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creationism

The How and Why of Denialism

From evolution to vaccinations to global warming, something I encounter on a regular basis on television and the internet is denialism, rejecting the scientific evidence in favor of an alternative… an alternative which could be anything from pure woo to scientific-sounding arguments: “Just have faith” to “irreducible complexity.” Denialism is something that invariably causes a collective sigh an eye roll from the skeptic community because logical and fact-based responses seem to have no effect on denialists.

An article from the European Journal of Public Health defines denialism as “the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists.” The article goes on to identify five common characteristics of denialism. I’ve seen all of these “in the wild,” but items one through three are the ones I see most often.

These five characteristics were summarized by Debora MacKenzie in a New Scientist opinion piece titled Living in denial: Why sensible people reject the truth and are as follows:

  1. Allege that there’s a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
  2. Use fake experts to support your story. “Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility,” says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
  3. Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
  4. Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
  5. Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.

MacKenzie also adds a sixth characteristic.

Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.

In the New Scientist piece, MacKenzie looks at the “why” of denialism.

This depressing tale [about swine flu] is the latest incarnation of denialism, the systematic rejection of a body of science in favour of make-believe. There’s a lot of it about, attacking evolution, global warming, tobacco research, HIV, vaccines – and now, it seems, flu. But why does it happen? What motivates people to retreat from the real world into denial?

Her approach uses a softer glove than many skeptics use, avoiding outright condemnation of deniers but instead making an attempt to understand how denialism spreads: identifying common characteristics, tactics (above), causes, motives, and possible solutions.

The most notable common characteristic that MacKenzie defines is this.

All [denialists] set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people.

I can anecdotally confirm that statement, both in my personal life and in my readings.

Where MacKenzie goes after that is to a hypothesis that what really triggers denialism is a sense of loss of control… a hypothesis that seems a good fit to the major denialist issues.

It is this sense of loss of control that really matters. In such situations, many people prefer to reject expert evidence in favour of alternative explanations that promise to hand control back to them, even if those explanations are not supported by evidence

All denialisms appear to be attempts like this to regain a sense of agency over uncaring nature: blaming autism on vaccines rather than an unknown natural cause, insisting that humans were made by divine plan, rejecting the idea that actions we thought were okay, such as smoking and burning coal, have turned out to be dangerous.

She goes on to explain that this position is not necessarily malicious or anti-science. They simply require a human reaction.

It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts. Denialist explanations may be couched in sciency language, but they rest on anecdotal evidence and the emotional appeal of regaining control.

The origins of denialist claims are another matter, and MacKenzie talks about how many of the more prominent claims (tobacco, global warming) got their start with corporate backing, how deniers tend to attract other deniers, and how claims become politically and religiously charged.

The European Journal of Public Health article isn’t as philosophical in its analysis of denialist motivations, but hits home nonetheless.

Denialists are driven by a range of motivations. For some it is greed, lured by the corporate largesse of the oil and tobacco industries. For others it is ideology or faith, causing them to reject anything incompatible with their fundamental beliefs. Finally there is eccentricity and idiosyncrasy, sometimes encouraged by the celebrity status conferred on the maverick by the media.

Whatever the motivations (personal, political, financial, etc), the one thing that remains true among denialist claims is their distortion (or complete rejection) of the truth. For many issues, such as vaccinations and global warming, denialism has caused and will cause lives to be lost. For others, such as the rejection of evolution, their positions simply contribute to the “dumbing down” of America.

The frustration of dealing with most deniers is the almost impenetrable armor of ignorance they wear which deflects attempts at presenting actual evidence, be it factual or logical. They counter by trotting out any of the tactics listed at the beginning of this article, selecting the one that best fits the topic at hand. Cherry pick this evidence. Trot out this fake expert. Rage about this conspiracy theory.

When all else fails, bring up Hitler.

(h/t)

Assertions Are Easy

Vampire Bat Some people wonder why evolution isn’t more accepted than it is. Despite the monumental amount of evidence in multiple fields of scientific inquiry, those pesky creationists, bringing up the same tired arguments, sometimes seem like B-movie zombies. No matter how many times they get smacked down, they keep coming back to torment scientifically-minded, rational people with their brainless moaning and logic resistance.

It’s not that they have anything new. Oh, sure. Occasionally a new bit of scientific evidence will be discovered… a fossil, some DNA functionality, a new species in a remote location… and they’ll latch onto it and somehow manage to twist it into something they claim supports intelligent design or a young Earth, but it doesn’t. Aside from that, it’s the same old stuff. Why, then, won’t their arguments die?

Because assertions are easy.

For example…

Transylvania has the largest population of vampire bats in the world, which is why vampire legends originated there.

See how easy that was? Does it sound reasonable? Sure it does, as long as you don’t know anything about vampire bats (or vampire legends). It took me about 20 seconds to come up with that claim and type the sentence. How long would it take you, if you don’t actually know any data about vampire bats, to refute my statement?

The internet helps, but you have to have motivation. Wikipedia is an obvious and expedient place to visit. Here’s what you find out from the Wikipedia article

Vampire bats are bats whose food source is blood, a dietary trait called hematophagy. There are three bat species that feed solely on blood: the Common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), the Hairy-legged Vampire Bat (Diphylla ecaudata), and the White-winged Vampire Bat (Diaemus youngi). All three species are native to the Americas, ranging from Mexico to Brazil, Chile, and Argentina.

There you go. All the known species of vampire bats are native to the Americas. What if you don’t know where Transylvania is? Another visit to Wikipedia lets you know it’s in Romania… which isn’t part of either of the Americas. So it would seem that my statement has been soundly refuted and put to rest.

Or has it?

Oh no, I say.

There used to be another species of vampire bat that was native to Romania, but it went extinct over 100 years ago. Vampire legends started well before the bats went extinct.

Now what? The Wikipedia article says nothing of an extinct species of vampire bat. There’s nothing in the Romania information that states anything about vampire bats being native to the country. If you want to do more research into debunking my claim, you’re going to have to spend a bunch of time searching the internet… to refute something that you’re 99% sure is completely bogus, anyway.

But how much time did I spend on my claim? Not much… perhaps under a minute… and if I really believe what I’m saying, I’m going to start making that statement all over the place to anyone who will give me 30 seconds of his time or to any place that will allow me to post my nonsense. By the time I’ve reached 1,000 people, you’d still be trying to confirm whether there actually was a species of vampire bat in Romania 100 years ago.

Then suddenly you’ll find that someone else is saying that vampire bats lived in Romania 100 years ago, but they’re saying that bones were found that prove it… and that the bats were as large as ravens… and a group of scientists is researching whether or not they preyed on human babies.

What… is… going… on?!?

Assertions are easy.

It’s what creationists do. They shovel on the assertions (Gish Gallop, anyone?) and then, when their assertions are left unchallenged, they declare victory… and spread the news. It takes very little time to make assertions, but gathering evidence and presenting a logical refutation takes quite a bit of time (in comparison). Even if you already know the evidence and the refutation, it generally takes more time and effort to deliver it.

It’s not just creationists, though. Politicians do it. So do their opponents… especially protestors. Scientology does it (Fair Game doctrine). Climate change deniers do it. Moon hoaxers do it. Obama birthers do it. Sometimes, to add to their pseudo credibility, they’ll actually add facts to back up their claims… but only the facts that support their arguments. They’ll leave out contradictory facts or simply leave their facts out of context. They’ll misquote an expert (or quote mine). They’ll twist words.

When moon hoaxers do it, it’s amusing (unless you’re Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin). Nobody really takes them seriously. When creationists do it, it’s more serious because they want to teach our children to believe their nonsense… and they frequently want it in our schools. When climate change deniers do it, it can be dangerous in the long term… and just irresponsible.

Am I doing it right now? Sort of… but not really. These are my opinions based on my observations. I’m sure plenty of examples can be found where creationists have provided valid scientific data to irrefutably support their arguments.

*snicker* …or not.

Conspiracy Theories and Other Muddled Thinking

Illuminati and Conspiracy Theories Almost everyone laughs at Flat-Earthers, people who actually believe that the Earth is flat despite all evidence to the contrary. Most people also laugh at the Moon-Hoaxers, the folks who think that we never landed on the moon and that it’s all just a conspiracy with elaborately faked footage, photos, and reports. Conspiracy theorists in general provide a good laugh for most rational people, whether it’s talk of alien abductions, secret government programs with captured spaceships, crop circles, the Illuminati taking control of the world, or government mind control drugs in public water.

There’s a long history of conspiracy theory and one would think that that history would be just that… history… a thing of the past. Barring a few fringe groups, we don’t expect to see people outright denying scientifically proven facts or making accusations of secret, intricate, tangled webs of clockwork precision government cover-ups.

Yet we have just that… and not just among small “fringe” groups. Here’s a short list (in addition to the ones already mentioned).

  • 9/11 Conspiracy Theorists – claim that the US government caused the twin towers to collapse.
  • Lizard-People Conspiracy Theorists – claim that lizard-people are running the world (seriously).
  • AIDS Conspiracy Theorists – claim that AIDS is a man-made disease cooked up in a lab.
  • Obama Birthers – deny that Obama is a US citizen (or that it hasn’t been documented).
  • Global Warming Deniers – deny that global warming is occurring or is affected by human activity.
  • Creationism Proponents – deny that evolution by natural selection explains the diversity of life on Earth.
  • Holocaust Deniers – claim the Holocaust never happened.
  • Anti-Vaxxers – claim that vaccines cause autism.
  • 2012 Alarmists – claim that, since the Mayan calendar ends in December of 2012, the world will end.

I’m sure there are many more. Some of the ideas are absurd because of historical evidence, some because of scientific evidence, and some because of their sheer implausibility (backed up by no evidence). Some are combinations.

A common thread, however, is that each of them ignores or denies actual evidence contradictory to its premise. In some cases, their proponents will fabricate evidence, making scientific or historical claims that are patently false in an attempt to bolster their case. Using outdated, no-longer-relevant data is also a common tactic, whether through ignorance or malicious intent.

What is the motivation for people to believe and perpetuate these absurd claims? Sometimes it’s politics. Sometimes it’s religion. Sometimes it’s an overactive imagination. There are plenty of other psychological reasons proposed.

sleestack01 Is this a big deal? Are conspiracy theories just good fun or are they harmful or dangerous? In some cases, like the lizard-people idea, they’re harmlessly silly and don’t gain enough traction in popular culture to cause anything other than snickering and pretend horror. In other cases, such as Holocaust deniers and 9/11 conspiracy theorists, they can cause emotional pain for those who are close to the event in question. In the worse cases, the conspiracy theories can gain enough traction to cause political turmoil, educational degradation, and even health risks. Global warming deniers, creationists, and anti-vaxxers are perfect examples of these.

Potentially dangerous effects aside, these conspiracy theories show a lack of critical thinking skills and/or a lack of understanding of science. Perhaps they demonstrate an innate distrust for any authority figure… to the point of automatically assuming that anything said by an authority figure is innately false or misleading (regardless of whether or not the figure in question has anything to gain by misleading the public). Perhaps they simply indicate a complete lack of curiosity, their proponents believing everything they hear without any skepticism at all. Politics and religion can also entrench someone firmly in a position that is rationally indefensible.

It’s the groups whose ideas have a tangible, negative effect on society that concern me the most. Folks who believe that lizard-people are controlling the Earth are relatively harmless and somewhat amusing. It’s the people who think that our activities don’t have an affect on our planet’s warming and who want to block any action we could take to limit that affect… or it’s those who feel that it’s okay to teach our children that our world was created by magic, corrupting science education, instead of teaching them the real science behind the wondrous way in which life evolved on our planet… or it’s the people who publicly mislead doting parents with bogus claims that childhood vaccines cause autism, leading those parents to forgo protecting their children which, in turn, leads to everyone else’s health being put in danger.

Those are the conspiracy theorists that I have a problem with. Those are the people who have a detrimental effect on society. Those are the people whose blindness to rationality, evidence, and critical thinking cause harm to the rest of the world. They cheapen our existence, mislead our children, endanger our health, corrupt our national discourse, and create hostile divisions where there should be none… and they will defend their absurd positions with a ferocious certainty that is completely unwarranted by evidence.

What’s the solution? In my opinion… education. Starting in grade school, children need to be taught how to think, not what to think. Critical thinking skills are… well… critical. The scientific method needs to be understood… not just science facts, but the why and how of the facts. And these skills need to be taught, not just to school children, but to adults.

As for those adults who refuse to accept evidence and continue to scream their absurdities from the rooftops, they need to be countered… loudly, frequently, and eloquently. We cannot silence them by removing their right to free speech, but we can do everything in our power to point out their muddled thinking, debunk their bogus conclusions, and reveal them for the charlatans they are. They should be embarrassed by their own silliness and we need to hold up a mirror to them, giving them a perfect view of their intellectual ugliness. They will complain, accuse, deny, quite possibly lie… and they will be loud.

We need to be louder.

Note: Cross posted from Rationality Now.