Denialists should not be debated

Orac has brought up the interesting point that debating the homeopaths at U. Conn might not be a good idea.

On a related note, in a post derriding attacks on consensus I was asked by commenters if isn’t it incumbent on science to constantly respond to debate; to never let scientific questions be fully settled. And I understand where they’re coming from. These ideas represent the enlightened ideals of scientific inquiry, free speech, and fundamental fairness.

However, they’re also hopelessly misplaced in regard to the problem at hand. That is, denialists, cranks, quacks, etc., are not interested in legitimate debate or acting as honest brokers trying to bring clarity to a given issue through discussion. Orac dances around this issue a little bit, talking about the challenges of debates with pseudoscientists because they are hard to pin down, but the fundamental problem, simply put, is the absence of honesty and standards. Academia and science are critically dependent on debate, this is true, but the prerequisite for having the debate is having people who are honestly interested in pursuing the truth and operate using the same rules of evidence and proof. It’s not about censoring dissent, which the cranks insist is the issue in their eternal pursuit of persecution. It’s about having standards for evidence and discussion. This is why these debates, when confined to a courtroom, often fare so disastrously for the denialists. In the presence of standards that exist before evidence can be introduced, they are left with nothing.

In what is probably the best book on denialist tactics Deborah Lipstadt’s “Denying the Holocaust”, are the best arguments for not engaging in debate with denialists. Now, I realize we’re not talking about scum-of-the-earth holocaust deniers here, but the fact is, the tactics and the methods are ultimately the same no matter how noble or evil the motive. Just because the motives or ideologies of the other cranks or denialists are different, doesn’t mean that they don’t have the exact same flaws in their arguments, use of evidence, or fundamental honesty. Lipstadt explains the risks then of entering into debates with deniers:
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Credit Freeze: An Example of How Regulation Gives Consumers Choice Where the Market Wouldn’t

Brian Krebs reports good news: Trans Union, one of the three major consumer reporting agencies, will offer all consumers the option to freeze their credit files in order to prevent identity theft:

A credit freeze directs the credit bureaus to block access to a consumer’s credit report and credit score. At present, at least 39 states and the District of Columbia allow consumers to freeze their credit files, but many of those laws do not take effect until 2008 or 2009. TransUnion would be the first bureau to voluntarily offer freezes to consumers in all 50 states (and D.C.).

There’s a lot to say about credit freeze, the ability to lock one’s credit report in order to avoid identity theft, but I want to use this opportunity to discuss how when this remedy was first proposed in California by then Senator Debra Bowen, the industry predicted gloom and initially killed the legislation (2000 Cal. SB 1767). Now, years since the first credit freeze bill passed, the sky didn’t fall, and Trans Union is actually offering freeze nationally.

After Bowen’s bill failed in 2000, she reintroduced it as SB 168 in 2001. A report accompanying the legislation details the arguments that the industry used against it:

The three national credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion oppose the security alert and security freeze provisions in the bill. On this point, Equifax states that the bill would:

Add significant new costs to the credit economy by forcing credit reporting agencies to develop new computer architecture to issue consumers PIN numbers to turn off and on their files as they like;


Harm consumers by delaying or preventing altogether necessary credit transactions for consumers who had blocked their files. In mortgage reporting instances, for example, consumers would have to remember three PIN codes for each of the national credit reporting agencies. Automobile dealers and auto finance companies, cellular phone providers, financial institutions, retailers, insurers, and those in the mortgage lending and real estate business would suffer as the process from freeze to unfreeze could take up to 14 days. Instant, online transactions would not be possible for consumers with a
“frozen” file.

Regular readers of the blog should be able to spot the denialism. But the broader point I’m making is that the consumer reporting agencies hated the idea of credit freeze seven years ago, and now, one of them is offering it nationally on a voluntary basis. Most of the objections, such as the supposed 14-day waiting period for a credit thaw, in retrospect, are silly (New Jersey requires a 15 minute thaw). This is a great example where regulation created a market that the free market never wanted to exist!

WSJ: Oppose CAFE! Ignore Reality! Why, Because I Know Econ 101!

In today’s Journal, Robert Crandall and Hal Singer argue that America shouldn’t drink the corporate average fuel economy standard (CAFE) Kool-Aid. Why? Well why do you think? Because the market is perfect and thus there is no problem! Bring on the Econ 101!


…if there was [sic] fuel-saving technology out there that cost $1,000 but generated $2,500 in the discounted present value of fuel savings over the life of the vehicle, carmakers would surely voluntarily embrace that technology…


No need for regulation there. With large numbers of vehicle producers and well-informed consumers, the market is so efficient, in fact, that it ensures that all such transactions will occur, generating the socially optimal level of fuel economy…

i-9d936ebcbb671ac98c18d0fb1b4e58c6-4s.jpeg Are these guys parodying economists? I wonder, because this is so ill informed, and so unsophisticated that it is difficult to take them seriously. Our “socially optimal” level of fuel economy is so poor because many carmakers have used technology to increase power and performance instead of efficiency. We have hybrid cars that use the electric engine to provide more horsepower rather than save gas!

But it gets worse, ladies and gentlemen, because they feel compelled to explain what they learned in class today–the idea of “market failure:”

Any call for regulation must be based on a market “failure” — that is, failure of private markets to provide the proper incentives for contributing to social value. In the case of the current call for increases in CAFE, the market failure is generally identified as global warming or national security. But CAFE is a horribly inefficient mechanism for reducing carbon emissions because it does nothing to reduce emissions from power plants, older vehicles, home furnaces or industrial facilities. Nor would it apply to any emissions outside the U.S. Even if one accepts the debatable proposition that less reliance on oil would improve our national security, we should focus our attention on all oil consumption, not just that used in new vehicles. The cost of trying to reduce the harmful external effects of any form of consumption by arbitrarily taxing just 5% of it is extremely costly. A smaller tax on a much wider tax base always reduces the distortions caused by the tax.

Where to start with this? Because CAFE doesn’t address old home furnaces, it isn’t worth pursing?

My favorite part about this absurd oped is how often they bemoan the benighted state of politics, because the public ignores economists:

Aside from economists, whose voices often carry little weight in Washington, there is virtually no opposition to this form of regulation. Not even from a Republican president.


When exposed to the piercing light of economic analysis, the alleged benefits of more stringent CAFE standards burn away. Too bad these proposals will not be subjected to economic scrutiny before they become law.


Ask any economist and he’ll tell you that estimating the private costs and private benefits of increasing fuel economy is a fool’s errand.

Maybe we should have an “ask any economist” contest. What, exactly, should be the response to someone who asserts, “any economist would say X.” Should “so what?” be the response? My favorite response comes from one of my brainy students here at Berkeley: “being an economist means never having to say you’re wrong!”

I could go on forever, but will leave it with this:

Mr. Crandall is senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. Mr. Singer is the president of Criterion Economics. They have advised General Motors on CAFE issues.

Oh, maybe this explains why no one wants a GM car! Instead of leading like Toyota and Honda on fuel efficiency, they think the market has solved the problem. GM should fire these guys.

Denialism in the news

Alert readers have brought to my attention two articles of interest to the study of denialism. First a big fat article in Newsweek entitled The Truth About Denial is a good overview of the anti-scientific crusade of conservative crank tanks to dispute global warming. It has a nice timeline of the development of the denialist movement in response to the unwanted science, examples of the cranks in congress that have latched onto and internalized the arguments that confirm what they want to hear, and their classic tactics of cherry-picking and confusing climate with weather.

The second, and I’d love to hear some feedback on this one, is a WaPo article on a conspiracy I’ve never heard of before. It sounds so implausible I have trouble understanding why anyone believed it, but apparently it’s still quite popular myth to spread around. That is, the conspiracy of memorandum 46:

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Hire Google for your denialist campaign!

An alert reader noticed that when he performed a Google search on ‘Sicko’, guess who pops up in the sponsored links? Why, our good friends at AEI, a denialist organization second only to CEI, but since they have a lot of the same people working for both it’s really just academic which one you’re arguing with. When you need your crappy industry defended from public criticism, you can always rely on AEI or CEI to chomp at the bit and pretend there is “no problem”.

What’s even more interesting is that Google actually solicited ads (fixed link) to combat Sicko’s bad PR for the insurance industry. How’s that for “do no evil”?

AEI’s criticism is pretty weak:

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A scientific study of overvalued ideas

Corpus Callosum points us to a review in science entitled Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science (Chris at mixing memory also has coverage of the article). This is a perfect study to emphasize a critical aspect of denialism and crankery, that is, the central role the overvalued idea plays in the evolution of a crank.

Denialism, in a nutshell, is the rhetorical strategy used to protect an overvalued idea from things like facts and data. The denialist or crank is trying desperately to hold on to a concept that is important to their self-identity or ego, and is in conflict with well-established scientific observations. Examples of overvalued ideas and the denialists that hold them include racial superiority for holocaust denialists, biblical literalism for young earth creationists, or having a scientific basis for deities in the case of intelligent design creationists. Sometimes the central truth being protected is more ephemeral or based on egotism or guilt or fear. Global warming denialists I believe are mostly fearful of economic consequences or lifestyle changes that may be forced by broad acknowledgment of the threat of some aspects of climate change (those who aren’t being paid to shill that is). People who insist autism is caused by mercury/vaccines are emotionally invested in finding someone to blame for their children’s illness or are harboring a fundamental distrust of medicine (often complaining of some terrible experience with doctors).

But how do people latch onto these overvalued ideas in the first place? Why do people develop these and refuse to relinquish them? This paper provides insights into some sources of anti-scientific ideas, but sadly isn’t comprehensive. The ones it does cover though (I’d say creationism and Deepak-Chopra kinds of woo) are absolutely hysterical to read about.

For instance, I couldn’t help laughing as I read this paragraph:
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Denialists’ Deck Applied: Lobbying Reform

The Newhour had a debate tonight full of denialism provided by Paul Miller, former head of the American League of Lobbyists. It’s an excellent opportunity to demonstrate how the lobbying tactics outlined in the Denialists’ Deck of Cards can be employed to fight a proposal without really dealing with the merits of it.

The issue: lobbying reform in Washington that will ban certain gifts by lobbyists to Members, and will provide greater transparency on money provided by lobbyists. The legislation isn’t perfect, but check out the tactics used by Miller to kill the proposal:

PAUL MILLER, Miller-Wenhold Capitol Strategies: This bill should have never come to the floor. This bill should have never been written, for one thing. Congress overreacted and has had a knee-jerk reaction to one individual (Jack Abramoff), and that happened two years ago. This system is not broken.

Wow, this guy doesn’t mess around! In a single statement, he fit in two versions of “No Problem” and “Bad Apples.”

i-e80414ff40124a19710b000fc9c565bc-2c.jpg i-3a98e902c2d2451ed6523a0e819bb2f7-2h.jpg

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Who are the denialists? (Part III)

Who are the global Warming Denialists?

A tougher question is, in a discipline as complex as climate science, how do you tell who the legitimate skeptics (those that ignore the reporting at the Independent for instance) are versus who are the denialists?

Again, it’s simple, because denialism is about tactics. Which global warming critics are the ones alleging conspiracies, cherry-picking data, and incessantly moving the goalposts? Which organizations hire these hacks to denigrate legitimate science?
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I guess this was inevitable

“Heliocentrism is an Atheist Doctrine”.

I’ve just got to say, wow. I read it at first thinking, “hey, this is hysterical satire”, then I read the comments and thought, “wow, these guys are dedicated – this is pure performance art!” Finally, I started going through the archives with a sinking feeling, “holy crap, these guys are for real.”

I really think they’ve fallen for these cranks line about a fixed earth, and all I’ve got to say now is please, please, please tell everybody about this. If there ever was a better example of the universality of crank thinking, this is it, and of course they would support Brownback before any other candidate.

I’m sure if one of these guys was in line for tenure at ISU the DI would be screaming their heads off if the university wisely decided not to extend tenure. After all it’s academic freedom! We must teach the controversy over Copernicus!

Thanks Coturnix!

Who are the denialists? (Part II)

What kind of family value is lying? That’s the foremost question in my mind when I consider the family values organizations that use false research, lies and denialism to justify their agenda of disparaging contraception, sex education, homosexuality, and exaggerating the dangers of abortion.

In light of Falwell’s death, I thought it would be appropriate to advance the discussion of the use of denialist techniques to reinforce bigotry and an anti-feminist agenda in the name of family values.
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