One Year of Denialism Blog

Today represents one year since we joined scienceblogs, and I think we’ve had a great deal of success in defining the problem of denialism, establishing a new vocabulary for dealing with the problem of pseudoscience, and establishing uniform standards for what is legitimate scientific discourse and debate.

Our first post describes the problem of denialism, and our subsequent posts on cranks, and the 5 tactics of denialism – Conspiracy, Selectivity, Fake Experts, Moving Goalposts, and Fallacies of Logic – have stood the test of time. They accurately describe the types of argument that fail to meet the standards of legitimate scientific debate and inevitably are utilized by those that, for one reason or another, choose to deny reality.

Ultimately my goal with this blog is to educate people about how to detect pseudoscience and dismiss it without requiring an impossible level of expertise in every scientific discipline. I want people to understand that when they see an article that alleges conspiracies, and cites some crackpot, and makes crazy claims of causation that they don’t need to spend a year looking up legitimate sources of information to debunk it.

Pseudoscience follows a predictable pattern of argument. Sources are selectively quoted to provide a sciencey-sounding argument (often using logical fallacies of causation etc.), fake experts are cited to confer a patina of scientific legitimacy, conspiracies are alleged to dismiss the vast expanse of contradictory data and scientific opinion, and criticism is further deflected by constantly moving goalposts to deflect mounting evidence against the fixed belief. In a way science should be flattered – it is the gold standard of reality after all – and the efforts of pseudoscientists to make their nonsense sound like science inevitably indicates the esteem of anti-science movements for the legitimacy of scientific belief.

Detection of denialism by now should be a reflex (if not review the 5 tactics above). You should be able to smell a bad argument by now. Granted, authoritative debunking requires a certain amount of research to familiarize oneself with a topic and understand the basis of denialist argument. But as a practical guide, the 5 tactics should have armed you with the basic tools you need to sort through the vast amounts of information available to the average Joe these days, and decide rapidly that which should be listened to, versus that which belongs on the junk-heap of pseudoscientific nonsense. I’m writing this blog not just to vent about this nonsense that pisses me off, but hopefully to arm the the rational with a vocabulary for systematically dealing with bullshit. I think success for this effort will ultimately rest with my readership, and hopefully one day the media and public at large, regularly applying these tests to information sources to see whether they meet the basic standards for legitimate discussion of scientific fact.

So my friends, show me what you’ve learned. I received an email asking me what I thought of this article appearing in the American Chronicle – a news/opinion aggregater with no standards for inclusion. Tell me what you you guys think, and if you can’t spot the problems that should allow you to dismiss it out of hand. I’ll post my analysis based on denialist factors and the scientific evidence later in the comments and we’ll compare notes. Good hunting!


16 responses to “One Year of Denialism Blog”

  1. Happy Denialist Birthday!

    For me the article gets off to a bad start when it says it comes from “Wellness”. Is it a law of nature that Wellness = Woo?

  2. W-o-w. That guy is one serious conspiracy loon.

    Ignoring the fact that I know about this story, there are plenty of obvious problems, including but not limited to:

    * Lots of appeals to emotion/ridicule
    * Lots of unreferenced assertions
    * He’s promoting his own book
    * Selective quoting
    * Lack of balance
    * Loaded “question” to the medical profession.

    Really though, the thing that turns me off so quickly is the god-awful style of writing. It’s a poorly-constructed unreferenced rant that sounds venomous/hysterical in its tone. It has the persuasive ability of a teenager having a tantrum.

  3. Congratulations and keep up the good work!

  4. Subtitle:

    Big Pharma Cons Millions of Women of Billions of Dollars

    Definite warning sign when someone cites “Big Pharma”, but it could be hyperbole…

    The rest is full of ad hominems about “the pushers of these drugs” and the FDA’s “betrayal of America”. The author even pulls a Godwin in his profile… yep. I don’t need to read any further, or understand what he’s blathering about with osteoclasts and osteoblasts… definitely a crank.

    Happy Blog Birthday!

  5. One of the ways to combat this sort of lunacy is to know your family history, and know what sorts of problems had historically plagued your family.

    My mom’s family has a history of bone-loss and osteoperosis.

    Those with problems who take the drugs do much, much better than those who do not as a group. If one or two of them were to have terrible side-effects, it would still be possible to look at the data from the history of my extended family, and know that the drugs, over-all have helped most of the people taking them.

    Sure, it’s not scientific, but sheesh…it’s right there to see. You can match it up to the science and get a quick sanity check.

  6. I sprained my bone reading that.

  7. Let’s see…

    Conspiracy, check.
    Selectivity, check.
    Fake Experts, check.
    Moving Goalposts, check.
    Fallacies of Logic, check.

    Yep, he’s a denialist crank.

  8. Man, nobody said there would be a test!

  9. Sadly, the 5 traits you outline (all very apt by the way) aren’t just confined to science denial. Holocaust deniers certainly use them. Sadly, the current Administration also practices all five, especially in Iraq and with respect to Iran.

  10. “The rest is full of ad hominems about “the pushers of these drugs” and the FDA’s “betrayal of America”. The author even pulls a Godwin in his profile… yep. I don’t need to read any further, or understand what he’s blathering about with osteoclasts and osteoblasts… ”

    Erm, is it just me or is this kind of taking it too far? It’s a good way to spot someone you should be taking less seriously than they’d like you to, but if you don’t understand the science behind what they’re talking about, then you could miss some good information solely because the author presents it in a way that Scienceblogs commenters would not!

  11. Jamie,

    That’s rather the point. I don’t have to understand the science to be able to realize this guy is a crank. If it interests me, I can go out and discover what osteoclasts and -blasts are, but I don’t have to study for years to know that he’s (probably) incorrect. As a layman, that is good enough for my purposes.

    A doctor should probably dig a little deeper into the science, but I don’t need to.

    (And I do understand bone formation. Just not what this guy is selling.)

  12. Fair enough. Still seems a little premature to me, guess it’s the stickler in me. I know I wouldn’t be happy going through that thought process with someone else.
    “Hey, I saw the wackiest crank today. What a bozo, talking complete crap!”

    “What’d he do?”

    “Used an insulting term for pharmaceutical producers once or twice. No idea what the long words he was using meant. What a moron he must have been.”

  13. Interrobang

    Jamie has a point — you can’t actually reliably tell a crank from the tone of their writing. Really clever cranks manage to sound very level-headed. (Most of them sound either overenthusiastic or condescending/sneering, but that’s circumstantial evidence at best.)

    Speaking of “Fake Experts,” has anyone doing this sort of work written a quick primer on source evaluation for laypeople? It’s awfully hard to point out an Argument from Improper Authority when you have to backtrack to explain exactly how you evaluated that the person is an improper authority, and then have the person run the “But they could know what they’re talking about! It’s possible!” number on you.

  14. Congratulations on your 1 year!

  15. Interrobang – See the “fake experts” link above.

  16. A year on, and you still haven’t animated your goalpost graphic?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *