Mooney now agrees with us – Denialists deserve ridicule, not debate

He had to realize Nisbett’s framing was worthless and write a whole book on defective Republican reasoning to realize it but it sounds like Chris Mooney has come around to the right way to confront denialism:

The only solution, then, is to make organized climate denial simply beyond the pale. It has to be the case that taking such a stand is tantamount to asserting that smoking is completely safe, no big deal, go ahead and have two packs a day.

Sounds a little bit like what I wrote in 2007 when I pointed out denialists should not even be debated:

The goal instead must be to enforce standards of scientific debate, to delimit sharply what kind of evidence and argument is worthy of being listened to, to educate people about the form of pseudoscientific arguments, and when these arguments are proffered, to refuse to engage on the grounds they aren’t even worthy of consideration.
Don’t mistake denialism for debate…

The whole goal of denialists is to create the appearance of a legitimate debate when there is in fact no legitimate scientific debate to be had. What is the point of arguing with someone who denies the moon landing? Or evolution? Or that HIV causes AIDS? Or the holocaust? They get real angry when you mention that one as they feel it creates a moral equivalence between the types of denial. But the operative word is “denial” which is totally unrelated to whatever specific topic one denies. It’s just another helpful distracting strategy, to try to prevent critics from using the legitimate word to describe their pathology – denial – by suggesting it’s a wrongful comparison to one specific type of denial.
The solution to these problems is not in confrontations or debates or even necessarily careful fisking of their arguments every time they appear in the blogosphere. For one, it’s somewhat futile. They’re cranks. They will just go on and on, immune to any new data, scientific findings, or any evidence the real world can present. Worse, evidence suggests that repetition of false claims reinforces them even if you are debunking the claim. So debating them to supposedly educate those around you is not a legitimate reason because it’s probably making things worse, not to mention legitimizing the denialist. It’s a constant struggle I have to try to write about things in such a way as to reinforce positive true claims rather than repeat false claims with correction. It’s natural, but it doesn’t work.
Chris is right, the only way to address denialism is to call it what it is and ridicule it. People have to understand the difference between denialism and debate, and when they encounter denialism expose and attack the tactics. Denialism is an established strategy, likely ancient, honed to a science by tobacco companies, and now used by those attacking everything from global warming to evolution. Some of the same fake experts for the tobacco companies are now working for the global warming denialists. The way to win is to remember the way tobacco science was eventually beaten, and that was with exposure of their deceptive techniques, and public ridicule for denial of the obvious reality.

14 thoughts on “Mooney now agrees with us – Denialists deserve ridicule, not debate”

  1. @JPGK
    The only way to kill a troll is to ignore it.
    Sounds good, but I’m not sure it means much. The only way to cure cancer is to ignore it so that it goes away?
    I think Mooney and Hoofnagle are right: The only way to kill the troll of science denialism is actively to ridicule it. If you choose just to ignore it, it grows bigger and bigger while you’re not looking.

  2. JPGK is right. Cancer is not a troll. Trolls feed on attention, any kind of attention. Ridiculing a troll is the same as praising one, it doesn’t matter. The only way to deal with it is to ignore it.
    Ridiculing people is not the answer to disagreement. If you present the facts and explain the science, and the other person still refuses to believe you, then the best response is to make sure that they do not spread their nonsense unchecked. Do not acknowledge them or their arguments, even in ridicule; do not debate them, as that lends credence to their words; but make sure that the facts are widely available and easily understood. Education is the only response to ignorance, ridicule will simply reinforce the perception of elitism and snobbery and drive people away from the facts you are presenting.

  3. Mikey, Chris Mooney would disagree with you.
    Education solves nothing. If anything, the evidence he shows is the more educated the crank, the more they use their knowledge to reinforce their arguments rather than examine their core beliefs.
    It has to do with the way we think. More and more, we see the failure of reason. Humans think in terms of heuristics, coming up with answers to moral questions, ethical dilemmas, political decisions etc., based on emotion, culture, upbringing etc., and then they use reason to justify a forgone conclusion. Reason is actually a very weak tool to use to change someone’s mind, because, sadly, most people are not responsive to it, and those that believe this kind of crap, or are susceptible to it, aren’t arriving at these conclusions because reason led them to it. No, they latch onto the crankery that fits their ideology, then use all their powers of reason to dig in.
    I’m going to write a post about this soon. But I think it’s a mistake to think the psychology of denial is susceptible to reasoned argumentation. I was at reason-rally this weekend and couldn’t help wondering why all those atheists bothered arguing with the Phelps protesters. You think they made a dent? They probably loved it! They live for it. Probably far more effective was Tim Minchin just ridiculing their ideas, ridicule is harder to fend off.
    Ridicule is actually a powerful tool. When ideas are found to be ridiculous the emotional response to them is balanced against a desire not to be made a fool of. I think it’s probably more powerful than reason against a crank or crank ideas.

  4. Completely agree with this approach. Cranks like Ken Ham, Christopher Monckton or Deepak Chopra do not deserve to be treated as just having a different “point of view”. They deserve to have their bullshit ripped to shreds. It’s the reason I love going to Pharyngula as these lying morons are giving no respect at all. In a sane world, that should be the default reaction to their inane drivel.
    One thing I slightly disagree with however, is that reason is always useless to persuade a denialist that they are wrong. They have been many cases of creationists accepting evolution or climate change deniers accepting the evidence for AGW. Some of these would have been pretty hardcore in their belief as well. So reason should still be used in the battle against reality. But yes, let’s deploy ridicule a bit more.

  5. Troll is entirely the wrong word for these people. I am sure there is some specific name from Asia, for the sort these type are, but the more common term we should be using is vampire. The distinction being that the “troll” is there to feed itself, and nothing else, and only needs to just sit there to do it. A vampire is feeding with the clear intent to create more victims, and use its powers to confuse and mesmerize people into doing what they want.
    Hmm. Maybe Adze (a vampire that attacks mainly children), or Jiang Shi (a vampire that sucks the life force out of others, but doesn’t have any real will/mind of its own). I suspect there are cranks that fit both. lol

  6. In general when I rebut creationists in public venues–discussion boards, blogs, newspaper LTEs–my intended audience is not the creationist, it’s the other readers, many of whom are not so embedded in creationism that they won’t consider counter-arguments. In the mantra of the late lamented Internet Infidels Discussion Board, “Remember the lurkers!”
    Recently I had a recent multi-letter exchange with a fundamentalist Christian creationist in the local newspaper. My letters were ostensibly addressed to him, but were written specifically with the larger community of moderate Christians in mind. The creationist’s letters were not my target; he was merely a vehicle to speak to other readers. I wanted to educate them by identifying the fatal ignorance in the creationist’s letters and pointing them to accessible resources, and also to subtly but unmistakably make him look ridiculous in their eyes. The informal feedback I’ve received suggested that it was successful for some, at least. Several people told me (unprompted) that they appreciated the resources and wondered aloud how my opponent could believe what he wrote.

  7. “Troll is entirely the wrong word for these people.”
    Definitely this. Never underestimate the extent of peoples’ stupidity. They’re full blown cranks and no amount of evidence will persuade them to change their views.

  8. Nisbet is the real virus here – before their BFF period, Mooney was a reliable and useful advocate of scientific accuracy and honesty, and he’s mostly back to being one now; I will never completely forgive him but I’m grateful for any improvement.
    Meanwhile Nisbet is worse than ever. With his recent “Climate Shift” report (the one saying green groups had access to the entire marketing budgets of giant companies that cut PSAs for them, such as Walmart and GE, and therefore they could never be outspent) I believe he is deliberately trying to confuse the global warming issue and “arm” the denialists in order to broaden the debate and make his own services (*cough*) as a messaging coach seem more relevant.
    Like the Butter Battle Book.
    I know it’s cynical, but can anyone find another explanation for his m.o.?

  9. Re TTT @ #10
    It has always been my contention that Mooney was brainwashed by Nisbet over the phony issue of “framing”. The discussions between him and, for instance, PZ Myers were a perfect example of much sound and fury signifying nothing.

  10. The only way to kill a troll is to ignore it.

    This remark strongly reflects the use of a false analogy to justify a wrong approach to major problems.
    In the early days of the internet, “troll” did indeed refer to a type of person who simply tried to disrupt discussion boards with outrageous statements, in the hopes of provoking comically outraged responses from then-naive internet users.
    Obvious, the way to deal with that type of “troll” was to ignore them.
    However, even in the context of internet discussion discussion, the definition of the word “troll” has changed.
    Denialists and others who make false statements, but with the intent to convince others or show solidarity with other denialists, not merely to disrupt, are routinely referred to as “trolls”. However, while such individuals may use verbosity and repetition in an effort to shut down logical discourse, and may eventually need to be eliminated by a moderator, and while attention may be part of their motivation, they are not the equivalent of old fashioned “making trouble for the sake of making trouble” trolls.
    “Do not feed the trolls” has gone from being good advice about attention seekers, to often being an unintelligent and/or insincere effort to shut down effective rebuttals of denialists.
    In fact, a significant number of those who resort to wringing their hands and demanding “DNFTT” are themselves “concern trolls”, consciously or unconsciously seeking to help advance denialism, by selectively demanding that those who rebut denialism be silent. Yet these concern trolls never do anything like making pro-science posts on creationist boards, for example, and ignore the fact the pro-science sites tend to allow dispute, while anti-science are usually heavily censored.
    If we take the advice of the “DNFTT” concern trolls to its logical extension, even with regard to internet posting, eventually, every pro-science comments section will be filled with denialist comments that can’t be “fed” with a rebuttal. Meanwhile, censored anti-science comments sections will also be filled with denialism.
    Taken beyond the context of internet discussion boards, the idea harmful social movements are best addressed by ignoring rather than responding to them is patently absurd.
    I don’t necessarily use or promote “mockery”; it is often more effective to use a civil but rigorously skeptical style of rebuttal.

  11. “”Do not feed the trolls” has gone from being good advice about attention seekers, to often being an unintelligent and/or insincere effort to shut down effective rebuttals of denialists.”
    Plenty of this.
    It’s the basis and reason for the topic of this post and Chris’ change of mind over “rapport” with denialists and why, before, his calls for “calm” were both wrong and uncalled for attacks on those giving the deniers the DISrespect they deserve.
    And was also used by many fellow trollers or sockpuppets to do exactly this: stop the ridicule because it was working.

  12. Thanks for this, Mark.
    An interesting observation: when I drift into ridicule of denialism on my blog at, I get slammed for reducing the level of debate. I probably have gone too far on occasion, but I’ve also had to remind myself that we are not trying to reach the rational; we’re trying to engage the emotional.
    I wish I’d found your site sooner. Thanks for the good work.

Comments are closed.