Denialism defined

Thanks to a link (twice removed) from Tim Lambert, I just discovered a wonderfully cogent summary of the common characteristics of (professional?) anti-evolutionists, global warming "skeptics", medical cranks, and many of the other purveyors of anti-science or unhistorical illogic in our modern world. The Hoofnagle's and co-writers for the past couple of years have been pointing out the foibles particularly of medical cranks. As they write on some of the latest examples:

Cranks believe in something contrary to observable reality. They will do anything to prove it. When reality gets in their way, they ignore, subvert, lie, cheat, or obfuscate to create confusion. And when it's proven beyond all doubt they're wrong? That's when the conspiracies come out.

I've had my run-ins with cranks on various climate-related blogs and other forums the past couple of years, starting with my involvement in Andy Revkin's DotEarth blog when he began it in late 2007. Actually I'd had some discussions with "skeptics" on a few email lists before that, as well as commenting occasionally on RealClimate, but Revkin's blog was where the crazies really seemed to come out of the woodwork. Like the neophyte I was, I attempted to engage them with logic. Silly me!

5 general tactics are used by denialists to sow confusion. They are conspiracy, selectivity (cherry-picking), fake experts, impossible expectations (also known as moving goalposts), and general fallacies of logic.

Read the "about denialism" post for more detail on all those, it's well worth it. Their list strikingly reminds me of the list of 125 errors I came up with in Christopher Monckton's July 2008 Physics and Society article. General fallacies of logic and cherry picking I explicitly listed as such; "impossible expectations" fits well with many of the errors I classified as "red herrings". Monckton does seem to avoid explicitly making any claims of conspiracy in his article, though fundamentally the argument has to be either one of conspiracy or incompetence on the part of climate scientists, if he is to be believed. As to fake experts, unfortunately the climate "skeptic" community is rather chock-full of them and Richard Lindzen, Monckton's source for his principle (distorted) claim in the article, is even on the Hoofnagle's short list, as defined by:

somebody who is relied upon for their credentials rather than any real experience in the field at issue, who will promote arguments that are inconsistent with the literature, aren't generally accepted by those who study the field in question, and/or whose theories aren't consistent with established epistemological requirements for scientific inquiry

Their advice on responding to these people is probably wise, but we do need to have some way to make their nonsense clear to others. I hope to keep to that standard in things I post here...

Part of understanding denialism is knowing that it's futile to argue with them, and giving them yet another forum is unnecessary. They also have the advantage of just being able to make things up and it takes forever to knock down each argument as they're only limited by their imagination while we're limited by things like logic and data. Recognizing denialism also means recognizing that you don't need to, and probably shouldn't argue with it. Denialists are not honest brokers in the debate (you'll hear me harp on this a lot). They aren't interested in truth, data, or informative discussion, they're interested in their world view being the only one, and they'll say anything to try to bring this about. We feel that once you've shown that what they say is deceptive, or prima-facie absurd, you don't have to spend a graduate career dissecting it and taking it apart. It's more like a "rule-of-thumb" approach to bad scientific argument. That's not to say we won't discuss science or our posts with people who want to honestly be informed, we just don't want to argue with cranks. We have work to do.

Thanks guys, good advice!