Cranks cry persecution, Nisbet listens

Ever since we began writing here about denialism we’ve emphasized a few critical points about dealing with anti-science. For one, denialists aren’t interested in legitimate debate – they are not honest brokers and the tactics they use exist to artificially extend discussion of settled scientific issues. Second, one of the most time-honored traditions of cranks is claiming persecution in response to rejection of their nonsense. Take for a recent example Coby’s exposure of the “environmentalists want to jail global warming denialists” myth. You don’t need to do anything to make a crank cry persecution, if they have to they’ll just make up some persecutory event or tale.

So, I don’t have a lot of tears to shed for global warming denialists who insist they are being falsely compared to holocaust deniers. In that they use the same tactics as holocaust deniers to create the false appearance of debate, they are the same, true, but the comparison largely ends there. Unlike holocaust deniers their ideological motivations are different. And, of course, any reasonable person realizes that holocaust denial has not made the use of the term “denial” itself an assertion of antisemitism. If a doctor confronts an alcoholic about their denial of their alcoholism, they’re not suggesting they hate Jewish people too. When a psychiatrist tells their patient they’re in denial, that’s hardly comparing them to the Nazis. When we say a public figure has issued a denial of some scandal, we’re not suggesting they advocate a new holocaust. And finally, when we suggest any number of other people are denying reality, whether it be holocaust denial, evolution denial, HIV/AIDS denial, etc., the point is clear that we are referring to their methods more than their motives which are necessarily varied. It should also be clear that holocaust denial has not ruined the word deny or denial or denier for any number of other applications – this is just another example of denialists claiming persecution after being called on their BS.

Nisbet disagrees, and he sides with Timothy Ball of all people who is very upset that he’s being called a “denier” in this PRI segment. Cry me a river. Bizarrely Nisbet suggests that in this radio segment he is so persuasive that we will never use the word “denier” again. I disagree, and it sounds like the reporter, Jason Margolis, disagrees as well:

The relevant section follows (forgive transcription errors):

Jason Margolis: Denial is a loaded term, often associated with the denial of atrocities in Nazi Germany and because of this, Mathew Nisbet, a communications professor at American University, doesn’t like using the term.

Nisbet: It sort of violates a third rail of political rhetoric in that it immediately puts or triggers people’s interpretations of the holocaust in the implication of the holocaust denier.

Jason Margolis: Nisbet says when you refer to your opponents as “deniers” you’re associating them with some of the most evil people in history.

Nisbet: The counter charge would be “how dare you call me a denier”, when that happens now the debate goes in the direction of exactly where you don’t want it to go, it becomes a discussion of the personalities involved in the conflict, rather than the substance of the issue, which was your original goal in the first place, so ultimately it end up being very distracting.

Imagine that, a denialist figuring out a way to divert the discussion away from the substance of the issue and figuring out a way to make it a distraction. And not to nitpick, but I’d argue the most evil people in history are the people who actually committed the atrocities, not the people that deny them, but nevermind. Nisbet thinks this is the fault of those who point out the dishonest tactics of the denialists – I think that the author of the piece and his next interviewee have a better idea of what’s going on…

Jason Margolis: At a conference of self-labeled climate change skeptics in New York they agree, the term denier is offensive. Yet the speakers themselves continually bring up the term and the idea of the holocaust.

Tim Ball: About five years ago the Times of London referred to me as a climate change denier with all of the holocaust connotations of that term.

Roy Innis: We are deniers, in a very slick way of pushing us into a corner to look as if we like the moral equivalent or the immoral equivalent of the Nazis – holocaust deniers.

Wow, imagine that. They’re upset at being labeled yet they repeatedly bring up the label as a point of pride. Could it be that they’re not really upset. Could it be that cranks consider such labeling a point of pride? Could it be they’re calling persecution? I can’t believe Nisbet fell for this nonsense. For one, there is no substantive debate to be had with people like Ball and Innis and looking for it is foolish. The only possible outcome of a debate with denialists is distraction. Why would you think terminology would change that?

Jason Margolis, doesn’t leave it there, and is on to their persecutory delusions:

Jason Margolis: By referring to others referring to them as deniers, climate change “skeptics” are making themselves the victims says large group psychology expert Vamik Volkan. A very common trait across cultures

Vamik Volkan: If you are a victim you are going to put it as a marker and tell the whole world that “my god I am victimized and I am going to let everyone know”

Jason Margolis: And no matter how much evidence is presented some people just won’t accept a different version from what they believe…

If we didn’t call them deniers they’d figure out a way to make themselves appear persecuted because that’s what cranks do. Worrying about making them feel persecuted is foolish, they want to appear persecuted for their beliefs, will invent persecution no matter what, and play the victim for sympathy. They’ll do it, no matter what you call them, so why not call them what they are and expose them for what they are – including fake victims?

As a last example take this comment from Nisbet’s site

What prevents you from calling for the next logical step? Considering the apocalyptic consequences of our efforts, why aren’t you calling for “denialists” to be officially censored and sanctioned? Why not make it illegal to voice our opinions, considering the billions of lives and species at stake?

Why not arrest us?

Why not have us executed?

Delusions of persecution are part and parcel of being a crank. In this guy’s mind, the next step from calling someone denialist is arrest and execution. They aren’t going to stop crying foul no matter what terminology we use, anything short of agreement results in claims of persecution. I suggest we stop worrying about denialists’ crocodile tears and call them what they are.

Nisbet, despite all his experience writing about anti-science and denialists remains amazingly obtuse on this central problem of the fundamental dishonesty of denialists and cranks, as evidenced by this post announcing the interview:

The frame device “denier” should be laid to rest in the same rhetorical grave as other terms such as “anti-science.” They serve little purpose other than to feed polarization while also frequently backfiring, turning the debate into a discussion of the alleged underhanded or sensational tactics of science defenders rather than a focus on the substance of the issues themselves.

Does anyone else see the problem? Nisbet still naively thinks they’re interested in legitimate debate! The point is not to debate them at all, to recognize the rhetoric of denialism and dismiss it out of hand for what it is. The problem in these debates with denialists isn’t one of information. The information is out there, in abundance. The real problem, the fight that we need to dedicate ourselves to, is to teach people to accept good information and conversely, to dismiss bad information.

Framing, while helpful in the short term, is a strategy that fails to address the central strength of the enemies of science. That is that there is no end to the fount of BS that they can tap into to endlessly argue against legitimate scientific data and facts. Framing may give you an argument that works in a ten-second pitch, but long term the focus must be on teaching people how to recognize BS in the first place, and not listen to it. Teaching people about denialism and the demarcation problem between science and anti-science has the potential to cut off the BS supply at it’s source – and undercut all their BS arguments.

Frame an argument and your audience may support science for a day. Teach your audience to distinguish between science and anti-science and they’ll support science for a lifetime.