Compulsive centrism and science denial

There’s been a running discussion among a group of journalists about what to call folks who do not accept the scientific finding that the earth’s climate is changing and has already changed because of human activities. “Skeptic,” “denier,” “denialist,” and other contenders are all considered, and generally rejected by the journalists. “Skeptic” is the preferred self-identification, while those who accept the scientific finding tend to prefer calling their opponents “deniers.”

I favor “denier.” I think they fall into a broad trend of science denial which encompasses creationism and anti-vaxx and, indeed, Holocaust denial. Keith Kloor, who helped kick off the discussion, takes liberals to task for what he sees as inconsistent use of “denier”. His aim, he explains, is to “discuss the intellectually inconsistent use of ‘denier’ as a pejorative term.” As proof of inconsistency, he notes that Bill Maher is not called a “denier” often enough, and neither is the Huffington Post, for their anti-vaccine advocacy.

Let’s say first that, just as “evolution denier” is a less common term than “creationist,” you tend to see fewer references to “vaccine deniers” or “germ theory deniers” than to “anti-vaxxers.” There’s an established term of art, and it gets applied quite frequently to Bill Maher. And a search for references to Bill Maher as a denier or denialist turns up lots of results. Many of the same folks who call out creationism and global warming denial also call out antivaxx, including antivaxx by Bill Maher or the Huffington Post. Speaking for myself, I’ve twice organize panels at Netroots Nation to talk about science denial, and both times I treated antivaxx as part of the problem, along with creationism and climate change denial.

But that’s probably the smallest reason that this is a red herring. Kloor’s point is not just that “denier” is applied inconsistently (which it isn’t), it’s that the people referring to “global warming deniers” tend to be liberal, and that liberals are not giving enough attention to the deniers in our own midst:

Why aren’t Bill Maher and the Huffington Post labeled similarly as “denialists” when they promulgate misinformation and myths that threaten public health?

Except those sources are labeled as such, and liberals do call out the public health threat posed by Maher and HuffPo. And Kloor basically closes with that thought, quoting the Hoofnagles as they call out Maher’s denialism:

both liberals and conservatives alike must own up to their own extremists. Liberals must own up to the fact that they don’t have a universally-solid grasp on scientific truth, and just like the right wingers, we have people and movements within the left wing that are cranky and denialist. I would say left wing crankery includes animal rights extremism, altie/new age woo, and anti-technology Luddites.

It’s a fair point, and I think it misses two important things. First, that liberals do call out our extremists. We tend to call out even our not-very-extremists. The Hoofnagles write that Maher is “the left-wing version of Dinesh D’Souza or Jerry Falwell,” except that he isn’t nearly as rabid (has he called Republicans “the party of death”? has he endorsed al Qaeda’s critique of western civilization? has he claimed his political opponents are a “domestic insurgency…working in tandem with bin Laden to defeat Bush”? has he founded a university dedicated to cranking out creationists and ill-informed lawyers?). Falwell and D’Souza succeeded by being extreme. Maher has a talk show on HBO that no one watches. Jon Stewart does for liberals what Rush Limbaugh does for conservatives, and Jon Stewart (wrongly) thinks extremism is inherently a vice.

Second, and more important, is that the assumption here is of some perfect parity between liberal denialism and conservative denialism. But Bill Maher and HuffPo’s germ theory denialism have little to no impact on the public discourse, or on public policy, while nearly every Republican in Congress is a climate change denier. And even those who agree with the science won’t say so or act on that knowledge, because doing so would doom them politically. By contrast, denialisms associated with the political left are political nonstarters, rejected by leaders within the liberal movement. Does anti-vaxx influence the CDC? No. Does woo influence the CDC or NIH? No (though they could always smack it down even harder). Does PETA set the agenda for NIH, HHS, or the Department of Agriculture? No, no, and no. Anti-GMO activists don’t even seem effective within liberal policy circles. 9/11 truthers are mocked by liberals while “birthers” are embraced and promoted by the conservative movement. And again, it was basically impossible to win a Republican House, Senate, or Governors’ primary in 2010 if you accepted that global warming is happening because of human activities. If views on vaccines were a litmus test, I’m confident that supporting vaccination would be the position demanded by liberals.

And that difference matters. We spend more time on global warming denial because global warming denial actually influences public policy, and antivaxx doesn’t. Treating the two as equivalent, deserving of equal levels of activism, privileges a desire for perceived balance over any actual reflection of the significance of the two movements.

Comments

  1. #1 sinz54
    November 25, 2010

    Actually, left-wing woo did influence the NIH.

    Liberal Democratic senator Tom Harkin, a big believer in the quack remedy bee pollen, forced the NIH to create the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), to look into and promote so-called “alternative” medical treatments.

    Furthermore, Senator Harkin asserted that OAM didn’t have to bother with clinical trials; they should just go full speed ahead and push these quack remedies.

    Fortunately, the Clinton Administration didn’t agree, and OAM gradually cleaned up its act (to the extent that any separate investigation into “alternative” medicine can be cleaned up). It’s now known as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Center_for_Complementary_and_Alternative_Medicine

  2. #2 Josh Rosenau
    November 26, 2010

    Sinz54: Yes, I thought of NCCAM as I wrote that, but you’ll note that NCCAM is one of the most prolific and effective debunkers of woo. Harkin’s heart was in the wrong place, but he had no support for turning NCCAM or NIH more broadly into a bastion of woo. The work done by NCCAM is valuable: it applies rigorous testing to various alternative treatments which have anecdotal support. And they (almost?) universally turn out not to work. Which is good to know. If they did work, that would be worth knowing, too (e.g., chiropractic seems to have positive effects on lower back pain). So I think NCCAM supports my claim that liberals have not forced woo into public policy in any way comparable to what right-wing denialists do.

  3. #3 SocraticGadfly
    November 29, 2010

    @Sinz, also, one of the biggest backers of pseudomedicine (PLEASE, Josh, if we’re talking about labels, let’s stop calling this shit “alternative medicine) is right-winger Orrin Hatch, because of all the supplement makers headquartered in Utah.

    @Josh, at the same time, depending on how you define “liberal” vs. “left-liberal” or something, some liberals definitely *support* woo. The Green Party 2004/2008 platform was BAD on that, even opposing fluoridation, as I blogged: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2008/07/why-i-remain-ambivalent-about-voting.html

  4. #4 SocraticGadfly
    November 29, 2010

    @Sitz: There’s right-wing support for pseudomedicine (can we PLEASE stop calling it alt-medicine), too, if there’s money involved. Witness Orrin Hatch’s ardor for keeping supplements unregulated, primarily because many of the companies involved are in Utah.

    ===

    @Josh, depending on how you define “liberal,” or “left-liberal” or whatever, there’s plenty of support there for woo, too. The 2004/2008 Green Party platform even opposes fluoridation! Platform here: http://www.gp.org/committees/platform/draft/documents/Platform_Final.pdf

    On

  5. #5 abb3w.livejournal.com
    November 30, 2010

    Josh Rosenau: I favor “denier.” I think they fall into a broad trend of science denial which encompasses creationism and anti-vaxx and, indeed, Holocaust denial.

    Interestingly, it is not limited to science, but also extends to mathematics. Resistance to the Monty Hall problem’s solution and to the question of whether point-nine-repeating equals one subjectively seem to exhibit similar behaviors.

  6. #6 Steve
    November 30, 2010

    “9/11 truthers are mocked by liberals while “birthers” are embraced and promoted by the conservative movement.”

    Who, exactly, is doing the “embracing” and “promoting” you speak of? Are you really comfortable with such a broad generalization of the respective attitudes of liberals and conservatives? Bear in mind the ever-present temptation to arbitrarily frame complete idiots as the typical representatives of a philisophical/political/idological camp opposite one’s own. Or perhaps the failure of Republican politicians to deliberately alienate unsophisticated segments of the electorate amounts to an endorsement of their views?

    Anyway, as to the debate over the use of “skeptic” vs. “denier”: don’t you think it’s important to examine the assertions of the individual in question before attaching a label?

    My grandfather is properly labelled a “denier.” He confidently asserts that climate change is a “bunch of liberal bull****.”

    Then there’s me. I acknowledge that the greenhouse effect is real, and that laboratory tests have long since proven that CO2 and other greenhouse gases reflect heat. From my layman’s point of view, it stands to reason that an increase in the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere will augment the greenhouse effect, resulting in higher global temperatures.

    However, I also recognize that global climate is an incredibly complex system, with more significant causal variables than we are ever likely to identify, let alone understand. I am unfamiliar with climate models, but as a student of economics (a discipline dedicated to the study of systems much simpler than earth’s atmosphere), I am intimately familiar with the limitations of models as reliable representations of real-world phenomena. In my experience, well-crafted models are useful for demonstrating causal relationships (in isolation) and making qualitative predictions. However, I have little confidence in quantitative predictions generated by means of a model. I usually make this argument in the context of economics, and I believe the case for it is stronger in proportion to the complexity of the system the model attempts to simulate. I am extremely skeptical of any quantitative conclusions based on a greatly simplified simulation of a phenomenon as complicated as climate.

    With regard to the empirical data on climate change, I am utterly unqualified to judge whether the methodology employed in its analysis is appropriate in any particular case. However, I have seen cases in which a “rogue” climatologist claims to identify methodological problems, only to be “rebutted” with derision and ridicule instead of critical examination of his claims. For example, I recall reading a summary of a paper claiming to identify serious methodological problems in the prevailing interpretations of the instrumental record. I also read a published response to this paper–it was filled with personal attacks against the author and jam-packed with appeals to authority and bland assertions about the “correctness” of the criticized methodology. (I’ve just spent about 10 minutes on Google and I can’t find the damn papers. I hate when people do this, but I’m going to have to leave this little story unreferenced)

    I am also open to the argument that the discipline of Climatology is dominated by an orthodoxy that stifles dissent, and that the oft-quoted “scientific consensus” on climate change has been deliberately engineered by dogmatists in power (as in “holding the purse strings”). I am decidedly a “denier” of the existence of Homo Scientificus, the purely objective, dispassionate observer, unburdened by the biases and cognitive imperfections that plague lesser humans. While I’m not sufficiently intimate with the culture of the climatological discipline to conclude that allegations of corruption (like those levied by Harold Lewis last month) are true, I’ve had enough exposure to the human weaknesses of well-respected scientists to find the allegations at least credible. The emotionally charged rebuttals many climatologists direct toward their critics, laden with ad hominem attacks, do little to inspire confidence in their objectivity.

    That the issue of climate change has become so politicized in recent years has certainly not enhanced the purity of the science.

    To sum up my position on the issue, I believe that I am unqualified to say whether or not anthropogenic climate change is occurring, and if it is, to what extent. However, because of my familiarity with those human phenomena by which the “authorities” on a given issue can arrive at spectacularly incorrect conclusions–and the existance of credible allegations that these phenomena are at work within the discipline of Climatology–I don’t feel particularly compelled to defer to the consensus of the experts.

    So, in your opinion, is it proper to classify my views on the issue of climate change in the same category as those of my grandfather? If you think so, then neither “denier” nor “skeptic” is the proper label (I don’t fit the former, and my grandfather doesn’t fit the latter). Let me propose a more appropriate label: Unbeliever.

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