The varieties of denialism

Global-Warming-Denialism-04by Massimo Pigliucci

I have just come back from a stimulating conference at Clark University about “Manufacturing Denial,” which brought together scholars from wildly divergent disciplines — from genocide studies to political science to philosophy — to explore the idea that “denialism” may be a sufficiently coherent phenomenon underlying the willful disregard of factual evidence by ideologically motivated groups or individuals.

Let me clarify at the outset that we are not talking just about cognitive biases here. This isn’t a question of the human tendency to pay more attention to evidence supporting one’s view while attempting to ignore contrary evidence. Nor are we talking about our ability as intelligent beings to rationalize the discrepancy between what we want to believe and what the world is like. All of those and more affect pretty much all human beings, and can be accounted for and at the least partially dealt with in the course of normal discussions about whatever it is we disagree about.

Rather, the Oxford defines a denialist as “a person who refuses to admit the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence,” which represents a whole different level of cognitive bias or rationalization. Think of it as bias on steroids.

The conference began exploring the topic of denialism with a delightful keynote by Brendan Nyhan  [1] who set the tone with a talk on “The Challenge of Denial: Why People Refuse to Accept Unwelcome Facts.” This was followed by three sessions of three talks each, on Modern Strategies and Rhetoric of Denial, Political Uses of Denial, and Countering Denial: How and When? Hopefully the video of the conference will be available soon, and since contributors were asked to submit a paper to go along with their contribution, hopefully we will soon see an collection in print. I was asked to be on the final panel of the conference, attempting to bring together the several threads I noticed during the main proceedings and offer some general reflections. So the rest of this essay will refer only in passing to my colleagues’ fascinating contributions, and expand instead on the general commentary I offered.

The first two things that became clear during our discussions of denialism are particularly disturbing to me as a scientist and philosopher. First, as a scientist: it’s just not about the facts, indeed — as Brendan showed data in hand during his presentation — insisting on facts may have counterproductive effects, leading the denialist to double down on his belief.

This, of course, should not be taken to mean that the facts don’t matter. If I want to push the idea that climate change is real, or that evolution is a valid scientific theory, or that the Armenian genocide was indeed a genocide, I better get my facts as straight as possible. It’s a pure and simple question of intellectual integrity. But if I think that simply explaining the facts to the other side is going to change their mind, then I’m in for a rude awakening.

That was a lesson I learned many years ago while debating creationists. A debate is a fun event, during which your testosterone is pumped into your veins, which can rally your troops (helping, say, with a fund raising), and which may even grab the attention of fence sitters and others who knew little about the subject matter. What it certainly won’t do is to convince your opponent or any of his committed supporters. Indeed, my best moments as a debater (against Institute for Creation Research’s Duane Gish, or Discovery Institute’s Jonathan Wells) came when I was able to show the audience that these people were consciously lying to them. Nobody likes to be treated as a fool, not even a creationist.

As a philosopher, I found to be somewhat more disturbing the idea that denialism isn’t even about critical thinking. Teaching about logical fallacies isn’t going to do any better than teaching about scientific facts. Indeed, the evidence from the literature is overwhelming that denialists have learned to use the vocabulary of critical thinking against their opponents. To begin with, of course, they think of themselves as “skeptics,” thus attempting to appropriate a word with a venerable philosophical pedigree and which is supposed to indicate a cautiously rational approach to a given problem. As David Hume put it, a wise person (i.e., a proper skeptic) will proportion her beliefs to the evidence. But there is nothing of the Humean attitude in people who are “skeptical” of evolution, climate change, vaccines, and so forth.

Denialists have even begun to appropriate the technical language of informal logic: when told that a majority of climate scientists agree that the planet is warming up, they are all too happy to yell “argument from authority!” When they are told that they should distrust statements coming from the oil industry and from “think tanks” in their pockets they retort “genetic fallacy!” And so on. Never mind that informal fallacies are such only against certain background information, and that it is eminently sensible and rational to trust certain authorities (at the least provisionally), as well as to be suspicious of large organizations with deep pockets and an obvious degree of self-interest.

What then? What commonalities can we uncover across instances of denialism that may allow us to tackle the problem beyond facts and elementary logic? Participants at the conference agreed that what the large variety of denialisms have in common is a very strong, overwhelming, ideological commitment that helps define the denialist identity in a core manner. This commitment can be religious, ethnical or political in nature, but in all cases it fundamentally shapes the personal identity of the people involved, thus generating a strong emotional attachment, as well as an equally strong emotional backlash against critics. Think of Jenny McCarthy’s “I don’t care about science, my son is my science” refrain, or of people who are convinced that leftist environmentalists are out to undermine the American style of life, or of the Turkish government who equates acknowledgement of the Ottoman atrocities against the Armenians as a permanent moral stain on the very idea of a Turkish state, or again of the religious fundamentalist who equates accepting Darwin’s theory with the rejection of the divine, the end of morality and the destruction of any meaning in life. That’s why facts and reason can only do so much (or little) to turn the denialist.

Another important issue to understand is that denialists exploit the inherently tentative nature of scientific or historical findings to seek refuge for their doctrines. Even though there is an overwhelming consensus about climate change within the relevant community of experts (i.e., climate scientists, not meteorologists, medical doctors, or a random assemblage of people with PhD’s), science is a human epistemic activity, and as such it is fallible. Scientists have been wrong before, and doubtlessly will be again in the future, many times. But the issue is rather one of where it is most rational to place your bets as a Bayesian updater: with the scientific community or with Faux News?

This attitude of course indicates a poor appreciation of the very nature of science, both as an empirical and as a theoretical enterprise. I cannot tell you how many times I heard the “evolution is just a theory” refrain, obviously uttered in all sincerity by otherwise rational people — at the least as indicated by how well they can otherwise reason and function in a complex society such as our own.

Is there anything that can be done in this respect? I personally like the idea of teaching “science appreciation” classes in high school and college [2], as opposed to more traditional (usually rather boring, both as a student and as a teacher) science instruction. Unless one is going to major in a scientific field, it will do little good to cram a lot of science facts into his brain, but exposing him to the beauty as well as inner workings (and limits) of the scientific enterprise might. Something like that goes also for writing about science for the general public, where too often the picture presented is one of speculations asserted as facts (think string theory) and where the reader is told about the results but not about the messy, fascinating process that led to them. Science should be portrayed as a human story of failure and discovery, not as a body of barely comprehensible facts arrived at by epistemic priests.

Denialists also exploit the media’s self imposed “balanced” approach to presenting facts, which leads to the false impression that there really are two approximately equal sides to every debate. This is a rather recent phenomenon, and it is likely the result of a number of factors affecting the media industry. One, of course, is the onset of the 24-hr media cycle, with its pernicious reliance on punditry. Another is the increasing blurring of the once rather sharp line between reporting and editorializing. Opinions, in the editorial page, really ought to be presented in a balanced way by any serious news outlet. But facts are not opinions, even if we acknowledge that of course facts aren’t out there in the world devoid of theoretical and yes, even sometimes ideological, contexts. Indeed, one could argue that the complex relation between facts and opinions is precisely why traditional media have kept the two as separate as possible: one gets as much of the factual information as it is humanly possible to disentangle from the ideological background by way of good reporting; one then turns to (hopefully insightful) op-ed pieces to put the reporting into a broader context.

The problem with the media is of course made far worse by the ongoing crisis in contemporary journalism, with newspapers, magazines and even television channels constantly facing an uncertain future of revenues, not knowing how to adapt to the electronic era of “free” information (in case you still have doubts: there is no such thing, ever [3]). An increasingly interesting, and problematic, aspect of this issue is represented by the rise of the blogosphere (and yes, I know you are reading a webzine edited by someone who has published his own blog for more than a decade). Blogs rarely offer reporting, because reporting costs a lot of money; and while they do allow many more people to be part of ongoing societal conversations, they also increase the overall cacophony because there is little if any quality control.

During the conference at Clark there were some aspects of the problem that are highly relevant but were not addressed — naturally enough for a one-day event limited to a dozen speakers. For instance, during the final summary panel, Johanna Volhardt pointed out that psychologists surely have something to add to our understanding of denialism. And I submitted that sociologists should be at the table as well, especially in the context of the study of anti-intellectualism in the US, well understood since the classical work of Richard Hofstadter [4], and that clearly applies to the issue of denialism.

Indeed, Denialism Studies (I’m rather happy to use that term!) is a highly interdisciplinary field, arguably one of the most interdisciplinary I can think of, including history, political science, law, natural science (from physics to biology), psychology, sociology, philosophy (in various forms, from political philosophy to ethics to epistemology), to mention just some of the principal contributors. And for once, this is an academic discipline that first and foremost deals directly with urgent issues that concern us all.

Which brings me to a number of suggestions about what to do in practice. To begin with, we need to understand that the fight is a long term one, which will be characterized by advances and setbacks, as it has always been whenever we want to move society to a better place against inertia, contrarianism, and entrenched interests. And yet, we also have a number of clear victories, or at the least indubitable advances, to point to and keep in mind, so there is a rational basis for hope.

The first thing to realize is that the push back against denialism, in all its varied incarnations, is likely to be more successful if we shift the focus from persuading individual members of the public to making political and media elites accountable. This is a major result coming out of Brendan’s research. He showed data set after data set demonstrating two fundamental things: first, large sections of the general public do not respond to the presentation of even highly compelling facts, indeed — as mentioned above — are actually more likely to entrench further into their positions.

Second, whenever one can put pressure on either politicians or the media, they do change their tune, becoming more reasonable and presenting things in a truly (as opposed to artificially) balanced way.

Third, and most crucially, there is plenty of evidence from political science studies that the public does quickly rally behind a unified political leadership. This, as much as it is hard to fathom now, has happened a number of times even in somewhat recent times. Perhaps this should hardly be surprising: when leaders really do lead, the people follow. It’s just that of late the extreme partisan bickering in Washington has made the two major parties entirely incapable of working together on the common ground that they have demonstrably had in the past. You may remember the joint television ad by Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich on climate change: that could have been the beginning of a beautifully productive period to finally acknowledge and begin addressing the problem. Instead, it was a last desperate gasp drowned out by the sort of acrimony that — ironically — was started precisely by Gingrich’s divisive attitude during the famous Republican takeover of Congress in the ’90s.

Another thing we can do about denialism: we should learn from the detailed study of successful cases and see what worked and how it can be applied to other instances. At the conference we discussed in detail what is perhaps the best example of this genre: the complete debacle of the tobacco industry, especially after internal memos came out demonstrating that industry operators knew very well of the dangers of smoking while they officially kept denying them. Indeed, the story of the tobacco industry’s response to the initial health reports that put their business at risk (as early as the 1952 Readers’ Digest publication of a report critical of the industry, entitled “Cancer by the carton”) gives us the blueprint for pretty much all denialist reactions. As the recent documentary “Merchants of Doubt” [5] clearly shows, tobacco companies began to peddle skepticism, asserting in publicity campaign after publicity campaign that the science wasn’t settled yet, that there may or may not be a link between smoking and cancer. Sounds familiar? This is precisely the same playbook deployed by the oil industry on climate change, or by the Turkish government in order to cast doubt on the Armenian genocide.

And speaking of genocides, there too there are obvious success stories of governments who have acknowledged the events and acted constructively in order to repair the social fabric. One can point of course to the way Germany has handled the Holocaust after World War II, but more recently and perhaps interestingly one can also learn much from the actions of the Rwandan government. Why the differences between Rwanda and Turkey? What worked? What sort of pressures or cultural situations led to the different outcomes?

Yet another thing we can do: seek allies. In the case of evolution denial — for which I have the most first-hand experience — it has been increasingly obvious to me that it is utterly counterproductive for a strident atheist like Dawkins (or even a relatively good humored one like yours truly) to engage creationists directly. It is far more effective when we have clergy (Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State [6] comes to mind) and religious scientists (e.g., Ken Miller [7]) getting into the fray. That’s not to suggest that Dawkins or I don’t have contributions to make to public discourse, of course we do. But it matters very much who our audience is, and especially how we address it. (Yes, I’m talking about “tone,” among other things. We are educators, so we ought to know that nobody ever responds positively to being told that they are idiots or ignoramuses.)

Finally, a note on housekeeping: discussions of denialism, be they about evolution, climate change or genocide, involve a delicate balance between academic freedom and academic integrity [8], as participant Marc Mamigonian pointed out during the Clark proceedings. On the one hand, the academic (and not) freedom of speech of denialists ought to be protected. I am adamantly against laws, popular in Europe and Canada, that criminalize certain types of denialism, like that of the Holocaust. Such laws are clearly poised on a slippery slope that may very well end in a fascistic control of speech by governments and university administrators (though, ironically, that particular danger seems much closer to be realized in the United States at moment, despite the more liberal take that American law has on freedom of speech).

On the other hand, however, individuals, organizations, academics and academic presses ought to be held accountable for their actions, particularly when what they do or say violates the duty toward integrity that should be the flip side of the right to speech. There was much discussion at the conference, for instance, about a systematic denial of the Armenian genocide fostered by a particular editor at the University of Utah Press. How are we to deal with such instances of willful public mischaracterization of facts? Again, successful precedents lead the way. A few years ago a similar controversy engulfed Princeton University [9], and it was dealt with by an onslaught of public, well argued and well researched, reviews and commentaries that effectively shamed Princeton into action. Outside of academe, of course, we have the infamous case of the CEOs of tobacco companies denying the obvious (under oath) in front of Congress. Besides the possible legal action that can be taken in the latter type of case, the most effective response at the time was the ridicule that was heaped on those gentlemen (I use the word with a significant amount of irony) by late night comedians, a ridicule that made abundantly clear to the general public that those individuals had gone way beyond plausible deniability.

Make no mistake about it: denialism in its various forms is a pernicious social phenomenon, with potentially catastrophic consequences for our society. It requires a rallying call for all serious public intellectuals, academic or not, who have the expertise and the stamina to join the fray to make this an even marginally better world for us all. It’s most definitely worth the fight.

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] Brendan has been a guest on my Rationally Speaking podcast.

[2] See: Science is not a frog, by Steven Paul Leiva, Scientia Salon, 25 August 2014.

[3] Information doesn’t want to be free, by Massimo Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking, 22 February 2013.

[4] Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter, Vintage, 1966.

[5] Merchants of Doubt, directed by Robert Kenner, 2014.

[6] Barry Lynn.

[7] Ken Miller.

[8] See: Stifling discourse, on your Left, by Massimo Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 28 July 2014.

[9] On the Princeton controversy, see: Princeton is accused of fronting for the Turkish government, by W.H. Horan, New York Times, 22 May 1996.

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83 thoughts on “The varieties of denialism

  1. Hi Massimo

    So anecdotal evidence is okay when it supports the NA narrative, but not when it counters it?

    No, which is why, after giving the anecdote, I then asked: “Do we have actual evidence (as opposed to intuitions or anecdotes) about this?”

    Hi Robin (also Mike),

    I don’t think that he [Coyne] could ever be persuasive because …

    And yet Coyne has received letters from people saying that his writings have persuaded them. Dawkins has received thousands (literally) of these. Unless these are all fakes (rather unlikely) the idea that the Dawkins/Coyne style is *always* ineffective or counterproductive is refuted. From there we need to address the empirical matter of the relative effectiveness of Dawkins/Coyne writings versus, say, Ken Miller’s.

    We should also distinguish between face-to-face conversation and public writings; different styles are appropriate in the different situations. Also, we need to distinguish between persuading the person you are talking to or about, versus persuading a wider audience who may be much less committed. For example, people seem to accept that publicly ridiculing tobacco execs can be effective in altering public views.

    Further, we need to distinguish between the immediate short-term reaction and the long-term effect, given that for someone to change their world view is usually a complex matter lasting years. Lastly, regarding Mike’s point about Christian tactics, perhaps we should also distinguish between persuading someone into an emotion-based position (Christianity) versus persuading them into an evidence-based position (evolution).

    For all these reasons the idea that Dawkins/Coyne-style “stridency” is ineffective or counterproductive seems to me way too simplistic. And, I’m sticking to my point that no-one has cited anything resembling good evidence of that claim. Has Ken Miller received vastly more “I’m now persuaded” letters than Dawkins? Genuine question by the way!

    There have been many chortles at Richard Dawkins claim […] Yet Mr Dawkins has, against all odds, found himself in a room full of ones who support [the Ontological Argument]? Sure you did Richard, sure you did.

    I’m quoting this because in the same post that you complain about the counter productiveness of the “new atheist” style you yourself use sarcastic ridicule. Obviously you are trying to be counter productive, right?

    There are “philosophers and theologians” who defend the Ontological Argument (Alvin Plantinga and Edward Feser for example), and such arguments are used to reassure the faithful that there is intellectual rigour behind theology. What are atheists supposed to do? If they don’t address this stuff they’re accused of running away from “serious and sophisticated” theology. Afterall, for all the ridicule of “new atheists”, philosophers are the ones who think that theology is still an academic subject, aren’t they?

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  2. Coel,
    Is this “obviousness” an intuition or is it backed by actual evidence? It is common for people to assert that Dawkins-style stridency is counterproductive, but much less common for people to present evidence to that effect.

    Instead of intuition I can offer you experience and evidence.

    1. The Obviousness.
    We Catholics run hospitals, schools, universities, aid centers, medical clinics, schools for the disabled, hospices, soup kitchens, etc. We are not alone in this. Many other religious groups do similar things and near where I live is a major Islamic operation running soup kitchens(http://bit.ly/102FS4t). We help the unfortunate and the suffering. We do this in almost every city. My little parish runs two major initiatives (http://bit.ly/1tjUbNL). And yet never have we seen an ‘atheist‘ organisation do anything remotely similar. Where are they? They must be doing something, surely?

    These same atheists subject us to an avalanche of derisory, mean spirited attacks. So how do you think we react? We know we are doing a great deal of good but we see nothing of the same kind from you. We also read The God Delusion and we see a vapid product from a mediocre intellectual. I will tell you how we react. We redouble our efforts to do good because doing good is supremely worthwhile. The last thing we want is to be associated with the kind of do-nothing atheism that is shoved in our faces by atheist fundamentalists.

    2. The Evidence.
    Net Rating(-100 to +100) of Religious Systems, PEW survey – 2014, see http://bit.ly/1tQZUfh
    +34 Jews
    +20 Catholics
    +8 Buddhists
    +3 Evangelicals
    +1 HIndus
    -8 Mormons
    -22 Atheists
    -26 Muslims
    This is what the stridency of atheist fundamentalism does. It poisons the image of atheism to such an extent that they have an image(-22) similar to that of Muslims(-26), whose image was similarly poisoned by Islamic fundamentalism. Additionally, the image(+3) of Christian Evangelicals is also poisoned by the activity of Christian fundamentalists. Fundamentalism has that effect and atheism is not exempt.

    But I am sure you will deny the evidence. Atheist fundamentalists are just as prone to denialism as other fundamentalists are. A lovely example of this denialism is the so-called mythicists who deny that Jesus Christ was a real person. They do this in the face of a large body of scholarly consensus. See Bart Ehrman, a leading Biblical scholar and convinced atheist(http://amzn.to/1weyM9x).

    3. The Consequences.
    Civil discourse is a valuable but fragile thing. When we unleash strident, radical attacks on a large segment of society there are inevitable consequences.
    1. It overwhelms rational discourse
    2. It polarises the discussion
    3. It polarises society.
    4. It legitimises polemic which replaces reasoned argument.
    5. It raises the emotional temperature, making it difficult for people to see beyond their emotions.
    6. It attracts the angry, the resentful and the malcontents who take over the movement.
    7. It unleashes the mob element who come to dominate the discourse.
    8. It poisons the image of atheism, as shown by the PEW survey.

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  3. Mike,

    “Did anyone at the conference share what he or she might do with the research should this thing take off?”

    Yes, that was encapsulated in my final points on what to do in the essay, and mostly the result of Nyhan’s talk. Apparently the most effective thing to do is to put pressure directly on politicians and media, via accountability efforts. Followed by looking for allies, deploying tactics aimed at diffusing the perception of threats to one’s personal identity, doing more comparative studies of cases of successful counter of denialism, and so forth. One thing that doesn’t seem to work, and which therefore we ought to avoid, is to be confrontational.

    schlafly,

    “Jerry Coyne does not agree with the Pope that humans are special, that the Big Bang was a creation, and that God had a role.”

    Yeah, I have began to care increasingly less about what Coyne, Dawkins, Harris and the whole bunch say. Not that I don’t understand that it may do damage, of course.

    “This is a witness being allowed to use a favorable definition. The congressman should have given them a more reasonable definition of addiction.”

    I think the definition was fine, it was the tobacco executive who was behaving like an asshole. (I’m using the term in its technical sense: http://rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs119-aaron-james-on-assholes-and-bitches.html)

    Robin,

    “what are some practical measures which are suggested by the conclusions reached at this conference? I mean, can you give some examples of what people might do, or do differently in light of the conclusions reached at the conference?”

    See above. Brendan Nyhan’s talk was very good about this, I hope it will be published soon.

    Alexander,

    “what you (and others) here argue is that having such a law makes it more likely to fall into fascism. And I just don’t see any evidence for that beyond the slippery slope fallacy”

    Sorry, I misunderstood you. I think whether a country does or does not slide toward fascism is a complex outcome of its political class, population, culture, history, and so forth. Specific laws are only a reflection of the process. What I’m concerned with is that laws limiting freedom of speech can very easily be expanded or misused, especially when they are couched in generic terms, like “hate speech.” In general, I’m (perhaps optimistically) with J.S. Mill here: far better to err on the side to air nasty voices than to live in a place where good ones are silenced.

    ejwinner,

    “Here is a remark Wells once made concerning his supposed lack of motivation: “Father’s [Rev. Moon’s] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism (…).” This occurred prior to his study of biology. In other words, Wells studied biology specifically to undermine its foundations in evolutionary theory – as his “Father” directed him to do, per (presumably) the will of god.”

    That’s precisely the passage I quoted during one of my debates with Wells, and the one that had the most impact on the audience. Which is what I was referring to in my SciSal essay.

    “If a single sentence in Massimo’s article can trigger a blast like Klinghoffer’s, this indicates how little communication reasonable people can have with them.”

    Indeed, it’s treacherous territory. Though I mentioned above that a distinction can and should be made by the often very conscious purveyors of denialism and the large numbers of people who simply buy into it out of a variety of psychological motivations. Wells and Klinghoffer don’t get any free pass here.

    steven,

    “Fortunately there is no need for great experticse to discover that the popular image of the Rwandan genocide is insufficient”

    You are surely right, but several contributors to the conference pointed to Rwanda has a significantly better example of how to handle the legacy of the genocide — for instance via the truth and reconciliation approach. Surely it was and is imperfect, but it seems much better than outright sustained denial.

    “If denialism is to be defined as the resistance to the official experts, when the official experts are the equivalent of tobacco company research scientists, then denialism is praiseworthy, is it not?”

    First off, no, denialism isn’t only by official experts. Jenny McCarthy is a denialist, but she ain’t no expert. Second, I don’t follow: why would an analogy with tobacco-funded “science” make denialism praiseworthy?

    “Another way of thinking of it is, whose experts are we supposed to listen to?”

    Good question. It may not surprise you that there is a large sociological and philosophical literature on expertise and trust.

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  4. Labnut, what was the rating of atheists before Dawkins wrote the God Delusion? I would bet it was as low – probably lower than Muslims.

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  5. Michael, good question. Then again, the current ratings puts us at about the same level as rapists. Don’t think that constitutes much of an improvement.

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  6. OK, looks like I’m using up one of my comments for labnut,

    We Catholics run hospitals, schools, […] And yet never have we seen an ‘atheist‘ organisation do anything remotely similar.

    Sigh. Atheism is a statement about what we are not. Why, when doing charitable or social-good work, would we organise around what we are not? Have you ever seen a “we’re not Canadians” charity? If not, why would you expect a “we’re not theists” charity? Atheists do contribute hugely to charity, but as human beings, not under a flag about what they are not.

    There is no good evidence that the religious are overall more charitable or more socially minded than atheists (and anyone attempting such evidence should note that giving towards expensive churches and high-salaried pastors is not “charity”).

    The only reason for atheists to organise is to campaign for secularism and equal rights for the non-religious, and that atheists do. But, when doing charity they join in with the rest of humanity. Why would they not?

    It poisons the image of atheism […] But I am sure you will deny the evidence.

    Right. And Christians never, ever had a bad opinion of atheists before the New Atheists came along. Blasphemy and apostasy and heresy were never, ever illegal in any nation of Christendom. Not once since Constantine’s adoption of Christianity in AD300-ish had any Catholic ever thought or uttered any negative sentiment about atheism. Until Dawkins and Harris.

    Answer me this: Why is the general attitude to atheists far more favourable in the UK than in the US? Hint: It isn’t because no-one in the UK has heard of Dawkins. It’s because the US is vastly more religious. The dislike of atheists is the product of religiosity, not of atheists sticking up for themselves.

    A lovely example of this denialism is the so-called mythicists who deny that Jesus Christ was a real person. They do this in the face of a large body of scholarly consensus.

    Sure, a “scholarly consensus” in a field dominated by Christian apologists. And yes, I’m aware of Bart Ehrman; I find the arguments of the mythicists more convincing than those of Ehrman.

    When we unleash strident, radical attacks on a large segment of society …

    Of the sort that you and your fellow believers routinely unleash on atheists and always have done — and of which your comment here is a typical example.

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  7. The remark that “several contributors to the conference pointed to Rwanda has a significantly better example of how to handle the legacy of the genocide — for instance via the truth and reconciliation approach. Surely it was and is imperfect, but it seems much better than outright sustained denial…” is couched in a reasonable tone of voice. Unfortunately, I must disagree that it is reasonable. The easy assumption that the mass slaughter of Hutu civilian refugees is justified as collective punishment for the deeds of interhamwe militias is the real denialism I think. Even on the narrowest interpretation of events, the assassinations of the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi played an essential role in triggering the violence. That is, Kagame, the likely assassin, is thereby implicated in deliberately creating a breakdown in civil order.
    Frankly, it is very disturbing that a conference where the realities of the Great Lakes history are so thoroughly falsified should advocated pressuring media to enforce the official views. This is particularly true, given that, as they seemed pleased to emphasize, the official view is usually the prevailing view.

    Labnut: Every unbeliever who donated to the March of Dimes or St. Judes’s or a local Ronald McDonald house has helped run charities. And that includes the unbelievers in the pews, and in the pulpits, too. It is absurd to insist that they do so as an official group, even if a sectarian view of people requires slotting them into different categories. That is also impractical, given religion’s privileges in taxation. Dismissing the efforts of unbelievers who volunteer for local community action or Habitat may be very satisfying but Icannot see that it is just. The assumption that running a parochial school is a good is unsupported, by the way.

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  8. Massimo, given that US citizens are overwhelmingly theists, would one expect a different outcome? I agree that atheists have an image problem, but this is nothing new and certainly not the fault of a couple of current authors (gives them too much credit – which just encourages them). I would challenge anyone to read Voltaire’s The Huron and exclaim that atheists of the past were kinder and gentler toward religion.

    In this historical data>:
    In 1958, only 18% of the US population would vote for an atheist running for public office and, in 2007, it was up to 45% and in 2012 54%. For 18-20 year olds in 2012, it was 70%! That’s progress, but still an issue.

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  9. Michael, I don’t think I suggested that this is Dawkins & co.’s fault. I’m simply saying that, contra their loud proclamations, I doubt they are helping.

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  10. Coel, I don’t want to be an ass, but you really are way out of your depth when it comes to the study of the historical Jesus.

    The simplest explanation by far for the origin of the sayings collated by various sources in the late 1st century CE is that there was some rabbi named Yeshua walking around 1st century Palestine who came up with a core of sayings that others would later develop.

    Those who are outside the academic consensus when it comes to some sort of historical Jesus are outside of it because they can’t explain the evidence (i.e the sayings preserved by the manuscripts) at all — at best, they’re left with plausible speculation in the face of independent, multiple attestation of the sayings across various authorial ideologies. I don’t expect someone like you to know this stuff as you have dedicated your studies elsewhere, but quite frankly your education should have provided you the perspective such that you recognise that academic consensuses generally shouldn’t be summarily dismissed by people who lack fundamental training in the disciplines in question (even if they read a few books!).

    The little bit at the end about the field being dominated by Christian apologists provoked an audible laugh and made my day, by the way. I generally really appreciate your posts and have learned a lot from you (and undoubtedly will continue to learn from you!), but don’t let labnut send you into a tizzy. It’s very unbecoming.

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  11. There is a particularly commonplace form of denialism, it’s one that criminologist know well, public health officials too (when it relates to placating health-related misconceptions). Criminologists talk can tell you about meeting skepticism or soft-denialism from folks that hear the facts that crime is going down, particularly the violent type of crimes.

    Some of the few negative reviews that the book “THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: Why Violence Has Declined” by Steven Pinker, had that underlying feeling to them.

    A particular hard topic to discuss is sexual assault and rape surveys. From my experience, I also had this strong guttural reaction to judge in bad faith, if an interlocutor that would point these numbers in the fact. I would instinctively presume or blame them of minimizing, trivializing or rationalizing heinous crimes. I would suspect that the person was sympathetic to offenders, or a likely an offender himself. The ugliest exchanges I’ve witnessed have resulted in awful accusations against the person correcting the numbers, without knowing that the person is in fact a survivor of such a crime, but cares too much about the truth to let bad data go unchallenged.

    A particular scholar that I’ve learned to respect and trust as an honest critic of some of these statistics is Christina Hoff Sommers. She’s a person that open-minded progressives tend to dismiss a priori, because of her affiliation with the AEI think-tank. Her converts in Skeptical Communities have admitted to me, they’ve changed their minds after scrutinizing her work. Contrasting a claim she makes to the original data that she cites to criticize or support her claims with may show a difference of opinion, some bias, but no fabrication or falsehood. While I have my disagreements with some of Sommers conclusions, I’ve become her champion (White Knight?) when my progressive friends dismiss her out of ignorance.

    One of the many unwarranted attacks of Sommers’s character arose from her confrontation of an often touted truisms and statistics that is “common knowledge” among the well-educated and cited as often as “we only use 10% of our brain”, also falsehood. But, going to the primary source to find the origin of a misconception is outside the expertise of non-scholars. In the following links I’ll leave well-known exchange (among the intelligentsia) between Christina Sommers and Nancy K.D. Lemon, that shows, I honestly believe, the reluctance of correcting mistakes, even when factual evidence is presented:

    1) http://chronicle.com/article/Persistent-Myths-in-Feminis/46965/
    2) http://chronicle.com/article/Domestic-Violence-a/47940/

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  12. Actually, Coel, stridency has often backfired. The “SJW”-related brouhaha over “Gamergate” illustrates that.

    Your other claims on this?

    MLK was seen as non-strident, certainly compared to Stokely Carmichael, etc.

    Non-strident people got women’s suffrage passed along with a change in time. In the US, the Seneca Falls conference happened way back in 1848.

    And, stridency usually doesn’t work in politics. It may work in elections, in some cases, but it usually fails in the arts of governance and statesmanship.

    And, no, neither Mike nor I offered intuition.

    We did, arguably offer evidence that was partially anecdotal. Criticize on that, if you want. But, we didn’t offer intuition. And, Massimo further answered this, both on the evidence issue and the Dawkins issue.

    That said I, at least did offer a … hint, too. Your mileage may still vary, but it probably still won’t.

    Massimo, several good points.

    First, I knew this was going to be good stuff as soon as I read about Nyhan’s involvement. Your link to his piece, distinguishing cocoons from filters, only underscores that.

    My “how much commonality” was in part semi-rhetorical, and per your reply, yes, that goes to the interdisciplinary. Social psychology itself is of course somewhat interdisciplinary.

    On political differences … maybe geographic differences are important on genocide. Rwanda being in “darkest Africa” means less Western attention, of course.

    Otherwise, labels may never be perfect, but, if there’s a constellation of behavior, especially if has a constellation of attitudes and thought “filters” with it, it deserves a label of some sort.

    Massimo and Charles Denialism can become connected with tribalism, which is to some degree intrinsic. But denialism itself is not. And, re tribalism, and psychology, and philosophy, it’s time to mention Hume’s is ≠ ought, is it not?

    John Per Massimo, that’s exactly why climate denialists adopted Big Tobacco’s strategy and some of their spokespeople, even. On that, read Naomi Oreskes, “Merchants of Doubt.”

    EJ Thanks for those links. Perhaps, per your observations about what Klinghoffer might do, we could say that a faux/created outrage is another of the commonalities of denialism?

    Misappropriation of words, such as Klinghoffer’s use of “skeptic” (like climate change “skeptics”) surely is another commonality. “Charge reversal” is a nice description.

    To me, the baseline in interactions with these points is to call a spade a spade, contra some comments here. A spade can be called a spade firmly, but yet without sneering. And, to bring Wittgenstein in here, if spades won’t agree on the use of language, that needs to be pointed out, too. If spades, in debate-type situations, try to change the terms, that needs to be strongly pointed out. If spades with a history of such actions refuse to make advance agreements before debate-type situations, then those need to be cancelled. And, if the

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  13. Hi Coel,

    The only reason for atheists to organise is to campaign for secularism and equal rights for the non-religious, and that atheists do. But, when doing charity they join in with the rest of humanity. Why would they not?

    Hey, there is no shame in admitting that atheists are involved in gaining converts. Dawkins says so explicitly at the start of “The God Delusion”. Nothing wrong with that.

    But don’t try to own secularism. Atheists neither invented nor own secularism. When atheists campaign for secularism they join with non-atheists to do so. Atheists are not the only ones who support equal rights for the non religious. In fact not all non-religious people are atheists.

    And not all atheists support secularism. For example those who would impose an effective religious test on senior scientific positions – as Sam Harris and others do – are taking up a position in opposition to secularism.

    Those who advocate, explicitly or implicitly, for religious beliefs to be classified as mental illness, are taking up a position in opposition to secularism.

    And naturally they are entitled to do so. But it is not secularism.

    But that is the problem generally when people talk of “denialism”, they are often not speaking of all the agendas involved.

    When people talk of countering “evolution denial” do they really mean evolution denial or do they, as Jerry Coyne obviously means, “atheism denial”?

    Again, nothing wrong with that. But it should be made explicit, not as a trojan.

    Jerry Coyne’s article seems to imply that he thinks that Francis Collins and Ken Miller are as much evolution denialists as anyone in the Discovery Institute or Ken Ham for that matter.

    If so, then let everyone show their cards. Nothing can be achieved when you don’t make it clear what it is you are trying to achieve. Religious people who don’t accept evolution will suspect then that everyone who is trying to push evolution are trying to push atheism, as Jerry Coyne’s article suggests.

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  14. This one is not so easy.

    I don’t see a problem with using a term like “denialism” to 1) describe a situation that we all might find ourselves in at some point on some subject, 2) applying it to people who are clearly stuck in that situation at the moment, and then 3) discussing ways to rescue them (or ourselves) from that situation.

    But there have been many interesting criticisms. I think an important concern is that such an objective, descriptive label can end up being used to stifle debate by dismissing and deriding someone that is simply not agreeing with the majority. Just pre-emptively call one’s opponents denialists and there you are.

    While that is a valid concern, I don’t think it requires throwing this “field of research” away.

    At the very least I’d like ways of recognizing if I have fallen into such a trap, and how to get out of it and avoid such pitfalls in the future. That is regardless what I can do for others in that situation.

    Also I think this conference Massimo discussed was helpful in showing what methods are not useful in convincing others that something is “true”, regardless of what name we decide to use for those we are trying to convince (when they are antagonistically non-receptive to what we have to say).

    Put simply. the name “denialism” and its use did not seem to me to be the main point of this whole thing. The best methodology of convincing others aggressively predisposed not to accept one’s information was. The term itself was simply convenient to capture the essence of a subject worth studying (and to my mind accurate).

    Like I said though, not so easy. It seems to have already created divisions.

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  15. Even the most esoteric theories are entangled with the emotional system. (Research mathematicians get so emotional they terms inside equations “guys”!)

    Viewing minds as sets of logico-emotional theories, organized as economically as possible, has huge consequences.

    Emotions are deeper than logical implications. Fear will connect to the amygdala, happiness to endorphin centers. Thus, when a mind is established, to change it means to change not just something abstract, but how neuronal circuitry connects to fear, happiness, expectation, hope, etc.

    To change one’s mind, the emotional centers have to change.

    Thus hugely wrong theories are exterminated through the towering emotions which military might (= sheer physical violence) are best to bring on. Aztecs or Nazis were not defeated in intellectual jousting, but by killing enough of them, to enlightened the rest about the errors of their ways.

    Christianity did not get civilized by deep meditation. Instead horrendous wars wrecked Europe for more than 5 centuries. Thus the reputation of Christian fanaticism went down, got militarily defeated, in the end, the church found itself all tied up by the states.

    After the Federal Republic was established in Germany, Nazi bigwigs such as Marshall Von Manstein kept being influential. They rode long term emotions which had enabled Nazism, such as unfathomable respect for the abject mass submission to the Authority Principle.
    Inside the Bundeswehr, those who had plotted against Hitler were still felt to be traitors. Surviving anti-Nazi soldiers, including brothers who were to shoot Hitler in the face (until commanding Marshall ordered them not to at the last moment!) were excluded from the reconstruction of the German army.

    Although hateful emotions had led Germany close to-annihilation, 13% of the population killed, and the deepest infamy, most Germans still felt that those who had disobeyed their leaders were traitors.

    Anti-Nazi heroes in the German army got honored only very recently… After the emotional complexes which had enabled Nazism waned.

    How does one fight emotions, even abominable ones? With the strongest means.

    The ultimate strength is to outlaw any imprinting with false ideas, especially those which leads to lethal fanaticism. Thus the anti-holocaust denial laws in Europe: basically they make imprinting with false and deadly mindsets impossible.

    Why is this important?

    The architecture of the mind is (mostly) built during youth. For example myelination, crucial to learning, is intense during youth, and much weaker later.
    In the end theories are what not just what the mind is made of, but what the brain is made of. Literally. Theories show up as brain architecture. Where exactly myelin is along an axon, cannot be easily changed: one needs an oligodendrocyte to come along and rework the axon as needed for the new idea.

    It is much cheaper to roll out just one anti-idea, for example that science comes from the Authority Principle, but the latter has been demonstrated, in the past, to be false. Thus so it will be tomorrow.

    Changing minds, thus hearts, is nearly impossible. One has to construct them right, from the start.

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  16. Coel, sorry, but even “loose” mythicism (“Jesus” based on a historic personage, like the Talmud legend of him being a Pharisee crucified by Alexander Jannaeus) is probably no more than 10 percent likely. A “hard” mythicism is probably no more than 2 percent likely. And please do NOT reference Carrier; he stacked the deck from the start on his use of Bayesian probabilities, and in fact is my Poster Child No. 1 for how Bayesianism is:
    1. Too trendy;
    2. Open to misuse.

    Beyond that, Carrier is the most sane of mythicists. Want me to mention Atwill’s claims that the Romans invented Jesus for crowd control, or “Acharya” and her claims that Christianity is just a re-do/knock-off of Egyptian astral myths? As part of this, I find little surprise, to tie to threads together, that many mythicists are also Gnu Atheists.

    Scientism should accept empirical findings everywhere, including legitimate constructions of the likely development of historical Jesus. There is the field of psychology of religion, as well as philosophy of religion. And, yes, social sciences are sciences.

    The fact is, is that mythicism in general was in a sort of vogue in late Victorian Britain, applied to Buddha and Zoroaster, too, and with even less research than today.

    On Coyne’s & Dawkins’ letters? Tut-tut … you just committed a basic logical fallacy. Or more than one. Let’s call this:
    A. Confirmation bias (which fits pretty well with denialism in general, per Nyhan’s “filters” observation; in fact, mythicists could be called Jesus denialists, and I may start doing so).
    B. Sharpshooter/bull’s-eye fallacy. Within this second one, we don’t know any of the following:
    1. How many people write Coyne/Dawkins letters telling them to “go get stupid,” as it’s called across the pond, etc.
    2. How many people were motivated to change their thoughts, but didn’t write
    3. How many people wanted to tell them to “go get stupid” but didn’t

    Related to this, the most recent comment by Robin raises the issue of “accommodationism.” Because that’s what’s at issue. Massimo covered this before under working with folks like Americans United on church-state and other issues. That ties to the “evangelism” — that is the only word for it — of many a Gnu Atheist. And Gnus are just as tribal as conservative Xns.

    Also, what if you have “proved” Jesus mythical to your own selves? You’ve still not convinced a single one of 1.5 billion Christians. Nor have you changed their practices, etc.

    Yaryaryar, yes on historical Jesus not being a field dominated by conservative Xns; there are of course liberal Xn and even Jewish scholars of Jesus, too. There are also agnostics and atheists who have at least some scholarly religious background and still accept a historic Jesus.

    As for tizzies, sorry, but I don’t think Coel needs help on that.

    Labnut Sorry, but you’re wrong on one thing Coel didn’t point out. Ehrman, as noted on his Wiki page, is an agnostic, not an atheist, and has repeatedly stressed this. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bart_D._Ehrman

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  17. I am just curious if Massimo Pigliucci, as a design denialist, has honestly reflected on his own denialist tendencies.

    Will he come clean and declare himself a design denialist.???

    Btw, you do have access to design denial theraphy, Massimo. Free of charge. No pills, no couch. Just the facts.

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  18. So, denialism is failure to reason correctly. Again, thank you Massimo for your clarity and wisdom. Several of your readers who made comment are the inspiration for this, not your words. So, I hope this is understood by other readers as well.

    Quite simply, nonsense is not interesting. Yet, nonsense has a voice, has leaders, has followers, and every day has a chance to do something wrong with language ad fail to realize it. I recall the ten steps to sobriety, all but he first I agree with (i.e., having to accept a “higher power” than moral autonomy, to direct moral autonomy). There has always been something very fishy about that, however, it seems that fools find arguments much easier than discover meaningful living, and they demand that I not judge their nonsense, which over a lifetime gets old and plainly less interesting as life goes on.

    What the denialists assert, never the less, is that they are not denialists (as so anti-intellectualists would never be expected to refer to themselves as such), and that isn’t really interesting, but it does identify a tendency among people, as individuals, as individuals collectively, who apparently neither know nor care to know something, accompanying the rejection of any duty or obligation to do something as a consequence, because as individuals or as individuals collectively, to them nonsense is more interesting (and no amount of humiliation will correct it, unfortunately, until you take their toys away and bed time comes too soon). There is no winning in that game, and not really any losing, too. Why hire an idiot to do a good job, after all? Nonsense isn’t really interesting, not any more than survival (which is the foundation of all ethics, with philosophical consequentialism supporting it forever, not…., nor….., and forget about …….so many things that are not what they truly are, with individuals as individuals or as groups proudly claiming otherwise only forfeit better rigor in meaningful living).

    Stoicism is interesting, truly. Courage is interesting. When the courage is denied or punished, then it is something to be concerned about, as we are. The very definition of philosophy as being distinguishable from love of sport and love of spectating sports should be reiterated over and over again and again. Okay, one more time for now. Hours of brainwashing, gushing nonsense advertising is not interesting, but nonsense lovers simply cannot resist affirming the definition of philosophy by its creator (a creator of language, something profoundly more innovative than gossip for the sake of affirming or denying bogus beliefs, i.e., gossip).

    While the charity of people to do good for other people is both admirable and honorable, doing it for the wrong reasons (or worse, mistaking charity for nonsense, or vice versa) cannot be deemed good motivation. Having to accept post-modernism means that it has to be identified (properly so, as a rejection of enlightenment and doing things right the first time, which is both done anytime and anywhere, NOT anyhow, as pragmatists would like to suppose). Accept the things you can change and exert the discipline to do it right, indeed, the first time.

    Nonsense is never done right, folks.

    I wonder if there are any pragmatists among your audience, and if so, could there be a solution to denialism? Pragmatism, or so I have been confiding for a long time, is a rejection of skepticism (or rather pessimism), but admittedly not a solution to it (claiming fallibilism in response to being deemed imperfectionist, as if somehow philosophers were supposed to be stood up against professional sports, the antithesis of its original definition). So, I have had trouble deciding whether to regard it as postmodern denial of enlightenment, misanthropy, or pragmatist denial of clarity, anti-intellectualism. Either way, nonsense fits, even though it is a better alternative than drunken stupor trying to teach drunks how to actually confide in the syllogism, valid inference rules, and informal fallacies. These aren’t things to be treated like sports players saying nothing or doing nothing that seems any more intelligent than putting balls in holes. Sports are fun, don’t get me wrong, but sports are not all that technical as the syllogism, or even falsification. This is not to say that athletes cannot also be intellectual or moral champions, but that very simply nonsense is not interesting.

    People are sensitive to being regarded as nonsensical, as denialists, anti-intellectuals, pragmatists, or post-modernists, even though there are much highly more regarded philosophical disciplines, and this is interesting as noting more than a sign of what little research people do. If there is a word count, that’s not interesting. If there is a page count, that’s not interesting. These quasi social “facts” suffer so little value that it is a wonder why people regard them as somehow important at all. Yet, we have to regard it as important? We have accept that nonsense is not interesting.

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  19. I think that the appealing to (academic) authority doesn’t constitute expertise in all cases, the scientific mainstream is also attached to emotions, dogmas and biases. Once an individual, group of them or the mainstream invokes the principle of authority, the Popperian criterion of falsifiability fades. There are several examples across the history of science that show that some people have suffered professional harm, it was the punishment for keeping heterodox positions. In others words, academicism isn’t always shielded against denialism.

    On the other hand, the principle of authority leads to forget the importance of some theories; for instance, Huygens’ theory of light was forgotten for a century in behalf of Newton’s authority. He emphasized the corpuscular aspect of light, so Huygens’ theory was consigned to the trunk of old souvenirs until it was rescued by Maxwell and QM.

    The alleged existence of FTL neutrinos triggered an angry wave of reactions that ended up with the resignations of some members of OPERA staff. The principle of authority invoked was Einstein and his SR theory. Einstein’s charisma was the pretext to impose the idea that SR is beyond the Popperian criterion of falsifiability, once Einstein is mythicized the principle of authority is safe.

    Here arises an interesting topic that shows how we relate to nature, we tend to think that nature is neutral and remains unaffected regardless the experiments. Later experiments proved the no-existence of FTL neutrinos, but nobody has proved that nature may turn inward upon herself. In other words, nature may reveal solely one time, it would depend on how the scientifics get close to her.

    If FTL neutrinos do exist, we would’ve to wait for one, two or three centuries to discover them. Nature doesn’t care about the human principle of authority, it seems that we aren’t ready to understand that some phenomena occur very rarely. Why do we think that the nature’s manifestations are continuous? According to the quantic perspective this continuity is uncertain.

    It shows that denialism related to science is rooted like a psychological and philosophic image that becomes a “natural” view. Throughout the history of philosophy a few thinkers claimed that nature wants to be unperceived, which means that nature not always reveals as a continuum. Or even more, they seemed to claim that our perception of nature depends on how sharp is our knowledge and intuitions.

    Indeed, the scientific method has been widely accepted and it allows a rational debate but the people that engage in these debates are attached to emotions and dogmas. But the worst, in my opinion, is missing out what nature wants to tell us no matter how unexpected it may be. It’s pretty clear that nature reveals as a response to our theories, experiments and technology, there’s little logic in ignoring nature’s answer. To be denialist on this point seems a bad idea.

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  20. Atheism was treated with suspicious in Persia, Greece, Rome, Egypt, etc. Socrates was accused of atheism and condemned to death, Protagoras had to scape from Athens accused of atheism, and those philosophers who were atheists took care of themselves.

    I guess that the first Christians didn’t care about it because they were busy fighting against the Roman Empire, slavery and economic asymmetries. It is a common mistake to think that the first Christians were solely engaged in religious issues, the fact is that they were engaged in social and political aims.

    It is a bit surprising to read that 2000 years after Jesus still have meaning for believers, agnostic, atheists, philosophers and scientifics. I’d like to give out an idea for those interested in Jesus’ life, it is related to the coming of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) that, according to the Gospel, was a historical event. The witness spoke about a field of energy (dove of flames) while sat down in a hidden room few days after Jesus was crucified.

    That event spread quickly and was felt by many people even in the borders of the Empire. The first Christians called it “the good new” and supported them in difficult times. It would be worth to investigate what that energy was and how it propagated far away. It would be a scientific and psychological inquiry, nothing to do with bigotry and sectarism. The so-called “good new” was, according to the Gospel, a universal event that was beyond the churches.

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  21. What are the causes of denialism? It is a paradox that that denialism and counterknowledge are flourishing at the height of the scientific age that culminates the age of enlightenment. Is it possible the enlightenment and the scientific ages contain within them the seeds of their undoing? Alan Sokal hinted at this possibility, in his third post, when he said:

    it is the critical and skeptical side of science that is the most profound, and the most intellectually subversive … scientific skepticism has played the role of an intellectual acid…

    I suggest that denialism and counter-knowledge are the natural outcomes of the confluence of three forces:

    1. The intellectually subversive effects of the critical and skeptical side of science that plays the role of an intellectual acid (Alan Sokal). This has the effect that authoritative sources of knowledge are questioned. Coel, for example, questions the findings of leading Biblical experts, despite having no knowledge of the subject.

    2. The prevailing culture of narcissism and hedonism. This has the effect that the individual elevates his judgement over the judgement of others. He assembles his beliefs by picking and choosing which sources of knowledge to use. Coel, for example, chooses to believe the findings of a tiny minority of scholars. He has elevated his judgement over the judgement of trained scholars.

    3. Fluid identities. People no longer derive their identities from traditional sources, instead they construct new identities  fluidly and at will, becoming the so-called ‘pastiche man’. Anthony Giddens wrote extensively on this subject as the symptom of late modernity.

    These three forces have combined to create an environment where all ideas are questioned and traditional identities are lost. The critical and skeptical attitudes of science have invaded the body of society. Once these attitudes are unleashed they fall into the hands of people who are not equipped to use them. The narcissism of society empowers them to believe in their own judgement, first and foremost. Some of them become denialists and counter-knowledge adherents. That is because they have a strong need for a sense of identity to replace the ones destroyed by the critical skepticism of society. They assemble this new identity by embracing contrarian beliefs that contrast strongly with prevailing beliefs. It is a distinctly tribal need for identity that motivates them. They cling tightly to this identity as a source of stability in a sea of fluidly changing identities.

    Denialist and counter-knowledge adherents are unlikely to respond to persuasion, argument and facts because they threaten their sense of identity. Using the tactics of ridicule and scorn is unwise because it legitimises these tactics as the norm in social discourse. The answer to denialism is to target the larger, silent and uncommitted majority with reasoned argument. Their sense of identity is not at stake so they are more likely to be responsive.

    It is important to prevent the ranks of denialists from being replenished by new emerging adults. This means that great effort must be expended on countering denialism in the school system.

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  22. To claim that only Christianism (or Islamism?) has empathy is just fanaticism with no foundation in reality.

    Social programs are pre-Christian: they are already found in Republican Athens and Rome.
    “Medecins SanS Frontieres” is an organization founded by the French, who are notorious atheists. Doctors Without Borders has been at the forefront of the war against Ebola.

    Jesus Christ existed in Saint Paul’s mind. He said it himself. And only there, in his mind: he said it himself, and was the first writer on the subject of Jesus. Jesus is an obvious invention: we have several Jesus-like crazies who were duly judged and executed at the time, after trial. But, curiously, we have not Jesus himself among those.

    So there is no historical evidence for Jesus whatsoever. There was gross excitement in recent years when archeological evidence for Jesus, or more exactly his brother, was found, but it has been faked.

    In any case, it’s clear that, even if a little guy called Jesus had really existed, he was such a nothing person, that he left no trace. All the “traces” were made up after Saul/Paul (66 CE). Jesus, the nobody is not mentioned in Josephus’ vast historical work.

    Any passing knowledge of antique religions show that the Romans who invented Christianity did so by stealing myths and ideas right and left. They succeeded to build a rather coherent theory… But for the problem of the Trinity, a form of polytheism (as the Arians and later the Muslims noticed). The Trinity had to be accepted, this was the price to seduce the millions of Neo-Platonists in the Roman elite (the army was already following Mithra, from which the Roman inventors of Evangels, and other Founding Fathers of Christianism borrowed a lot).

    We know for a fact that at least one Roman worthy wrote letters to friends, in the Second Century, explaining that he would write an Evangel as soon as he retired from his job as a high government official (I forgot the name of that Evangel).

    This is the funny part: contrarily to the myth Christians later created, Christianism was invented (Constantine, the self declared “13th Apostle) by the government. And imposed by the government (in particular a whole slew of fanatical Christian emperors: Constantius II, Jovian, Gratian, Theodosius).

    Fast forward to the Nazism and the USA in the Twentieth Century. The SS used as a slogan: ”God With US!”. Inspired, the US Congress passed a law making :”In God We Trust”, the motto of the USA, displacing “E Pluribus Unum”.

    This was part of an effort to make all Americans clutch to the robes of the Grand Daddy in the Washington Sky…. Instead of preparing the mindset for a revolution.

    “In God We Trust”, is the ultimate anti-idea. President Washington had insisted in official international documents that the USA had nothing to do with Christianism. Now we have the clueless telling us like bleating sheep that God invented the USA, and only Christianism is capable of great works.

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  23. Patrice Aymee,

    You claim that “Jesus Christ existed in Saint Paul’s mind”. Why did St. Paul believe in somebody that didn’t exist instead of believing in Isis, Zeus, Hermes, Ammon or any other deity? How and why millions believed in a phantom? It sounds bizarre.

    Why do you claim that the four canonical Gospels and the apocryphal ones don’t have historical value? Once more you twist and squirm History to satisfy your extravagant aims.

    What about the Roman writers that reported and lamented the progressive influence of the Christian movement (communitarian and socialist) that shook the Empire’ foundations? Were they caught in some hallucinations? I’m afraid that you are totally misguided.

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  24. The pathologization of dissent is an approach with an unsavory pedigree. Intelligent people will be repulsed by it. History has shows that Lysenkoism and phrenology had their “deniers” too. The history of science is dirty. There is a herd mentality. Science is always corrupted when partnered too closely with politics. There is an unwillingness to question sacred cows. One need not look far for examples. Look at the history of the mass of the electron, or the orbit of Mars. If you don’t know these stories, you should learn them. I believe that history is being repeated with respect to the sensitivity of the climate to carbon dioxide. The evidence for this is ample to any keen observer of the history and philosophy of science. For example, as measurements of the position of Mars became much more precise, the uncertainty of its orbit did not decrease. That is a hallmark of a mistaken model, which in this case was the circular orbit model. Once the model was replaced by Kepler with the elliptical model, the numbers all fell in line. The failure of new and better data to reduce the uncertainty of a measurement means the model is wrong. For the last 20 years, the amount and precision of climate data has increased by orders of magnitude, but the uncertainty in the climate sensitivity parameter has not moved, almost certainly because it labors under a mistaken model of large net positive feedbacks. Nobody believes a sensitivity parameter below 2°C/CO2 doubling demands dramatic global action, but that is where the number is headed. Several recent studies based on the newest observations place the most likely substantially below 2°C. Only the true believers of a doomsday cult would view this as unwelcome news, or as something to label with a term like “denialism.”

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  25. In thinking about this further, did the subject of deciding what forms of denialism are worthy of caring about ever come up?

    My viewpoint is that it is unrealistic that everyone must agree on everything. That would includes topics that have massive evidence supporting a rather clear conclusion. This sort of comes from my stoic side where eventually at some point one has to realize that someone else’s beliefs are out of one’s own control, and in trying to convince “denialists” of something it can actually detract from achieving real things for oneself (and others).

    A good example is holocaust deniers. I don’t see this as a subject worth dealing with at all. And sorry to Alexander but I don’t see how laws putting humans in jail for denying it would serve any purpose. As long as the evidence is in abundance and deniers aren’t wiping it out this is a real non-issue. It wouldn’t effect anyone’s life one way or the other (besides those people being ignorant about a piece of history).

    Frankly I’m not even that concerned with smoking affects health deniers. But that is another subject.

    Evolution and climate change deniers are something else. This is in part because there is usually a very real social agenda which they can effect across a populace through denial of this information. But then it seems to me (and I guess this is reflected in the essay) that the targets should be less the people being sold “denial” as the authority figures that are selling it to them.

    So back to my question to Massimo, was there an idea that some forms of denialism are more worth going after (or being concerned about) than others, and if so what criteria was used?

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  26. Evening All,

    The comment limits prevent a proper discussion of Jesus mythicism (and this is my 5th comment), however:

    …yes on historical Jesus not being a field dominated by conservative Xns; there are of course liberal Xn …

    That’s the point (note that I did not say it was dominated by *conservative* Xns). The whole ethos of the liberal Christian scholars is “uncovering the real Jesus behind the gospels”. Their whole mindset is incompatible with properly considering whether there was a Jesus at all (they are, afterall, Christians). Yes there are a few non-Christians but they’re a minority. That’s why the “mainstream consensus” in this field is suspect: it is dominated by Christians, for whom the non-existence of Jesus is fairly unthinkable.

    [Mythicists] can’t explain the evidence (i.e the sayings preserved by the manuscripts) at all — at best, they’re left with plausible speculation in the face of independent, multiple attestation of the sayings …

    There are no Jesus sayings known to have “independent multiple attestation”. I challenge anyone to give one Jesus saying for which you can point to two sources known to be independent.

    What you have are hypotheses that, for example, “Luke” did not know of or use “Matthew”, and hypotheses that they used various hypothetical sources (Q,L,M) that are hypothetically independent of “Mark”.

    Then what happens is that the “mainstream” declares a “consensus” over these hypotheses, and then these hypotheses are declared as “facts” backed by scholarly consensus. This sort of thing would not be accepted in any other academic field. The only reason for postulating non-existent documents such as Q, L and M is because the idea of there being no sources is unthinkable to Christians.

    (By the way, if anyone wants to respond to my challenge by pointing to the Gospel of Thomas, be sure to explain how you know it to be independent of the synoptic gospels — and an appeal to an early date based only on “scholarly consensus” won’t suffice. If you’re going to point to Paul and the gospels, be sure to explain how you know that the gospel writers had not read Paul).

    Hi Socratic,

    Actually, Coel, stridency has often backfired.

    Well maybe it has, but my claim is not that stridency never backfires, my claim is that those claiming that the so-called “stridency” of the New Atheists is counter-productive are not supporting that claim with actual evidence.

    Hi Mario,

    [Re FTL neutrinos] The principle of authority invoked was Einstein and his SR theory. Einstein’s charisma was the pretext to impose the idea that SR is beyond the Popperian criterion of falsifiability, …

    This is not so. The point was simply that Special Relativity is backed by vast piles of evidence. If one new result comes along that is inconsistent with it, it is thus likely that the flaw is in the new result, not SR. That was the case. This episode is an example of science working well.

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  27. Hi Coel, you say:

    “This is not so. The point was simply that Special Relativity is backed by vast piles of evidence. If one new result comes along that is inconsistent with it, it is thus likely that the flaw is in the new result, not SR. That was the case. This episode is an example of science working well”.

    Well, I agree that Special Relativity is backed by vast piles of evidence, this is pretty clear. But you presume that any new result is a flaw, why it is so? Any new result is just a result regardless SR, say, SR is not an a priori that force the new result to fits in SR, this would be a non-scientific statement and violates the Popperian criterion of falsifiability. That is what happened with OPERA discovering, that, by the way, was rejected by appealing to the principle of authority and contra the empirical measurement. This stuff is bit stunning.

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  28. Well, I still have one comment left.

    No, Coel, you didn’t specifically say stridency never backfires. Nor did I say that it has ALWAYS backfired. That said, you have been:
    A. Presented with evidence of how it does backfire
    B. Been noted as having committed multiple logical fallacies, and elementary logical fallacies, in defense of stridency, which you did NOT address.

    Second, on to Jesus mythicism, in its original form, then Jesus denialism of today.

    Original Jesus mythicism originated in late Victorian Britain, along with Buddha mythicism and Zoroaster mythicism. It was not, in general, part of an atheist evangelizing tactic. IMO, it was an attempt to spiritualize all three religions, a la Huxley’s “perennial philosophy.” Note that Frazier’s “Golden Bough” comes from this same era and milieu.

    As for today’s Jesus denialism?

    First, the “arguments from silence” that Coel presents in various forms, and which have been such a big “crutch” for Carrier (I also note that Coel didn’t address the whackadoodles within Jesus denialism, and I’m not surprised.)

    As part of these types of arguments from silence?
    1. Not only is there also no proof for Buddha or Zoroaster as well as Jesus. There’s no proof for the existence of many historic figures, like a number of Pharoahs, etc.
    2. Ditto on statements allegedly made by other figures in history.

    Every general-level argument denialists use against claims of the historicity of Jesus can be used against many figures and events in ancient history in general.

    If we follow you fully on one other point, your claims of confirmation bias, then:
    1. No Christians can do historical Jesus research, right?
    2. Bart Ehrman, along with other agnostics or atheists, and Jewish scholars, must be closet Christians?

    As for historical-critical methodology, I don’t know what Carrier, or other denialists, say about that. I do know that within the academic world, the two-source hypothesis, albeit with bumps and bruises, is still the most commonly accepted version of Synoptic gospel tradition. Occam’s razor.

    Otherwise? A straw man here or there. First, many scholars who accept a historic Jesus do believe that the gospelers had read at least some of the Pauline corpus.

    Tosh on your “not accepted in any other academic field,” second. Many of the principles of historic criticism, and related literary criticism, are used elsewhere. Getting back to ancient history, for example, they’re used in determining the history of development of the Homeric corpus.

    On Carrier, I also noted before that he has stacked the deck on his use of Bayesian probabilities. Claiming that the Jesus of history didn’t exist, to a probability of 0.000008 percent or whatever is ridiculous on two counts. First, it’s a false exactitude that smacks of importing scientism into studies of the historicity of Jesus.

    I’ve said enough; I doubt you’ll actually read.

    But, not all of this is directed at Coel. It’s about Jesus denialism in general, including Patrice apparently actually embracing the fringe within the fringe, the idea that the Romans created Christianity.

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  29. But you presume that any new result is a flaw, why it is so? Any new result is just a result regardless SR, say, SR is not an a priori that force the new result to fits in SR, this would be a non-scientific statement and violates the Popperian criterion of falsifiability. That is what happened with OPERA discovering, that, by the way, was rejected by appealing to the principle of authority and contra the empirical measurement. This stuff is bit stunning.

    This boggles my mind. It has nothing to do with authority. SR is part of a model of reality that is very successful. The OPERA results, first of all, were not rejected out-of-hand. They were followed-up and scrutinized. But the reason why people were skeptical of the results is that stuff moving faster than the speed of light disrupts a huge web of interdependent theoretical facts.

    Nobody was saying, “But Einstein was *so charismatic*!”. What people were saying was, “stuff moving FTL has a seriously disruptive effect on our current model of reality”. When something disrupts a model that is working very, very well, one should be very skeptical.

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  30. “What people were saying was, stuff moving FTL has a seriously disruptive effect on our current model of reality”.

    Indeed, but what is moving faster than light is not the experiment but nature itself. The experiment just describes the process paying no attention to the human principle of authority.

    “When something disrupts a model that is working very, very well, one should be very skeptical”.

    Yes, you are right, but we observed a hiper-emotional and hiper-dogmatic reaction against OPERA discovering.

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  31. Massimo,

    Interesting topic, but I admit to feeling a little uneasy with the term denialist.

    For example, I am not opposed to GMOs in general and I acknowledge that amazing and useful products have come out of the field and I expect more useful and interesting stuff in the future. But I question some of the research methodologies, like the idea that 90 day studies are enough for testing GM-Foods, and I think more attention needs to be payed to the effects of GMFs, their related weed problems and the rising pesticide use especially in large scale farming. I also question the value or motivation for draping GMFs with world hunger saving powers, and I think labeling has some merits and is not infeasible.

    But good studies on these issues seem to be mostly ignored, and when I’ve voiced concerns I’m often met with accusations of anti-science stupidity or good science denial, all in a very polarized ‘you are either for or against GMOs’ frame.

    (of course a lot of ‘Anti-GMO’ supporters’ claims are unfounded and that doesn’t help get across what I consider are real concerns, and neither do bad GMF studies help like the European one that used the kind of rats intended for short term studies for a long term study)

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  32. Patrice Ayme, Again, I must nitpick history. It is a reasonable argument that the organization Constantine created was not truly continuous with the religion that preceded it. Insofar as that is the case, then a Roman emperor did preside over the creation of the Church. But even though all the people who wrote the early texts were Roman citizens or subjects, they were not officials, nor were they Latin speakers. If you were obliquely referring to Atwill, my opinion is that he’s a crank. G.A. Wells, Earl Doherty, Robert M. Price, Hyam Maccoby, maybe that guy with a bee in his bonnet about whether there was a Nazareth in that period, and I think Allegard, may be wrong, but they aren’t just nuts. Morton Smith and Burton Mack in my judgment are actually mythicists in the sense that counts.

    Also, it can be reasonably argued that Josephus’ remarks on Jesus are only partially interpolated. While it is true that a feasible reconstruction of the hypothetical text is compatible with the Gospels (indicating they are fabrications,) nonetheless the text does mention “Jesus.”

    The historic Jesus position has the terrible problem that somehow history can’t tell us anything about the man, a fact notorious amongst even the laity since at least Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus. And if you do take the historicity seriously, frankly you get the work of S.G.F. Brandon, Joel Carmichael, Hugh Schonfield, Robert Eisler, Robert Eisenmann, John Allegro. You could make a case that Brandon and Carmichael are just wrong, but the rest are as open to the charge of crackpottery as poor old Acharya.

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  33. “it can be reasonably argued that Josephus’ remarks on Jesus are only partially interpolated.” Maybe. But since they are obviously interpolated at least in part, they are unreliable and should not be used as evidence. I am not a mythicist, but continue to be surprised that anyone pays any regard to this passage of Josephus, which to someone of his beliefs would have been blasphemy.

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