Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Tag Archives: pseudoskepticism

Pseudoskepticsm Among Previously Greater Scientists

test tubes

Konrad Lorenz is usually credited with being the father of ethology (the study of animal behavior). He discovered imprinting and was awarded the Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973. He will always be remembered as one of the early contributors of the field. However, he was also a staunch Nazi propagandist and believed that his entire body of scientific research was devoted to Nazism. His scientific legacy has largely been overshadowed by the absurdity of his pseudoscientific and pseudoskeptical beliefs regarding human diversity and Nazism as well as the horrible social consequences of these patently false ideologies.

Kary Mullis is an American biochemist who won the Noble Prize in Chemistry in 1993 because of his important improvements in a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). It is a method that has since become a central part in genome sequencing, diagnosis of hereditary diseases and the functional analysis of genes. It is also used in various area of forensics and paternity testing. Unfortunately, he became an HIV/AIDS denialist, rejected the mainstream science of climate change and promoted astrology.

This article will examine two central questions. The first is: why do some prominent scientists, even having won a Nobel Prize, fall into the swamp of pseudoscience or worse? The second question is: why does such a situation feel so cognitively uncomfortable for a scientific skeptic? Read more of this post

Index to the “Debating Tactics and Pseudoskepticism” series

This post will serve as an index post to the series covering topics regarding the problems with pseudoskepticism and debating tactics.

While this particular series is complete for now, I intend to write a new one on basic and not so basic concepts in scientific skepticism.

The Joys of Being Wrong and the Benefits of Humility

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

Even if one has learned to separate personal identity and position, there may be some lingering discomfort with being shown wrong. It can feel somewhat embarrassing and you may feel like you are losing credibility and reputation among your peers. This delusion of prestige is very dangerous and may make us dig our heels in into an untenable position.

This is called irrational escalation (also known as sunken cost fallacy). It occurs when one tries to justify spending additional time, money and effort into something by noting that the amount of time, money or effort already spent. A popular example is playing poker with a big pot that one has made a substantial contribution to and realizing that the hand one has is not as good as one thought. If your hand is bad enough, it may be beneficial to lay it down despite having put a lot of money into the pot, if playing the hand to the end will cost you more.

Similarly, this may make us ramp up the rhetoric and intimidation to subdue our current debating adversary. However, we should keep in mind the following question:

Would I rather “win” a discussion, or know what is right? Read more of this post

Overcoming Selective Rationality

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

The problem of pseudoskepticism is not just a problem other people have. Most people, including the author and most readers of the article, are more or less selectively rational. The symptoms may seem similar to that of pseudoskepticism; aversion to changing your mind when you need the most, reduced ability to perceive and understand arguments that you disagree with and dichotomous thinking. It is probably very hard to be completely rational in every area, which is made even harder by the sophistication effect that was discussed previously: a person who is well-read and intellectual is better at rationalizing beliefs he or she arrived at by irrational means.

Are there ways to overcome selective rationality or avoid becoming a pseudoskeptic? Here are some suggestions.

1. Divorce personal identity from beliefs

When you read or hear criticisms of your position, do not interpret them as a personal attack against your identity. You are not your beliefs. Beliefs are just inhabitants of your mind. If it helps, do not think of the situation as you being wrong, but that your safeguard against irrational beliefs and notions temporarily malfunctioned and let erroneous beliefs through without enough critical evaluation. This means that reasoned critics are actually helping you improve this shield, rather than denigrating your personal identity.

2. Apply symmetric skepticism.

It is really easy to apply a much stricter skepticism and therefore a higher burden of evidence for positions that you reject than the ones you accept in a similar way to the fact that it is easier to notice evidence for positions you accept and forget evidence that oppose it. Try to deeply understand the arguments of your opponents. Not just a cursory overview, but detailed descriptions of what they think their arguments amount to. Do not do like many creationists do when they misunderstand evolutionary arguments and present them as weaker than they are in actuality. Read more of this post

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