A history of denialism – the ancients

This week I think I’m going to spend some time discussing denialism throughout history. In part inspired by the recent attacks on some of the most effective scientific communicators we have by by Mooney and Matthew Nisbet, and PalMD’s post on some modern thinking by “ancients” I feel like it’s time to provide some more historical context to debunking bullshit, and the long and honorable tradition of debunking by the world’s greatest thinkers and communicators. We’re going to start a little bit light with my nomination of Plato as history’s first debunker.

You see, Plato had to deal with some BS artists in his day. They were known as the sophists, traveling teachers of the youth who purported to teach the sons of the wealthy knowledge and virtue. However there was a problem. The sophists weren’t so much interested in teaching the kiddies philosophy, or how to find truth and improve human understanding of the world, they were only interested in winning arguments at any costs. In other words, they would teach the children of the wealthy how to use any dirty rhetorical trick they could think of to win people over and gain power. Charming group really.

So along comes Plato, student of Socrates, and he’s not happy. He believed that people should be interested in seeking truth and understanding of the world. In his eyes the sloppy rhetoric and moral relativism of the sophists was ultimately corrupt and unworthy. His criticisms of the sophists are therefore a source of joy for any student of denialism. In particular, I believe that we should single out Plato’s dialogue Gorgias for an early discussion of denialist BS, and perhaps the earliest refutation of quackery that I’ve seen.

Socrates: You were saying, in fact, that the rhetorician will have, greater powers of persuasion than the physician even in a matter of health?

Gorgias: Yes, with the multitude-that is.

Soc. You mean to say, with the ignorant; for with those who know he cannot be supposed to have greater powers of persuasion.

Gor. Very true.

Soc. But if he is to have more power of persuasion than the physician, he will have greater power than he who knows?

Gor. Certainly.

Soc. Although he is not a physician:-is he?

Gor. No.

Soc. And he who is not a physician must, obviously, be ignorant of what the physician knows.

Gor. Clearly.

Soc. Then, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant is more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge?-is not that the inference?

Gor. In the case supposed:-Yes.

Soc. And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?

Gor. Yes, Socrates, and is not this a great comfort?-not to have learned the other arts, but the art of rhetoric only, and yet to be in no way inferior to the professors of them?

Ha! What does that sound like?

The debunkers of the world are part of a long and noble history of those who wouldn’t tolerate BS and were willing to stand up against it in any form. Plato certainly won the historical fight. Today sophist is used as an epithet, and to say someone is just using rhetoric (although unfair to the legitimate study of rhetoric) is the same as calling someone a bullshitter. Therefore today I recognize Plato as a founding father of debunking denialism.

GORGIAS by Plato translated by Benjamin Jowett, available at GreekTexts.com.