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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I've been thinking about putting together a comprehensive description of "the denialist." You know, the type of person that refuses to believe in facts when they are indisputable. Topics of denial include the holocaust, HIV causing AIDS, global warming/climate change, evolution, the necessity of animals in research, cigarettes causing cancer, embryonic stem cells aren't as good as adult stem cells, the government blew up the WTC on 9/11 not terrorists etc. Despite the incredible disparity between these areas of resolute denial and the motives behind them, the tactics used by denialists are remarkably similar. In today's Guardian, for instance, George Monbiot has an excellent description of the methods used by high-priced denialists bought and paid for by Exxon Mobile to prevent climate science from being believed.

By funding a large number of organisations, Exxon helps to create the impression that doubt about climate change is widespread. For those who do not understand that scientific findings cannot be trusted if they have not appeared in peer-reviewed journals, the names of these institutes help to suggest that serious researchers are challenging the consensus.

This is not to claim that all the science these groups champion is bogus. On the whole, they use selection, not invention. They will find one contradictory study - such as the discovery of tropospheric cooling, which, in a garbled form, has been used by Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday - and promote it relentlessly. They will continue to do so long after it has been disproved by further work. So, for example, John Christy, the author of the troposphere paper, admitted in August 2005 that his figures were incorrect, yet his initial findings are still being circulated and championed by many of these groups, as a quick internet search will show you.

But they do not stop there. The chairman of a group called the Science and Environmental Policy Project is Frederick Seitz. Seitz is a physicist who in the 1960s was president of the US National Academy of Sciences. In 1998, he wrote a document, known as the Oregon Petition, which has been cited by almost every journalist who claims that climate change is a myth.


Anyone with a degree was entitled to sign it. It was attached to a letter written by Seitz, entitled Research Review of Global Warming Evidence. The lead author of the "review" that followed Seitz's letter is a Christian fundamentalist called Arthur B Robinson. He is not a professional climate scientist. It was co-published by Robinson's organisation - the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine - and an outfit called the George C Marshall Institute, which has received $630,000 from ExxonMobil since 1998. The other authors were Robinson's 22-year-old son and two employees of the George C Marshall Institute. The chairman of the George C Marshall Institute was Frederick Seitz.


It was printed in the font and format of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: the journal of the organisation of which Seitz - as he had just reminded his correspondents - was once president.

Soon after the petition was published, the National Academy of Sciences released this statement: "The NAS Council would like to make it clear that this petition has nothing to do with the National Academy of Sciences and that the manuscript was not published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences or in any other peer-reviewed journal. The petition does not reflect the conclusions of expert reports of the Academy."

But it was too late. Seitz, the Oregon Institute and the George C Marshall Institute had already circulated tens of thousands of copies, and the petition had established a major presence on the internet. Some 17,000 graduates signed it, the majority of whom had no background in climate science. It has been repeatedly cited - by global-warming sceptics such as David Bellamy, Melanie Phillips and others - as a petition by climate scientists. It is promoted by the Exxon-sponsored sites as evidence that there is no scientific consensus on climate change.

I think I'll have to get his book as part of my research on denialism. As far as I can tell though, no matter what their issue, the denialists share some typical features (some of the features are often cited as signs of bad science in situations like helping judges determine quality of expert testimony). I've identified 5 features which I think are most common to these types of argument and most generalizeable to the phenomenon of denialism: Conspiracy, Selectivity, The Fake Expert, Impossible Expectations, and Metaphor.

  1. Conspiracy Suggesting scientists have some ulterior motive for their research or they are part of some conspiracy. The most basic example of this lie is to say that if the scientists discovered contrary findings they would lose their funding. The most severe example is to suggest scientists are engaged in some kind of elaborate "cover-up" or that they are part of the zionist conspiracy against the Aryan race. Whatever, it amounts to the same thing.

    Response: These criticisms reflect a total ignorance of how science, especially academic science, works from a practical standpoint. Not only do scientists love to discover things that run contrary to expectations and publish them, but it is precisely the exceptional results that generate a great deal of interest (although they also require a higher degree of skepticism). The papers published in Nature and Science aren't just essays saying "everything is fine." They are often revolutionary (and sometimes incorrect) papers describing unusual findings, powerful new findings, or things that represent a major coup of scientific diligence and work. Funding, while often rewarded to projects that don't take huge risks, is also heavily based on novelty, not maintaining some kind of party line. Further, the idea that scientists would ever work together in uniform to supress some piece of information is laughable. Scientists are in competition with eachother, and if something were being suppressed by a group it is usually only because they want to publish it first, and their competitors would love to beat them to it. Science is quite incompatible with keeping secrets or maintaining conspiracies, and to any actual scientists this is laughable.

  2. Selectivity Denialists will often cite: a critical paper supporting their idea, or famously discredited or flawed papers meant to make the field look like a it's based on weak research.

    Response: I've noticed this is common among the AIDS/HIV denialists (who have a discredited paper from 1987 they like to wave around and they pick on Gallo for fudging the initial identification of HIV), but also is a big thing among global warming deniars as described in the Guardian article. Some creationists like Jonathan Wells particularly enjoy using examples of failed theories supporting Darwinian evolution (like Haeckels' embryos) to suggest that the tens of thousands of other papers on the subject, and the entire basis of genetics, biology and biochemistry are wrong. The biggest problem here is that science doesn't "purge" the literature when these things are proven false and they stay there forever. It is up to the researcher to read more than the papers that support their foregone conclusion, they have to develop a theory that incorporates all the data, not just the data they like.
    **Update** PZ points out I should include Quote-Mining as a typical method of the denialists. This is a good point, but I think it is an example of selectivity. Rather than being selective of data or discredited papers, the quote-miner selectively pulls quotes from scientists and uses them out of context to try to bolster an argument that scientist would probably never agree with in a million years.

  3. The fake expert: A bought-scientist or scientist/expert from an unrelated field to say that their data, lack of data, proven-flawed data or their expert opinion disproves the validity of the entire field.

    Response: The global warming denialists have the greatest amount of money invested in the false-expert strategy but they all pretty much use this tactic to some degree. Note that creationists and other anti-science types particularly will line up behind MDs to support their crap, because a lot of doctors are graduated in this country, and even though they technically have a degree in science, they've never actually done it themselves and it's never to hard to find some quack with an MD to back up your line of bullshit. I would point you, for example, to the Presidential Council on Bioethics which is full of MDs gleaned for their ideological slant, with no real scientific legitimacy (Krauthammer being the most glaring example). I'm not maligning MD researchers who do exist, but it is a strategy used to give a patina of legitimacy to otherwise laughable ideas.

  4. Impossible expectations: The use of the absence of complete and absolute knowledge to prevent implementation of sound policies, or acceptance of an idea or a theory. It's a little bit like argument ad ignorantiam, but more sinister. Basically, the suggestion is made that until a subject is understood completely and totally (usually requiring a level of knowledge only found in deities), no action can be reasonably taken.

    Response: This is a big one with global warming deniers. To state the problem metaphorically, it's like saying until you've figured out the exact momentum, moment of inertia, time dilation, length contraction, and relativistic position of a car in several reference frames that is speeding at you, you shouldn't jump out of the way. Since global warming is very complicated, they use this mixed appeal to ignorance and inaction to suggest until we understand climate 100%, we should do nothing. Never mind that this is impossible, but that is the expectation. A reasonable person would instead suggest that once you have enough data that suggest a change of behavior, or change of policy is warranted, it would be prudent to take that data under consideration and change things before we're all under water. You don't need to know the position of every molecule in the galaxy before deciding you need to jump out of the way of a speeding train. Just like we don't need to have a perfect model of the earth's climate to understand that all the current data and simulations suggest decreasing carbon output is of critical importance right now, and not when humans have obtained some imaginary scientific nirvana.

  5. The metaphor/argument from analogy/appeal to consequence/red herring: The metaphor, as hopefully I've demonstrated, is a useful tool in language to help communicate ideas in common sense terms. However, it isn't an argument in and of itself. Denialists will often use argument from metaphor or analogy to suggest that scientific data are wrong. For example, creationists will use as an argument the metaphor that saying natural selection leading to humans is like saying it's probable that you could assemble a jumbo-jet that could fly simply by shaking the constituent parts in a box for 5 billion years. Or that a mousetrap is too complex for evolution because if a single part was missing it wouldn't work.

    Response: I'm not purposefully setting up a straw man here, but this type of argument from false analogy is incredibly common as are other classic logical fallacies. One could argue many things, but it would be a waste of time because the situations described are silly and have nothing to do with human evolution. The analogies ignore the nature of evolution, suggest it's just totally random, ignore natural selection as the mechanism of evolution, ignore basic biology and create a totally artifical point of reference for a biological discussion. In short, metaphors have nothing to do with biology or evolution, but they are confusing and on the surface their logic sounds correct to many laymen. These are a hallmark of the "irreducible complexity" arguments of the creationist denialists, but other denialists have similar appeals to metaphor. But irreducible complexity arguments are all based on metaphors, while data from siRNA, knockout mice, humans with silent genetic defects, etc., indicate that cells and biological organisms are not irreducibly complex, and often can operate and adapt with less than a full complement of their ideal genetic code. There are quite a few gene knockout mice in which no phenotype has been observed, and anyone who has knocked genes out in cells with siRNA could tell you, an effect is no guarantee. Cells adapt to a number of situations and not all genes are required for healthy, viable offspring. Science is not about who has the best metaphor that makes the most sense to good ol' common folk. Data trumps metaphors every time.
    **Update** PZ points out that I should include appeal to consequence, which I believe falls under the red herring category of logical fallacies. That is creationists (like da Popa) say that belief in evolution will lead to godlessness and meaninglessness of our existence. This is a red herring, has nothing to do with the science or the data, and sheesh, since I'm not seeing a lot of Swedes and Norweigans blowing shit up, I don't think their overabundance of belief in Darwinism or secular behavior is having the negative consequences these assholes suggest.

Well, this was a long post, but if anyone can make an argument for some other really good general unifying features of the denialists I'd like to hear them.

And I do have a point in thinking about this. The ideal would be to recognize this as a strategy exploited by people who have no data or science to support their crazy ideas. Then, when these types of strategies are deployed, no thought or effort needs to go into knocking apart their arguments piece by agonizing piece (it always takes 10x more work to debunk this crap than it does to just make it up and vomit it out). Instead you can just point and say, "denialist!" There is no point arguing with denialist arguments since they are illogical and based on purposefully sowing misinformation and confusion among the targets. Even very smart people, in the face of denialists get flustered and confused, because it's like arguing with someone who refuses to acknowledge the basic rules of rational discourse. Instead of arguing with illogic, the simpler thing to do is acknowledge the illogic itself and refuse to engage in silly timewasting blather with denialist hooligans.

Hey. It's Give Up Blog. We're about minimal effort.

** Update ** Thanks to PZ for the link from Pharyngula and good discussion. It was a mixed bag however, since PZ attracts trolls like a dog attracts ticks. Oh well. PZ's suggestion of "quote mining" should definitely be included in the selectivity column since it represents selectively pulling quotes in a way that is deceptive to try to bolster an argument that if the whole quote were included it would be obviously false. And the problem of the "appeal to consequences" is a tough one. These arguments are red herrings, so I'm thinking of just expanding my Metaphor/Analogy heading to include other obvious logical fallacies like red herrings or ad hominems. For instance Chris Mooney, who wrote the excellent Republican War on Science, over at the interesection is being attacked for not having scientific credentials - as if merely being informed isn't enough to engage in debate and write excellent books on science. This is different from the "False Expert" critique of their side of course, because Mooney isn't misrepresenting himself as an evolutionary biologist working with pipettes and DNA, he's a journalist covering a political movement that is profoundly anti-science, and he does a good job.


Jason said...

I hope you include all the people who deny that 9/11 was caused by Islamic extremists, that 9/11 happened at all, and that George W. Bush won both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections fair and square.

10:20 AM, September 19, 2006

Anonymous said...


Please sign up to be a Marine and go fight for your beloved president already.

10:56 AM, September 19, 2006

Jason said...

Anonymous Coward,

The "chickenhawk" argument has been debunked thoroughly (including by ATHEIST philosopher Julian Baggini, no less: Bad Moves: Can't do it? Don't back it.). Why do you still use it? Oh, right. Because you don't have any other arguments.

11:19 AM, September 19, 2006

Anonymous said...

More tactics:

I don't know, don't understand. If the author does not know or understand something, then no one else does either. Example: How can CFCs reach the ozozne layer when they are several times heavier than air?

Appeal to common sence. I don't need no stinkin degree, I have common sence. And everyone knows scientists don't have common sence, so I understand things better than they do.

1:09 PM, September 19, 2006

Chris said...

Well, the fact that 9/11 happened at all is probably established well enough to go in this category. You can even go to ground zero and see for yourself.

The attribution to Islamic extremists seems well supported (I believe it myself, given the currently available evidence), but not quite on the same level as the other issues mentioned; it's possible to raise a legitimate argument about it, but you would need some damn good evidence.

The 2000 and 2004 elections were plagued by serious irregularities that were *deliberately not investigated* - therefore we can't be certain what exactly happened or did not happen. To say that there is no doubt that they were won "fair and square" is either stupid or dishonest.

If there were election commissions on par with the 9/11 commission, that fully investigated the elections and concluded that there was no foul play, then you could say that it was established as well as responsibility for 9/11 - that is, that extraordinarily good evidence would be required to disprove it.

But we didn't get that kind of investigation, and therefore we don't have its evidence and its conclusions to rely on when stating anything about those elections. Failure to investigate allegations does not necessarily mean they are true, of course, but it does usually mean that their truth or falsehood remains uncertain - which is usually reason enough to take the effort to find the facts.

1:19 PM, September 19, 2006

Anonymous said...

You mention this in passing, but all of these practices are also practiced by Holocaust Deniers... there's an extremely strong similarity between the tactics and methods of the Discovery Institute, for example, and the neo-nazi Institute of Historical Review. A fine summary. One thing I would add -- though perhaps it is part of your "Conpiracy" element -- is that they always impute their own motives to their ideological enemy. Thus, religious creationists say that scientists are, in fact, trying to promulgate a religious doctrine under the guise of science. Holocaust deniers, who are racists, accuse their opponents (ie, historians, Holocaust survivors, decent human beings) of being, more or less, the same.

1:25 PM, September 19, 2006

Rev. Dr. said...

Don't feed the trolls!

Jason is one of PZ's big trolls, don't even engage. This is give up blog after all, we don't argue with these people.

That being said, 9/11 denialism has similar features that are mentioned. One in particular that PZ mentioned and should be included is quote-mining. Popular Mechanics most effectively debunked this myth, and showed that quote-mining was one of the most important tools used to generate the myths. But it also, of course, involves conspiracy and selectivity.

What Jason is doing is known as trolling and distraction, and being a creationist denialist himself, he's well aware of these other methods. Please everybody, just ignore him.

3:57 PM, September 19, 2006

Anonymous said...

Alcoholics and drug addicts are denialists, too. Big time. There is such as thing as addiction to power, too.

3:52 AM, September 20, 2006

Rev. Dr. said...

I was thinking of using this as a tool for identifying denialism in political/ideological instances, rather than just plain old denial from drunks and drug addicts even if they do the same thing.

This rules are probably good hard and fast detectors of general bullshit though.

11:17 AM, September 20, 2006

David Siegel said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:17 PM, September 20, 2006

SkookumPlanet said...

These aren't exactly unifying features, and are meant to focus on big-money, big-issue campaigns, but perhaps these might suggest additional items. I put this together while particpating in a couple SciAm blogs that solicited comments from global warming skeptics. It also fits the evo/ID debate nicely. And posted them recently at Aetiology.

Any additions to this particular list would be welcome.

Recognizing Negative Psychomarketing


Some hallmarks of the fingerprint of an organized, professional,
negative psychomarketing campaign. These campaigns are often completely, or partially, covert:

* focus on "character" of messenger/opponent in a way that allows dismissal of the message/argument

* confusion about actual facts at issue

* repetitious "talking points" or criticism, easily and repeatedly addressed, that continually resurrect

* proponents' certainty of data, often erroneous, that positions are based on

* focus on rhetorical argumentation, especially noticeable when new, reliable facts are introduced into larger discussion

* difficulty of getting adherents to discuss data/facts and admit error

* poor contextual reference, distinguishing personal from organized is difficult, even with good data

* sublimation of energy into repetitive debate and discussion structures that produce no results

* focus on narrow part of data/issue relative to full amount available [where applicable]

* obsession with such narrowness to exclusion of readily available overview of issue

* focus off issues of decision-making methodology under obviously time-constrained conditions

* through time, new arguments/talking points materialize and rapidly spread [information contagion?]

* details and rhetorical argumentation distract pattern-recognition from larger contexts, campaign's existence

* kernels of truth in otherwise incorrect but widely held views [Tough to differentiate from everyday juicy stories. Journalists constantly chase these, only to find no story.]

* belief opposition succeeds via conspiratorial means, to varying degrees

* part of power and/or financial competition between parties on a larger sociopolitical level

* patterns/profiles/"scripts" of campaigns discernible, even strategies, with enough data

None of these signs individually, or even several, are demonstrative, of course, and can arise from other causes. One would want to review a wide array of data, such as mass media, to begin to come to a conclusion about the existence of specific campaigns. I note these signs because the existence of these negative- or anti-PR campaigns and the tools for analyzing them are not widely known. These might be considered part of a robust media literacy, something sorely lacking in the U.S.

6:54 PM, September 20, 2006

Toots said...

Please do not forget the animal rights/liberation movement which systematically generates propaganda to the effect that experimenting on animals is junk-science of no value whatsoever.
Not content with denying the history of medical science over the last 100 years, they attempt to rewrite it to suit their ideologogical agenda.

7:03 PM, September 20, 2006

Rev. Dr. said...

You might notice I did mention animal right up front in the top paragraph. Not a week goes by that I don't talk to someone, often quite smart people, that say we could do everything in humans we do on animals.

I don't know where this idea came from.
I don't know how people got so ignorant about how science is actually done.
It just hurts my brain.

Skookumplanet has some interest additions, but I'd like to create 5 general categories that encompass broader swaths of idiotic argument.

I think we can fit most of her stuff under these headings. Most seem to fit under the selectivity or red herring/illogic categories.

8:33 PM, September 20, 2006

Seth said...

I boil it down to three, not five: conspiracy, martyrdom, and appeals to the common man.

All denialist movements have some kind of martyr, a real or imagined human who is crucified in some way as a result of telling "the truth." They all have an evil gang hiding "the truth" and they all claim that "the truth" is revealed through the correct interpretation of the evidence, an interpretation that is accessible without real effort or education.

Its a religious tactic, make the victim feel special, give the victim leadership, separate the victim from the outer world.

10:21 PM, September 20, 2006

Rev. Dr. said...

I figure the martyrdom thing figures right into the conspiracy. You can't have a conspiracy without a victim.

The other elements of the 5 are important though becuase they involve tactics for arguing when you don't have a leg to stand on. With no data, you pretty much have no choice but to quote-mine and make bad analogies to justify your total stupidity.

4:56 PM, September 21, 2006

David Harmon said...

"... they always impute their own motives to their ideological enemy. "

It's called "projection" by psychologists.

[Rev. Dr.] Even very smart people, in the face of denialists get flustered and confused, because it's like arguing with someone who refuses to acknowledge the basic rules of rational discourse.
[/Rev. Dr.]

To put it more simply: Don't argue with the crazy people, it'll just mess with your mind and they won't listen to you anyway. (Goes for trolls too!)

10:33 AM, September 28, 2006

Ted said...

Hey, here's something for your denialist files (and actually quite interesting in the annals of finger-pointing):

Lawmakers in the Turkish parliament Wednesday discussed a bill that would label the killings of Algerians by France during the colonial period as genocide and make it illegal to deny that the French were responsible for the killings. The parliament's Justice Committee nonetheless concluded that there was little support for the bill and deferred it to a subcommittee for further review.

Under the proposed legislation, those who deny the Armenian genocide would face fines approaching $57,000 and jail terms of up to one year. The Turkish bill was offered as retaliation against a controversial French parliamentary proposal, scheduled for a vote in Paris on Thursday, that would make it illegal to deny that Turkey is responsible for committing genocide against Armenians during World War I. French legislators postponed a debate on that measure in May when Turkey threatened trade sanctions against France. On Monday, Turkey urged the European Union to oppose the French law.


7:51 PM, October 11, 2006

Rev. Dr. said...


I understand, you know, why in Europe they don't feel they can be as liberal about free speech as we are. After all, if we had two world wars on our soil, and one genocidal nightmare caused by a specific ideology of hate, we might be willing to ban an idea or two as well. I don't think it's a good idea, ultimately, but I understand.

But here is an example of why it's a bad idea. In this case, neither side wants to reach the truth through debate, they're trying to take a legal shortcut to force their view of the world down other people's throats. Now granted, the denial by the Turks is ludicrous, but this passing of laws banning ideas has to stop.

Denialism sucks, but people shouldnt go to jail for it. They should just be mocked, mercilessly.

2:13 PM, October 13, 2006


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