Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rampant denialism

These past few days, I have been laid low by a tiny, vicious bug, one that made me unable to raise my head off the pillow or drag myself to the keyboard to connect with the world. Consequently, when I finally was able to make that trek from my bed to the chair in front of my computer today, I found my Google Reader full to overflowing with posts from the blogs that I follow.

Skimming through those posts, there were a number of very interesting ones to which I need to give further thought, but one in particular caught my eye. It was an entry from Skeptical Science about a peer-reviewed scientific paper that explores the roots and the methods of scientific denialism. Here, I quote extensively from that post.

The authors define denialism as "the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists". They go on to identify 5 characteristics common to most forms of denialism:

1.Conspiracy theories
When the overwhelming body of scientific opinion believes something is true, the denialist won't admit scientists have independently studied the evidence to reach the same conclusion. Instead, they claim scientists are engaged in a complex and secretive conspiracy. The South African government of Thabo Mbeki was heavily influenced by conspiracy theorists claiming that HIV was not the cause of AIDS. When such fringe groups gain the ear of policy makers who cease to base their decisions on science-based evidence, the human impact can be disastrous.

2.Fake experts
These are individuals purporting to be experts but whose views are inconsistent with established knowledge. Fake experts have been used extensively by the tobacco industry who developed a strategy to recruit scientists who would counteract the growing evidence on the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. This tactic is often complemented by denigration of established experts, seeking to discredit their work. Tobacco denialists have frequently attacked Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California, for his exposure of tobacco industry tactics, labelling his research 'junk science'.

3.Cherry picking
This involves selectively drawing on isolated papers that challenge the consensus to the neglect of the broader body of research. An example is a paper describing intestinal abnormalities in 12 children with autism, which suggested a possible link with immunization. This has been used extensively by campaigners against immunization, even though 10 of the paper’s 13 authors subsequently retracted the suggestion of an association.

4.Impossible expectations of what research can deliver

The tobacco company Philip Morris tried to promote a new standard for the conduct of epidemiological studies. These stricter guidelines would have invalidated in one sweep a large body of research on the health effects of cigarettes.

5.Misrepresentation and logical fallacies
Logical fallacies include the use of straw men, where the opposing argument is misrepresented, making it easier to refute. For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined in 1992 that environmental tobacco smoke was carcinogenic. This was attacked as nothing less than a 'threat to the very core of democratic values and democratic public policy'.

Why is it important to define the tactics of denialism? Good faith discussion requires consideration of the full body of scientific evidence. This is difficult when confronted with rhetorical techniques which are designed to distort and distract. Identifying and publicly exposing these tactics are the first step in redirecting discussion back to a focus on the science.

It is clear to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that these methods of denialism do not exist only in the world of science, although they may be most virulent and harmful there. They are certainly rampant in the world of politics and even religion in this country where it is impossible to have a rational, "good faith," discussion with a certain segment of the population which is enthralled by a web of conspiracy theories, fake experts, and cherry picking of information. For confirmation, just spend any hour of the day watching the Fox News Network.

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