Monday, April 2, 2007

When you come across a conspiracy theorist in the forest...

One of the reasons I started this blog is that I noticed how common it was for the folks who call themselves "climate skeptics" use many of the same rhetorical techniques as HIV/AIDS skeptics, Intelligent Design advocates, 9-11 conspiracy theorists and holocaust deniers (I read the Intelligence Report - some people gape out their windows at car accidents, I read about hate crimes). It turns out the folks at have noticed the same thing.

I once made the mistake of pointing out to a climate skeptic that for him to believe what he did, he would have to believe that almost every climatologist, and many scientists in other specialties (from biologists to astronomers) were in on an elaborate hoax. When he agreed with that assertion, I pointed out that other folks who believed in such elaborate hoaxes were holocaust deniers. And he invoked Godwin's Law. For anyone who finds themselves in this situation, speaking (or typing) to someone who is positing such extraordinary claims that couldn't possibly true without turning every expert in the world into a lunatic or a fraud, I give you this:

An HIV/AIDS denialist will say denying the link between HIV and AIDS isn't unreasonable, and pointing out that they use the same methods as other denialists, like evolution denialists or holocausts denialists is unfair. They're not like those other dirty denialists, they're just misunderstood.

But they are like those other denialists. That's the whole point that we make here at The methods of all denialists are the same. We're not creating guilt-by-association, we're pointing out that that they're using similar tactics, and that no matter what the denialists deny, they use the same rhetorical tricks to sow confusion and disrupt debate. If they feel guilty that they share space with these other denialists, that's not my problem. They're the ones using denialist tactics to make their point. If they don't want to be called cranks or denialists, I suggest instead of alleging conspiracies and making fallacious arguments, they actually provide data.
From the folks at Enjoy.



Mark said...

I'm particularly interested in conspiracy theories as a part of denialist debates though because I think the conspiracy theory is the absolute worst form of idiocy.

I also suspect, and I'm wondering if I should comb the psych literature about this, is that people who believe in conspiracy theories are almost always trying to protect the "overvalued idea". Whether it's entirely ego driven, or based on race, or sexism, or some other form of bigotry, I think that in the end, it's some glaring personal flaw that leads to people believing in conspiracies.

Something about thinking other humans are even capable of behaving that way (maybe projection?) combined with being dumb enough to believe in the possibilities. Just look at my post about Farrakhan as an example.

The Factician said...

"Glaring personal flaw?" I don't think that's it. I think in our weakest moments, most of us are willing to believe in conspiracy theories. I confess that I have briefly entertained conspiracy theories after having a paper rejected :P

I rather wonder if we're not hardwired to believe that everyone else is out to get us (in the same way that people seem to easily fall into groups of us and them.

Anyway, I'd certainly be interested in hearing anything you find in the psych literature. Keep me posted.

Anonymous said...

I would like to remind you that Michael Shermer, editor of “Skeptic Magazine” was once a “climate skeptic”. . I really don’t think he believed there was a giant conspiracy. As he put it.

“My experience is symptomatic of deep problems that have long plagued the environmental movement. Activists who vandalize Hummer dealerships and destroy logging equipment are criminal ecoterrorists. Environmental groups who cry doom and gloom to keep donations flowing only hurt their credibility. As an undergraduate in the 1970s, I learned (and believed) that by the 1990s overpopulation would lead to worldwide starvation and the exhaustion of key minerals, metals and oil, predictions that failed utterly. Politics polluted the science and made me an environmental skeptic.”

Couldn’t it be that some of the “climate skeptics” believe that politics is pushing the science?

Even though I’am someone who puts themselves in the political “libertarian” camp, I enjoy the anti-libertarian and anti-business site But I have noticed a bit of an irony with that site and others of the same ilk. When they talk about “climate skeptics” they are quick to post a link to “exxonsecrets” and “sourcewatch” exposing them to be shills of “Big Business” and “Big Oil”. Isn’t this the same tactic anti-vaccination warriors and “alties” use when they want show the connection between doctors and “Big Pharm”? Don’t those who attack GM foods make the claim that all the scientist who support GM are nothing more than shills for the agricultural corporations?
How come when the “denialists” use these ploys, they are dismissed as “ad hominen” fallacies for which they are? By when the real “Skeptics” use it, it’s a valued tool to detect BS?

The Factician said...


Though consensus is a sad substitute for data, when I don't have the time to delve into the data, I look for the consensus. And when I find that a couple of the guys who are the most vocal advocates against said consensus are funded by Exxon, there is a pretty likely explanation why.