Conspiratorial Thinking About Science

Daniel Engber's Slate article The Paranoid Style in American Science is well worth a read. He explains how the Creationists, AGW and HIV/AIDS skeptics go well past skepticism into conspiracy theries about science.

Hat tip: Mark Hoofnagle.

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There are a few different things which combine to cause the problem.

(1) One is that there is, and has been, a concerted effort by corporate PR (public-relations) strategists (starting from before the tobacco days) to tout the value of products, and to use various PR strategies to defend them against better knowledge, and against the ensuing regulations or prohibitions. It is a natural ploy for a hidden motive like this to posit and trumpet the existence of a "conspiracy" in the enemy instead: to accuse the the defenders of science of ulterior motives, before being similarly accused.

(2) Many journalists and science writers are almost entirely unaware of the mechanics of statistical correlation and causation, and of the dynamics of complex systems; when they begin to learn about these things, they begin to question the significance of certain findings, or else to put everything on the same "he said, she said" footing: and thereby to allow other people to sort it out. So the media is failing us, because education has failed us. Of course, the anti-science PR crowd, such as the climate skeptics, and the species-extinction deniers, can take advantage of this, too.

(3) The existence of "higher consciousness" is almost entirely unknown to most people, or else mischaracterized as belonging to some sort of god; at the same time almost everyone has an interior psychological relationship to the process of attainment, and intellectual meditations towards it frequently involve the same area of questions which pure science involves, leading to everything from pyramid-worshippers to intelligent-design creationists. Here, we can blame a curious one-sidedness coming out of the early Enlightenment, and the disastrous intellectual choice made by the church to defend its theology instead of making further explorations. The result is that there any number of people who, in the need to believe in something, believe in the wrong things.

The U.S. does not have a monopoly on the phenomenon of impugning science supporting policies that are not business-friendly, and imagining conspiracies. Today the Calgary Herald has a special "Green Issue", related to Environment Week. The column by Business Editor Charles Frank begins "... I am still the same guy who thinks Kyoto is a crock, that Canadians are being sold a bill of goods with respect to greenhouse gases, and that carbon tax credits will prove to be the biggest scam of the 21th century."

Wow, take it easy. Don't go so totally green all at once.

> go well past skepticism

Skepticism is about doubting things you believe, not doubting things others believe. (At least, that is what I believe skepticism is about.)

"The result is that there any number of people who, in the need to believe in something, believe in the wrong things."

Of course AGW is the "right" thing to "believe in".

Thanks for exhibiting the pathology precisely.

No: of course the thing to "believe in" about the climate, would be the scientific method, properly trained and applied.

However, the point of my comment is that believing that someone would deliberately misinterpret your words, is also a sure bet!

Take it from the other direction: If global warming were NOT the prediction, I'm sure no one would be happier than the scientists themselves, who have learned the dimensions of the likely costs to poor nations and to the wildlife ecosystems.

But you need to suppose that could not be true: you need to believe the adolescent psychology: that the scientists REALLY want world-government-control or some such nonsense. The "conspiracy and paranoia" thing. That's where this is going, isn't it?

Lee -

Yes, this is it.. I've lost count of the number of times I've been told that there is this big 'global warming industry' that is bestowing riches on those who espouse it. With a straight face, as well. The fact that the quickest way to get rich off of global warming is to write a skeptical book about it and do the right wind think tank lecture circuit seems lost on these people.

If you've read Orwell's 1984 you'll the process of this type of thinking described; under crimestop:

The first and simplest stage in the discipline, which can be taught even to young children, is called, in Newspeak, crimestop. Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.

It seems to describe arguments I've had with a fair few 'skeptics' (and creationists, alties, 9/11 truthers et al) pretty well.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 21 Apr 2008 #permalink