May 25, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Who’s Denying the Evidence?

An interesting phenomenon is going on among science news reporters: accusations that “denialists” are lurking about.  We are told that deniers or denialists are refusing to accept scientific evidence and are clinging to belief systems in spite of the facts.  That would certainly be a serious charge, but it can also be a mask for a denialist to hide behind.  How is a bystander to decide who is the real denier?
    Controversy has a long tradition in science.  As we saw in the 05/21/2010 entry, some science educators believe vigorous argumentation should be encouraged.  That means that claims should be denied, and counter-claims should be offered in their stead.  Most issues of leading journals have sections where scientists take issue with each other’s positions on recent claims.  In last week’s issue of Science (05/21/2010), for example, there were five letters to the editor, signed by 71 scientists – some of them very well known – arguing about the meteor impact hypothesis for the Cretaceous extinctions.  Undoubtedly the pro-impact scientists feel their evidence is compelling, but what if they resorted to calling their opponents “denialists” for refusing to agree?  Only an emotional divide would result – maybe even a name-calling war.  In the same way, the use of loaded words like denier and denialist must be examined in context to see if it is warranted, or is rather a means of propaganda.
    New Scientist initiated the subject with a special report, “Living in denial.”  The caption lumped together various subjects of questionable affinity in an image of warfare: “From climate change to vaccines, evolution to flu, denialists are on the march.  Why are so many people refusing to accept what the evidence is telling them?”  Right away, readers got a taste of the message New Scientist wanted to convey, and right away, Darwin-loving ex-Christian apostate professional skeptic Michael Shermer was there to preach the opening sermon.  In his message for New Scientist, “Living in Denial: When a skeptic isn’t a skeptic,” Shermer was careful to cloak science in non-ideological terms: “What sometimes happens is that people confuse these two types of questionsscientific and ideological.”  This is the either-or fallacy, failing to recognize that scientism is itself an ideology.  Shermer also set his stage to ensure that he was skeptical of everything except his own skepticism.  “Thus, one practical way to distinguish between a sceptic and a denier is the extent to which they are willing to update their positions in response to new information,” Shermer explained.  “Sceptics change their minds.  Deniers just keep on denying.”  Yet when Shermer was given new information by Stephen Meyer in a debate about Signature in the Cell a few months ago, he did not update his beliefs about intelligent design; he just kept on denying it.
    Next in the series, Deborah MacKenzie continued the theme in New Scientist with her contribution, “Living in denial: Why sensible people reject the truth.”  Her entry was a shameless concoction of association (mixing global warming with evolution with fear of vaccination), fear-mongering (evil corporations, death by HIV, suffering children), and glittering generalities “the systematic rejection of a body of science in favour of make-believe.”  It was hardly worthy of scholarly analysis.
    Richard Panzer’s entry in the New Scientist series, “Living in Denial: How Corporations Manufacture Doubt,” is a short but interesting study about corporate disinformation campaigns.  It does not bear on origins, so is not of direct concern to this news service.  Similarly, Jim Giles’ entry in New Scientist, “Living in Denial: Unleashing a lie,” tells how the Big Lie is hard to stop in the Internet age.  As always, let the buyer beware.  And don’t forward messages without checking them out.
    Michael Fitzpatrick’s entry in the New Scientist series was a blast of cool air in the heat: “Living in denial: Questioning science isn’t blasphemy.”  Contrary to the others, Fitzpatrick encouraged dissent and criticized labeling people as “deniers.”  He said, “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.”  It’s a form of ad hominem attack, he argued: “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,” he continued.  It serves not to refute your opponent so much as to question his motives.  Fitzpatrick did not claim that pseudoscience is not a problem, but insists that name-calling is not the solution.  “Such attempts to combat pseudoscience by branding it a secular form of blasphemy are illiberal and intolerant,” he said.  “They are also ineffective, tending not only to reinforce cynicism about science but also to promote a distrust for scientific and medical authority that provides a rallying point for pseudoscience.
    New Scientist gave Michael Shermer the last word.  In “Living in denial: The Truth is our only weapon,” Shermer implied that truth exists.  So if deniers of truth exist, how should we respond to them?  At least he still believes in the open marketplace of ideas: “My answer is this: let them be heard.  Examine their evidence.  Consider their interpretation.  If they have anything of substance to say, then the truth will out.”  Shermer associated Holocaust deniers with evolution deniers: “Holocaust denial has always been on the fringe, but other forms – notably creationism and climate denial – wield considerable influence and show no signs of going away.  In such cases, eternal vigilance is the price we must pay for both freedom and truth,” he said.  But at least he was thoughtful enough to consider the possibility he could be wrong, or even if not, that his views could someday become the minority – and would not want his views suppressed by the majority.  So Shermer believes in the Golden Rule.  He seems to be reaching into his Christian childhood for concepts of truth and fairness, because it is questionable where he would find such concepts in Darwinism.  Casey Luskin on Evolution News & Views called this a conflicted message.
    Speaking of minorities, Roger Harrabin found himself in a bit of a minority recently at a Climate skeptics rally in Chicago.  As a reporter for the BBC News, he did his best to present the majority in that venue as a bunch of right-wing fanatics, though he did have to acknowledge that among the group was noted geologist and Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmidt, who believes that the current climate change is part of a natural cycle, and some other notable scientists.
    New Scientist has had another series called Culture Lab.  An entry by Amanda Gefter on May 24 bears on the issue of denialism.  Accompanied by a photo of atheist protestors at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, her article, “Tracing the fuzzy boundaries of science,” dealt with the demarcation problem – how does one separate science from pseudoscience?  Gefter acknowledges that the problem is harder than it might seem.  Speaking of the Dover case, she said “It was obvious that the proponents of ID were trying to push a religious agenda into government-funded schools, violating the separation of church and state,” but “Nonetheless, Judge Jones’s task was not simple. He had to rule on whether or not ID is science, and distinguishing science from pseudoscience is harder than it might seem.”  Philosophers have long realized that Karl Popper’s falsification criterion is too simplistic, for instance.
    Instead, Gefter found solace in Nonsense on Stilts: How to tell science from bunk by Massimi Pigliucci (University of Chicago Press), a “brilliant book, which ought to be required reading for, well, everyone.”  How did Pigliucci attempt to solve the demarcation problem?  The “construction and testing of hypotheses with systematic observations or experiments” is not enough.  A science needs “some kind of explanatory framework,” too.  Applying that test to astrology, Gefter explains, shows that there is no explanatory framework for why the constellations, which are mere optical illusions based on our position, could influence our behavior.  General relativity, by contrast, not only makes predictions that have been confirmed but explains what gravity is.  Next, she attempted to apply Pigliucci’s demarcation criteria to intelligent design:

When Judge Jones issued his ruling, he declared that ID is not science because it invokes supernatural causation and because it “employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980s”.  A contrived dualism is a false dichotomy – if evolution is wrong then ID must be right – and it highlights ID’s lack of explanatory power.  ID is nothing more than an attack on evolution; in and of itself it is nothing more than a belief in God.  To see what I mean, try this experiment if you ever find yourself talking to a proponent of ID.  Say, “OK, for the sake of argument let’s say evolution is wrong and let’s forget about it.  Now tell me how intelligent design works.”  Having tried this a few times myself, I am confident that you will be met with nothing but an awkward silence.

Gefter thus ruled ID as pseudoscience, because it is “rooted in religion”.  She and Pigliucci ruled three other things as “almost science– – evolutionary psychology, string theory and SETI, because they are potentially scientific, but not yet grounded in scientific evidence.
    Gefter ended by taking potshots at the extremes: the postmodernism of Foucault, the outlandish claims of Feyerabend, and the relativists.  She positioned herself as a solid progressivist, believing that Bayesian inference and good philosophy of science can nudge us closer and closer to the truth:

The idea that science can’t tell us anything about the objective world just because it is a human activity fraught with human flaws and biases is easily refuted the minute that planes fly or atomic bombs explode.  Scientists, meanwhile, do us a disservice when they promote scientism – the idea that science can answer every meaningful question we might ask about the world.
    Between postmodernism and scientism lies a middle way by which objective knowledge of the world can emerge.  We ought to think about science as a Bayesian algorithm, Pigliucci argues, echoing the sentiment of many contemporary philosophers of science.  Bayesian algorithms calculate probabilities of future events or observations based on prior knowledge.  As we gain new knowledge, we feed that back into the equation, “updating our priors” and leading to increasingly accurate predictions.  In this way, little by little, science nudges us closer to understanding the way the world really is.

Gefter likes philosophy of science – some philosophy of science.  She likes logic – some logic.  “Philosophers of science were some of Judge Jones’s best resources in the Dover trial and they are some of our best resources as a society dealing with the consequences of science in our everyday lives,” she concluded.  “Pigliucci is a perfect example.”  For more on Bayesian induction, see “Bayesian Epistemology” at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, particularly section 6, “Potential Problems.”

There are many names, issues and fallacies in these articles, too many to discuss in detail, but hopefully you latched onto some of them already.
    To whet your appetite, let’s return to a rhetorical projection theme we’ve used before (02/01/2007 commentary) that is not that unbelievable historically.  The Darwinians are usurpers, who have overtaken the castle of science and driven the rightful owners out.  They have taken over walls and monuments they did not build, leaving the founders and builders camped outside.  The Darwin Party also took ownership of the army and propaganda machinery.  Every time the rightful owners demand entry, the usurpers lob stinkbombs over the walls and laugh.  Meanwhile, the Darwin Party propaganda machine keeps the peasants inside persuaded that they are the true owners.  They set up a Sacred Tree in the temple shrine dedicated to King Charles, whom they parade regularly in his New Clothes at regular intervals with pomp and bombast.  Anyone who steps out of line is quickly expelled and sent outside the walls.  To maintain the illusion of scientific fairness, occasional parleys with the enemy are arranged, but these are carefully controlled such that the enemy is never given any real power or opportunity for rebuttal in the Party-controlled media, which carefully filter what the peasants are allowed to hear.  But lately, the peasants have been seeing increasing anxiety on the part of their handlers.  Whispers are going around that the New Clothes are not what they seem; messages from outside the wall are getting through that maybe they can trust their eyes after all.
    Simplistic?  Perhaps.  New Scientist has offered more nuanced material than this, but it is still very one-sided and filtered.  Here’s Shermer: “We KNOW that evolution is a fact fact fact and the creationists are a bunch of narrow-minded, bigoted pseudoscientific simpletons who won’t go away no matter how much I wish they would, but for a moment, I’ll grant the slightest, remote possibility that they might have a grain of truth in some of the things they are saying, and if we stomp on them too hard, and they win the masses and turn on us, they might take revenge, which could hurt my retirement, so we’d better play nice and endure them and just try to listen to them and convince them, because the TRUTH is our only weapon.”  Isn’t he just charming.  Dr. Shermer, you loving little skeptic, you, tell us: where did truth come from?  Did it evolve?  If truth evolves, is it really the truth?  Where did the Golden Rule come from?  Did you find it in Origin of Species?  If a rule evolves, is it really a rule?  If a different rule can take its place tomorrow, was it ever golden?  Suppose we do become the majority someday, and decide your kind are a danger to society, and should all be locked up.  Explain on what moral grounds you should stop us other than survival of the fittest.
    Here’s Amanda Gefter, a materialist charismatic (04/11/2009): “Philosophy of science is wonderful – as long as I get to pick the philosophers that allow me to punch a creationist.  Finding demarcation criteria between science and pseudoscience is hard – but Pigliucci is such a genius, he made it easy.  He’s almost as great a philosopher of science as Judge John E. Jones.  I never realized how easy it is.  Give me a bag and let me write ‘explanatory framework’ on it, and give me another bag and let me write ‘Empty’ on it, and I get to decide which systems to put in one bag or the other.  I don’t like intelligent design’s explanatory filter, so I’m going to put it into the Empty bag.  I don’t like having to explain how chance works in Darwinism, so I’m going to dodge that and ask an I.D. person how God works.  I don’t like having to explain Darwinist miracles of emergence, so I’m going to tease I.D. people by forcing them to tell how intelligent agents work.  Of course, I don’t ask that of SETI people, so we’ll put them in the halfway house and call them ‘almost scientists’.  But I digress.  Back to our mission: let’s all follow the Yellow Bayes Road and we will someday reach the Wizard of Understanding!”  Isn’t she just charming, Pigliucci tales and all.  Thank goodness Fitzpatrick was there to bring us back to Kansas (12/05/2008).

Leave a Reply