ACSH is astroturf, here's why

The American Council on Science and Health recently got some exposure on twitter, then a little too much exposure, after publishing this highly problematic (and hysterically bad) op-ed/infographic on twitter and on their site.

This opinion piece, presented as if there is some method or objective analysis, purports to show which are the best and worst science news sites. But this immediately started to fall apart on the most cursory inspection. First of all, notice the x-axis, it’s clearly some kind of subjective assessment, and it immediately fails to be credible as the New York Times is classified as “more ideological” than Forbes (a source of global warming denialism including writing by James Taylor), or Fox News. Then twitter started in on it and quickly the y-axis started to come apart as well. Phil Plait points out that just on basic inspection it’s a joke:

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Other commentators on Twitter tried to science it up for them by making the y-axis based on pageviews only to learn that oh, that axis was subjective too, based on the author’s idea of what compelling is.

And insult to injury, Nature (from the top left no less) weighs in and calls it garbage in the nicest, Naturiest way possible:

It’s a curious exercise, and one that fails to satisfy on any level. It is, of course, flattering to be judged as producing compelling content. But one audience’s compelling is another’s snoozefest, so it seems strikingly unfair to directly compare publications that serve readers with such different interests as, say, The Economist and Chemistry World. It is equally unfair to damn all who work on a publication because of some stories that do not meet the grade. (This is especially pertinent now that online offerings spread the brand and the content so much thinner.)

Come to think of it “Fails to satisfy on any level” is a bit harsh coming from Nature.

Naomi Oreskes, noted science historian of Merchants of Doubt (albeit wrong on nuclear power and likely GMOs) weighed in:

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So basically, no one is fooled here.

Scienceblogs is also listed as ideological and of little value, maybe because our sciblings from angrytoxicologist to Effect Measure to the Pump Handle, to me (all the way back in 2007) and the excessively thorough Orac (see also) have been pointing out the obvious for years – the ACSH is astroturf. MotherJones, who admittedly have ideological problems from time to time on GMO and nutrition, are also frequent critics of ACSH, pointing out the felonious past of their one-time Director and their funding from industry for whom they provide excellent cover.

The newly revealed documents say that ACSH staffers should approach potential corporate financial backers with pitches geared toward specific issues. Last year, the documents note, the group planned to “seize opportunities to cultivate new funding possibilities (Prop 37, CSC, and corporate caving, etc.).” Proposition 37 was a 2012 California ballot initiative mandating the labeling of genetically modified foods. (It failed.) “CSC” is shorthand for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a consumer watchdog group that seeks to eliminate dangerous chemicals from cosmetic products. The documents suggest ACSH planned to mention CSC in its fundraising pitches to L’Oreal, Avon, and Procter and Gamble.

Lately, ACSH has become a vocal player in the debate over hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” In February, the council posted an outline of a “systematic, objective review” it intends to publish on the scientific literature covering the potential health effects of fracking. In an April op-ed for the conservative Daily Caller website, Whelan criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) for dithering on whether to allow fracking in New York State and asserted that “publicity savvy activists posing as public health experts are spearheading a disingenuous crusade to prevent the exploitation of the vast quantities of natural gas.” Fracking, Whelan wrote, “doesn’t pollute water or air.”

These links to industry have made their efforts to take on notable quacks such as Mehmet Oz backfire spectacularly because they are easily dismissed as so contaminated with ideology themselves. And we should not be surprised, founded in 1978 as a counterpoint to Nader’s CSPI, they basically exist to push back against attempts to regulate industry in the consumer’s interest.

So what we have here is basically an op-ed in chart form, in which media such as NYT, CNN, Motherjones, and historic critics of ACSH are “ideological” or “not compelling” whereas basic science journals like Nature who do not usually wade into their political waters are high impact along with media politically-aligned with ACSH such as Forbes and the Economist. Great stuff. I agree with Nature, it fails at every level. And in the end such an exercise, even if not performed in such a amateurish and obviously fraudulent way, would be enormously difficult to undertake. Almost all news sources screw up, and I have been critical, at some time, of almost every single one of those sources from MotherJones, to Forbes, to the NYT, the Guardian (where I have also published), Wired etc. This is not a straightforward exercise and only saying Nature itself is reliable for news would be incredibly limiting and absurd, as would saying you should believe sources of journalism such as the NYT without question. It also is a conflation of science reporting with periodic garbage in opinion section (Pollan in the NYT for instance is usually in opinion or food sections, huffpo has a separate science entity that is passable), and if we’re going to weight media down by opinion sections of course Nature will likely win. They’re loath to express an opinion on anything.

On to more important matters, what is the deal with the ACSH anyway? It seems a very contradictory organization. They seem to have lots of legitimate scientific content, a staff with legitimate credentials, and a list of distinguished policy advisors, as well as good articles on anti-vax, ag, alti-med etc. The American Council on Science and Health, is not just astroturf, but may be one of the best astroturf investments out there for those interested in advancing their industry message. Why is this? Because they are really good at using legitimate science reporting and advocacy to camouflage a freemarket fundamentalist product. While railing against politicization of science, they happily submit deeply political material as some kind of nonideological exercise in scientific expertise. Take their review of Trumps nominees for cabinet positions with a scientific mission, in an article entitled Evaluating President Trump’s Science and Health Choices guess what? There were no bad choices.

Given all that, not to mention overruling scientists on Yucca Mountain, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Keystone XL, and more, it seems strange that some activists worry the incoming President will be any more anti-science than the last. The reality is presidents embrace science when it agrees with policy.

Ok that’s a start, apparently scientists are for Keystone XL, Obama is apparently anti-science, or at least, there is no reason to expect Trump (Global Warming is a Chinese Hoax) to be more anti-science than Obama. Fascinating. They clearly hate politics, and are very serious people that aren’t political in their opinions, but Obama is anti-science, and Trump apparently is not. Oh my. It gets better:

Health and Human Services – The position of HHS Secretary is often given to party loyalists with little or no relevant expertise in healthcare policy, but President Trump instead chose Dr. Tom Price, a medical doctor and Congressman. Dr. Price recognizes that the Affordable Care Act needs to be fixed, a necessary reality in 2017. This office also oversees the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Given the attention the opioid crisis has gotten, along with concerns in the science and health community that the CDC has been too aggressive in promoting crises to lobby for funding about, there are a number of challenges that Secretary Price faces beyond health insurance.

Tom Price, plagued from the start with ethics violations for self dealing through legislation (and – failure to disclose – an ACSH supporter!) is great for HHS. The ACA needs to be fixed (apparently not a political statement), and the CDC is “promoting crises to lobby for funding”. For a non-political, non-ideological group this is starting to sound a bit crazy-pants.

His critics tried to drum up controversy, noting that Dr. Price has been affiliated with an organization that has been critical of mandatory vaccines and also some essential ones. However, in Senate testimony, he unequivocally rejected them and embraced evidence-based medicine.

He actually did not reject the AAPS (they who shall not be named), it was not unequivocal, and that organization is more than antivax, it promotes lies about abortion and breast cancer, the link between HIV and AIDS, and Tom Price is a member. But apparently since he’s on the freemarket fundamentalist side, we’ll just ignore this, gloss over his weak non-disavowal, and not even mention the name for fear of reminding people just how anti-science this group is.

It gets even better:

Environmental Protection Agency – On its science findings, the EPA can be terrific, but the accusation by critics has been that they have been picking political goals first, and gathering data later. As mentioned above, the EPA’s “Waters of the United States” rule, where private ponds and creeks can be defined as “navigable waters” that fall under the EPA’s jurisdiction, remains mired in the courts, while pollution experts argue that its mandates on emissions were made using narrow data and ignoring studies which showed pollution is not causing any acute deaths in the U.S. now.

The EPA needs to return to being a data-gathering agency that recommends policies to elected officials and less of an unassailable oligarchy that skirts around Congress by issuing green decrees.

How is this not an intensely political position? The EPA, which has “protection” in its name should no longer be proactive but instead should just gather data? This is a radical reorientation of the function of an agency of government, can you pretend that’s anything but a political goal?

Also they love Scott Pruitt:

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt successfully challenged EPA rulings on scientific grounds, while acknowledging that the office has an important role to play in regulating pollution, including carbon dioxide. The challenge will be convincing lawmakers and the public that EPA is again evidence-based and making decisions to protect the long-term health of all Americans, rather than, as critics claim, used as a way to pass laws without involving Congress.

Tasking someone who has defeated EPA with reforming its work is a bold move, but it won’t be easy taming this bureaucratic leviathan or undoing the carefully groomed relationships anti-science groups have created with career bureaucrats there.

That’s right, antiscience groups are in the EPA now, and the guy who is going to fix it is the Oklahoma AG who sues the EPA so his state can have more earthquakes than any other, and who submits proposals from the oil and gas industry to the EPA as if they are his own. But the ACSH, they hate mixing politics and science. Heavens forbid.

Finally my favorite:

Department of Energy – Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has been tapped to head a department that he once said should be eliminated. However, he since admitted he was wrong and had changed his mind – a rare trait in a politician. While many states floundered with the low GDP of the last eight years, Texas did well, and that was because of energy production.The Obama administration too often used this department to subsidize the alternative energy industry. Solyndra, which went bankrupt and cost taxpayers $535 million, is just one example. Tens of billions of dollars were squandered because we subsidized corporations to compete with cheap Chinese labor on solar panels, or promoted wind, which hasn’t been a viable large-scale solution in the last 700 years and isn’t now.

To be successful, Gov. Perry should redirect funds away from corporate subsidies and back to basic research in alternative energy. As a bridge to a pollution-free future, he should encourage the development of America’s natural gas resources which, if done with proper regulatory oversight, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions even farther than it has. Smart natural gas extraction will increase our country’s energy independence and poke Vladimir Putin in the eye, since evidence has shown that the Russians were manipulating environmental activists to prevent America from attaining energy independence and being an energy exporter.

Obama’s secretary of Energy was Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist and an expert in the issues that are DOEs mission. Rick Perry’s greatest interaction with the DOE was forgetting its name on a debate stage while trying to list agencies to eliminate. Also I can’t resist this, here is his college transcript.

Note he, unlike Obama’s nominee, is not a nuclear physicist, and he got a D in a class called “meats”. But, the ACSH assures us, they hate politics! Rick Perry is going to be great because he will direct us away from renewables (hey the Chinese have those down anyway) and he’s probably learned a lot about nuclear physics since nearly failing “meats”. There is nothing political to see here. No siree.

Wow. That is the ACSH being apolitical and purely scientific. This is also consistent with a long history that I’m sure they’d wish we’d ignore, for instance of climate denial. Here is S Fred Singer, notorious denialist and ACSH former staff, waxing poetic about fellow climate denier Michael Crichton’s book State of Fear (porn for climate denialists per Chris Mooney)

The not-so-hidden message of State of Fear, spelled out in copious footnotes, a lengthy afterword, an appendix, and a twenty-page bibliography, is an oddly reassuring one for a Crichton book, even if many scientists would disagree with it: There is no such thing as global warming, or at least nothing that anyone can prove or predict — and when it comes to climatic change, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and the experts who are in the business of purveying it.

For good measure, Crichton’s protagonist, “MIT professor on special leave” John Kenner, also delivers a number of mini-lectures challenging some of the Green movement’s most cherished beliefs, arguing, for example, that DDT is safe enough to eat, that the giant sequoias are practically junk trees, and that the methane emitted by termites is potentially a greater hazard than the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide.

I suspect that Michael Crichton is motivated by the same anger as so many of us who don’t want to see science misused for political purposes — or used just to gain grants from government and foundations. These are the sentiments that led to the founding of my organization, the Science and Environmental Policy Project. I was therefore pleased to see the great respect paid by Crichton to the late UCal professor Aaron Wildavsky, a founding director of SEPP.

Tellingly, the book points out that critics of the “consensus” and skeptics about global warming tend to be mainly retired academics — scientists who are no longer in the rat race for tenure, research grants, and career-building honors.

As Crichton states disarmingly (p.573): “Everybody has an agenda. Except me.” Well, there are a few others like him. The hundreds of scientific skeptics who have signed the Heidelberg Appeal, Leipzig Declaration, and Oregon Petition against junk science share the same agenda as Crichton.

There you have it, from the ACSH site, Climate change is fake, it’s a conspiracy to get grant money (by mostly retired scientists? wah?) and insert politics into science, and the noble scientists of the Oregon petition prove Crichton right.

But remember, the ACSH is not political! They don’t deny climate science, or maybe they don’t anymore, they’re very reasonable people. They’re much better these days I’m sure! Except how they refer to Al Gore as “still demented” for his advocacy of climate science, promoting the Lomborgian distraction:

The real cause of so much suffering in the world is not climate change but poverty. In a more prosperous world, diseases like malaria and cholera largely will go away. And deaths from preterm birth complications and birth asphyxia/birth trauma — both of which are in the top 10 causes of death in poor countries — will also vanish.

When it comes to human disease, climate change is mostly a distraction. Eliminating poverty will do far more to save people’s lives than lowering the temperature a notch.

That’s Steve Berezow, who insists he is not a climate denialist. Here is Steve calling David Gorski (an MD/PhD surgeon, scientist, and tenured professor) a liar over it:

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Note Gorski was saying ACSH denies climate change, which as we can see from Singer’s article above, is without question at least a historical fact. These days though, ACSH being the savvy astroturf that they are, they don’t take the same hard line. Instead they go for the Lomborgian middle – don’t deny climate change, just say there is no point doing anything significant to address it, address poverty instead, because hey, we can’t chew gum and walk at the same time and only one issue should get funding at a time. All problems will be addressed serially, starting with Malaria. Charming. If someone holds a gun to your head say, “I support a carbon tax”, which is safe because it’s now probably inevitable (move those goalposts!).

Berezow, who in his free time does cosplay as a cantankerous middle-schooler, also loves climate denialist Richard Lindzen, and as we can see above, “maverick” social scientist Bjorn Lomborg of the “do-nothing” school of climate change:

Consider Alfred Wegener, the father of plate tectonics. In his day, he was mocked and ignored. Today, his theory forms the foundation of geology, but it took more than 30 years for that revolution to occur.

Surely, there are other scientists in the world today whose ideas are scorned but may very well be correct. Only time (and more data) will tell. Let’s consider a few of those “scientific outcasts” here.

Bjorn Lomborg, Roger Pielke, Jr., Cliff Mass, and Richard Lindzen. These four distinguished thinkers come from different backgrounds. Lomborg is a political scientist and statistician; Pielke, Jr. is an environmental policy analyst; Mass is a meteorologist; and Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist. What they all have in common is a rejection of climate change alarmism. And that has unfairly earned each of them the label of “climate denier.”

To varying extents, all of them have caused trouble for themselves by daring to question the common refrain that global warming is the world’s #1 problem and is exacerbating most other problems. Lomborg believes, for instance, that fighting infectious disease and malnutrition are far bigger priorities than fighting climate change. Pielke, Jr. disagrees that climate change is responsible for the increasing cost of disasters. Similarly, Mass refuses to blame climate change on phenomena such as oyster deaths and unusually warm weather in the Pacific Northwest. Lindzen critiques climate models as inaccurate.

This is the classic Galileo Gambit. These are the Galileos (or Wegeners) of our day, misunderstood geniuses or “distinguished thinkers”. They should be listened to, not Michael Mann, or Gavin Schmidt. They aren’t ideological hacks who have no countervailing theory to explain the data, nothing to offer that survives in the literature. They are just geniuses oppressed by the dogmatic consensus scientists! Just like Galileo!

But of course, they’re not like Galileo, they’re denialists. Well documented (Lomborg Lindzen) fact-denying, politically-motivated denialists moving the goalposts and making up conspiracies about climate scientists and emails and trying to convince us that global warming might just be a party and not a threat to civilization. **Cliff Mass, it should be noted, is mixed in with less reputable scientists by Berezow, but he doesn’t deserve this company. While he does have his critics it’s more about conflict over framing the debate on climate change, he accepts the science and is not a denialist. I would argue this is another example of ACSH mixing the real with the fake, and if this wasn’t clear I was targeting Lindzen and Lomborg for my criticism then this was an error. Finally, Roger Pielke Jr. is also problematic, characterized as a climate misinformer by John Cook, he doesn’t deny the science but is something of a lukewarmer like Lomborg, downplaying our knowledge of global warming in a fashion that some believe is dishonest. **

On topics relative to their industries ACSH are of course quite favorable. It’s easy for them to be good on antivax, or big ag, their agenda has been consistently documented for almost 40 years to deny any harm from these industries (minus tobacco). But where there is ideological (or likely financial) conflict with the industries they serve and protect we of course see denialism. Their response is to scream “liar” at the top of their lungs but all we’re doing is pointing out their words. When challenged, they go into hysterics, the thread on the BS infographic alone is hysterical with Berezow responding to any critique with ad hominem at anyone – reporters, scientists, whoever – calling them liars and lunatics. They certainly comport themselves as cranks when criticized, and despite being challenged by legitimate scientists from Phil Plait, to Oreskes, to Nature itself their little BS infographic stands and I’m sure they remain quite proud of it. But that’s pretty typical of cranky denialists, they can’t even tell when they’re generating crap because they tend to be so incompetent at evaluating science they probably think their little Op-Ed in graph form is super clever. And certainly not political. Never that. It’s not I tell you!

This hypocritical refrain is my favorite part of all this, I had previously mocked their arguments against a science march and it’s part of a general pattern in their writing. They admonish us to keep science out of politics, and politics out of science (an impossibility as I argued), don’t march against Trump, it will stain science as political, then they publish op ed pieces saying Trumps picks are great on science and Political correctness prevents advancement of science. They’re trying to have it both ways, they don’t want politics out of science, just the politics they disagree with, which kind of proves my point. Science is fundamentally political since it’s a human endeavor, and humans think ideologically, not scientifically – including these guys.

Their other defense is one of distraction. They’re not antiscience because – look over there! We’re fighting antivax! And altie-meds! This is true. But this is like standing over a dead body with blood on your hands and exclaiming, “But I give to charity!” It doesn’t matter that they’re very good on other topics. This is part of the slickness of this operation. They generate lots of good content to mix with the bad, package it as “apolitical” and pure science, then pass off their politics and their brand of anti-science with the rest of the good stuff. It’s camouflage. It’s very clever, and it clearly works. Lots of folks I respect will defend ACSH because they are good on their issues. I would just ask them to take the 30,000 ft view here of what is going on.

So, yet another piece of hackery from a very old, very ideological, astroturf organization. One of the oldest, and to their credit, one of the best at the game. I can’t wait for them to lose their minds at me, spew childish insults and try to attack me personally (per usual). They can’t deny their words though, and they can’t defend the ideological garbage they insist is “apolitical”. Anyone who has eyes to see understands their record, their own words, and their actions dealing with critics show who they really are.

**updated to clarify Cliff Mass is not to be confused with Lindzen or Lomborg as a denialist or lukewarmer.

Conspiracy belief prevalence, according to Public Policy Polling is as high as 51%

And it may even be more when one considers that there is likely non-overlap between many of these conspiracies. It really is unfortunate that their isn’t more social pushback against those that express conspiratorial views. Given both the historical and modern tendency of some conspiracy theories being used direct hate towards one group or another (scratch a 9/11 truther and guess what’s underneath), and that they’re basically an admission of one’s own defective reasoning, why is it socially acceptable to espouse conspiracy theories? They add nothing to discussion, and instead hijack legitimate debate because one contributor has abandoned all pretense of using actual evidence. Conspiracy theories are used to explain a belief in the absence of real evidence. Worse, they are so often just a vehicle to direct vitriol and hate. We need less hate and partisanship. We should be able to disagree with a president without saying that he’s part of an agenda21/commoncore/obamacare/nazi/fascist/communist/North Korean conspiracy to make American citizens 3rd world slaves (not an exaggeration). We should be able to disagree with a corporation’s policies without asserting their objective is mass-murder. What is the benefit of this rhetoric? It’s just designed to poison our discourse, and inspire greater partisanship, divisiveness and incivility. Conspiracy theories are often used as a more subtle way to mask vile invective towards whichever group you hate. As you look underneath these theories you see it’s really just irrational hatred for somebody- liberals, conservatives, homosexuals, different races or religions, governments, or even certain professions. This is because at the root of the need for conspiratorial thinking is some irrational, overvalued idea, and often the open expression of the belief would result in social scorn.

I’ve found in my experience, almost everyone carries one really cranky belief that they can’t seem to shake, no matter how evidence-based their other positions are (probably because we are all capable of carrying some overvalued ideas). But it’s worth peering through PPP’s full results to see the nature of some of these associations.

For one, some of these associations I think are spurious, poorly questioned, or just reflect misinformation, rather than conspiracy. For instance:

44% of voters believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public about weapons of mass destruction to promote the Iraq War, while 45% disagree. 72% of Democrats believed the statement while 73% of Republicans did not. 22% of Democrats, 33% of Republicans and 28% of independents believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Many have questioned the inclusion of this question because, in reality, there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq. So the question of whether we were “misled” or “intentionally-misled” puts us in the murky position at having to guess at the motivations of individuals like Bush and Cheney. Mind-reading is a dubious activity, and I tend to ascribe to the Napoleonic belief that you shouldn’t ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence (also known as Hanlon’s razor). Is it conspiratorial to think maybe they were more malicious than incompetent? While I think that administration really were “true believers”, of course I don’t really know for sure, and I don’t think it’s fair to describe such as conspiratorial reasoning. Instead it’s just the dubious but common practice of guessing at the intentions of others. The generally-similar numbers on the Saddam Hussein/9/11 connection, I believe, just suggests ignorance, rather than necessitating active belief in a conspiratorial framework (keeping in mind the margin of error is about 3% these aren’t huge partisan differences like over WMD).

One of the most disappointing numbers was on belief in a conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination:

51% of Americans believe there was a larger conspiracy at work in the JFK assassination, while 25% think Lee Harvey Oswald
acted alone.

That’s 51% conspiratorial belief, 24% probably showing ignorance of one of the most important events of the last century, and 25% actually informed. This is pretty sad. The movements of Oswald were so thoroughly-investigated and known, the hard evidence for his planning and involvement are so clear, the conspirators so unlikely (the mob/CIA/LBJ/KGB hiring crackpot loser communists for assassinations?), and the fabrications of the conspiracists so plain (asserting the shots couldn’t be made despite it being easily replicated by everyone from the Warren Commission to the Discovery Channel and even improved on, the disparaging of his marksmanship when LHO was a marine sharpshooter, altering the positions of the occupants of the car to make the bullet path from JFK to Connelly appear unlikely, etc.) it’s sad that so many have bought into this nonsense. The historically-bogus picture JFK, by Oliver Stone, may also play a large part in this, and is an example why Oliver Stone is really a terrible person. People that misrepresent history are the worst. If anyone wants to read a good book about the actual evidence that of what happened that day, as well as destroys the conspiracy position, Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi is my favorite, as well as the most thorough.

But there is one redeeming feature of conspiracy about the JFK assassination. For the most part, conspiratorial ideas on the subject aren’t due to some dark part in people’s souls, as for many other conspiracies, but rather the very human need to ascribe more to such earth-shattering events as the assassination of a president than just the madness of a pitiable loser. The imbalance between the magnitude of the event, and the banal crank that accomplished it, is simply too much. There’s no way that a 24-year-old, violent, wife-beating, Marxist roustabout could be responsible for the death of a man like JFK right? Sadly no. The evidence shows even a man that pathetic can destroy the life of a much greater man with a cheap rifle and a simple plan.

The conspiracy theories embedded within this poll that really disturb me because I think they demonstrate the effect of irrational hate are ones such as for whether President Obama is the antichrist (although is that even really a conspiracy?). 13% of respondents believed this, 5% of those that voted for him still answered this question in the affirmative (really? you voted for the antichrist) as opposed to 22% of those that voted for Romney. Do we really need to elevate political disagreement to the level of labeling people the antichrist? Around 9% thought government adds fluoride for “sinister” reasons, and 11% believe in the LIHOP 9/11 conspiracy theory. They clearly think very little of their fellow Americans, and believe some really demonic things about our government. Our government is neither competent enough, or evil enough, to engage in then successfully cover up either of these things. Our top spy couldn’t even hide a tawdry affair.

Other conspiracy theories seem to indicate their is a baseline number of people, at about 15%, who will believe in just about anything from the moon landing being hoaxed to bigfoot. I would have actually pegged this number higher, given my pessimism about rational thought, but that seems to be what we can read from this. However, without being able to see whether or not it was the same people answering yes to each individual absurd conspiracy from reptilians to “government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals”, it’s possible this number is actually much larger. I would be curious to see the data on the overlap between these questions, as the phenomenon of crank magnetism is well known.

Ultimately, I read this data as saying that Americans have a big problem with conspiracy theories entering our political discourse. We should be embarrassed that as many as 37% of us believe that global warming is a “hoax”. That requires a belief is a grand conspiracy of scientists, policy-makers, journals, editors, etc., all acting together to somehow fabricate data for a single objective – often described as world-government control conspiracy to cede our sovereignty to the UN. Somehow, every single national scientific body, all those national academies, all those journals, and all those scientists, all those governments, all working in perfect secrecy according to some master plan (which I’m often accused of being a part of but I’m sure I’m missing the memo), and this is plausible how? The answer is, it’s not, unless you remain steadfastly ignorant of how science actually works and progresses.

Everyone, of any political persuasion, should be embarrassed by the conspiracy-theorists in their ranks. This isn’t healthy thinking, it isn’t rational discourse, and it only serves to divide us and make us hate. Enough of this already.

Is the holocaust denial/climate change denial comparison apt?

Many of the climate change denialist sites have been up in arms by comparisons of climate change denial to holocaust denial. In particular Marc Morano at climate depot has had multiple articles attacking and expressing hysterical outrage at these comparisons.

We know they don’t like the comparison, but the question is, is it apt?
Continue reading “Is the holocaust denial/climate change denial comparison apt?”

Mooney now agrees with us – Denialists deserve ridicule, not debate

He had to realize Nisbett’s framing was worthless and write a whole book on defective Republican reasoning to realize it but it sounds like Chris Mooney has come around to the right way to confront denialism:

The only solution, then, is to make organized climate denial simply beyond the pale. It has to be the case that taking such a stand is tantamount to asserting that smoking is completely safe, no big deal, go ahead and have two packs a day.

Sounds a little bit like what I wrote in 2007 when I pointed out denialists should not even be debated:

The goal instead must be to enforce standards of scientific debate, to delimit sharply what kind of evidence and argument is worthy of being listened to, to educate people about the form of pseudoscientific arguments, and when these arguments are proffered, to refuse to engage on the grounds they aren’t even worthy of consideration.

Don’t mistake denialism for debate…

The whole goal of denialists is to create the appearance of a legitimate debate when there is in fact no legitimate scientific debate to be had. What is the point of arguing with someone who denies the moon landing? Or evolution? Or that HIV causes AIDS? Or the holocaust? They get real angry when you mention that one as they feel it creates a moral equivalence between the types of denial. But the operative word is “denial” which is totally unrelated to whatever specific topic one denies. It’s just another helpful distracting strategy, to try to prevent critics from using the legitimate word to describe their pathology – denial – by suggesting it’s a wrongful comparison to one specific type of denial.

The solution to these problems is not in confrontations or debates or even necessarily careful fisking of their arguments every time they appear in the blogosphere. For one, it’s somewhat futile. They’re cranks. They will just go on and on, immune to any new data, scientific findings, or any evidence the real world can present. Worse, evidence suggests that repetition of false claims reinforces them even if you are debunking the claim. So debating them to supposedly educate those around you is not a legitimate reason because it’s probably making things worse, not to mention legitimizing the denialist. It’s a constant struggle I have to try to write about things in such a way as to reinforce positive true claims rather than repeat false claims with correction. It’s natural, but it doesn’t work.

Chris is right, the only way to address denialism is to call it what it is and ridicule it. People have to understand the difference between denialism and debate, and when they encounter denialism expose and attack the tactics. Denialism is an established strategy, likely ancient, honed to a science by tobacco companies, and now used by those attacking everything from global warming to evolution. Some of the same fake experts for the tobacco companies are now working for the global warming denialists. The way to win is to remember the way tobacco science was eventually beaten, and that was with exposure of their deceptive techniques, and public ridicule for denial of the obvious reality.