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.


  1. I’m wary of taking Plato as the last word on the sophists. His own account of them is highly sophistical, in the negative sense, and highly rhetorical. Look at the way his character Gorgias is made to feed straight lines to Socrates. As for truth: Plato’s approach is at times metaphorical (the cave), at times mythical (the creation story in the Timaeus), and usually in service of a highly abstract, ideal form of absolute truth that is not accessible to the senses except in mediated or corrupt form. Aristotle, for all his faults, is a much more congenial hero for modern empiricists and debunkers than Plato.

    As for the first debunker: Xenophanes of Colophon or Hecataeus of Miletus, both of whom flourished c. 500 BCE, are better candidates. Xenophanes is reported to have said that all men make their gods in their own image, and that if oxen had gods, they would look like oxen. Hecataeus wrote, “I write what I deem true; for the stories of the Greeks are manifold and seem to me ridiculous.”

  2. Anonymous

    Isn’t Gorgias the original straw man? Socrates should present a verbatim argument with a real sophist. But there was no way to do that in those days, so he set up his own to knock down.

  3. It seems like the object lesson is that slick rhetoric is a better persuader than facts.

  4. Physicalist

    Exactly! Brilliant post.

  5. I love Socrates to be thrown around (I studied philosophy before medicine – and mathematics before philosophy) in discussions.

    BUT does this make the physicians always right? Yes, there are quacks out there (and I don’t like them and wish my patients wouldn’t fall for them!). BUT I am bothered by mindless procedures and not-so-harmless pills when lifestyle changes would accomplish the same or more.

    Denialism is not only practiced by quacks and their followers. Also by physicians. As a physician myself, I want to look at what I am doing and ask: Is it useful? Does it harm? Who makes the money here?

  6. And do you, Dr. F., have some reason to think that science-based medicine suffers from as much or more quackery than woo?

  7. 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.

    The dialogue seems to be between Socrates and Gorgias not Plato and Gorgias unless you’re doing an extract from the dialogues.

    BTW, Plato and Socrates were deeply anti-democratic and were advocates for governance by the elite. Well blow me over.

  8. Nevermind on Socrates/Plato dialog — I followed the link and see it’s an extract from Plato’s Gorgias; it’s just worded clumsily above in the setup, although it remains entertaining that Socrates is used as the model.

  9. Ted:

    Plato’s dialogues are almost always dialogues between Socrates and other people. Plato never speaks directly in the dialogues: they’re like plays.

    The character Socrates in the dialouges shouldn’t be confused with the historical Socrates, but of course the former is based on the latter.

    To what extent Plato’s dialouges inform us about the real Socrates (or anything else historical) is the subject of endless scholarly debates.

  10. Brian:

    MarkH is promoting Plato as a debunker of denialism – not as a debunker of anything at all.

    One of Plato’s principal concerns is what actually happens in debate and discourse, and on this topic he shows himself to be very sophisticated, much more so than Aristotle (who’s mainly concerned with his own views), and in fact than most philosophers. He shows people trying to win debates by trickery such as moving goalposts, applying inconsistent criteria, and resorting to bombast – the dialogues sound like the blogosphere a lot of the time!

    He also shows people who aren’t really trying to win a debate at all but just trying to score points, and other things besides.

    Whereas we don’t really know all that much about Xenophanes. We do know that he was either a monotheist or a henotheist, though, and his point about the oxen-gods was an attack on anthropomorphism, not on theism – iconoclasm sure, blasphemy maybe, but perhaps not the kind you thought.

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