.