Slate parses some crankery

Slate has a series of three articles on what editor Daniel Engber refers to as “the paranoid style”. Starting with A crank’s progress, sliding into a review of Doubt is their product, and finishing with a spot-on review of Expelled he runs the guantlet of modern denialism. He also happens to hit upon the major commonalities between all pseudoscientists, which of course I find gratifying. For instance, read his description of Berlinski and how he nails the truisms in detecting the false skeptic:

Forgive me if I don’t pause here to defend the conventional wisdom on evolution and cosmology. (Click here or here for a more expert appraisal.) That would be beside the point. Berlinski’s radical and often wrong-headed skepticism represents an ascendant style in the popular debate over American science: Like the recent crop of global-warming skeptics, AIDS denialists, and biotech activists, Berlinski uses doubt as a weapon against the academy–he’s more concerned with what we don’t know than what we do. He uses uncertainty to challenge the scientific consensus; he points to the evidence that isn’t there and seeks out the things that can’t be proved. In its extreme and ideological form, this contrarian approach to science can turn into a form of paranoia–a state of permanent suspicion and outrage. But Berlinski is hardly a victim of the style. He’s merely its most methodical practitioner.

Don’t mistake denialism for debate, it is merely the amplification of doubt using tactics no self-respecting scientist should use.

His review of Expelled is also worthy of note, in particular I enjoy how expands the type of analysis used by Stein et. al to other denialists like anti-vax denialists and the HIV/AIDS denialism such as that published by Harpers. He correctly points out that Harpers is a crap magazine, and that it rejoices in anti-intellectual attacks on science.

Expelled extends this contrarian approach with one more question: If God might be right, then why are scientists trying so hard to deny His existence? The suppression of faith starts to look like a concerted effort, and so doubt gives way to paranoid science. A skeptic cites bad evidence and sloppy data; the paranoid finds the books have been cooked. A skeptic frets over thoughtless conformism; the paranoid grows frantic about conspiracy.

The proponents of intelligent design are far from the only critics of mainstream science whose skepticism has taken on the trappings of conspiracy theory. In a 2005 article for Salon and Rolling Stone, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. reported on a top-secret meeting in rural Georgia where high-level government officials and pharmaceutical executives worked to cover up the link between children’s vaccines and autism. (No such link has been found.) The public utilities are still accused, as they have been for more than 50 years, of conspiring against America’s youth by fluoridating the water supply. And skeptics of the obesity epidemic point out that the media collude with pharmaceutical companies to feed a booming weight-loss industry. Paranoid science reveals nonmedical conspiracies, too–impenetrable ballistics data form the basis for a theory of the assassination of JFK, and the calculations of structural engineering cast doubt on the official story of 9/11.

More below the fold

Or consider another line of conspiratorial thinking in science, which made it into Harper’s in March of 2006. Celia Farber’s essay, “Out of Control: AIDS and the corruption of medical science,” displays all the classic signs of paranoia: Over the course of 12,000 words, she argues that the syndrome we call AIDS has not been linked definitively to the HIV virus–and that our commitment to treating it with anti-retroviral drugs reflects a deadly and deliberate misconstruction of the facts.

Like the producers of Expelled, Farber portrays mainstream, government-funded science as a repressive regime intolerant of dissent. The victimized academic in this scenario is University of California-Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg, who wonders why AIDS sometimes appears without any sign of HIV infection, and why no one has yet demonstrated the mechanism by which the virus kills off our immune system’s helper T-cells. (He proposes instead that AIDS is a “chemical syndrome,” resulting from heavy drug use; for ample evidence to the contrary, click here.)

Harper’s has shown a peculiar affinity, over the years, for contrarian science: In addition to the Farber piece, the magazine has run repeated attacks on the theory of evolution from former Washington editor Tom Bethell, not to mention last month’s excerpt from David Berlinski. But it’s also the place where Richard Hofstadter laid out his seminal thesis on “the paranoid style in American politics”–an analysis of the conspiracy-minded, radical right that might just as well describe today’s radical skeptics of science. The essay first appeared in November of 1964, the same year as the first surgeon general’s report on the dangers of smoking, and not long before the tobacco companies geared up the machines of manufactured uncertainty.

The paranoid style, Hofstadter wrote, “is nothing if not scholarly in its technique.” In his mainstream enemies, the conspiratorial thinker sees “a projection of the self”–he’s just like them but more discerning and more rational. Indeed, for the paranoid skeptics, it’s not that science is wrong but that the scientists aren’t scientific enough. So, Farber complains that AIDS researchers have abandoned the most basic principles of skeptical inquiry; excepting herself and Peter Duesberg, “moral zeal rather than skepticism defines the field.” Meanwhile, the doubt-mongers defer to the credentials of academic science even as they question its authority. The 9/11 conspiracy theorists rally around a physics professor at a major university; when David Berlinski turns up in Expelled, attention is lavished on his Ivy League bona fides. [Fake experts, woot!]

The scholarly paranoid, says Hofstadter, is also an apocalyptic thinker, “always manning the barricades of civilization.” At least one-third of Expelled is given over to the idea that evolutionary theory caused the Holocaust, via government-sponsored social Darwinism. (In pondering this terrible legacy, Ben Stein weeps at Dachau.) If the paranoid style in politics worried over the end of democracy, the paranoid style in science sees evolution as the end of values, antidepressants as the end of emotion, and genetically modified crops as the end of biodiversity.

These catastrophic fantasies may be an inevitable result of skepticism run amok. If nothing can withstand our critical scrutiny, then everything seems equally probable. (You can’t prove a conspiracy … but you can’t prove anything, can you?) Thus manufactured uncertainty has devalued the real thing: The less sure we are of the world, the more precision we crave. Skepticism sells itself, and the scientific consensus–no matter how considered or probable–starts to seem a little cheap.

Expelled may not bring the nation to the brink of war, but the rise of the paranoid style forecasts something worse for science than mere animosity. In February, a measles outbreak turned up among California schoolchildren whose parents had rejected the MMR vaccine. Until 2006, the South African government was using beets and lemons to treat AIDS patients. And the United States has yet to ratify the Kyoto Protocol for reducing carbon emissions. In the face of this uncertainty, it’s worth taking a moment to do just as the doubt-mongers suggest, and turn skepticism back on itself. Good science requires moderation in all things. Immoderate doubt is paranoia.

Daniel Engber has hit the conspiracy theorist right on the head and gone right to the heart of the problem of pseudoscience. All three essays are worth a good read.

H/T Bayesian Bouffant


3 responses to “Slate parses some crankery”

  1. Thank you for pointing these articles out.

  2. The critical thinking skills I acquire by reading this site are allowing me to pick up on fallacies in logic much more quickly than I used to. Sometimes I just shake my head at what I see. Today I came across the site, and was amazed (although I shouldn’t be, by now) to see that there was no debating at all on Vaccination Debate, just a message to be fed to the sheeple.

  3. Thank you for pointing these articles out.

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