Denialists should not be debated

Orac has brought up the interesting point that debating the homeopaths at U. Conn might not be a good idea.

On a related note, in a post derriding attacks on consensus I was asked by commenters if isn’t it incumbent on science to constantly respond to debate; to never let scientific questions be fully settled. And I understand where they’re coming from. These ideas represent the enlightened ideals of scientific inquiry, free speech, and fundamental fairness.

However, they’re also hopelessly misplaced in regard to the problem at hand. That is, denialists, cranks, quacks, etc., are not interested in legitimate debate or acting as honest brokers trying to bring clarity to a given issue through discussion. Orac dances around this issue a little bit, talking about the challenges of debates with pseudoscientists because they are hard to pin down, but the fundamental problem, simply put, is the absence of honesty and standards. Academia and science are critically dependent on debate, this is true, but the prerequisite for having the debate is having people who are honestly interested in pursuing the truth and operate using the same rules of evidence and proof. It’s not about censoring dissent, which the cranks insist is the issue in their eternal pursuit of persecution. It’s about having standards for evidence and discussion. This is why these debates, when confined to a courtroom, often fare so disastrously for the denialists. In the presence of standards that exist before evidence can be introduced, they are left with nothing.

In what is probably the best book on denialist tactics Deborah Lipstadt’s “Denying the Holocaust”, are the best arguments for not engaging in debate with denialists. Now, I realize we’re not talking about scum-of-the-earth holocaust deniers here, but the fact is, the tactics and the methods are ultimately the same no matter how noble or evil the motive. Just because the motives or ideologies of the other cranks or denialists are different, doesn’t mean that they don’t have the exact same flaws in their arguments, use of evidence, or fundamental honesty. Lipstadt explains the risks then of entering into debates with deniers:

Shouldn’t we hear their ideas, opinions, or point of view? Their willingness to scribe to the deniers and their myths of the legitimacy of a point of view is of great, if not greater concern than are the activities of the deniers themselves. What is wrong, I am repeatedly asked, with people hearing a “different perspective”? Unable to make the distinction between genuine historiography and the deniers’ purely ideological exercise, those who see the issue in this light are important assets in the deniers’ attempts to spread their claims. This is precisely the deniers’ goal: They aim to confuse the matter by making it appear as if they are engaged in a genuine scholarly effort when, of course, they are not

I tend to agree. Lipstadt’s book really is fantastic for understanding denialism in general, because, in a way, holocaust denial has resisted oblivion for so many years by refining their tactics to the point that it’s often difficult even for smart people to realize the true objectives of the debater. Inherent in these calls for open debate, like this recent appeal from evolution denialists to extend their debate in science magazine, is an attempt to hide the ideological agenda in favor of ideals appealing to scientists – like openness, free inquiry, and fairness. However, one only needs to look closely at how they operate to see that they are liars. This suggestion that ID isn’t creationism is, of course, hysterical considering the textbook of intelligent design from these cranks shows all they did to upgrade it from creationism was to do a “find-and-replace”. Sometimes poorly, as shown here in a slide I took from John Lynch that was also shown at the Dover trial:
There is a reason that Judge Jones basically called them pathetic liars in his decision – they clearly are.

Lipstadt described this phenomenon 15 years ago with regard to Holocaust denial:

One of the tactics the deniers use to achieve their ends is to camouflage their goals. In an attempt to hide the fact the fact that they are fascists and antisemites with a specific ideological and political agenda–they state that their objective is to uncover historical falsehoods, all historical falsehoods. Thus they have been able to sow confusion among even the products of the highest echelons of the American educational establishment.

Do you see the parallels in tactics? Intelligent design isn’t creationism (ignore the find-and-replace) it’s an alternative theory! They just want to make sure they keep the Darwinists honest by suggesting an alternative hypothesis and honest debate! They’re for inquiry into all possible avenues of explaining the origin of life! Hooray for open-mindedness!

Not bloody likely. Between the findings of the Dover trial, and of course, the Wedge Document explicitly stating their ideological objectives, it becomes very clear, very quickly, the denialists simply aren’t being honest. This is camouflage, don’t believe it.

You may ask then, so what if they’re dishonest? What’s then the big deal with debating them? Well, because you’re helping them achieve their goals! This is what they want, to spread their ideas and create the illusion of legitimate debate, when in reality there is none.

Lipstadt’s argument for ultimately dismissing this “reasonable” approach – as repeatedly suggested by multiple commenters – is as relevant to this debate as it is with any other denier, and I must quote it extensively, since it’s dead-on:

Many years ago the prominent German historian Theodor Mommsen warned that it would be a mistake to believe that reason alone was enough to keep people from believing such falsehoods. If this were the case, he said, then racism, antisemitism, and other forms of prejudice would find no home. To expect rational dialogue to constitute the sole barriers against the attempts to deny the Nazi annihilations of European Jewry would be to ignore one of the ultimate lessons of the event itself: Reasoned dialogue has limited ability to withstand an assault by the mythic power of falsehood, especially when that falsehood is rooted in an age-old social and cultural phenomenon…

The vast majority of intellectuals in the Western world have not fallen prey to these falsehoods. But some have succumbed in another fashion, supporting Holocaust denial in the name of free speech, free inquiry or intellectual freedom. An absolutist commitment to the liberal idea of dialogue may cause its proponents to fail to realize that there is a significant difference between reasoned dialogue and anti-intellectual pseudoscientific arguments. They have failed to make the critical distinction between a conclusion, however outrageous it may be, that has been reached through reasonable inquiry and the use of standards of evidence, on the one hand, and ideological extremism that rejects anything that contradicts its preset conclusions, on the other.

I too admire Steve Novella and all the others who promote true skeptical behavior and attack pseudoscience, I consider him a friend and colleague. However, I also believe this debate is a tactical error and I would respectfully disagree with his decision to engage the pseudoscientists in this fashion. I think Steve would ultimately wipe the ground with these cranks, and people who are convinced by evidence and reason would have no problem seeing the foolishness of believing in magic water. The problem is the value of this debate to the cranks, for whom it brings legitimacy and publicity, which is what they crave more than anything, while the people who see the skeptics wreak havoc on homeopathic nonsense will be limited to the confines of the lecture hall. To my critics who think it is wrong to be dismissive of crankery and denialism and who think I’m being unfair, I must emphasize that fairness is not at issue when you argue with people who are too dishonest, or too incompetent, to use reasonable standards of evidence and inquiry.

The goal instead must be to enforce standards of scientific debate, to delimit sharply what kind of evidence and argument is worthy of being listened to, to educate people about the form of pseudoscientific arguments, and when these arguments are proffered, to refuse to engage on the grounds they aren’t even worthy of consideration.

Don’t mistake denialism for debate…