While I have spent many hours debating Holocaust deniers and the anti-immigration forces online at various blogs and forums, nothing quite prepares you for the real deal. I had a rather polite conversation with a person I interact with on a daily basis at the place I spend most of my time during the day. He subscribed to various common anti-immigration beliefs and made frequent appeals to “natural” in his justification of the subjugation of women. He also turned out to be a Holocaust denier and a self-professed “racist”. Because it is pretty clear that these particular individuals live trapped in a mirror world of make-belief and post hoc rationalizations, it is quite a surreal experience talking to one face-to-face. Now, this blog post is going to be pretty anecdotal, but I think it is instructive and could hopefully help others experiencing the same thing in the future.
This person was, luckily for me, not that well-read on arguments or debating tactics frequently used by anti-immigration pseudoskeptics or Holocaust deniers. For instance, the he did not object to the question of whether he was a racist or not, but freely confessed it to be the case. A sophisticated pseudoskeptic would probably have rejected the label and said something along the lines of “I am so tired of being called a racist just because I want responsible immigration policies”, thereby making it appear as if he or she was a martyr, being attacked on a personal level for his or her beliefs. In any case, I tried to help him clearly articulate his position, because he was a bit embarrassed when admitting that he denied the existence of gas chambers or the mainstream figure of about 6 million Jewish deaths. Clearly, he realized that the more he spoke about it, the more credibility among the listeners he lost. Granted, it was pretty low-hanging fruit for me and his claims became more and more absurd the more he opened his mouth, but I was able to shoot down most of the arguments he put forward, point out internal contradictions as well as ask him critical questions that he could not satisfactory answer.
Let me go over them, one by one.
1. Gas chambers where not just delousing chambers
One of his major claims, and one of the most common claim put forward by Holocaust deniers is that the gas chambers at the extermination camps where not actually used to kill people in, but just used for delousing infested clothes. There are many problems with this. First, the gas chambers in Treblinka used carbon monoxide, which is lethal because it reversibly binds to hemoglobin in mammals and prevents it from transporting oxygen around the body. However, lice do not have hemoglobin so using carbon monoxide to delouse clothing would be a very ineffective method. Second, some gas chambers in Auschwitz used Zyklon-B and had special chambers inside these that where specifically used for delousing. If the gas chambers where really just “delousing chambers”, why put a specific box for delousing clothing within this supposed “delousing chamber”? Clearly, the evidence supports the mainstream historical account, rather than Holocaust denialism.
2. Zyklon-B is a carrier for hydrogen cyanide gas and lethal to humans
He them tried to stump me with the following question: how could Zyklon-B be used to kill humans, since it is a insecticide and in solid form. This is an easy challenge to rise up to: Zyklon-B is a carrier for hydrogen cyanide gas that often came in the form of adsorbent granules that released the gas when treated. Furthermore, the product came in two forms: one odorless and one with the warning odorant methyl 2-bromoacetate. If the gas chambers where just “delousing chambers”, it would not matter what form was used. Why would the Nazis have cared what the lice smelled? However, if the goal was to gas humans, it would make sense to use the odorless form, which was precisely the form that was used by the Nazis. So yet again, the Holocaust deniers challenge was refuted and the evidence was shown to fit better with the mainstream historical account.
3. There are always gaps, anomalies and things left unexplained
A third claim made by the Holocaust denier was that there were “problems” and “anomalies” with the mainstream historical account. He did not specify when asked, so I just replied that this is the very nature of scientific and historical research. There are always things left unexplained and no explanation is immune to chance or human limitations. He had no good response to this counterargument.
4. There does not exist two different theories
This is the classic false balance fallacy, claiming that a scientific (or in this case, historical) explanation that is well-supported by mountains of evidence is in some strange sense “equal” to absurd pseudoscience (or pseudohistory). Just because two different models are asserted with similar levels of conviction does not mean that the truth lie somewhere in between. Sometimes, one side is just mistaken. Also, by using this rhetorical trick, he abused the theory concept. In science and history, a theory is a well-supported explanation to some part of the natural world that includes facts, inferences and tested hypothesis, not a synonym for “crazy idea”. This is a favorite argument by creationists too, asserting that modern evolutionary biology is “just a theory” not understanding that this is the best possible level of confidence that can be acquired when doing science.
5. Keep an open mind, but keep an efficient filter.
Sure, I replied. But there is a difference between an open mind and a whole in your head from which your brain leaks out. He seemed to agree, but we did not linger on this issue too long.
6. The fact that denying the Holocaust is illegal in some areas says nothing about its validity as an historical explanation.
He often played the martyr card by saying that he did not think it was reasonable for it to be illegal to deny the Holocaust and that he did not support throwing such individuals in jail. This, however, is at best an irrelevant meta-discussion and the best way to counter this is to say that people should not be thrown in jail because of their expression of their convictions per se, but emphasize that this is irrelevant for the historical evidence.
These where the major claims he put forward so let us now move on to my critical questions. The discussion was about to end so I did not have that much time.
7. Data from demographics are evidence for the Holocaust
I asked him why, if the Holocaust either did not occur, or if the death toll was just “a few tens of thousands”, how come the demographics for, say, the Jewish population before and after the War showed a decrease of about 6 million. He replied that perhaps they moved, but could not say where or provide evidence from demographics to show this. It is curious to note that this is contradictory to his earlier statement that he accepted the existence of concentration camps and that the Nazis shipped many Jews there.
8. Why was carbon monoxide used?
This relates strongly to the first section. If there were no gas chambers, why did the Nazis produce large amounts of carbon monoxide? He was unable to reply to this successfully, merely suggesting that perhaps the notion that they used carbon monoxide was just a lie that was part of the conspiracy. So in other words, he thought that the lack of evidence for a conspiracy theory is just evidence for the conspiracy theory, showing that it was, for all intents and purposes, unfalsifiable.
9. What would have to be demonstrated for you to change your mind?
He could not specify what evidence would convince him that the mainstream historical account is the most reasonable position, mainly because he had confessed that he did not know that much about what the historical case for the reality of the Holocaust was. This is a clear admission that he was not very open to being wrong. He asked me the same question back, but I replied that historical documents and physical evidence converging on the same general conclusion would convince me. Before we parted ways, I asked him to figure out what would have to be the case for him to change his minds and he agreed.
10. Lessons learned?
What lessons did I learn from this experience? Mainly the following three:
- Do not act condescending or nasty towards the person, because then this will just strengthen his or her belief that he or she is a martyr for his or her beliefs as a defense mechanism. Be polite.
- Even the most kind and otherwise rational person can be severely mistaken in other areas, even to the point of being a pseudoskeptic, without noticing it.
- It is quote difficult to argue from the top of one’s head. If you aim to become a professional scientific skeptic or pseudoscience debunker, be prepared for anything. Even try to carry around papers and images in your backpack or bag just in case or practice short one-liners against most common arguments.
11. References and Further Reading
Evans, Richard J. (2001) Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial. New York: Basic Books,
Gottfried, Ted. (2001). Deniers of the Holocaust: Who They Are, What They Do, Why They Do It. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books.
Jan Van Pelt, Robert. (2002) The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial. New York: Indiana University Press.
Lipstadt, Deborah. (1993). Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. New York: Free Press.
Shermer, Michael and Alex Grobman. (2008). Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? Berkeley: University of California Press.
Van Husen, William H. (1999). “Zyklon B” in World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge.
Zimmerman, John C. (2000). Holocaust Denial: Demographics, Testimonies, and Ideologies. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.