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.

Advertisements

83 thoughts on “The varieties of denialism

  1. You speak of “accepting Darwin’s theory”; but you of all people are well placed to know that we are talking not so much about a theory as about well-established facts, and that today’s biology, which speaks of mutations, population genetics, horizontal gene transfer and neutral drift, with discussion of punctuated equilibrium and epigenetics, is decidedly post-Darwinian.

    But I like the labelling of creationists as evolution denialists, a much clearer term. I hope it catches on. “Creationist” sounds much too positive, and gives room for them to slide from debating cosmogeny to denying biology.

    Like

  2. Hi Massimo,

    it has been increasingly obvious to me that it is utterly counterproductive for a strident atheist like Dawkins […] we ought to know that nobody ever responds positively to being told that they are idiots or ignoramuses.

    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.

    As your article makes clear, denialism is not about reason and evidence, it’s an ideological and emotional committment. Thus, for a denialist to change their mind the issue is one of emotion rather than of reason and evidence.

    Might an emotional jolt be part of that? There are plenty of anecdotes along the lines of Christians reading The God Delusion, getting very angry at it and setting out to refute it, and then, for perhaps the first time, actually thinking about their religious beliefs — setting in train a process that, after a few years, leads them to become atheists.

    Yes, the short-term reaction to being told that they are idiots or ignoramuses is always negative, but how about in the long term? Do we have actual evidence (as opposed to intuitions or anecdotes) about this?

    We also need to consider the effect on less-committed third parties. No-one likes to think of themselves as an idiot by association, so if denialists can be successfully painted as idiots and ignoramuses by public ridicule, then that can be effective.

    I fully support Ken Miller and other Christians who advocate for evolution, but it’s not clear to me that their approach is more likely to succeed. People will react in a variety of different ways, and perhaps it’s best if we have both the Ken Millers and the Richard Dawkinses.

    Like

  3. Massimo wrote,

    “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.”

    To me this is the most important point in this essay! During my high school and college years I was a Christian. What bugged me to no end was how my teachers couldn’t see that they were requiring that I trust them (and scientists I’ve never met) that the claims asserted in the science textbooks were true. As a Christian I would *hear* statements like “trust me science has proven these things” as meaning “just have faith, trust the science”. And so what I was being asked to do is trade one authority (god and the church) for another (teachers and the scientific community). Now which one am I likely to choose? The one I’ve known my whole life or the stranger that challenges my every core belief? This is the heart of the problem, in my opinion.

    Knowing how the information was discovered is very important to building one’s confidence in the scientific community and the knowledge it creates. It was only when I learned how things are done did I change my mind. I’m not a school teacher, but if we could get enough people to buy off on a different approach to teaching science, I would become one.

    Like

  4. Coel,

    I think when people think they’re being judged for their core beliefs, they are going to feel they are being attacked. I don’t think this is the kind of phenomena that bares out a counter-intiuitive answer when the empirical data is gotten.

    Some people will be angered, and thereby motivated, to investigate Dawkins’s claim if only for the purpose of refuting them. Having been a devoted Christian with a bent for questioning and discussing my beliefs, I can tell you most Christians aren’t interested in the sort of investigation you referred to when you said:

    “Might an emotional jolt be part of that? There are plenty of anecdotes along the lines of Christians reading The God Delusion, getting very angry at it and setting out to refute it, and then, for perhaps the first time, actually thinking about their religious beliefs — setting in train a process that, after a few years, leads them to become atheists.”

    Massimo, in paragraph five, talked about the backfire effect (i.e. “…doubling down on his beliefs.”) that can happen when challenging a person’s beliefs on a matter. For this to be seen as a pattern worth studying and talking about in a conference means it occurs quite often. I saw it quite a lot, and did it myself, when I was a Christian.

    Lastly, I don’t care for the shock-jock kind of approach. While entertaining, I do think it is disrespectful and not in keeping with my own values.

    Like

  5. Excellent discussion, Massimo: love the idea of a multidisciplinary approach to a vital problem. I worry about us good guys assuming that it’s largely a problem for those people: surely the denial that today costs the most in human life and health is the rejection, based on no good data, of improved yields through genetically modified crops. The GMO denialists from GreenPeace and elsewhere embrace bad science and fear. We also need to think about which denials matter: like many scientists, I knock on wood, like a good druid, to avoid bad outcomes. Even if I think about it, I still do it. Does that matter?

    JG

    Like

  6. Massimo, various points.

    First: The “mainstream media” has slowly, sometimes unsurely, but generally moving forward, gotten better in the last decade about ditching, or at least modifying, the “false balance” stance. That said, as a small-scale member of said media, I can indeed vouch for the idea that what many people consider “the media” is often, at best, something we should call “alt-media” or maybe even “pseudomedia” and is almost entirely to entirely Web-based.

    Related to that, and your opinion/news separation? Even mainstream media are dipping their toes deeper in the water of advertorial or “sponsored content.” Sure, the N.Y. Times may not run advertorial from climate deniers, but somebody else will.

    Second: “Science appreciation” classes? Hmm … I like the idea; would like it even more if it were mixed with instruction in basic elements of critical thinking. I actually got a small slice of that in an eighth-grade English class.

    But, in today’s world in US public schools? Fat chance of that happening, at least in red or even semi-red states.

    Third: You mentioned Big Tobacco. Climate change deniers have, of course, deliberately appropriated the tools and techniques it used, and even some of its spokespeople.

    That said, how much commonality is there among denialists? I’m sure that Holocaust denialists are treated as bed-foulers by most other denialists. (Oh, and can we remember to put post-WWII Japan among countries that have not adequately dealt with, if not genocide, things fairly close?) Outside of that, do we have antivaxxers who strenuously work to separate themselves from climate change denialists and vice versa?

    Beyond that, how much commonality of tactics, beyond a general overuse of motivated reasoning, do they have? Obviously, at least some, and hence, the “interdisciplinary” needs to keep going.

    Fourth: Money and/or power drives much of this. Climate denialism is funded by Big Oil. Antivaxxers are driven (outside of emotional parents) largely by the money, and the power of fame, of certain members of Hollywood. Genocide denials are driven most by the power of governments, and their money. The power of tithing-type donations is behind creationists.

    They can buy the PR, the advertorial, the softball media interviews. We should be under no pretense that combating this will be easy. And, that’s not even counting the power of made-up minds engaged in group-reinforced motivated reasoning.

    Coel, I believe Mike Barnes is exactly right. Being ridiculed in public usually just serves to drive motivated reasoning. Some people dig in their heels more, others less, on various issues. It’s fun calling Gnu Atheists idiots, too, in the worst of their throes, but, that doesn’t do anything other than to drive their motivated reasoning either.

    No, I’m sure there’s not been a formal survey of attendees at creationism vs. science “debates,” nor of how Pharyngulacs feel when I call them out. However, I think there’s been enough research on motivated reasoning in general we can stand by what Massimo’s indicating. Your mileage may vary, as may Dawkins’ — but it probably won’t.

    Like

  7. Re the Armenian genocide: The Ottoman sultan was a figurehead in 1915. The Young Turks were in charge. The permanent moral stain of genocide does attach to Turkish democracy, from its inception, which is precisely why it’s such a difficult thing to acknowledge. It’s like saying that genocide of the native Americans and the redistribution of their lands was essential to US democracy instead of just a tragedy of more primitive times.

    Re the “difference” between Rwanda and Turkey: The Kagame regime has been implicated in mass violence against Hutus and others, not just in Rwanda, but in DR Congo, (and, more indirectly, Uganda as well,) which is deemed justified by the Tutsi genocide. The difference is politically expedient.

    My reaction to other aspects? Your report confirms my experience that skepticism and informal logic are not the guides to effective reasoning their proponents would have us believe, though that’s not the conclusion you would draw. Also, the emphasis on science as method and the provisional status of all the conclusions drawn really do imply that one should take seriously all rationales for denial. There is no reason to accept facts as refutation when it is agreed that the current facts are temporary. Mental reservations about how the facts aren’t changed at whim don’t count. And this is doubly true in anti-realist conceptions of science, where someone’ emotional beliefs might just as well be part of the process of correlating measurements and observations.

    But, what was the Princeton University Press controversy? Either missed it or forgot it or don’t recognize the allusion.

    Like

  8. I’m solidly in the rationalist/enlightened/scientific community, but I’m skeptical about “denialism”. I think @Mike Barnes hit the nail on the head. Students are bombarded by “experts” who promulgate “facts”. But many have been brought up with another coterie of “experts” who promulgate another set of “facts”, for instance, that the bible is literally true. You can’t shove “facts” down people’s throats. Furthermore, the experiments that “proved” the scientific facts are esoteric and unconvincing to students. I feel a better way to describe this is in terms of “epistemic bubbles”. We live in a enlightenment epistemic bubble, but others, with reasonably coherent world views and sets of experts, exist. And its very very difficult to reject the epistemic bubble you grew up in. Citing scientific “facts” is not a strong method. I’m not sure what the answer is, but inventing concepts like “denialism” is not one of them. (I also don’t like the Oxford definition much, but that’s another story).

    (I’ve written a blog post on this subject: “On the role of Experts in creating personal belief systems” http://coronaradiata.net/2012/12/07/on-the-role-of-experts-in-creating-personal-belief-systems/ )

    Like

  9. As you note, it is often rational to trust experts rather than try to sort out evidence oneself, particularly if one does not have the knowledge base or skills to do so.

    However, it does strike me that if your reasons for believing X boil down to “the experts say so”, it’s awfully arrogant to use language like “denialism” to, in effect, criticize other people’s epistemic justifications. Appeal to authority is sometimes rational, but it’s a substitute for expertise – it does not *constitute* expertise.

    As an analogy, if somebody circa 400 believes in the Trinity because the Council of Nicaea says it’s true, that person probably has absolutely no substantive insight into Arianism.

    To me, this suggests that the only people (if any) who should be accusing creationists of the sin of “denialism” are people who grok natural selection pretty well. Now apply this to climate change, 20th century history, vaccination etc.

    Do you think this idiot has anything remotely approaching expertise in climate science? I don’t.

    That’s okay as far as it goes – it’s still reasonable for a non-expert to defer to a consensus of opinion on climate change. But he goes much further – not only beating his enemies over their heads with “denialism” but advocating their arrest!

    “Burn the Arian heretics, the Trinity denialists! They ignore the consensus of legitimate episcopal opinion, and immortal souls are at stake!”

    Like

  10. In the beginning of the essay 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,”. This suggests that denialism is an intrinsic property of some humans. Thus, for example, a person may deny evolution because to do so threatens their religious beliefs, and, in their view, would destroy their moral compass. In a sense this seems rather benign, as it is their way of coping with their world. However, later in the essay the tobacco company is held up as a prime example of denialism. This is a very different situation. Here there is a group of people, or institution, that knows the “truth” but benefits from denying that truth. They then actively work to undermine what they know to be true, and to spread doubt. This strikes me as a very different situation. In this case denialism is not about an individual unable to deal with reality, it is instead about individuals or institutions spreading lies for their own gain.

    So, my question: is denialism a characteristic of perhaps immature human nature, or is it instead a characteristic of morally bankrupt institutions or perhaps society?

    Like

  11. If I may, I’d like to speculate out loud about something I’ve noticed lately that I think might relate to this topic:

    (1) Emotions, needs, and desires often seem to be pitted *against* reasoning and critical-logical thinking.

    (2) In intellectual debates the role of emotions and needs are absent from discussion (by design it seems, and perhaps for very good reasons). It seems to me that how one feels (i.e. angry, scared, confused, overwhelmed, etc.) stimulated by an argument and its conclusion is often seen as irrelevant and weakminded.

    (3) In my twenties I was quite, what I’ll call, emotionally illiterate. I regularly confused what I thought and believed for what I was feeling and needing/wanting, and confused my feeling and needing/wanting for what I thought and believed. Furthermore, I would constantly confuse judgement and evaluation with observation. I believe this lack of clarity and awareness lead me to all kinds of unnecessary confusion and judgements about me and others.

    Is it possible that I’m not the only one with this habit? And if true, doesn’t this make discussing contentious topics really hard?

    (4) It wasn’t until I learned to sort things out that I was able to gain clarity, and in some cases, get “distance” from my beliefs so that I could evaluate them. What I’m trying to convey is a psychological explanation of belief to unbelief about a set of core beliefs integral to my self-concept. I needed some deep emotional needs to be met first before I could entertain other explanations about something serious to me.

    Massimo talked about people “on the fence” that attend debates, that they’re the ones who can be persuaded. How do you get to that position of openness? I think these people had to work through some emotional attachments before climbing onto the fence. And I think this is true because I’ve climbed a fence or two in my life.

    Like

  12. You state: “it has been increasingly obvious to me that it is utterly counterproductive for a strident atheist like Dawkins […] we ought to know that nobody ever responds positively to being told that they are idiots or ignoramuses.”

    But you also state“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. … the most effective response at the time was the ridicule that was heaped on those gentlemen … by late night comedians, a ridicule that made abundantly clear to the general public that those individuals had gone way beyond plausible deniability.”

    Sounds like a contradiction to me. My guess would be that this is an empirical question and depends on how strongly one identifies with the community in question and who is doing the ridiculing.

    Like

  13. 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).

    This is a fascinating paragraph. Does not the last sentence demonstrate precisely that it might be dangerous to allow every lunatic to say whatever they want without repercussions? Does not the fact that Germany has not fallen back into fascistic control of speech after having its anti-Holocaust-denialism law for decades demonstrate that the slippery slope fallacy is still a fallacy even when expressed in seemingly thoughtful terms by a philosopher? My home country has learned from painful experience that it does one no good to be tolerant of the intolerant, but so far nobody has so much as considered introducing a similar law about lung cancer or climate change denial.

    By the way, a good argument can be made that Holocaust denial is hate speech, because the official line of the denialists appears to be that it is all a Jewish conspiracy to weaken Germany. (Interestingly, many of the same people who deny that the Holocaust happened are also on the record with saying that it should happen.)

    I must say that I do not quite see a useful outline of how to tackle denialism here. Holding politicians and media to account is all nice and good, but if the individual denialist is impervious to argument, then those politicians and journalists will forever have their base that supports them and will never find the incentive to change. Facts don’t help, but one is supposed to show the rank and file that their leaders are lying to them – but wait, is there any way of doing that except presenting the facts? Ridicule helps – but wait, we shouldn’t be Dawkins style abrasive or the denialist will only double down.

    Really this piece makes it sound as if there is no hope, full stop, because any potential ideas had already been directly contradicted and demonstrated to be futile one or two paragraphs earlier.

    Like

  14. JKubie True, it’s sometimes hard to overcome one’s childhood or other belief systems, but not impossible. In my last comment on Bill Skaggs’ piece, I mentioned that Saul did so much “overcoming” he even became known as Paul. People convert to, or from, in my case, various belief systems all the time. And, to at least some degree, all the caveats you mention apply there.

    To the degree that some equivalent of “evangelizing” can be developed, I’m all for it.

    To riff to Mike Barnes more, there is a bit of a Catch-22. Telling people about the provisional, and ever-revised, nature of scientific knowledge might reach some people, showing them it’s not another authority system, or at least not an absolutist one. OTOH, true anti-believers will just use that as a wedge.

    Charles, what you say about knowledge may be true of other denialists. After all, many climate change denialists claim that climate change is really about a socialistic plot to take over American business. Maybe that’s their real fear, and they’ll latch on to any justification they can find for it. For creationists, there is the real fear that “humans aren’t special.”

    Ian, but all non-denialists accept the evidence of reasonable experts. We don’t all draw the same conclusions as to what actions to take based on that. And, your proposal has its own fallacy of casuistry. What if somebody says, “You didn’t grok natural selection well enough”? After all, arguably, that’s what creationists’ “gaps” are all about.

    Mike Barnes Good point otherwise. Our superior emotional depth and nuance, as well as our neocortex, both distinguish us from a cow chewing its cud. In fact, without that additional rational and larger cognitive depth, we wouldn’t have the larger emotional depth either. Per what I noted above to JKubie.

    Alexander It’s a risk believed to be a better risk than letting a government decide what is hateful speech or not. While Europe has some things better than America, this is one thing where the US definitely has it right.

    Like

  15. The denialism meme is just name-calling. If you want to show people how rational and scientific you are, then the best way is to be rational and scientific. Not using tactics of emotional arguments, propaganda, and name-calling.

    The problem with the tobacco company executive testimony was not perjury or denial of scientific facts. They made legally defensible statements. The problem was that no one confronted them with scientific facts.

    Proponents of catastrophic global warming and evolution often exaggerate the science in order to convince people of various political causes. Eg, some global warming alarmists act as if Florida will be under water in 20 years, and Dawkins acts as if Darwin proved atheism.

    Sure I am skeptical about what Big Oil says, but I am even more skeptical about those who say that Big Oil should be disregarded because of bias. The rationalist/scientist would be showing me why Big Tobacco and Big Oil are wrong, and not just relying on late-night comedians to mock them.

    Like

  16. There is an important distinction here. You say that Jenny McCarthy cannot be reached using science and facts, but really it is not her we need to reach, it is the people she is convincing.

    I think that the attempt to convince people that there is no link between MMR and Autism is stymied by the failure to make this distinction and assume that everybody who believes this is like Jenny McCarthy.

    It is further stymied because people do not try to understand the reasons they believe this in the first place.

    When somebody believes something for reasons X,Y and Z it is no use to say “You are an idiot” if you have not even tried to address reasons X, Y and Z.

    Most people who believe there is a link neither have all the facts, nor the ability to parse some of them.

    Parents believe there is a link because it so often happens that there a bright happy child who is meeting and even exceeding all the benchmarks, then suddenly the child gets a vaccination and immediately goes backward, loses all speech, sometimes even stops walking.

    There is no link, just a co-incidence of timing, but it is hard not to see a link. And not just the parents see this, the friends and families. So there is a peer reviewed study in that most prestigious of journals – Lancet and obviously there is a recipe for disaster.

    So what do parents know when deciding on this matter? They have heard all the stories of children going backward after MMR, sometimes from family or close friends.

    They have heard of the study and possibly they have heard that it has been discredited.

    So they ask their doctor who says something like ‘That study was discredited and there has been no link established’. But most people think ‘absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence’ and they still have what seems like strong prima facie evidence from the children who develop autism symptoms after MMR.

    So they need to be told not only that no link has been established, they need also to be told that in these particular studies, if a link existed then it would show up. They should be told about the replications because they will distrust peer reviewed studies having been told that one was discredited.

    And they should be told of studies which shows that autism symptoms develop at the same age in countries where they don’t have the vaccine.

    And they should be shown how correlations can be extremely misleading, especially the fact that any correlation between trend data going the same way will have an extremely high correlation, even when there is no connection at all between them (for example you can get a strong negative correlation between the rise of the cane toad population in Australia and the fall of public transport usage in London, even when there is no link whatsoever).

    None of this would work with Jenny McCarthy, but as I said, it is not Jenny McCarthy you need to convince.

    Like

  17. What I see in arguments about climate science is that many people argue that the science is wrong, because if it’s right, it will mean we must all abandon the use of fossil fuels and go back to living in caves and then what?

    Now this is entirely illogical. The science can in principle be right even if the implications are dire and there’s no way out of the bind without taking a ruinous hit. But it’s very much the way people tend to think. We’re faced with people who feel like they’ve been given a diagnosis of inoperable brain cancer or something. And they want twenty second opinions.

    In the case of climate science, happily, there’s facts that can break this trap. We don’t have to go live in caves. We have to slack off the use of fossil fuels, but we don’t have to try to run a civilization without electricity or tractors or railroads. France, for instance, already gets 80% of her electricity from nuclear power and the cost per kilowatt hour is in line with what others pay. The price of solar photovoltaic power is dropping something like 10% a year and has already hit a rough parity with grid electricity in the US desert southwest. Another factor of two, and grid parity becomes very widespread.

    So there is no need to confront the deniers with fire and brimstone predictions of doom should we not act. Yeah, that fire and brimstone really is hanging over us, but we will never convince them that way. Since we can act more effectively and decisively with their help, it’s a good idea to bring them aboard by mooting their objections to transitioning from fossil fuels.

    Like

  18. Bang on, Ian Pollock.

    I’m certainly not going to defend creationism or creationists, but trying to reframe the public controversy by relabeling creationists as “evolution denialists” is nothing more than crass marketing and/or framing. That the effort is popular among non-experts who self-style as “rational” is extremely ironic, if not outright hypocritical.

    I am firmly convinced that we should be teaching in good faith and equipping people to think; after all, should not a more discerning public equipped with basic critical thinking skills be the goal of someone dedicated to scientia? Even if the denialist marketing/framing is successful and the masses mindlessly adopt *correct* beliefs and begin to bay for fundamentalist blood instead of atheist blood, what exactly did we accomplish?

    I grew up steeped in culture war ideology, and this is just more of the same except with the shoe on the other foot — the entire ethos is objectionable regardless of the merit of the content of the beliefs in question.

    We can do better, frankly.

    Like

  19. Excellent article. Super important topic. I agree to all of your points. Yet, I would like to elaborate the following point.

    Massimo Pigliucci: “I cannot tell you how many times I heard the “evolution is just a theory” refrain, … by otherwise rational people … function in a complex society such as our own.”

    I have no sympathy for the ‘evolution’ deniers but would like to point out a simple ‘fact’. In lesser developed countries, the people have much lesser anti-intellectualistic sentiment as those people are simply less educated. In the U.S., while most of people are not experts, most of them are highly educated as rational people, capable of being jurors (without knowing the civil laws) and critics on sciences (without being scientists themselves).

    Excluding those religious fanaticism, most of deniers are the result of distrusting the authority (especially for the scientists today). I will show two simple examples here.

    Example one: the SUSY which was expected to be discovered ‘before’ the Higgs boson. Again, SUSY was the major hope for solving the dark matter issue. But, no SUSY thus far. The recent (15 Oct 2014) report [Search for dark matter… by ATLAS collaboration, http://arxiv.org/abs/1410.4031 ] showed that the top limit for having a SUSY (with masses of between 1 GeV and 200 GeV+) is 10^(-42). In a street talking language, these numbers say that there is no SUSY. Then, the diehard SUSY-ists promised for finding SUSY with 100 Tev collider. Again, recently (October 10, 2014) the LHCb collaboration reported that if a particle (of any kind) with mass between 100 – 1000 Tev sits around in this universe, its effect can be measured, that is, no SUSY. See (http://resonaances.blogspot.com/2014/10/weekend-plot-bs-mixing-phase-update.html ).”

    Most of the street walking persons are able to understand those reports while tens thousands of SUSY-ists (great physicists) are denying those ‘facts’. Who are the deniers here?

    Example two: if the SUSY example is debatable, there should not have any debating point for the following example which is a simple math-equation for calculating a nature constant (Alpha).

    Beta = 1/alpha = 64 ( 1 + first order mixing + sum of the higher order mixing)
    = 64 (1 + 1/Cos A(2) + .00065737 + …)
    = 137.0359 …
    A(2) is the Weinberg angle, A(2) = 28.743 degree
    The sum of the higher order mixing = 2(1/48)[(1/64) + (1/2)(1/64)^2 + …+(1/n)(1/64)^n +…]
    = .00065737 + …

    Yet, one gentlemen said, “I am decisively not convinced.” Every 8th grader can check out its validity. This equation was developed in 1990 and was published online in 1996, probably before the inception of the Wikipedia. But, Wikipedia still states today (Oct 29, 2014) that Alpha cannot be derived.

    Who are the deniers? If scientists cannot be honest, how can we expect that street walking people being not deniers?

    Like

  20. Anti-Ideas Rule

    A denialist is “a person who refuses to admit the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence.”

    One has to go beyond attacks on individuals, even though they often deserve them, and think logico-emotional structures.

    How do people think?
    By establishing theories. Not only scientists establish theories. Establishing theories: what people do. Even the craziest have their own theories.

    Human theories are logico-emotional. What’s a logical? It’s a hierarchy of causality. It’s anchored by leading ideas, and overall emotions. For example:

    Aristotle/Mussolini/Putin/Einstein/Joan of Arc/Saint Louis is good.

    Once a theory T, and it could be a theory of beauty, is established, it naturally evolves into the most economical form. For example T is simplest if it always leads to the conclusion that Aristotle/Mussolini/Putin/Einstein/Joan of Arc is a good guy.

    Now suppose one idea comes from the outside of T, and it contradicts an idea in T. T is going to react a bit like the immune system, recognizing a surface protein. Here the equivalent of surface proteins are ideas, emotions and facts.

    Say T is anti-Judaism, and Aryan supremacy. An inconvenient fact F coming from the outside is that lots of top mathematics and physics just established by Jewish scientists have helped bring Relativity (Einstein) and “Lichtquanten” (Einstein).

    What is a Nazi going to do? Well, he will invent a label “Jewish science”. What does that label do? It isolates “science” (German), and throws a discredit on the rest, by insinuating the rest is not really science.

    “Jewish science” is an example of what I call an “anti-idea”, AI. AI is specifically contrived to neutralize F.

    The anti-idea is the equivalent of an antibody in immunology.

    The metaprinciple at work, is that it is more economical to add an anti-idea to T, than to remake T from scratch.

    Actually, it is in general impossible to remake T from scratch.

    Suppose the great emotional conclusion from T is that Aristotle/Mussolini/Putin/Einstein/Joan of Arc/Saint Louis is a good guy. Suppose a fact F comes from the outside making T untenable.

    (For example say that the fact F is: Saint Louis wrote he could not imagine a greater delight than plunging a knife in an unbeliever’s belly and move it around.)

    Confronted to this a believer in T may just use an anti-emotion such as “she is nuts, she is on a crusade against Saint Louis, imagine!”

    In other words, once people have established in their heads erroneous logico-emotional theories T, they will not change. To see change, you can only wait for them to die, as Max Planck observed. Said Planck went to see Hitler and told him he was ruining his university by hounding Jewish scientists. Planck observed that Hitler was lost in his world of Hitlerian theories, fully distant from reality.

    Thus nothing replaces proper imprinting within primordial education, early on, and that means the correct facts, ideas, logic and emotions. Otherwise? Shock therapy! Emotional war! Anti-idiocy crusade!

    Like

  21. SocraticGadfly,

    That is what Americans like to believe, but I fail to see how it has so far hurt Germany (or any Germans who are not white supremacists) to outlaw holocaust denial. It would be nice to have some evidence instead of slippery slope fallacies.

    schlafly,

    Whether it is just name calling or whether there is a common pathology at work that deserves a name is precisely what the conference mentioned in the piece appears to have been about.

    Also I believe that you will find yourself mistaken in the assessment of those fighting denialism. There is hardly a community of researchers on this planet who has been conditioned to be as careful and precise in their claims as climate scientists, precisely because they are constantly and harshly scrutinised by those who don’t like their findings. If some of them appear alarmist then maybe it is because they see reason to be alarmed. Is it so much nicer if Florida will be under the ocean only by 2120?

    Similarly, Dawkins is on the record as saying and writing that he is only around 99.9% convinced that there is no god, and his favourite argument is merely a variant of “who created god?”. Then again, in my eyes evolution is pretty much slam dunk evidence against the existence of any god who (1) is benevolent and (2) knows what they are doing, although admittedly not of evil or incompetent gods. That this is so can only be doubted by those who have no appreciation for the waste, suffering and cruelty that billions of years of natural selection entailed and continue to entail at this very moment.

    Like

  22. One thing that could be a problem for denialism as a project is if it focuses too much on what people should accept as fact rather than on how people should act. For example, someone may accept climate-change science, but because of their libertarian leaning are opposed to the government spending any money or mandating any policy since they think the best way to solve the problem, which they accept as being a problem, is to let the free-market economy take its course. But then that becomes a different denialism.

    Like

  23. Denialism in its various forms is at least as much about maintaining life in a community of shared conviction as it is about anything open to reason. We tend to forget that all communities have a base of shared belief that is a requirement for social continuity: what would happen to a biologist at a major university who started denying evolution? Who would talk to her? In the too distant past, Earl Browder, who headed the Communist Party USA, lasted through the purge trials but left the party at nearly 60 after the round of Stalin murder revelations, and found that no one (literally no one) would speak to him. No one in the party would, and he literally knew no one outside of it. I think we need to shed the logic and focus on belonging, what it means, and what it requires. And yes I am a cultural anthropologist.

    JG

    Like

  24. Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn: “By the way, a good argument can be made that Holocaust denial is hate speech, because the official line of the denialists appears to be that it is all a Jewish conspiracy to weaken Germany.”

    I don’t get it… it is, like, impossible a priori for a group to conspire to weaken a country?

    Socratic Gadly: “Ian, but all non-denialists accept the evidence of reasonable experts. We don’t all draw the same conclusions as to what actions to take based on that. And, your proposal has its own fallacy of casuistry. What if somebody says, “You didn’t grok natural selection well enough”? After all, arguably, that’s what creationists’ “gaps” are all about.”

    I didn’t really mean it as a proposal or a syllogistic argument. I’m merely pointing out that, in the wild, “denialist” is just another epithet for e.g. know-nothing Gawker hacks to throw at their enemies. The people who use it are in no better epistemic position than their targets, 99 times out of 100.

    Even in the mouths of experts, I think “denialism” is a crappy frame.
    – It effectively precludes good faith argument
    – It fails to acknowledge any possibility, however remote, that there might be anything to learn from “denialists”
    – Most of all it is a Fully General excuse to forget about the object level (i.e., arguments about specific scientific or historical questions) and instead engage ingroup/outgroup behaviours.

    In general I am very suspicious of ideas that give people handy excuses to stop listening.

    Like

  25. Regarding the labeling of people with the word ‘Denialist’:

    I get the sense that purposes are not clearly defined and separated. If my goal is to analyze, then I’ll need to categorize which entails a symbolic representation like labeling. Labeling, and the conceptualizations of reality they represent, are inherently limited and limiting. G.K. Chesterton said it nicely,

    “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

    If my purpose is to change people’s minds, then calling them a name that obviously carries a negative connotation is unskillful and mean-spirited, and, if I’m honest, I should expect to fail given how humans usually respond to perceived condescension or aggression.

    ——

    Patrice Ayme,

    You wrote, “One has to go beyond attacks on individuals, even though they often deserve them, and think logico-emotional structures.”

    I agree with your basic point that our emotional and rational aspects are intertwined in such a way that changing one’s mind about something serious becomes hard to do. I think beliefs that are a vital part of one’s self-concept are the hardest to reconsider. For example, if one believes that there is a cultural war (e.g. the ‘war’ metaphor is present in this essay and the comments), then by necessity, it seems, one needs to choose a side and defend it. This becomes ‘grooved’ into one’s thinking, feeling, and perceving, in my opinion. And like gravity, it requires immense emotional and rational energy to escape its pull. I can think of two situations that seem to bring about the changing of serious beliefs:

    (1) The emotional aspect is addressed first in a more personal manner by someone trusted over time. Only then does one become open to the facts. In other words, one gets used to another point of view. My opinion is people gradually get used to ideas and tolerate or accept them when they no longer feel threatened by it.

    (2) An event occurs that’s so intense that the emotional and rational are overwhelmed and the reality of a matter is too real to deny and still be sane. Perhaps for some people it will take extreme weather conditions to convince them that global warming is happening.

    Patrice, if you want to, please tell us why you think “they” deserve to be attacked.

    —–

    Philip Thrift,

    I couldn’t agree more when you said, “One thing that could be a problem for denialism as a project is if it focuses too much on what people should accept as fact rather than on how people should act.”

    Like

  26. Hi Mike Barnes and SocraticGadfly,

    You are again offering your intuition that “stridency” is counter-productive. What I’d be more interested in is actual evidence.

    Over history a lot of campaiging groups (suffragettes; civil-rights movement; gay rights; etc) have been told that they are being too “strident” and thus harming their cause. History usually shows that the critics were wrong, and that what they had really meant was that they’d prefer the campaigners to keep quiet entirely.

    Also, on so-called “stridency”, it’s also worth noting that Dawkins’s tone is at the fluffy bunny-rabbit level compared to what is routine in other spheres such as politics. Criticise either left-wing or right-wing economic policy and people don’t bat an eyelid; utter a similarly phrased critique of religion and people faint with horror.

    Hi Ian Pollock,

    it does strike me that if your reasons for believing X boil down to “the experts say so”, it’s awfully arrogant to use language like “denialism” …

    It is usually fairly easy for a non-expert to judge the presence of genuine expertise. For example, I know little about aeronautical engineering, but trust the experts in that field because airplanes have a good track record of flying. This is not a matter of blind trust in experts.

    Hi Mike,

    In intellectual debates the role of emotions and needs are absent from discussion

    I agree with your comment here. Differences of opinion very often derive from different emotional attachments rather than from rational evaluations of evidence. Recalling previous discussions here, I could point to people being wedded to moral realism as an example of an emotional/intuitional committment, rather than something supported by evidence.

    Like

  27. In his short paragraph John Garrett raised a key point.

    ‘ I think we need to shed the logic and focus on belonging, what it means, and what it requires.’

    I don’t think we as a society will be able to make a great impact on the way most balance their beliefs and emotions with rational thought until we create a better cultural and personal awareness of the relationship between identity and belonging.

    We all create personal identities & narratives and we tend to define ourselves in a positive light through these narratives. So we want to differentiate ourselves from others with a noble sense of autonomy, and this can lead to rigid beliefs tied to our identity. At the same time we also want to be part of something larger than ourselves. So when a group offers us a sense of belonging while at the same time confirming our narratives (which may have been ingrained through the group ) any change of belief becomes extremely difficult.

    I think the best way to impact this dynamic is not through negative labels like ‘denialism’, but by constantly pointing out this dynamic through a process of appealing to common values or virtues across groups. Labnut had a post on virtue ethics to this effect, and I thought a lot of the post was unrealistic, but I do think in general it is the best avenue of approach. We need to appeal to those aspects of people that they see as noble, and I think there are a lot of ways concepts like scientific method, critical thought, …etc can be communicated through that doorway.

    Like

  28. Criticise either left-wing or right-wing economic policy and people don’t bat an eyelid; utter a similarly phrased critique of religion and people faint with horror.

    In case anyone was wondering, that’s from:

    Loblaw, R. (2010). Temporary Loss of Consciousness and the Experience of Sectarian Disapprobation. The Journal of Hyperbolic Analogies in Medicine, 12(5), 314-495.

    Like

  29. Paul,

    “you of all people are well placed to know that we are talking not so much about a theory as about well-established facts, and that today’s biology, which speaks of mutations, population genetics, horizontal gene transfer and neutral drift, with discussion of punctuated equilibrium and epigenetics, is decidedly post-Darwinian”

    Yes, I do, though that seemed the sort of distinction that was unnecessary to make within the context of this article. As for the theory-fact thing, evolution is both a fact and a theory deployed to explain that fact, we shouldn’t confuse the two.

    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.”

    I find it interesting than in a 3000+ word article you focused on this particular bit. At any rate, others have commented on the point already. No, it’s not just my intuition, it is a conclusion backed by social and political science research, though there are no studies specifically on Dawkins or the New Atheism that I’m aware of.

    “Might an emotional jolt be part of that? There are plenty of anecdotes along the lines of Christians reading The God Delusion”

    So anecdotal evidence is okay when it supports the NA narrative, but not when it counters it? Where do these anecdotes come from? Any self-serving source among them?

    Mike,

    “During my high school and college years I was a Christian. What bugged me to no end was how my teachers couldn’t see that they were requiring that I trust them”

    Precisely, thank you.

    John,

    “The GMO denialists from GreenPeace and elsewhere embrace bad science and fear. We also need to think about which denials matter: like many scientists, I knock on wood, like a good druid, to avoid bad outcomes. Even if I think about it, I still do it. Does that matter?”

    There was significant discussion at the meeting about GMO denialism, so good point. I doubt it matters if one engages in small superstitions, especially when one is conscious of their nature, though I stopped doing it long time ago…

    Socratic,

    “That said, how much commonality is there among denialists? I’m sure that Holocaust denialists are treated as bed-foulers by most other denialists.”

    Yes, but I think the point stressed by several contributors to the meeting was that these people have much in common in terms of attitudes and psychology, regardless of the fact that they sometimes vehemently disagree with each other about what needs to be denied.

    steven,

    “Re the Armenian genocide: The Ottoman sultan was a figurehead in 1915. The Young Turks were in charge. The permanent moral stain of genocide does attach to Turkish democracy, from its inception, which is precisely why it’s such a difficult thing to acknowledge.”

    Yes, that’s correct.

    “It’s like saying that genocide of the native Americans and the redistribution of their lands was essential to US democracy instead of just a tragedy of more primitive times.”

    That also came up for discussion.

    “Re the “difference” between Rwanda and Turkey … The difference is politically expedient.”

    That was not my understanding from listening to scholars who have studied the Rwandan process. But I’m no expert.

    “what was the Princeton University Press controversy?”

    I believe it too was related to the Armenian genocide, and it involved a faculty who was endowed with a Chair paid for by a Turkish advocacy group.

    jkubie,

    “I feel a better way to describe this is in terms of “epistemic bubbles”?

    One of the participants to the meeting, Brendan Nyhan, just published an article in the NYT about research showing that the epistemic bubbles phenomenon may be greatly exaggerated: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/25/upshot/americans-dont-live-in-information-cocoons.html

    “I’m not sure what the answer is, but inventing concepts like “denialism” is not one of them.”

    The point of talking of denaialism is to put a problem to study on the map, not to use it to convince denialists.

    Ian,

    “it does strike me that if your reasons for believing X boil down to “the experts say so”, it’s awfully arrogant to use language like “denialism” to, in effect, criticize other people’s epistemic justifications.”

    Why, exactly? I don’t understand physics well enough, but I’m pretty sure it is silly for anyone to dismiss quantum mechanics nonetheless. Why should I not point that out to a QM denialist?

    “he goes much further – not only beating his enemies over their heads with “denialism” but advocating their arrest!”

    I’m pretty sure you know I wouldn’t go that far…

    “”Burn the Arian heretics, the Trinity denialists! They ignore the consensus of legitimate episcopal opinion, and immortal souls are at stake!””

    Of course, that did happen, as you know.

    Charles,

    “This suggests that denialism is an intrinsic property of some humans.”

    I wouldn’t put it in terms of intrinsic properties. Denialism is a mental attitude that some people develop in order to protect some cherished belief that plays a major part in their concept of identity.

    “later in the essay the tobacco company is held up as a prime example of denialism. This is a very different situation. Here there is a group of people, or institution, that knows the “truth””

    Indeed, the two cases are different. But you could also say that some actors in the climate change discussion are “knowing” deniers, while most are not. A useful distinction to make, but not an argument against the idea of denialism.

    Mike,

    “I would constantly confuse judgement and evaluation with observation. … Is it possible that I’m not the only one with this habit? And if true, doesn’t this make discussing contentious topics really hard?”

    Absolutely, I doubt any of the participants to the conference thought this is going to be an easy task. They have first hand experience that it isn’t.

    “I needed some deep emotional needs to be met first before I could entertain other explanations about something serious to me.”

    Again, yes. I think that’s where my suggestion of seeking “allies” that will help with the emotional / personal identity aspect are needed, rather than someone to “shock and awe” you into rationality.

    Like

  30. The issue here, as Coel points out, is the evidence for what works to change minds. If I am teaching evolution in high school or college, I want to know what are best practices. I once suggested to someone working for the NCSE that they might want to produce before/after surveys for students who use their materials and for churchgoers whose pastors are part of the Clergy Letter Project, but found little interest from this individual. Why wouldn’t you want to know if you were making a difference and why wouldn’t those donating money want to know as well?

    Perhaps ridicule only works against those who know they are lying – like tobacco executives?

    Like

  31. Victor,

    “Sounds like a contradiction to me. My guess would be that this is an empirical question and depends on how strongly one identifies with the community in question and who is doing the ridiculing.”

    Of course, these are empirical questions. But I cited the work presented by Nyham and his collaborators, well worth a look. As others have pointed out, the difference btw the two cases is that most creationists, say, don’t lie about their beliefs, they sincerely believe what they say. The CEOs of tobacco companies, instead, knew very well what they were doing, and did it out of greed. The first group deserves understanding and we may try to persuade, the second one deserved ridicule and jail time.

    Alexander,

    “My home country has learned from painful experience that it does one no good to be tolerant of the intolerant, but so far nobody has so much as considered introducing a similar law about lung cancer or climate change denial.”

    First off it seems to me that there is a difference between intolerance and denialism, though sometimes the latter may be a reflection of the former. But I stand by what I wrote: I don’t think it is ethically defensible, nor necessarily useful, to put in jail people who deny historical facts or any well established scientific notion. Give Germans credit: they didn’t slip back into national socialism because they have matured as a society and have done a lot of open soul searching, not because they are not allowed to deny the Holocaust in public.

    “a good argument can be made that Holocaust denial is hate speech, because the official line of the denialists appears to be that it is all a Jewish conspiracy to weaken Germany.”

    I don’t believe hate speech should be punished either, unless it carries direct and credible physical danger. The problem is that these laws censor things we agree are bad, but they can just as easily be turned on a dime and censor anything else a given government doesn’t want to hear or be heard. There are plenty of examples of it in other countries.

    “if the individual denialist is impervious to argument, then those politicians and journalists will forever have their base that supports them and will never find the incentive to change.”

    This is contradicted by the available empirical evidence.

    “Facts don’t help”

    Read carefully, I didn’t say that facts don’t help, only that they are not sufficient by themselves.

    “Ridicule helps – but wait, we shouldn’t be Dawkins style abrasive or the denialist will only double down.”

    See above about when ridicule is and is not appropriate, in my opinion. Dawkins is simply ridiculing the wrong people, most of the times.

    schlafly,

    “The denialism meme is just name-calling.”

    It is a label to identify a real phenomenon, just like pseudoscience, superstition, and so forth. Labels are useful, if appropriately used.

    “If you want to show people how rational and scientific you are, then the best way is to be rational and scientific.”

    Ironically, that is scientifically not true.

    “The problem with the tobacco company executive testimony was not perjury or denial of scientific facts. They made legally defensible statements. The problem was that no one confronted them with scientific facts.”

    Where are you getting your news? They very much were confronted with scientific facts, and they willfully denied them out of greed.

    “Dawkins acts as if Darwin proved atheism.”

    That’s simply because Dawkins is rather ignorant of philosophy, and incidentally, he hasn’t been a practicing evolutionary biologist since the 1970s.

    “The rationalist/scientist would be showing me why Big Tobacco and Big Oil are wrong, and not just relying on late-night comedians to mock them.”

    I think you missed the point of that particular statement.

    Philip,

    “One thing that could be a problem for denialism as a project is if it focuses too much on what people should accept as fact rather than on how people should act.”

    Actually, that’s precisely the opposite of the consensus at the conference, as far as I understood.

    John,

    “I think we need to shed the logic and focus on belonging, what it means, and what it requires.”

    I rather think that both are important.

    michael,

    “Perhaps ridicule only works against those who know they are lying – like tobacco executives?”

    Right, see my comments above.

    Like

  32. Emotion or religion powered denial is not smart but is not wrong. Dishonesty powered denial is a shame. The intelligence and consciousness are two empirical traits of human, and they are not explained by the current evolution doctrine thus far. That is, there is definitely a strong argument point for the ‘evolution deniers’, at least at the current circumstance. Yet, there are denials for something which have no argument point of any kind, and this type of denial is dishonesty.

    One example is existential introduction. Two example is existential generalization. I would like to show one more this type of denial now.

    Example three: the ‘claim’ of today is that the dark matter (DM) issue is not solved, while
    One, LHC shows no DM.
    Two, LUX shows no DM.
    Three, AMS2 shows no DM.
    Four, EDM (electric dipole moment) data shows no DM.

    Of course, the ‘negative’ data can never kill the hope of second-coming parousia. But, the entire DM issue is supported by the Planck data (dark energy = 69.2; dark matter = 25.8; and visible matter = 4.82) which is a set of simple numbers. There must not any argument point if those number can be derived with a self-consistent formula. Let,
    Space = X
    Time = Y
    Total mass (universe) = Z
    And X = Y = Z
    In an iceberg model (ice, ocean, sky), Z is ice while the (X + Y) is the ocean and sky, the energy ocean (or the dark energy). Yet, the ice (Z) will melt into the ocean (X + Y) with a ratio W.

    By choosing W = 9% and with the known data of visible mass = 4.82%, then

    [(Z – 4.82) x (100 – w)] = {(33.33 – 4.82) x .91] = 25.94 (while the Planck data is 25.8), then, the dark mass/visible mass ratio was calculated as 5.38 (while the Planck data shows the ratio = 25.8/4.82 = 5.3526).

    The dark energy = (X + Y) + [(Z – 4.82) x w)] = 66.66 + (28.48 x 0.09) = 69.22 (while the Planck data is 69.2)

    Obviously, this is not a numerology as it is based on a model. Furthermore, it does not fit just one number (the case of most numerology) but fit a set numbers. Then, there is no arguing point on the number fits. The denial of this kind will go way beyond the emotion and ideology. Thus far, the standard claim is still “No solution for both the dark matter and dark energy issues”.

    Like

  33. To me the interesting question is what biological processes and benefits does the new information avoidance behavior have. And what physical behavior is correlated with the verbal behavior. The verbal behavior is probably mainly epiphenomenal.

    So what would the logic, biological/medical and ultimately evolutionary, be for the avoidance of good/evidence-based information be? We can only spitball/speculate…..

    Saving brain energy is always a physiological priority. Adopting new information is very costly apparently. Changing long-term memory engrams is one of the most expensive things a brain can do, apparently. Maybe someone knows that bench science. It is doubtful the verbal reports and subjective experiences tell us much about the brain physiology.

    We can guess that sticking with earlier information was more adaptive a long, long time ago when our proto-human brains evolved. Prob not so much now…..ugh.

    Regardless, the Dark Triad, my term, of avoidance, denial and disassociation seem the default of the human brain. So to is attacking the messenger of new information. Along with a hyper, over-evolved fear response, problem solving seems blocked.

    Fact is, we just don’t know. We are just starting to be aware of the way the human brain works, phenomenologically, let alone medically. Although the medical work is far more evidence-based then phenomenological claims, of course. Phenomenological claims are all based on subjective experience and naive realistic presumptions about everyday language and self-reports so largely dead ends, by definition. Nothing to test!

    Like anything easy/cheap to perceive and discuss the information value of verbal denial behavior is likely mainly noise. Ho hum…. Yet, the problems grow….

    Quesion – Is the hyper-fear response the the trivial Ebola threats a form of denialism, avoidance and disassociation? It has the same behavioral effects = false evidence appearing real.

    Like

  34. Did tobacco executives know they were lying? I don’t think that’s so clear. The execs lived in a tobacco centric world (I remember visiting a plant many years ago where cigarettes were out and free everywhere), sponsored and read “research” from academics showing that tobacco didn’t cause cancer, played golf with other tobacco execs who were fully invested in the shared belief. Asserting that they knew they were lying belies the deep human need for coherence of beliefs, and for (as I wrote earlier) shared values in a community. Do bibleists know that the universe is older than 6,000 years and are they lying about it? It would be easier if they were.

    JG

    Like

  35. John, interesting point, and you may be right. But having followed that particular issue for a time I am not inclined to extend that sort of benefit of doubt to tobacco CEOs. Their own internal memos show that they knew exactly what was going on.

    Like

  36. Hi Coel,

    “You are again offering your intuition that “stridency” is counter-productive. What I’d be more interested in is actual evidence.”

    Looking back at what I wrote, I see why you would say I’m offering my intuition. I’ll need to disagree with you and say that it is not my inituition that I’m basing this on, but years of experience as someone who has held positions on both sides of the debate regarding god, religion, athiesm, science, and morals. I’ve lived and travelled all over the world, interacting with people from various cultural backgrounds and beliefs. What I’m arguing from is my experience. Is it anecdotal? Sure. But it’s robust!

    Massimo replied to me with, “…rather than someone to “shock and awe” you into rationality.” This approach–“shock and awe”–is used by religious and secular people. When I was a Christian, those among me that liked to ‘witness’ to people to convert them eventually started changing tactics to a friendship-based approach when they realized brow-beating or scaring people into belief didn’t work – it either angered or freightened them. Sure they scored a few hits, but they know they were mostly missing the mark. And as someone who was mildly forced into attending church routinely and then, almost inevitably it seems to me now, scared into belief, I think my faith was built “upon the sand” as Jesus said. It was shaky, unable to support my doubts and constant questioning and the conflicting information coming from just living.

    I bring up my history because it makes me wonder if my experience is common or unique. If it were true that “stridency” produced changed minds, I wonder as to what kind of quality the change would be. Would it be just another shaky foundation created by a jolt into belief or disbelief, or something worth building on? Am I making sense?

    ———

    Massimo,

    Did anyone at the conference share what he or she might do with the research should this thing take off? I’m thinking of something akin to what Julia Galef is doing with CFAR and CogSci research.

    Like

  37. Surveys going back to (at least) the late 1980’s show smokers overestimating the cancer and mortality risks of cigarettes.

    Like

  38. Here is a current academic evolutionist attack on creationism, in today’s New Republic. Stop Celebrating the Pope’s Views on Evolution and the Big Bang. They Make No Sense.

    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. Coyne says: “Let us face facts: evolution that is guided by God or planned by God is not a scientific view of evolution.”

    Coyne is not making much of a scientific argument here. He does not produce empirical evidence that the Pope is wrong.

    The most outrageous tobacco company executive testimony in those 1994 hearing was: “Mr. Congressman, cigarettes and nicotine clearly do not meet the classic definition of addiction. There is no intoxication.”

    This is not denialism. This is a witness being allowed to use a favorable definition. The congressman should have given them a more reasonable definition of addiction.

    Like

  39. Hi Schiafly,

    Coyne is not making much of a scientific argument here. He does not produce empirical evidence that the Pope is wrong.

    Well let’s be fair, Coyne is saying that there is plenty of evidence for evolution and no evidence for any special creation of souls. He does not need to rehash all the evidence for evolution and in any case he has already said that he has documented it in his book.

    I have no problem with Coyne’s position on this, but I don’t think that he could ever be persuasive because he does not seem to be the sort of person you could sit down with and discuss issues with.

    I could be wrong, but it seems to me that if I happened to be talking to Coyne and I had a difficulty with some aspect of evolution he would simply call me a creationist IDiot and make sarcastic comments about “Baby Jesus”.

    That is not only unhelpful but also projects the (perhaps erroneous) impression that he is not completely convinced of the facts himself.

    This impression is not limited to Coyne. If Richard Dawkins is so sure that his argument will persuade any reasonable person of the truth of evolution by natural selection, then why does he feel the need to poison the well by saying in the introduction that if I happen to be unconvinced by the argument then I will be akin to a holocaust denier?

    And don’t think that this is lost on the Discovery Institute. They are often quoting Coyne and saying in effect ‘see, they claim to have facts and arguments but all they have is abuse and sarcasm’.

    Much of what celebrity atheists (and agnostics who really are atheists) say is counter productive.

    When you are mercilessly mocking George Bush for something he says it is helpful to ensure that he actually said it. Especially if you are making a point about the value of having evidence for your claims. In that case it seems that if you have gotten the wording, the date, the context and the meaning of the quote completely and disastrously wrong then this backfires on you badly. If you then miss the opportunity to demonstrate the scientific approach to owning up to mistakes, by being disingenuous about your error then this doubly backfires.

    Mocking people brings with it a danger that it imposes a standard of behaviour on the mocker that few (if any) people can sustain.

    There have been many chortles at Richard Dawkins claim to have “piqued” a gathering of philosophers and theologians by using the Ontological Argument to prove that pigs can fly. The baloney detector is set ringing by the fact that very few philosophers or theologians in recent times have ever held any version of the ontological argument to be sound. Yet Mr Dawkins has, against all odds, found himself in a room full of ones who support it?

    Sure you did Richard, sure you did.

    Like

  40. Ironically I have just seen that this very article has drawn just the kind of response from the Discovery Institute that I was talking about.

    It suggests the question – 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?

    Like

  41. Massimo,

    Give Germans credit: they didn’t slip back into national socialism because they have matured as a society and have done a lot of open soul searching, not because they are not allowed to deny the Holocaust in public.

    This is not what I wrote. Of course a law against Holocaust denial was not the primary or maybe even any reason why Germany is still a liberal democracy; but 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; indeed present day Germany is evidence against that idea.

    Like

  42. I was trying to get a handle on this topic, which is complex and multi-layered, when Robin Herbert’s remark on the Discovery Institute’s response to this article caught my eye. It does indeed present an object lesson in much of what has been so far discussed.

    The DI piece if by David Klinghoffer, who has been criticized for being paid by the DI specifically to be the non-Christian on staff (see Larry Yudel’s response to Klinghoffer on the subject of evolution). Klinghoffer was ‘credentialed’ to write on ‘science’ by the DI’s publication of an anthology of their articles on evolution edited by him. Previously his main interest appears to have been politics (“How Would God Vote?: Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative” was his book previous to the DI book).

    A good quarter of Klinghoffer’s article is a defense of arch ID theorist Jonathon Wells, to the point where Klinghoffer’s text implies that Massimo’s article is little more than an “ad hominem slur” against Wells: “In (Pigliucci’s) current post, he goes after Jonathan Wells again but this time sticks to character assassination.”

    Most of Klinghoffer’s ‘argument’ is mere charge-reversal: effectively, ‘you say I’m in denial, you’re in denial!’ ‘you call yourself a scientist, Wells is the real scientist!’

    This latter thrust reaches point towards the end when Klinghoffer asserts: “That’s standard operating procedure for Jonathan Wells — stick to the science, since that’s where we have the advantage.”

    The implication of this assertion is that Wells’ is pursuing his work in an unmotivated, disinterested manner. 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.

    We are finding here layers of denialism – well-financed obfuscation; authoritarian dictates; hyper-sensitivity to criticism; redefinition/misuse of terminology, and unshakeable belief.

    I don’t think I have ridiculed Klinghoffer here, but here’s a problem: I am quite sure that Klinghoffer would say I am. That raises issues concerning earlier discussions about criticizing denialist positions publicly. 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. This would seem to indicate the need to broad the social arena in which such discussions take place, to allow reasonable people not previously included in the discussion to not only weigh the evidence, but discern the nature of the arguments. And yes, education is probably the essential arena here.

    Klinghoffer’s article: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2014/10/insulation_and_090741.html
    Larry Yudelson response to Klingoffer: http://www.shmoozenet.com/yudel/mtarchives/001639.html
    Wells quote: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Wells_%28intelligent_design_advocate%29

    Like

  43. “’Re the “difference” between Rwanda and Turkey … The difference is politically expedient.’

    That was not my understanding from listening to scholars who have studied the Rwandan process. But I’m no expert.”

    Fortunately there is no need for great experticse to discover that the popular image of the Rwandan genocide is insufficient. Here’s a start: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/sep/24/kagames-hidden-war-in-the-congo/

    This is not actually a diversion from the topic. 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? It is a popular skeptical response to the experience of bias and outright dishonesty on the part of conventional authorities. (My best judgment is that skepticism is a philosophical tendency that corrodes the judgment, and is therefore useless as a response to the official story. An false solution is in some ways worse than apathy. But that is very much a minority opinion I think.) Another way of thinking of it is, whose experts are we supposed to listen to?

    There is a tremendous variety in people and I’m quite sure that some would be convinced by detailed teaching of how scientists made their discoveries. But I’m equally sure that most students in schools are not so interested in mastering those laborious details. Even something as relatively simple as Cavendish’s measurement of the gravitational constant is perceived as difficult by many. Even more, it is widely held that science is not the only source of knowledge; that it is actually inferior as a source of indubitable knowledge to mathematics, logic, revelation and reason; that no conceivable number of experiments can solve the problem of induction and that science is necessarily inferior; that at best science is to inform our thinking, and it is morally wrong to have it serve any greater role. Children are ignorant, not stupid. Given the epistemic authority granted to science, why should they bore themselves looking at Mendel’s data?

    Like

  44. I am pretty sure that ridicule is the only response to anything and everything produced by the Discovery Institute.

    Like

  45. Massimo: {… that “denialism” … underlying the willful disregard of factual evidence by ideologically motivated groups or individuals. … denialism in its various … with potentially catastrophic consequences for our society.}

    Agreed 100%. Yet, {who are the worst denialists, and who are denying the undeniable?}

    In general, denialism consists of the following attributes.
    One, most of those denialists are ignorant about the subject.
    Two, most of the issues which are denied are debatable. The current ‘evolution doctrine’ which is unable to explain some empirical facts (human intelligence and consciousness) is of course debatable.

    Thus, I think that these types of denialists are totally normal and healthy for our society. Yet, there is indeed one kind of denialism (denying the undeniable) which do the humanity in with catastrophic consequences. I have showed three examples (beyond any plausible deniability) in my previous comments. I now want to talk about a real big one.

    The current stage of bio-lives is definitely reached via ‘evolution’. And, in a nutshell, the Darwin-mechanism (DM) is {nature selection pressure acts on phenotype of ‘individual’ of a population gradually and leads to ‘speciation’}.

    There are some ‘BIG’ problems with this DM.
    One, it can be very (very,…, very,…) easily proven mathematically that ‘anything’ (traits, genes or the whatnot) of an individual cannot alter the ‘average’ of a population if the size of this population is greater than a number ‘N’. A ‘thing’ begins to have some effect to the population only if it is shared by at least 14% of the population. Of course, this threshold can be easier reached in a small population (at population bottleneck [PB]). But, at PB, other mechanisms become dominating (the Gene drift, inbreed depression, etc.). Furthermore, for any bisexual species, every ‘individual’ gives up the right to reproduce, as it totally depends on the ‘group (species)’ to provide a ‘partner’. That is, the evolution ‘unit’ is not the individual.

    Two, while the modern synthesis tried to rescue the DM from the phenotype/genotype non-compatibility with the idea of ‘mutation’, it can again easily show mathematically that mutation plays a very (very, …, very, …) minimal role in genetic variations. Gene works with a well-defined ‘internal’ dynamics, absolutely not controlled with any external factors which are at best acting as the ‘boundary conditions’ for that dynamics. For single cell organism, the gene variations come more from ‘horizontal gene transfer’ than the mutations. For all bisexual species, most of the ‘external pressures’ (sources of mutations) are absorbed by somatic cells, isolated (in general, not completely) from the germ-cells.

    There is a long list on these DM problems, cannot be covered in this ‘500 word comment’. It is available at http://tienzengong.wordpress.com/2014/10/11/intelligent-evolution/ . In my view, this long list is the true denialism with catastrophic consequences.

    Like

  46. I have the depressing feeling that once people start to study denialism, others will start to study “acceptalism”, the tendency to believe scientific fictions spread by Evil People. I suspect that Acceptalism Studies will use (versions of) arguments developed in Denialism Studies, like captured weapons.

    Like

Comments are closed.