What is at the root of denial? A Must Read from Chris Mooney in Mother Jones

Chris Mooney has been exploring the basic underpinnings of denialism lately, with this latest article a good summary of the basic problems:

In a recent study of climate blog readers, Lewandowksy and his colleagues found that the strongest predictor of being a climate change denier is having a libertarian, free market world view. Or as Lewandowsky put it in our interview, “the overwhelming factor that determined whether or not people rejected climate science is their worldview or their ideology.” This naturally lends support to the “motivated reasoning” theory—a conservative view about the efficiency of markets impels rejection of climate science because if climate science were true, markets would very clearly have failed in an very important instance.
But separately, the same study also found a second factor that was a weaker, but still real, predictor of climate change denial—and also of the denial of other scientific findings such as the proven link between HIV and AIDS. And that factor was conspiracy theorizing. Thus, people who think, say, that the Moon landings were staged by Hollywood, or that Lee Harvey Oswald had help, are also more likely to be climate deniers and HIV-AIDS deniers.

This is similar to what we’ve been saying for years. Ideology is at the heart of antiscience, (yes even liberal ideology) and when in conflict with science will render the ideologue incapable of rational evaluation of facts. The more extreme the ideology, the more likely and more severe the divergence from science. Then there is the separate issue of cranks who have a generalized defect in their reasoning abilities, are generally incompetent at recognizing bad ideas, often believing conflicting theories simultaneously, and are given to support any other crank who they feel is showing science is somehow fundamentally wrong. This is the “paranoid style”, it’s well-described, and likely, irreversible. However, more run-of-the-mill denialism should be preventable.
We’ve discussed this extensively in regards to research by Dan Kahan, although I have disagreed with this jargon of motivated reasoning. Chris, however, knows what they’re referring to with their fancified science-speak, ideology is at the root of denial.
Recognizing that the problem of anti-science is not one of a lack of information, or of education, or of framing is of paramount concern. This is a problem with humans. This is the way we think by default. People tend to arrive at their beliefs based on things like their upbringing, their religion, their politics, and other unreliable sources. When opinions are formed based on these deeply-held beliefs or heuristics, all information subsequently encountered is either used to reinforce this belief, or is ignored. This is why studies showing education doesn’t work, the more educated the partisan is on a topic, the more entrenched they become. You can’t inform or argue your way out of this problem, you have to fundamentally change the way people reason before they form these fixed beliefs.
Scientific reasoning and pragmatism is fundamentally unnatural and extremely difficult. Even scientists, when engaged in a particular nasty internal ideological conflict, have been known to deny the science. This is because when one’s ideology is challenged by the facts you are in essence creating an existential crisis. The facts become an assault on the person themselves, their deepest beliefs, and how they perceive and understand the world. What is done in this situation? Does the typical individual suck it up, and change, fundamentally, who they are as a person? Of course not! They invent a conspiracy theory as to why the facts have to be wrong. They cherry pick the evidence that supports them, believe any fake expert that espouses the same nonsense and will always demand more and more evidence, never being satisfied that their core beliefs might be wrong. This is where “motivated reasoning” comes from. It’s a defense of self from the onslaught of uncomfortable facts. Think of the creationist confronted with a fossil record, molecular biology, geology, physics, and half a dozen other scientific fields, are they ever convinced? No, because it’s all an atheist conspiracy to make them lose their religion.
How do we solve this problem?
First we have to recognize it for what it is, as Mooney and others have done here. The problem is one of human nature. Engaging in denialism doesn’t have to mean you’re a bad person, or even being purposefully deceptive (although there are those that have that trait), the comparison to holocaust denial, always a favorite straw man of the denialist, is not apt. Denialism in most people is a defense mechanism that protects their core values from being undermined by reality. And no matter what your ideology, at some point, you will have a conflict with the facts because no ideology perfectly describes or models all of reality. You are going to come into conflict with the facts at some point in your life no matter where you are on the ideological spectrum. The question is, what will you do when that conflict arises? Will you entrench behind a barrier of rhetoric, or will you accept that all of us are flawed, and our beliefs at best can only provide an approximation of reality – a handy guide but never an infallible one?
Second, we have to develop strategies towards preventing ideological reaction to science and recognize when people are reacting in an irrational fashion to an ideological conflict with science. One of my commenters pointed me to this paper, which describes an effective method to inoculate people against conspiratorial thinking. Basically, if you warn people ahead of time about conspiratorial craziness, they will be more likely to evaluate the claims of conspiracists with higher skepticism. We should encourage skeptical thinking from an early age, and specifically educate against conspiratorial thinking, which is a defective mode of thinking designed to convince others to act irrationally (and often hatefully). When we do see conspiracy, we shouldn’t dismiss it as harmless, the claims need to be debunked, and the purveyors of conspiracy theories opposed and mocked. Before anyone ever reads a line of Alex Jones, or Mike Adams, a training in skepticism could provide protection, and with time, the paranoid style will hold less and less sway. People primed to expect conspiratorial arguments will be resistant, and more skeptical in general. The Joneses, Moranos, and the Adamses of the world don’t have the answers, they know nothing, and their mode of thought isn’t just wrong, but actively poisonous against rational thought. As skeptical writers we should educate people in a way that protects them from their inevitable encounter with such crankery. This is why writers like Carl Sagan are so important with his (albeit incomplete) Baloney Detection Kit. He knew that you have to prepare people for their encounters with those with an ideological agenda, that others will bend the truth and deny the science for selfish reasons.
This is what is at the heart of true skepticism. First, understanding that you can be wrong, in fact you will often be wrong, and all you can do is follow the best evidence that you have. It’s not about rejecting all evidence, or inaction from the constantly-moved goalposts of the fake skeptics. It’s about pragmatism, thoughtfulness, and above all humility towards the fact that none of us has all the answers. Second, it’s understanding not all evidence is created equal. Judging evidence and arguments requires training and preparation as recognizing high-quality evidence and rational argument is not easy. In fact, most people are woefully under-prepared by their education to do things like read and evaluate scientific papers or even to just judge scientific claims from media sources.
Thus I propose a new tactic. Let’s get Carl Sagan’s Baloney detection kit in every child’s hands by the time they’re ten. Hell, it should be part of the elementary school curriculum. Lets hand out books on skepticism like the Gideons hand out Bibles. Let’s inoculate people against the bullshit they’ll invariably contract by the time they’re adults. We can even do tests to see what type of skeptical inoculation works best at protecting people from anti-science. It’s a way forward to make some progress against the paranoid style, and the nonsense beliefs purveyed by all ideological extremes. There is no simple cure, but we can inoculate the young, and maybe control the spread of the existing disease.

What happens when you study conspiracy theories? The conspiracy theorists make up conspiracy theories about you!

I’ve known about this effect for a while as I’ve been variously accused of being in the pocket of big pharma, big ag, big science, democrats and republicans etc. Now Stephan Lewandowsky, in follow up to his “NASA Faked the Moon Landings – Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax.” paper, has used these conspiratorial responses to study how conspiracy theorists respond to being studied! It’s called “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation“.
Here’s the abstract:

Conspiracist ideation has been repeatedly implicated in the rejection of scientific propositions, although empirical evidence to date has been sparse. A recent study involving visitors to climate blogs found that conspiracist ideation was associated with the rejection of climate science and the rejection of other scienti c propositions such as the link between lung cancer and smoking, and between HIV and AIDS (Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, in press; LOG12 from here on). This article analyzes the response of the climate blogosphere to the publication of LOG12. We identify and trace the hypotheses that emerged in response to LOG12 and that questioned the validity of the paper’s conclusions. Using established criteria to identify conspiracist ideation, we show that many of the hypotheses exhibited conspiratorial content and counterfactual thinking. For example, whereas hypotheses were initially narrowly focused on LOG12, some ultimately grew in scope to include actors beyond the authors of LOG12, such as university executives, a media organization, and the Australian government. The overall pattern of the blogosphere’s response to LOG12 illustrates the possible role of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science, although alternative scholarly interpretations may be advanced in the future.

Awesome. It’s actually a great paper, from the introduction discussing Diethelm and Mckee’s work on conspiratorial ideation (who cited us in their original paper), to the comparisons between censorship accusations by diverse anti-science movements from the tobacco/cancer denial to HIV/AIDS denial, Lewandowsky et al., lay the groundwork for understanding this problem as a fundamental characteristic of all anti-science. They even cite a book chapter in which the authors make the link that conspiracies are specifically used to rhetorically challenge science when one lacks adequate data (Lahsen, M. (1999). The detection and attribution of conspiracies: the controversy over Chapter 8. In G. Marcus (Ed.), Paranoia within reason: a casebook on conspiracy as explanation (pp. 111{136). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.) I’ll have to look that one up, as that was our primary conclusion about denialism when we started writing about it in 2007.
The authors then go on to the conspiracist reaction to their original paper:

When the article by Lewandowsky et al. became available for download in July-August 2012, the climate denialist blogosphere responded with considerable intensity along several prongs: Complaints were made to the rst author’s university alleging academic misconduct; several freedom-of-information requests were submitted to the author’s university for emails and documents relating to LOG12; multiple re-analyses of the LOG12 data were posted on blogs which purported to show that the e ects reported Recursive fury 8 by LOG12 did not exist; and a number of hypotheses were disseminated on the internet with arguably conspiracist content. This response is not altogether surprising in light of research which has shown that threats – in particular to people’s sense of control – can trigger targeted small-scale conspiracy theories (Whitson & Galinsky, 2008), especially those involving a speci c opponent (Sullivan, Landau, & Rothschild, 2010).

So what does any good scientist who is interested in the empirical study of conspiracy theories do in such a situation? Mine it for data!

The remainder of this article reports a content analysis of the hypotheses generated by the blogosphere to counter LOG12. The extent and vehemence of contrarian activity provided a particularly informative testbed for an analysis of how conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science among web denizens. Unlike previous analyses of web content, the present project was conducted in real time” as the response to LOG12 unfolded, thus permitting a fi ne-grained temporal analysis of the emerging global conversation.

Using google alerts and other strategies they tracked the response to their paper throughout the denialsphere, then evaluated them using 6 criteria to judge whether the author used conspiracist tendencies independent of actual content. These criteria were great, and as I read them I couldn’t help thinking it is really a beautiful summary of the aberrant thought processes of the conspiracist. They were (1) assuming nefarious intent (NI) on the part of their opponent, (2) delusions of persecution including Galileo comparisons (persecution/victimization or PV) -awesome-, (3) a “nihilistic degree of skepticism”/paranoid ideation (NS), (4) an inability to believe in coincidence or “not an accident” (NoA) thinking, (5) toleration of inconsistencies and contradictions in their own counter-hypotheses as long as they challenge the “official” version (or Must-Be-Wrong MbW), and (6) the incorporation of contrary evidence as further evidence of a conspiracy thus “self-sealing” their hypothesis (SS). This is a really brilliant break down of the behavior if you ask me in particular number 6 which they even provide the perfect example of:

Concerning climate denial, a case in point is the response to events surrounding the illegal hacking of personal emails by climate scientists, mainly at the University of East Anglia, in 2009. Selected content of those emails was used to support the theory that climate scientists conspired to conceal evidence against climate change or manipulated the data (see, e.g., Montford, 2010; Sussman, 2010). After the scientists in question were exonerated by 9 investigations in 2 countries, including various parliamentary and government committees in the U.S. and U. K., those exonerations were re-branded as a whitewash” (see, e.g., U.S. Representative Rohrabacher’s speech in Congress on 8 December 2011), thereby broadening the presumed involvement of people and institutions in the alleged conspiracy. We refer to this “self-sealing” criterion by the short label SS.

At denialism blog we’ve been describing these tactics for years, in particular I feel like the Crank Howto seems to incorporate most of these denialist tactics. In particular, that the authors recognized the persecution complex of the conspiracist is heart warming.
For the meat of the study, the authors then go through the evolution of reactions to their paper, and it’s fascinating. Starting with lots of allegations of “scamming” (must be wrong) and a smear to make them look like nutters (persecution victimization) the conspiracy theories then evolved about everything to whether or not the authors didn’t actually contact skeptic blogs (amazingly the blogs they did contact came out and appear to have lied about not being contacted), persecutorial delusions about the authors blocking individual skeptics IP addresses from accessing the paper (and further conspiracies that when they are being unblocked it’s just to make them look paranoid), conspiracies about it being a ploy by the Australian government (nefarious intent), and it gets crazier and crazier from there. One of the most fascinating aspects of the evolution of the response was how, predictably, as more information was made available, rather than quashing conspiracies, the conspiracy theorists would just broaden the nefarious actors to larger and larger circles of foes:

Second, self-sealing reasoning also became apparent in the broadening of the scope of presumed malfeasance on several occasions. When ethics approvals became public in response to an FOI request, the presumption of malfeasance was broadened from the authors of LOG12 to include university executives and the university’s ethics committee. Similarly, the response of the blogosphere evolved from an initial tight focus on LOG12 into an increasingly broader scope. Ultimately, the LOG12 authors were associated with global activism, a $6 million media initiative, and government censorship of dissent, thereby arguably connecting the response to LOG12 to the grand over-arching theory that “climate change is a hoax.” Notably, even that grand “hoax” theory is occasionally thought to be subordinate to an even grander theory: one of the bloggers involved in the response to LOG12 (cf. Table 1) considers climate change to be only the second biggest scam in history. The top-ranking scam is seen to be modern currency, dismissed as “government money” because it is not linked to the gold standard

And doesn’t that bring this back beautifully, full-circle, to the author’s original hypothesis in the first paper that free-market extremism is behind global warming denialism?
Finally the authors discuss implications for science communication, and, unlike most people, I think they actually understand the problem. That is, you can’t fix this problem with more communication, and more data. The nature of the conspiracy theorist is that all additional data and all contradictory data will only be used to demonstrate further evidence of conspiracy, that the conspiracy is even larger, or that the data are fraudulent. The “self-sealing” nature of the conspiracy theory, as the authors describe it, makes it fundamentally immune to penetration by logic, reason, or additional information.

Implications for science communication. A de fining attribute of conspiracist ideation is its resistance to contrary evidence (e.g., Bale, 2007; Keeley, 1999; Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009). This attribute is particularly troubling for science communicators, because providing additional scientifi c information may only serve to reinforce the rejection of the evidence, rather than foster its acceptance. A number of such “back fire” e ffects have been identi fied, and they are beginning to be reasonably well understood (Lewandowsky, Ecker, Recursive fury 37 et al., 2012). Although suggestions exist about how to rebut conspiracist ideations|e.g., by indirect means, such as affirmation of the competence and character of proponents of conspiracy theories, or affirmation of their other beliefs (e.g., Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009) we argue against direct engagement for two principal reasons.
First, much of science denial takes place in an epistemically closed system that is immune to falsifying evidence and counterarguments (Boudry & Braeckman, 2012; Kalichman, 2009). We therefore consider it highly unlikely that outreach e fforts to those groups could be met with success. Second, and more important, despite the amount of attention and scrutiny directed towards LOG12 over several months, the publication of recursive hypotheses was limited to posts on only 24 websites, with only 13 blogs featuring more than one post (see Table 1). This indicates that the recursive theories, while intensely promoted by certain bloggers and commenters, were largely contained to the “echo chamber” of climate denial. Although LOG12 received considerable media coverage when it first appeared, the response by the blogosphere was ignored by the mainstream media. This confinement of recursive hypotheses to a small “echo chamber” reflects the wider phenomenon of radical climate denial, whose ability to generate the appearance of a widely held opinion on the internet is disproportionate to the smaller number of people who actually hold those views (e.g., Leviston, Walker, & Morwinski, 2012). This discrepancy is greatest for the small group of people who deny that the climate is changing (around 6% of respondents; Leviston et al., 2012). Members of this small group believe that their denial is shared by roughly half the population. Thus, although an understanding of science denial is essential given the importance of climate change and the demonstrable role of the blogosphere in delaying mitigative action, it is arguably best met by underscoring the breadth of consensus among scientists (Ding, Maibach, Zhao, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2011; Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Vaughan, 2012) rather than by direct engagement.

Don’t argue with cranks. I can’t agree more. And historically this is what has worked with denialist groups. You don’t debate them as if they’re honest brokers, you treat them as the defective brains that they are, and eventually, their influence dwindles, and they’ll be reduced to a small community of losers sharing their delusions of grandeur and righteous indignation in some tiny corner of the internet.
The key to preventing denialism isn’t in arguing with those that have already formed fixed, irrational ideas. It can only happen with prevention – early education that emphasizes logic, scientific methods, rational thought and non-ideological, pragmatic approaches to problem solving.

Rebecca Watson's Skepticon talk is NOT an example of science denialism

I was recently pointed to this post by Edward Clint which purports to show Rebecca Watson using the 5 tactics of science denialism during her talk “How Girls Evolved to Shop” which was critical of evolutionary psychology at Skepticon.

I watched her talk, found it entertaining, informative, wondered why I haven’t been invited to Skepticon, and I found I agreed with many of her examples of really bad pop psychology nonsense that’s filtered into the media through both scientists, press-release journalism, and marketing disguised as science. In particular the “pink is for girls” idiocy, which when I wrote about it at the time I came to the same conclusions as Watson that it was a stupid interpretation of the data, and the researcher who was actually promoting this glib, incorrect, and historically-bogus interpretation was a fool. It was unusual in that it was an example of the scientist herself, not even the media, disastrously misinterpreting the data to make it meld with a specific societal bias about females.
The problem with this talk was that Watson used specific examples, especially those made prominent by the media, as indicative of the entire field of evolutionary psychology, and thus may have over-generalized about the field as a whole. Even though at the end when asked if there are any good evolutionary biology papers, she suggests there likely are but that’s not what makes it into the media because they’re probably boring (lies are often more entertaining), it was too late. The thrust of her talk probably was too one-sided, and suggested the nonsense that idiot journalists latch onto, and some of the more oddball researchers are indicative of an entire field, which is unfair. Edward Clint takes this as a sign of science denialism, however, and tries to fit the 5 tactics to her talk. While I agree that Watson may have over-generalized, this isn’t denialism. Let’s go over his points and discuss why I don’t think her talk crosses this line.
Clint states:

The denialism brought to Skepticon was to the field of evolutionary psychology, a thriving social science with roots going back to Charles Darwin himself. The critic was internet pundit and self-described feminist and skeptic Rebecca Watson. Watson is known for her blog website, as co-host of a popular skeptic podcast, and for speaking at secular and skeptic conferences. But Watson holds no scientific training or experience. The charge of science denialism is a serious one, and I will support the claim with a preponderance of evidence.

Ok, first of all, you don’t need to be a scientist or an expert in a particular field to be critical of it. At no point does Watson suggest she’s an expert, which would have been the only reason why such a critique is relevant. A layperson is perfectly entitled to research a field, and then give a talk such as this critical of a systematic bias towards women present in the field. I think she actually makes a compelling argument that there is a bias problem in the interpretation of the data coming out of these papers, and a big PR problem for evolutionary psych in that it’s especially the biased, stupid, and inane studies the media latches onto and amplifies for lay consumption. She doesn’t say it exactly like that, but that’s how I interpreted her talk.
He continues:

The main points Watson wants to drive home are that evolutionary psychology isn’t science (as indicated by the quotes in the subtitle), and that researchers involved in it work deliberately to reinforce stereotypes and to oppress women. Watson frequently makes overly broad claims about the “they” or “it” of evolutionary psychology without further specificity, leading her audience to assume she simply refers to the entirety of the field, or to a large majority of it.

This is an unfair evaluation of her talk. I don’t think at any point Watson indicates this behavior is deliberate, malicious, or dishonest. It’s clear that she’s exposing a systematic bias in the interpretation of the data from these studies. She is not suggesting fabrication, tweaking, or dishonesty, just stupid conclusions, and flawed study designs, and I agree with her that in these examples, she makes the case, these particular researchers are either idiots or blind to bias.

Now we may ask, how would an (apparently) expert skeptic investigate the domain of evolutionary psychology to reach and support the conclusions that Watson has? The first step should be having a firm grasp on what evolutionary psychology is, and to have a working familiarity with the subject. Since we are talking about a scientific field, this at least would mean reading some papers, or maybe at a minimum, some scholarly reviews and meta-analyses. And they should be typical of the field, meaning from reputable journals and mainstream researchers. It would be silly to call biologists creationists and religiously motivated while pointing to Michael Behe and Francis Collins as examples of biologists as a whole.

As far as Watson’s over-generalization of her findings to the field I agree with this criticism, however, my interpretation of the talk as a whole was about how when it came to ascribing differences in behavior due to sex that evolutionary psych has some big problems with systematic bias towards affirming societal stereotypes about women. I think she makes a compelling case for this, but it is possible, of course, that the cases she listed are the glaring exceptions. Clearly with regard to Kanazawa, the guy is a crackpot, but she also had some pretty deadly critiques of other more legitimate researcher’s conclusions.

However, Watson seems to have only the most superficial understanding of evolutionary psychology and it isn’t clear that she’s read even one paper in the field.

This is unfair and disproven by the talk in which she provides specific critiques and interpretations of data where they conflict with the author’s conclusions. It’s very hard to do this without reading the paper.

There are many reasons to think this. She cited no sources during her 48-minute talk beyond what is mentioned in newspapers and other media or publicly available abstracts. While she derided media distortion in one part of the talk, she implicitly trusted media reports for the bulk of it, and rather uncritically.

I don’t understand this because it’s clear from the video that her slides actually have several of the papers up and clearly visible. I also don’t think she blindly trusted media reports either, as she cites specific instances, like the “pink is for girls” study, in which the media cooverage, and the author’s own conclusions differed from the data.

At the end of her talk, an audience member asks Watson if there is any “good evolutionary psychology”. Watson throws up her hands while saying “prooobably? I’m guessing yes, but it’s so boring.. because you can only make it interesting if you make up everything. […] if there is good evolutionary psychology, it’s not in the media[…]” (see index 47:30)
Setting aside the striking anti-science attitude that only media-hypable science can be interesting, as well as the jarring ignorance that a scientific field composed of thousands of researchers working for decades and publishing in numerous reputable science journals only “probably” has some good work being done, Watson clearly reveals that she is only familiar with evolutionary psychology in the “media,” having moments before shown incontrovertibly how unreliable the media is.

I don’t think she expresses the attitude that media hype is only sign of interesting science. I think her talk should have been narrowed, however, to specifically address how evolutionary psychology has major bias problems when it attempts to explain differences between male and female behavior.

The first work she mentions in her talk is important because it sets the tone and is, presumably, important to her thesis that evolutionary psychology is pseudoscientific and sexist. She cites a Telegraph article referring to a study done by one Dr. David Holmes about the psychology of shopping. However, this is an unpublished, non-peer-reviewed study conducted by a non-evolutionary psychologist paid for by a business to help them sell things better. This has no relevance to Watson’s thesis, unless it’s also true that Colgate’s “9 out of 10 dentists recommend you give us your toothpaste money” studies prove that dental science is bunk.

Again this is an unfair criticism, because she specifically addressed that this was marketing disguised as science. Watson states:

“all of the best studies I think are commissioned by shopping centers, so no this is actually marketing disguised as science, which is a trend that is becoming more and more popular as mainstream new outlets phase out any and all support for actual journalists that understand science.”

The strength of her point was how she moved from the obvious, BS, marketing-driven science and compared it directly to actual academic evolutionary psych purporting to show the exact same thing.

Supporting the extraordinary claims that a large scientific domain is sexist in general and methodologically bereft requires extraordinary evidence. It should entail a very serious, careful look at the nuts and bolts. How is peer-review accomplished? How well does it function? Are many awful studies passing it? How many? How easily? How is it that thousands of people, women and men, in dozens of countries across decades of time are all morally compromised in the same way? Did she speak to even one person who actually does evolutionary psychology?

I agree with Clint here that she needs more evidence before she castigates the entire field, however, I do think that she makes a compelling argument that (1) evolutionary psych has issues with injecting societal bias towards women into its conclusions – and this is actually not an extraordinary idea given the long history of psych and bias towards women, non-whites, immigrants etc (I would suggest a read of “Mismeasure of Man”) . If it been completely eradicated, I’d be shocked. Her failing was she generalized this flaw to evolutionary psych as a whole, and not just this subset of papers dealing with sex differences in behavior in which the findings always seem to conform with the most recent societal biases. (2) I think she shows, and this is not in dispute, that findings which reinforce a stereotype about women are widely circulated in a credulous media, and this is harmful.
Finally, let’s address Clint’s critiques that this actually represents the 5 tactics.
Clint Writes:

In 2007 Scienceblogs writer Mark Hoofnagle wrote an oft-cited essay about 5 general tactics used by denialists to sow confusion. John Cook distilled these a bit for an article in 2010 which discusses climate science denial.

It is useful to cite Hoofnagle here because Rebecca Watson demonstrates all five of these in a single presentation and because climate science and evolutionary psychology have a lot in common.

Watson’s denialist tactics
1. Conspiracy theories
Watson frequently spoke of a shadowy, diffuse “they” of evolutionary psychology. When she cited researchers by name, they were held as examples of the they, and not distinguished as a subclass. She also often spoke to their devious, immoral intentions. Not just that they’re mistaken about their claim or that their method is flawed, but that they actively wanted to oppress women and reinforce harmful stereotypes. Thousands of people in dozens of countries, women and men all working together toward goals such as defending rape as “natural” and therefore good (see video indices 20:07, 22:43, 23:41, 35:40, 36:08, 38:40). No evidence was presented which could establish these ulterior motives in such a large group, and as I shall explain, they are entirely false. Mark Hoofnagle wrote the following on Scienceblogs about conspiracy theories; not Watson’s, but his words fit equally well here:

[…] But how could it be possible, for instance, for every nearly every scientist in a field be working together to promote a falsehood? People who believe this is possible simply have no practical understanding of how science works as a discipline.

The problem with Clint’s analysis is that at no point does Watson ascribe conspiratorial behavior to these scientists typical of a denialist argument. I think she’s ascribing a systematic bias towards women, and given the issues that science has had in the past with systematic bias towards less-valued groups in society, this is not either out of the realm of possibility or even surprising that it’s still persistent in psychology. This is where a reading of SJ Gould’s “Mismeasure of Man” would come in handy to understand how these biases are propagated. What was amazing was how Gould, in his description of the science behind alleged-differences in races, showed that the researchers weren’t fabricating or being outright deceptive, but were led by bias into over-interpreting data, throwing out inconsistent data, and methodological errors that would affirm their prior conclusions. Conspiracy in science is frankly absurd, but bias in science is a constant struggle, and one should, if anything, suspect its presence until proven otherwise. Contrast this to the global warming conspiracism of cranks such as Inhofe, who describe the entire field as a “hoax”, which suggests active deception for an alterior motive.
Denialist conspiracy theories are non-parsimonious. That is they raise more questions than they answer, because they’re generally being used to explain the absence of data, rather than fit together existing data into an explanation of reality. This is why it’s so absurd when denialists talk about actual conspiracies, like criminal conspiracies, or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Those are not “conspiracy theories” in the modern parlance, because they provide an explanation that fits the data, the results of investigation, motives, etc. They don’t create more questions, like, “how could all those thousands of people keep quiet.” The answer is they can’t. Just ask Lance Armstrong, the tobacco companies, or any gangster that’s had their operation undone by a snitch. Secrets are pretty hard to keep.
Watson is not proposing a non-parsimonious conspiracy theory here, instead she’s demonstrating examples in which authors are clearly overinterpreting their data to conform to societal assumptions about women. This is far from an extraordinary claim about psychology, it’s been demonstrated in the past, and is something psychologists should be on constant guard against, because it is more likely than not that at some point bias will enter their interpretation of data. Watson’s case is pretty solid, in regards to these examples, that the bias is plain to see.

Fake experts are not featured prominently in Watson’s talk. However, at the end Watson cites several fake experts whose opinions on the science are inconsistent with established, uncontroversial knowledge. She implores the audience to read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a book seeking to justify a radical social constructionist view of gender differences. While Fine makes some reasonable points about some flawed studies, scholarly reviews have criticized Fine for cherry-picking studies as examples which are amenable to her conclusion and ignoring the rest

Watson goes on to suggest Greg Laden’s blog. Laden is a bioanthropologist who is on record uttering unscientific opinions such as that men are testosterone-damaged women.

Clint acknowledges these examples are weak, and in particular picking on Greg is really just a smear. I think it’s hard to interpret his post on “men as testosterone-damaged women” as serious, as he himself says:

e. Or whatever. Other people were more thoughtful about it and objected to the statement because it is wrong. Well, that’s good, because it is in a way wrong, because it is an oversimplification. But it was not meant to be a description of the biological and cultural processes associated with the development of individual personality, culture, and society. I am a little surprised that people thought it was such a statement, because it is so obviously a remark designed to poke certain men in the eye.

It was a shock-statement, not a serious statement of scientific fact, and it’s unfair of Clint to be dismissive of Laden over such a triviality. Only the MRAs seem to take that statement seriously, and they, as a group, should be ignored whenever possible. As far as Cordelia Fine, I have a great deal of trouble speaking with any confidence on her position in the field as a non-expert myself. However, reading Diane Halpern’s review in Science (no denialist rag) I find it to be more-nuanced that Clint’s quote suggested. Halpern writes:

Cleverly written with engaging prose, Delusions of Gender and Brain Storm contain enough citations and end notes to signal that they are also serious academic books. Fine and Jordan-Young ferret out exaggerated, unreplicated claims and other silliness regarding research on sex differences. The books are strongest in exposing research conclusions that are closer to fiction than science. They are weakest in failing to also point out differences that are supported by a body of carefully conducted and well-replicated research.

I think a book described by an expert reviewer as a “serious academic book” but flawed in one regard shouldn’t be so easily dismissed, as this reviewer in Science, while critical, was mostly positive about her book. I think the fake expert moniker should not be applied to either of these two, and frankly, considering true fake experts out there like Monckton, the assertion is somewhat laughable.

3. Cherry picking
As outlined in part II, Watson restricted her citations to stories that appear in the general media and critical popular science books. She focused on some of the worst possible examples that could be found, such as the interviews (not publications) with the disgraced Satoshi Kanazawa, instead of focusing on mainstream, reputable researchers. She also limited her citations to the sub-topic of sex and gender differences. While it is understandable that she may choose a narrow topic to present to a conference, she frequently makes her claims about the field in general, not merely as it pertains to sex and gender differences. For example, she rehashes Stephen Jay Gould’s “just so stories” criticism, (long debunked by biologists and others), but then uses as examples only sex and gender claims.

Now here I agree with Clint, Watson should have limited her remarks to evolutionary psych and the “sub-topic” of sex gender differences, as it’s clear that there is more to evolutionary psych than this idiotic “girls like pink” crap. But I’m also going to disagree with him that Stephen Jay Gould’s criticism has been “debunked” based on his provided link I actually agree more with Gould than I do the author. While Gould was clearly proven wrong in a few instances, I think his criticism of “just-so stories” is actually quite-compelling, and is an attempt to try to avoid a biased understanding of evolutionary mechanisms to try to find a purpose to every behavior, or every evolutionary modification. This criticism reads truer to me than many of the post-hoc explanations I’ve seen in evolutionary biology, and if anything should be internalized by researchers in this field. To reject the possibility that one is telling a “just-so story” without adequate evidence is to reject the null hypothesis prematurely. While it is clear from the essay that this evolutionary psych can have its hypotheses tested, and even that Gould was wrong in one instance, doesn’t mean that it’s a tendency in the field and one that needs to be addressed.

4. Impossible expectations of what research can deliver
Some of Watson’s criticisms would un-make many sciences were we to take them seriously. For example she says (13:27) “they never tell us what genes” as if this is a grand indictment of evolutionary psychology. There are scientists making in-roads in this area, but tracing the path from genes to structures to behavior is difficult-to-impossible, except in the case of disease and disorder. Further, we certainly don’t hold any other sciences to that standard, even the ones for which genes and adaptation are critical. Does anyone know precisely which genes make a cheetah fast, and exactly how they accomplish that? The peacock’s feathers, the fish’s gills? Shall we toss out all the evolutionary biology for which we do not have genetic bases identified? I should think not. Cognitive science also focuses on models divorced from physical stuff like genes and even neurons, but no one doubts that genes and neurons make cognitive capabilities possible (which is why genetic illnesses can severely impact them).

While it’s true that it would be unreasonable to posit a genetic explanation for each trait since so many traits are polygenic, and we have a very incomplete understanding of the function of much of the genome, this criticism shouldn’t be dismissed so easily. Eventually this field will have to incorporate genome-wide analysis into our understanding of human behavior, although Clint is right, not every finding in biology that’s important or worth publishing about needs to be explained down to the last atom.

At 15:41 Watson derisively explained her view of the method of evolutionary psychology as picking a behavior, assuming it is evolved, and then find “anything” in the past that might be relevant to it. Setting aside the inaccuracy of her summary, she seemed to be balking that such an hypothesis is just totally made up. Yes, Ms. Watson, it is. That is how science works. It is not known what the answers are before starting, so a researcher makes as good a guess as they can and then tests it.

Yes, but the real criticism here is the absence of testing the null hypothesis, as I explained above. This should be a critical component of hypothesis testing. She also has a point that if there are too many explanations for the data, all of them consistent, the finding isn’t of particular value.

At 13:39 Watson says that we can’t know enough about the distant past to make assessments of what might have been adaptive. She refers to variation in climate and “environment” and that the lives of our ancestors also “varied”. In other words, evolutionary psychologists can’t make any assumptions. We can’t assume women got pregnant and men didn’t, or that predators needed to be avoided, or that sustenance needed to be secured through hunting or foraging; these are real assumptions evolutionary psychologists use. If we were to toss out evolutionary psychology for this reason, we must also toss out much of biology, archaeology as well as paleoanthropology. Much care must be used in deciding what can and can’t be assumed about the past, but archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, biologists and evolutionary psychologists know this quite well.

This is a valid point.
Last but not least:

5. Misrepresentations and logical fallacies
Please see section V. 25 False and misleading statements made by Watson. In that list, items 1, 4, 7, 8, 11, 12, 18, 19, 20 and 25 are misleading statements. This is not a comprehensive list. Watson makes liberal use of logical fallacies. I will describe just one for the sake of brevity.
The naturalistic fallacy. One can hardly find a more pristine example of this fallacy than in criticism of evolutionary psychology, and Watson’s remarks were no exception. She spelled it out clearly at 38:30 “men evolved to rape… it was used as a well it’s natural for men to rape”. The problem to Watson is that some evolutionary psychologists study the phenomena of rape as a potential adaptation, or a product of adaptations such as the use of violence to obtain what one wants. Watson assumes that if rape is about sex, and sex is good because sex is natural, then rape must be natural and therefore good. This is an absurdity of course; it’s every shade of wrong from the rainbow of ultimate wrongness.

Yes, but Watson was describing it as a natural fallacy herself! You two are actually agreeing with each other.
I also think that his list of false or misleading claims by Watson is worth reading and it really should have been the starting point for the discussion about Watson’s talk. They actually have a lot of common ground between them, and frankly evolutionary psych needs a wake up call to its public image problem. Instead Clint clumsily tries to fit the tactics of denialism to her talk, and in my opinion, fails. Yes there are problems here, and he raises valid points. But the presence of denialism is not one of them.

Tribalism, Cultural Cognition, Ideology, we're all talking about the same thing here

From Revkin I see yet another attempt to misunderstand the problem of communicating science vs anti-science.
The author, Dan Kahan, summarizes his explanation for the science communication problem, as well as 4 other “not so good” explanations in this slide:
Kahan slide
He then describes “Identity-protective cognition” thus:

Identity-protective cognition (a species of motivated reasoning) reflects the tendency of individuals to form perceptions of fact that promote their connection to, and standing in, important groups.
There are lots of instances of this. Consider sports fans who genuinely see contentious officiating calls as correct or incorrect depending on whether those calls go for or against their favorite team.
The cultural cognition thesis posits that many contested issues of risk—from climate change to nuclear power, from gun control to the HPV vaccine—involve this same dynamic. The “teams,” in this setting, are the groups that subscribe to one or another of the cultural worldviews associated with “hierarchy-egalitarianism” and “individualism-communitarianism.”
CCP has performed many studies to test this hypothesis. In one, we examined perceptions of scientific consensus. Like fans who see the disputed calls of a referree as correct depending on whether they favor their team or its opponent, the subjects in our study perceived scientists as credible experts depending on whether the scientists’conclusions supported the position favored by members of the subjects’ cultural group or the one favored by the members of a rival one on climate change, nuclear power, and gun control.

Does anyone else think that maybe they’re unnecessarily complicating this? First, denialism is not an explanation for the science communication problem. It is a description of tactics used by those promoting bogus theories. Denialism is the symptom, ideology is the cause, and what we consider ideology seems more or less synonymous with this “identity-protective cognition”, while being less of a mouthful.
Call it what you will, when you have ideology, or religion, or politics, or other deeply held beliefs which define your existence and your concept of “truth”, conflicts with this central belief are not just upsetting, they create an existential crisis. When science conflicts with your ideology, it conflicts with who you are as person, how you believe you should live your life, what you’ve been raised to believe. And, almost no matter what ideology you subscribe to, eventually science will come in conflict with it, because no ideology, religion, or political philosophy is perfect. Eventually, they will all jar with reality. And what do most people do when science creates such a conflict? Do they change who they are, fundamentally, as a person? Of course not. They just deny the science.
Denialism is the symptom of these conflicts, and this is where the problem with the term “anti-science” comes in. Most denialists and pseudoscientists aren’t against science as the term suggests. I think of “anti-science” as being in conflict with established, verifiable science, without good cause. But most people read it as being against science as some kind of belief system or philosophy, which it usually isn’t. And while some people do promote the “other ways of knowing” nonsense, for the most part, even among denialists, there is acceptance that the scientific method (which is all science is) is superior at determining what is real versus what is not real. That is why they are pseudoscientists. They try to make their arguments sound as if they are scientifically valid by cherry-picking papers from the literature, by using science jargon (even if they don’t understand it), or by pointing to fake experts that they think confer additional scientific strength to their arguments. They crave the validity that science confers on facts, and everyone craves scientific validation (or at least consistency) with their ideology or religious beliefs. It sucks when science conflicts with whatever nonsense you believe in because science is just so damn good at figuring stuff out, not to mention providing you with neat things like longer life expectancy, sterile surgery, computers, cell phones, satellites, and effective and fun pharmaceuticals. This is why (most) pseudoscientists and denialists insist that the science is really on their side, not that science isn’t real, or that it doesn’t work. We know it works, the evidence is all around us, you are using a computer, after all, to read this. Anti-science as a term is too-frequently misunderstood, or inaccurate.
Pseudoscientists and denialists don’t hate science, that’s not why they’re anti-science. They crave the validity that science confers, and want it to apply to their nonsense as well. Sadly, for about 99.9% of us, at some point, science will likely conflict with something we really, really want to be true. What I hope to accomplish with this blog is to communicate what it looks like when people are so tested, and fail. And I suspect the majority of people fail, because in my experience almost everyone has at least one cranky belief, or bizarre political theory. Hopefully when people learn to recognize denialist arguments as fundamentally inferior, they will then be less likely to accept them, and when it’s their turn to be tested, hopefully they will do better.

Scientific American addresses denialism in politics – says it jeopardizes democracy

Scientific American evaluates the candidates on their answers to Sciencedebate 2012 and evaluates ideology-based denialism as a whole:

Today’s denial of inconvenient science comes from partisans on both ends of the political spectrum. Science denialism among Democrats tends to be motivated by unsupported suspicions of hidden dangers to health and the environment. Common examples include the belief that cell phones cause brain cancer (high school physics shows why this is impossible) or that vaccines cause autism (science has shown no link whatsoever). Republican science denialism tends to be motivated by antiregulatory fervor and fundamentalist concerns over control of the reproductive cycle. Examples are the conviction that global warming is a hoax (billions of measurements show it is a fact) or that we should “teach the controversy” to schoolchildren over whether life on the planet was shaped by evolution over millions of years or an intelligent designer over thousands of years (scientists agree evolution is real). Of these two forms of science denialism, the Republican version is more dangerous because the party has taken to attacking the validity of science itself as a basis for public policy when science disagrees with its ideology.

I agree. We’ve debated on this site the prevalence of denialism on the left vs. the right, but I think it’s a distraction from the central point which I think is being argued most effectively by Jonathan Haidt. That is, humans are not rational beings and most uses of reason are to rationalize positions that we arrived at by intuitive means. That means all ideology is going to strain your relationship with science. Humans tend to hold positions based on shortcuts, or heuristics, that lead them to what feels right, then they use reason to dig in to those positions. It is extremely difficult, and uncommon, for people to change their minds based on reason and evidence. So, any time you have political ideology as the source of people’s positions, you will encounter anti-science when those ideologies conflict with the science. Just like right-wingers have a big problem with climate change and evolution, left-wingers have a big problem with a kind of food religion, GMO and toxin paranoia, and other health and environmental denialism. I think the author here, Shawn Otto, has it exactly right.
His argument to tie the problem into encroaching authoritarianism might be more of a stretch:

By falsely equating knowledge with opinion, postmodernists and antiscience conservatives alike collapse our thinking back to a pre-Enlightenment era, leaving no common basis for public policy. Public discourse is reduced to endless warring opinions, none seen as more valid than another. Policy is determined by the loudest voices, reducing us to a world in which might makes right—the classic definition of authoritarianism.

I don’t know if authoritarianism is the destiny of a population that rejects science. Surely we are at greater risk of manipulation by those that control the message most effectively. More likely, we would be easily manipulated into supporting an oligarchy or plutocracy of those at the top of society who can manage media and politicians through money and influence, or at worst we might get a kakistocracy if the likes of the tea party come to power. Otto is right, however, when empiricism and facts are no longer important, the likelihood that the unqualified, the unprincipled, and the ignorant coming to power will increase.

The Privacy Competition Myth

In his non-book-review of Garret Keizer’s new book, Privacy, “Reason” Magazine correspondent includes this ill-informed quip on privacy:

With regard to modern commerce, Mr. Keizer grumps: “We would do well to ask if the capitalist economy and its obsessions with smart marketing and technological innovation cannot become as intrusive as any authoritarian state.” Actually, no. If consumers become sufficiently annoyed with mercantile snooping and excessive marketing, they can take their business to competitors who are more respectful of privacy. Not so with the citizens of an intrusive state.

There is almost no market for privacy among merchants. Companies learned long ago that raising privacy as an issue backfires–it causes consumers to worry about it rather than feel safe about an alternative product. Whether online or offline, going to a competitor doesn’t increase your privacy, in real or perceived terms. It’s simply too easy to hide invasive practices from consumers.
Our work at Berkeley shows the folly of simply going to a different site in order to have more privacy. Here’s just one example, in our Web Privacy Census, we did a large-scale survey of popular websites in order to assess mercantile snooping and excessive tracking. Of the most popular 1,000 websites, Google trackers are present on 712 of them. Good luck finding a competitor who is more respectful of your privacy.

Disinformation about Disinformation: L. Gordon Crovitz's Information Age

When one spouts disinformation about disinformation, does it make it information? No, it’s L. Gordon Crovitz’s “Information Age,” the weekly poorly informed and poorly reasoned blather about information policy in the Wall Street Journal.
Recall that Crovitz recently wrote about the invention of the Internet and online privacy. I wrote about these last two columns, and this week in the Journal Crovitz tries to backpedal, with the standard trope that his “Who Really Invented the Internet?” article was controversial—”It [became] for a time the most read, emailed and commented upon article on the Journal’s website, with more than 1,000 comments.” It was popular in the same way that reality stars enjoy popularity.
Crovitz tries to explain that he was reacting to President Obama’s recent speech about government and business. Crovitz responds that:

• Government alone didn’t create the Internet.
• Government didn’t help build the Internet in order to create commercial opportunities.
• Companies that succeed on the Internet do not succeed because of government.

Of course, this is not what Crovitz said last week. He said:

If the government didn’t invent the Internet, who did? Vinton Cerf developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet’s backbone, and Tim Berners-Lee gets credit for hyperlinks.
But full credit goes to the company where Mr. Taylor worked after leaving ARPA: Xerox.

Full credit. Not shared credit.
To Crovitz’s second point, government builds a lot of things that have secondary uses in the commercial market. The many inventions of NASA, for instance, were first developed to execute space travel, and these technologies find their way into the commercial sector.
To Crovitz’s third point, companies do succeed on the Internet because of government. There is plenty of interaction and cooperation between high tech companies and government, and that is why high tech companies are not libertarian. If high tech companies were severed from the government gravy train, innovation would suffer. We’d have fewer drones and other wonderful technologies.
More fundamentally, so many internet entrepreneurs came from America’s college and university system, where big government funding helps develop leaders like Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Steve Wozniak and others.
This tech libertarian “I am an island” meme is fully debunked by Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish. In that book, Borsook lampoons arguments of Crovitz’s sort: “The most virulent form of philosophical technolibertarianism is a kind of scary, psychologically brittle, prepolitical autism. It bespeaks a lack of human connection and a discomfort with the core of what many of us consider it means to be human. It’s an inability to reconcile the demands of being individual with the demands of participating in society, which coincides beautifully with a preference for, and glorification of, being the solo commander of one’s computer in lieu of any other economically viable behavior…”
But back to Crovitz:

Supporters of big government don’t want to hear about the private-sector contributions to the Internet…

What is Crovitz’s basis for this crazy talk? This is an unhinged straw man argument. Any sensible person recognizes that private-sector contributions are critical to all sorts of ventures.

…but today the Internet is defined by individuals using it for their own purposes—communicating, accessing social media—and critiquing opinion columns. Many innovations are via free, open-source software. Perhaps we can all at least agree that the Internet boom began in the mid-1990s when the government shut down its remaining role, leaving the Internet to the power of the people.

The government never shut down its role in the internet. Has this guy ever heard of the Department of Commerce and ICANN? Or the NSF?
How did this guy get this column and is there no one at the Journal that recognizes it for what it is, or is this a case of crank magnetism?

Is the holocaust denial/climate change denial comparison apt?

Many of the climate change denialist sites have been up in arms by comparisons of climate change denial to holocaust denial. In particular Marc Morano at climate depot has had multiple articles attacking and expressing hysterical outrage at these comparisons.
We know they don’t like the comparison, but the question is, is it apt?
Continue reading “Is the holocaust denial/climate change denial comparison apt?”

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.