Michael Fitzpatrick makes a good, but still too careful point in this opinion piece in the New Scientist.

THE epithet “denier” is increasingly used to bash anyone who dares to question orthodoxy. Among other things, deniers are accused of subordinating science to ideology. In his book Denialism: How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet, and threatens our lives, for example, Michael Specter argues that denialists “replace the rigorous and open-minded scepticism of science with the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment”.

How ironic. The concept of denialism is itself inflexible, ideological and intrinsically anti-scientific. It is used to close down legitimate debate by insinuating moral deficiency in those expressing dissident views, or by drawing a parallel between popular pseudoscience movements and the racist extremists who dispute the Nazi genocide of Jews.

The incredible wave of secular Catholicism, of stubborn, closed minds, that not only accept academic consensus as gospel Truth, but that also brand everyone with a different opinion as a fool, without, usually, ever really engaging with these opinions in a fair and open manner. After all, we know that everything sounds better with science, and pseudo-scientific explanations, no matter how hackneyed, are now the go-to response in all areas, and other voices are drowned out in ridicule and tags like “denier”. To quote Fitzpatrick again

As Skidelsky says, “the extension of the ‘denier’ tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people”. What we need is more debate, not less.


14 thoughts on “Denialism

  1. I couldn’t agree less.

    While of course ad hominem attacks don’t help anybody, the epithet ‘denier’ is an absolutely appropriate one for a whole range of people.

    Fitzpatrick ungrammatically criticises Kalichman in his Denying Aids book for suggesting that ‘denialists often “cross the line between what could arguably be protected free speech”‘, but it is demonstrably true in a number of cases that this sort of denial has caused an immense amount of harm, as with Andrew Wakefield and the MMR/Autism claim.

    Fitzpatrick claims that scientists should concentrate on rebutting claims rather than calling people deniers and refusing to engage, but this overlooks the fact that many ‘deniers’ are not in the slightest bit interested in rational argument. You can rebut claims and engage in debate all you like, but if the media coverage is sensationalising an issue and looking for an ‘alternative viewpoint’ in order to foster controversy and sales then there is little you can do about it.

    In Skidelsky’s piece he somewhat disingenuously claims that calling people deniers is anti-Enlightenment, but it is the deniers in many cases who are trapped in dogma, not the people calling them deniers.

    I’m more than happy to continue calling people deniers if that’s what they are. And I will debate them as well. Calling somebody a denier does not have to be, and should not be, a substitute for argument and debate. We should be more protective of the word ‘skeptic’, which has been appropriated by people who don’t live up to the principles of skepticism at all.

  2. There is a huge problem with the general perception (and handling) of science, and Fitzpatrick doesn’t quite nail it but the basic point is valid.

    Three things are notable.

    One. There is a serious lack of debate with positions that don’t fit academic consensus. There are countless interesting but shunned theories in history, in biology and on issues related to global warming. Fitzpatrick is right about this. Full stop. That you can’t deny: debate is substituted by scoffing, especially publicly. People write whole books that consist of fancy scoffing. Dawkins specializes in this technique. This is, indeed, anti-Enlightenment.

    two. With all due respect, it verges on nonsensical to refute claims that this behavior is anti-Enlightenment with the proclamation that “it is the deniers (…) who are trapped in dogma”. This is about your behavior, not about theirs. The term anti-Enlightenment describes a method, a way of thinking and writing. The object of this writing is not relevant. Irrelevant. Completely.

    Three. There is a strong tendency today to think that natural sciences ‘explain everything’ and that having a ‘study’ is sufficient proof in debating issues. This is not the case. Not only do current scientific studies often have a very narrow scope, offering at best suggestions for broader applications, additionally, theories are only valid for as long as no new theories have replaced them. The process of change that leads from one to the other is one of debate. Of serious scientific and philosophical debate. The term “denier” implies that these groups or individuals ‘deny’ something that is ‘undeniable’ fact. This is strikingly unscientific, and remarkably similar to how heresies are viewed by the Catholic Church. Like the Church, only some theological difference is accepted, everything that oversteps certain bounds is exempt from debate, and branded a heresy. There’s an irony in the fact that so-called freethinkers often chose Giordano Bruno as their hero, while sneering at and ridiculing their own Giordano Brunos. This is laughable, weak and deplorable thinking, and it’s quite saddening as a development in intellectual culture.

    One recent case is quite remarkable and proves Fitzpatricks point. The IPCC’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, attacked criticisms about inaccuracies in the IPCC AR4 report about the Himalaya glaciers as “voodoo science” lacking peer review, and maintained that “we have a very clear idea of what is happening” in the Himalayas.”

    FUNNY THING. Turned out the critics were right, and the numbers were wrong. But the fast attempt to shut down debate is typical of a certain mindset. This is a very famous case, but pick up any popular book by a scientist who holds the consensus view, and you’ll see the pattern repeated. Educate yourself. I recommend reading contrasting studies about food, especially about the harm that certain foods can wreak (cholesterol, for example). The consensus is not as broad as with Global warming, but it’s there, and visible in the writing. It’s all there, the branding of heresies, the dismissal, the absence of logic and serious debate. Or any lunguistics book like Pinker’s that attacks Sapir-Whorf. PInker even distorts studies to suit his purpose, but the basic attitude is still the same. The exact same method.

    It’s frankly a laughable argument to say “hey, WE would debate it, but they are not interested in rational debate” WHEN YOUR GUYS ARE NOT EVEN TRYING TO. In fact, with this claim you did the exact same thing that Fitzpatrick attacks. You identified your guys as the one with reason, the others as unreasonable. Reason is intrinsically tied to the general definition of science and since in this context ‘scientificity’ is identical to ‘legitimacy’ you have, in one fell swoop, disenfranchised a whole, unnamed group of movements. That’s sleazy logic. Not to mention the fact that “rational argument” usually means you implictly prefer one rationality, and use it, tacitly, as a norm that others and their rationalities, have to comply with.


    Why aren’t Rorty and his guys more widely read? I should post about Rorty again. Or Feyerabend? Yay to philosophical fluency.

  3. Oh, and, in your dogmatic rage, I assume you’ve missed the fact that Fitzpatrick claims that, to quote you, “an immense amount of harm” has been done by not reacting to the HIV/vaccination theories, by letting them fester for years. His claim is that they could have been stamped out much earlier by serious debate, and they would have caused less harm.

    Please. Do read the texts you reply angrily to. It makes debate much easier.

  4. Last comment first: you assume wrongly. I did not miss the fact about Fitzpatrick’s claim at all. I simply find it questionable. For one thing, both the HIV and MMR theories were responded to at the time. Whether there was enough of a response for Fitzpatrick’s or your liking is another question. For another thing, even if they hadn’t been responded to, it’s a separate question about whether Andrew Wakefield deliberately distorting findings for his own monetary gain and to the detriment of many millions of people would constitute “protected free speech”. The response or lack of response from scientists is not relevant to that question.

    I’m not quite sure where the “dogmatic rage” and “reply angrily” comments come from. I thought I was fairly measured in my response, and looking back at it that still appears to be the case. Just because I disagree doesn’t mean that I’m angry about it.

    I’ll have a go at responding to the other points you raise as well, but might not get a chance for a while as I’m pretty busy.

  5. Okay, here goes, responding to each of your points:

    Point one: I thought I made it clear in my comment that I was NOT advocating stifling debate. I fully agree with you that debate is a good thing and scientific theories should be debated. Can you give some examples of some of these ‘interesting but shunned theories’ that have been ignored? Particularly ones where they have been shut down with the use of the word ‘denier’ would be excellent. Because that’s precisely what Fitzpatrick and you are arguing. So give me some concrete examples of where this has occurred. I find the Dawkins jibe faintly ridiculous. How can you possibly suggest that he hasn’t engaged with people who have questioned evolution? Just because you don’t like his tone. He’s just written a lengthy book laying out all the evidence for evolution and you think that he’s shutting down debate?

    Point two: I’m not sure I fully understand what you’re saying here, but what I was trying to suggest was that in my experience many people (but certainly not necessarily all people) who question theories like evolution and human-caused climate change do so not in the spirit of open scientific enquiry but because the theories do not fit with their existing worldview (or economic interests). That’s why I thought Skidelsky’s claim was disingenuous. But you know what, maybe my impression is wrong. When you say it is about my behaviour not theirs, then we’ve got no point of disagreement because neither of us want to stifle debate.

    Point three: I don’t think the natural sciences ‘explain everything’, so no dispute there. As for the word ‘denier’ implying that the theory in question is ‘undeniable’ fact, that simply does not follow. ‘Deny’ has a number of related meanings, one of which is a refusal to accept or agree to, and that is clearly the relevant meaning here. At any rate, if it’s not being used as a substitute for argument, which is the way I want to use it, then there’s no problem. If it is being used in that way then neither Skidelsky nor Fitzpatrick provide enough evidence that this is the case, and neither do you. Ultimately all you and I have is our different impressions of the situation: you think calling people deniers is a widespread problem that stifles scientific debate and I think it’s not. Neither of is is really in a position to substantiate our impressions as this would require a really widespread survey of the field. Your giving the Pachauri example doesn’t really change that and even if you gave a few more examples it still wouldn’t substantiate your claim.

    You’re deliberately distorting my argument when you say ‘You identified your guys as the one with reason, the others as unreasonable’. Apart from being completely in the dark about who ‘my guys’ are, that’s simply not what I said. What I did say was ‘many “deniers” are not in the slightest bit interested in rational argument’. You can call for greater ‘philosophical fluency’ all you like, but if you’re going to make a simple some/all error then you’re not going to get very far. I make no claims about scientists who hold ‘consensus views’ all being reasonable people and no claim about people who question those views all being unreasonable. I should perhaps clarify that when I say that ‘many’ people are not interested in rational debate I’m thinking about ordinary people here, usually not scientists who have proposed alternative theories. You’d have a very hard time substantiating that this claim is wrong.

  6. Ok, apart from the few cases where you deny what the words you use mean (the ‘denier’ explantion is hilarious in that regard; especially since your rephrasing has the exact same implications), where you cite texts but decline to actually understand how they are argued (Dawkins, like Al Gore in his insufferable movie, does not actually engage in debate, its generally quite insulting to people with brains, though entertaining), where you backpedal, where you claim to talk about “ordinary people” in a reply to a post that is concerned with scientific responses and a public academic climate (absolutely nonsensical), where you deny the logical implications of your points (the some/any nonsense would be a nice example), there isn’t much here, except for a throwing up of hands to say “eh? we’ll never really know.”.

    Huh. Difficult to debate.

  7. Michael Specter, who came up with the denier tag, is an unmitigable idiot. He’s the worst of the militant atheists (the idiot speaks out against organic farming!). The others seem to at least understand the concept of science, even if not religion.
    I rather like Dawkins, whose The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene are awesome and informative books that talk about evolution rather than scoff at anything*, I haven’t read any of the others, and I’m told Hitchens has a firmer grasp of philosophy and other such “non-science” subjects.

    You say that natural science doesn’t explain everything. Can you give a more detailed stance on that? I have an opinion, but I’ll prefer to make a more pointed case about it (hint: it involves Ockham’s razor).

    *I’ve also read The God Delusion that makes a good point about why God probably doesn’t exist, then starts exploring all the wrong things. Example of drivel: if you take away religion, there won’t be any fundamentalists anymore.
    I don’t think he’s done this any other time though, an amount which is okay for me considering that his country has lots of christian fundamentalists.

  8. The first, what, fourth of the blind watchmaker is basically extended scoffing at religious statements, if I remember correctly, the whole books pretends to ‘dismantle’ the blind watchmaker argument, but it does so without stooping to really engage with the others. intra-biological discussion spices up the situation (s j gould)

  9. Ok, your first comment: maybe you misread me. I don’t deny that science can *potentially* explain everything, if we had world enough and time. Ultimately, everything will be able to be scientifically explained, I think, (although the explanation would, to me, seem intrinsically wanting (I’m a skeptic)). So, *poetntially*, yeah. But here and now, it can’t, it’s just not a progressed enough, and instead we have to make do with stupid popular renderings of events that don’t make much sense. If we demand now, as we do, that sciences explain everything, we have to fill in the gaps of what we know with hackneyed speculation, that frequently doesn’t square with some hard facts we already have. Evolutionary Psychology is like the motherlode for that kind of wanking (see the earlier post I link to during my original post).

    Thing is, most scientific work doesn’t try to ‘explain everything’. I strongly distrust any kind of popular rendering of science, whether by Dawkins, Dennett or Gould. Just in case you thought that was the case: that isn’t science. It’s a personal narrative imposed on science, remarkably close to fiction. I strongly recommend reading only footnotes and bibliography and looking up the actual studies, the actual work done. You’re affiliated to some university, yes? If that works as with mine, you’ll have access to countless databanks with millions of articles. This is where the fun is. And where you’ll see that almost every fact supported by an empirical study has another empirical study directly or partially contradicting it.

    If you say “science explains why X happens” that often only means you say “the science I selected to fit MY narrative explains why X happened to my satisfaction”.

    As for Dawkins, I didn’t notice the scoffing myself, since I share(d) his attitude towards religious nuttery and even SJ Gould. Scoffing becomes less visible if you share the basic assumptions, only once you disagree you see the utter lack of openness, of rational debate. For me that turning point was Dawkins’ essay on, I think, postmodern philosophy, in “The Devil’s Chaplain”. Based, if I remember, on the nitwitty book by Socal and Bricmont, it was an eye-opener, not just for me. I keep recommending that essay and sane people keep having similar, ha, let’s call them “conversions”.

  10. On science, that is basically where I stand.
    Well, not quite. There is no way in which science can explain the unrepeatable. But, apart from that, I just think of it as the best knowledge gathering and explaining tool we have.

    And thanks for that information about studies. I never knew that, and will be sure to keep it in mind in my life (I’m a college physics student, but you already seem to know that).

    And I’ll be sure to seek out that essay you talk of.

  11. Mind you, my extensive reading of studies is restricted to biology and empirical linguistics and, more recently, trophology. I have spent some time reading studies in other areas, but there’s only so much time and these are my personal obsessions.

    Thanks for commenting, by the way.

  12. A few things:
    -> I think your experience with studies is more with more “subjective” sciences. Physics or something like it is very mathematical and less open to interpretation. I speak because I have been doing a lot of paper-reading for my project and have found a very honest culture.
    It’s interesting, because I’ve long held that scientists should leave anthropology and other human studies to artists and religions, because of the narrative fallacy. Art, on the other hand, is all about the narrative fallacy.
    But, now that you make me think about it, there are these middle areas like trophology and linguistics which are subject to the narrative fallacy but are rooted in rigorous empiricism.
    -> I skimmed through TBW, and you’re right Dawkins is scoffing. But then, one of the main admitted points of the book is that there is no idea worth considering in Genesis, that it only deserves scoffing.
    -> I don’t know much about post-modernist philosophy, I have to admit, but those guys Dawkins quotes in his essay are from the Deepak Chopra School of Science Interpretation (From Wikipedia: “In 1998, Chopra was awarded the satirical Ig Nobel Prize in physics for ‘his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness'”), and that’s not a school I very much respect.
    -> Finally, and this is not a counter so much as a question, Dawkins seems to be dealing with the mechanism of evolution in his books TSG and TBW, along with discussion of theories. Are you sure that’s applying the narrative fallacy.

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