Some Generalizations

One of the few advantages of having no time is that when I do get around to sorting through my RSS feeds of various denialists is that I end up seeing patterns I didn’t observe as much when I tracked these jokers day-to-day. So, inspired by BPSDB I decided I’m going to share some generalizations.


For one, I feel rewarded by my previous study of denialists and cranks. Given that I have no time to deal with the incredible mass of BS that they generate daily, looking through their output I don’t feel particularly inspired to challenge anything in particular they have to say. After all, it’s just the same old nonsense every single day. One of the obvious generalizations you come to looking at a few weeks output of the DI, or a typical global-warming denialist is that one of the critical differences between a denialist and a real scientific site is that real scientists are interested in a synthesis or cohesive understanding of the world. Scientists are interested in making all the pieces fit, and if there is a new or challenging piece of information they are interested in finding a way to include it in an existing framework of knowledge. As we discussed in the Crank HOWTO and Unified Theory of the Crank almost a year ago, the denialist is quite different. All you see out of them is a haphazard assortment of ideas, and the only unifying theme is that, at least to them, it all contradicts scientific theories they are unwilling to accept.

It may be hard to explain but my current approach to my RSS feed is quite different than it used to be. I think that we’ve been successful in communicating to the blogosphere the importance of standards in writing about and critically understanding science. When I see many of the other sciencebloggers (both inside and outside of the sb network) writing about pseudoscience they’ve adopted much of our language because I think they implicitly understand the divide between those who are interested in honest debate and the scientific method and those who strive only to challenge that which they fear or misunderstand.

I think it’s a subtle point, and something you only see when you see the work of a group in aggregate, but it’s one of the more powerful indicators of whether someone is an honest actor interested in the truth and the scientific method. When you look at their output over time, is it just a haphazard set of attacks on that which they dislike, or is it an enthusiasm for exploration and accumulation of knowledge with an emphasis on making the world fit together in a logical and consistent way?

It also demonstrates a critical flaw in the way that scientific news is reported, because many of the science aggregators and mainstream news organizations fail according to this standard. If the motivation behind publication is only to generate buzz or readership the result is a haphazard set of reports on whatever is hot and new, and not necessarily a reflection of the literature as a whole, a common theme we complain about here on scienceblogs. Good science has to age a little bit, and every new result, with some exceptions, shouldn’t hit the lay press without qualification because all that generates is confusion and resentment among the population. Science is not nearly so fickle as a the mainstream reporting of it would have you believe.

Maybe my attitude will change when I have more time to write. I think in about 2 more weeks I will be able to write a little bit more regularly and bring the pain on these denialist jackasses. However, in the meantime, I’m enjoying being able to just zip through my RSS feed, spotting the tactics, and just moving on…


  1. Good stuff, and it’s great to have you guys on board at

    On the subject of science reporting, I think the Dover case had a huge impact on the way the mainstream media reports on Intelligent Design. There’s a lot less of the “he said, she said” equal time crap; even movie critics are seeing Expelled for the propaganda that it is.

    One of these days the media will learn that pseudoscience by any other name is still pseudoscience, and antivaccination woo, global warming denialism, HIV denialism and all other forms of woo will be treated accordingly.

  2. “Scientists are interested in making all the pieces fit”

    Does minimizing the misfit via the least squares method fall into this category?

    In any case, I agree with your take on what the media gets wrong…

  3. Although, to be fair, the press releases issued by the research organizations to the media often fail this test as well- so the point of desciencization may be the paper/ press release transition.

  4. The press release problem is one of my longtime pet peeves, and I always feel compelled to point out that it’s not just the fault of the reporters or even the PR department. Often the researchers themselves are part of it. Perhaps the most common problem they introduce is the attempt to make their findings seems more newsworthy by downplaying how it fits into previous science findings and/or expectations. This distorts how science works by making it seem like there’s a revolution and overthrow on a regular, frequent basis, and you throw out all previous findings. (You can even find paraphrases of that “throwing out” in a lot of stories due to this method).

    There are other problems introduced in this PR process, like the catchy but misleading nickname for the finding. An example of this is “Mitochrondrial Eve”, and it’s also an example of the researchers being the culprits. Although when the phrase backfired and caused the entirely predictable problems with creationism (and general understanding of the idea as well), the lead researcher professed to be annoyed and confused as to how that catchy but horibly misleading phrase got tied up with their work, he was actually the one who came up with it and pushed it for years.

  5. You’ve touched on a whole range of issues here with the popular press. The problem is that while the mainstream news organizations fail according to out standards, they succeed in terms of reaching a wider audience, even on the internet.

    Worryingly, they’re increasingly relying on content given to them by various PR departments. A study by Cardiff University’s Journalism Dept. reported in a book just released in the U.K. (Flat Earth News by Nick Davies) concluded that 80% of stories in The Time, Telegraph, Guardian and Independent were “wholly, mainly or partially constructed from second-hand material, provided by news agencies and by the public relations industry”.

    Science reporting is controlled by science editors, and I think this is where the battle against quackery needs to be fought if anyone is serious about tackling it effectively. Anyway, I’ve just written about this on (shameless plug) my own blog over at So I’ll stop ranting here!

    Take care,

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