Saturday, March 31, 2007

Denialism dot com

On cue, following my discussion of science and politics, which noted the similarity between global warming deniers, creationists, anti-vaccine and anti-animal testing movements and so on, I find the blog, dealing, in some detail with much the same issues, with a couple of differences.

In particular deals with the methods of denialists: conspiracy theories, selective use of evidence, fake experts, impossible expectations and faulty logic. doesn't mention, as I did, alternative medicine, anti-GM food and perpetual motion. It is explained here that there isn't the same kind of organised denialism going on for alternative medicine. I guess largely this is correct, alternative medicine is interested in asserting its own efficacy, and not so much attacking the efficacy of conventional medicine. But it may be a close call.

GM food seems to be off the agenda now, and perpetual motion I suppose is just too silly to spend any time on.'s subjects that I didn't mention are these:
  1. Anti-regulatory/Industry Apologists/Fake Consumer groups/Astroturf
  2. HIV/AIDS Denialism
  3. Stem Cell Denialism/Adult Stem Cell Hype/Fake Bioethicists/Cloning, Eugenics and Euthanasia Paranoids
It wouldn't have occurred to me to include group 1 in this sort of exercise. Arguments over regulation are intensely political on both sides and are rarely made with scientific rigour on either side. One or two commenters have pointed out that there are probably equivalent pro-regulatory deniers around. Still, if people are using the denialist tactics described in political debates then this should be exposed.

Group 2, good point.

Group 3, again surprising. I'm not sure how one might qualify as a fake ethicist - I tend to take the view that we're all ethicists, in the sense that we're all entitled to express our views on ethics, and that all these views matter - the idea of believing what is right or wrong on the authority of an ethicist seems bizarre. Glancing at the sites listed, I would agree that there are some terribly bad arguments being used out there to oppose stem cell research. But I do think - as I said here - it is reasonable for people to argue a position that they have only religious and not scientific reasons for believing. But on the face of it, this does seem to be denialism of a similar quality to the others, so perhaps I am being too generous. Please comment.

Anyway, while we are drifting into the denialisms of politics and ethics as well as those of science, what else could we add to the list? How about denialism of the benefits of free trade?

Remember this is about methods. 1. Conspiracy theories: Anti-traders assert that free trade is just a consipiracy by the rich and powerful to drive down wages and environmental standards. 2. Selectivity: The huge gains in prosperity in Asia-Pacific are ignored. 3. Fake Experts: The New Economics Foundation? 4. Impossible Expectations: Economists all disagree anyway, Economics doesn't work. 5. Bad logic: What ever it is, we're smart enough to make it here. (Being able to make anything doesn't mean we are able to make everything we currently consume, when giving up economies of scale.)

So far, so good, I suppose. But might this work for denying theories that should be denied because they are bunk? Like Marxism:

1. Conspiracy Theories: Anti-marxists assert that Marxists are trying to take over the world. 2. Selectivity: Er, the soviet economic boom from agrarian backwater to superpower in 50 years? 3. Fake Experts: Tories 4. Unrealistic Expectations: Worldwide revolution hasn't happened yet, so Marxism is bunk. 5. Bad logic: Trying to make the world better will only make it worse. (This is an argument you occasionally hear from some on the right who can't be arsed trying to make the world any better. Panglossian rubbish.)

So, while I very much like what is doing, I am also a little underwhelmed. The point to keep aware of is that dealing with the poor arguments in favour of a proposition does not deal with the proposition. is all about identifying and disposing with common poor and deceptive arguments for certain propositions. It is the fact that most perpetrators of these poor arguments don't have any good arguments that deals with their propositions. Why make the weak argument if you have a strong one?

But the arguments that are found in politics, economics and ethics generally are weaker than those found in science, and this makes the approach rather less biting in these fields.


Mark said...

As you might of seen from our discussion I think we're going to have to add altie-meds too. It's a tough call, a matter of picking battles and not taking on too many.

For instance, on the GM crop thing and the latest paranoia over bee deaths (the data from Germany would actually suggest it's definitely not GM crops to blame) I don't think we need to make a fuss. Monsanto and ADM can take care of themselves.

But we've just started and it's a work in progress. If you have ideas or links you think we should cover email me, we're receptive.

Also, in terms of our general goals, it's an attempt to raise awareness of tactics so that when people do hear denialist arguments, they are easier to dismiss. I feel it's often a mistake to engage denialists as equals and legitimize their BS debate tactics, and if they start from the point of having to prove first they're not denialists, that's a victory. After all, it's not like if they stop using denialism they'll have anything to say. They have no evidence or data for these viewpoints, so take away the BS tactics and they should fall apart.

Mark said...

oh, and we are going to avoid most political/economic debates for many of the reasons you mentioned. The ones in which we've listed astroturfers and anti-regulatory types are going to be in fields of expertise of my brother, in which there is a very clear-cut consumer interest being denied by industry groups. It's his thing and has yet to evolve on the blog.

The science stuff is more clear cut, but if people use denialism in any endeavor it really should be quashed.