Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

The Challenge of Pseudoskepticism


Note: This is the first installment in the series on debating tactics and pseudoskepticism. For other posts in this series, see the index entry.

Not all crackpots are equally easy to defeat in an argument. Some focus on promoting their weird beliefs by making positive statements about their own position, such as certain New Age believers asserting the silly myth that humans only use 10% of their brain. These can, with some minor research, be refuted with little or no effort: if humans only used 10% of their brain, why have the other 90%? The brain is a very costly organ in terms of oxygen and glucose demands and can easily get damaged with severe consequences. This also does not make any evolutionary sense; why did it evolve if it was not beneficial? Finally, functional magnetic resonance imaging shows that there is activity in most areas of the brain most of the time, even when asleep. So much for that myth.

However, there is another class that plays in an entirely different league. Their positions and arguments are not any more valid, but their debate tactics and rhetoric is far superior. Usually, these try to portray themselves as disinterested skeptics who are merely asking “disturbing questions” and “looking for evidence” while rarely saying anything about their own position. They also tend to quote scientists out of context, claiming they are martyrs in a grand conspiracy perpetrated by mainstream science, they cherry pick data that support their position while ignoring evidence that is inconsistent with their position and often try to portray a scientific debate about how something is occurring with the nonexistent debate regarding if something has occurred. Not only that, they often ignore areas of the subject where solid knowledge exists and artificially inflate insecurities out of proportion. These individuals are denialists, but can also be seen as pseudoskeptics, because they do not apply the same skepticism to their own claims and sources as they do to their opponents.

How can we as scientific skeptics and proponents of evidence-based reason tackle this kind of rhetoric and debate tactics? Here are some humble suggestions for some of them, drawing on previous arguments made by others. I’m not claiming that these are original insights or that they are useful for people who are intermediate debaters or better, but it might serve as an interesting introduction to the issues.

1. Quoting out of Context

This is fairly straightforward. The moment someone you suspect is a pseudoskeptic starts quoting scientists, especially if they quotes are small (say, a few sentences) and contains breaks (e. g. […]), the standard response is to look up the quote and see if the context supports the interpretation that the pseudoskeptic puts forward. A classic example of this is Darwin about the vertebrate eye:

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.

Does Darwin really concede that evolution cannot explain complex adaptations? Let us see what directly follows the above quote from the Origin of Species.

Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.

This may seem simple, but what if you don’t know the author or the book and a quick search on Google did not yield anything? When it comes to creationism, a lot of these quote mines are like urban legends, spreading from website to website, but some are not. It is sometimes possible to head over to e. g. or Google Books and search inside many books.

2. Unknown and Insecure

This is another classic, especially when it comes to things like climate change. They usually claim that projections and computer models have insecurities and that there are currently unknown natural processes contributing strongly to climate change, thereby letting human activity of the hook, or so the argument goes.

Oreskes and Conway (2010) suggest the following approach: there will always be unknown factors, insecurities and error bars in estimates no matter how well the science is done, because nothing in science can be proved as securely as a theorem in mathematics. This means that the situation shifts; the matter now becomes whether or not the established knowledge outweighs the residual ignorance. This seems, in my opinion, an efficient way to shift the attention back to what is known with confidence an what conclusions that probably can be drawn from it.

3. Martyrs and Conspiracies

I cannot remember how many times I have read that some denialist thinks he is censured by the establishment because of his “radical” views that someway threatens to cause a grand revolution in science and then comparing himself with Galileo or Einstein. Now, there seem to be several responses that can be made here such as asking for independent evidence of this conspiracy, emphasizing that while it is the case that many researchers that revolutionized science where eccentrics, this does not imply that all eccentrics are revolutionary scientists (Singh and Ernst, 2009). A third method could be pointing out that the scientific mainstream establishment have accepted radical and revolutionary theories, such as endosymbiosis, plate tectonics, quantum mechanics etc. first when enough evidence was available to make the conclusion well-supported.

4. The Gish Gallop

This is named after young earth creationist Duane Gish who usually argues by shotgunning his opponent with so many absurd claims about so many different things in rapid succession that when it is his opponents turn, this opponent does not know where to begin. A pseudoscientific statement that can be made in 15 seconds can take 15 minutes to refute. I suppose one either spends the time it takes to make a complete refutation of everything that is claimed (this is easier if the discussion is on a forum) or take one or two of the arguments and debunk them in detail, then state that the other arguments are equally flawed and perhaps link to a website already explaining the rest, if possible. For formal debates, it helps to narrow the topic, especially moving the topic away from the comfort zone of your opponent. Instead of, say, debating everything about evolution and creationism, if the topic is limited to, say, the question of whether or not population genetics is consistent with a global flood. This means that the pseudoskeptic cannot rehash his old canards and he is probably not that well read on narrow the topic to begin with and this does, I think, disable some of the force behind the gallop. It shrinks the enclosed pasture, so to speak.

5. Teach the Controversy!

There is a legitimate controversy about the relationship of Crustaceans and Insects! About the how large certain feedback processes are with respect to climate change! Doesn’t this mean that the science is unsure and incomplete? Well, actually, it confuses a controversy concerning how exactly the detailed relationship among taxa are, with a supposed controversy regarding if common descent is true. These are not the same questions. These same applies to climate change; the fact that there is a legitimate controversy with regards to exactly how large, say, climate sensitivity is, does not mean that there is a larger controversy on whether or not human activity is a significant contributing factor to the current warming trend.

6. Disarming the Sophistication Effect?

The so called sophistication effect occurs when an individual is really good at rationalizing a position he or she has come to for non-rational reasons. Such a person is usually highly intellectual and has a great deal of knowledge and debating skill, yet is trapped in an irrational position because he or she is overestimating his or her own ability to discern what conclusion is reasonable. This also exposes the person to a host of other biases, even though the person should know better.

This is, in my opinion, the hardest type of denialist to counter for these reasons. What possible countermeasures can be deployed against such a person? Perhaps one could ask the person to state what would have to be demonstrated for this person to change his position?

7. References and Further Reading

Yudkowsky, Eliezer. (2007). Knowing About Biases Can Hurt People Less Wrong. Accessed 2010-06-30.

Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2010). Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Shermer, M. (2002). Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (2nd ed.). New York: Owl Books.

Singh, S., & Ernst, E. (2009). Trick of Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. London: Corgi Books.

9 responses to “The Challenge of Pseudoskepticism

  1. Wonderist July 2, 2011 at 16:11

    I notice you referenced Eliezer Yudkowsky. 🙂 That reminded me of Bayes’ Theorem, which I think is appropriate to the topic of how to deal with pseudo-skepticism. I have an intro to Bayes’ Theorem which might be helpful to this discussion, here:
    As far as point number 6, I think that if you’re dealing with an entrenched pseudo-skeptic, you have to realize that you will inevitably have much more success if you focus on how your argument sounds to the *audience* that is listening (or on the web, lurking), rather than trying to convince the pseudo-skeptic directly. This is similar to how to most effectively debate apologists of religion on public forums.
    A good dose of humour or mockery can put the debate in the right context: This is not a debate between equal positions. Always back up any such mockery with a solid argument based on evidence, however. Nothing frustrates me more than mockery without substance, as that is actually one of the pseudo-skeptic’s tools, as well.
    When one side continues to present fact after fact, and debunking one claim after another, and referring constantly to evidence that can be checked, all the while making fun of the fact that the other side’s argument is totally empty, it doesn’t take long before the non-entrenched audience starts to see the pattern and shift their position to be a little more wary of the pseudo-skeptic’s arguments.

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