Take Denialism 101

John Cook, of Skeptical Science fame, has created an online course through the University of Queensland and edX, on denialism and climate change. Easy to access and free to take, I found it simple to join from their facebook page, and if you don’t want to join you can still see the lectures from their Youtube channel.

Having gone through the materials so far I have to say Cook nails it. His graphic depicting the 5 tactics is very clear and easy to understand.

Also I think he has done a great job of making clear that the problem isn’t one of education, facts or knowledge. The problem is the way we think, and how our ideology skews what we are willing to believe, setting us up to fall for denialist arguments. That combined with the series of high-quality experts from Oreskes to Mann makes for a really excellent introduction to the problem from real experts in the field.

Denialism in the Literature

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s good news though! A description of the tactics and appropriate response to denialism was published in the European Journal of Public Health by authors Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee. It’s entitled “Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?” and I think it does an excellent job explaining the harms of deniailsm, critical elements of denialism, as well as providing interesting historical examples of corporate denialism on the part of tobacco companies.

HIV does not cause AIDS. The world was created in 4004 BCE. Smoking does not cause cancer. And if climate change is happening, it is nothing to do with man-made CO2 emissions. Few, if any, of the readers of this journal will believe any of these statements. Yet each can be found easily in the mass media.

The consequences of policies based on views such as these can be fatal. Thabo Mbeki’s denial that that HIV caused AIDS prevented thousands of HIV positive mothers in South Africa receiving anti-retrovirals so that they, unnecessarily, transmitted the disease to their children.1 His health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, famously rejected evidence of the efficacy of these drugs, instead advocating treatment with garlic, beetroot and African potato. It was ironic that their departure from office coincided with the award of the Nobel Prize to Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi for their discovery that HIV is indeed the case of AIDS. The rejection of scientific evidence is also apparent in the popularity of creationism, with an estimated 45% of Americans in 2004 believing that God created man in his present form within the past 10 000 years.2 While successive judgements of the US Supreme Court have rejected the teaching of creationism as science, many American schools are cautious about discussing evolution. In the United Kingdom, some faith-based schools teach evolution and creationism as equally valid ‘faith positions’. It remains unclear how they explain the emergence of antibiotic resistance.

In particular I found their inclusion of a tactic of inversionism interesting:
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Logical Fallacies

Almost everybody knows about the fallacies of logic, formal and informal, that are routinely used in arguments with denialists. While these fallacies aren’t perfect examples of logic that show when an argument is always wrong, they are good rules of thumb to tell when you’re listening to bunk, and if you listen to denialists you’ll hear plenty. I wish they’d teach these to high school students as a required part of their curriculum, but it probably would decrease the efficacy of advertisement on future consumers.

The problem comes when the denialists get a hold of the fallacies then accuse you, usually, of ad hominem! It goes like this.
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Impossible expectations (and moving goalposts)

I’m sorry for mixing terminologies. But moving goalposts isn’t adequate to describe the full hilarity of the kinds of arguments denialists make. For instance, the goalposts never have to be moved when they require evidence that places them somewhere in the land before time. What I mean is the use, by denialists, of the absence of complete and absolute knowledge of a subject to prevent implementation of sound policies, or acceptance of an idea or a theory.

So while moving goalposts describes a way of continuing to avoid acceptance of a theory after scientists have obligingly provided additional evidence that was a stated requirement for belief, impossible expectations describes a way to make it impossible for scientists to ever prove anything to the satisfaction of the denialist. They’re related though so we’ll group both together.

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Fake Experts

You know who they are – those organizations that have words like “freedom” and “rights” “choice” and “consumer” in their names but always shill for corporate interests…those occasional MDs or engineers creationists find that will say evolution has nothing to do with science. They are the fake experts.

But how do we tell which experts are fake and which are real?
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Unified theory of the crank

A crank is defined as a man who cannot be turned.
– Nature, 8 Nov 1906

Here at denialism blog, we’re very interested in what makes people cranks. Not only how one defines crankish behavior, but literally how people develop unreasonable attitudes about the world in the face of evidence to the contrary. Our definition of a crank, loosely, is a person who has unreasonable ideas about established science or facts that will not relent in defending their own, often laughable, version of the truth. Central to the crank is the “overvalued idea”. That is some idea they’ve incorporated into their world view that they will not relinquish for any reason. Common overvalued ideas that are a source of crankery range from bigotry, antisemitism(holocaust deniers), biblical literalism (creationists – especially YEC’s), egotism (as it relates to the complete unwillingness to ever be proven wrong) or an indiscriminant obsession with possessing “controversial” or iconoclastic ideas. Some people just love believing in things that no one in their right mind does, out of some obscure idea that it makes them seem smart or different.
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Hello Scienceblogs

Hello and welcome to denialism blog.

Here we will discuss the problem of denialists, their standard arguing techniques, how to identify denialists and/or cranks, and discuss topics of general interest such as skepticism, medicine, law and science. I’ll be taking on denialists in the sciences, while my brother, Chris, will be geared more towards the legal and policy implications of industry groups using denialist arguments to prevent sound policies.
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