Anatomy of Science Denial

In a recent post, I wrote about the similarities between those who deny the legitimacy of global warming science and those who deny the legitimacy of GMO science (specifically, that GMO foods are safe to eat). I could add to this list; denial of the safety of vaccines, denial that evolution occurs, and, most amazingly, denial that the earth is round. To keep it simple, I’ll stick with the first two.

In both cases, pretty much every major scientific organization in the world with recognized authority and expertise in these subjects has made a statement. The globe is warming due to human activities; there are no negative health effects from eating GMO food.

A scientific consensus is a hard barrier to overcome, but if people base a belief on ideology, they will always come up with something they think trumps science. While happily accepting scientific conclusions about, say, geochemistry, this reasonable attitude flies out the window when it comes to their pet ideology-bound subject.

When there is a scientific consensus, the obvious task of the denier is to somehow de-legitimize the science, and explain why it’s wrong for their special subject. Typical strategies:

  1. Claim the consensus doesn’t really exist. They will say, “It’s not true that 97% of climate scientists accept the fact of global warming.” (Change a few words for GMO food safety.) This leaves a problem in explaining why most every scientific board and professional organization in this field of study around the world happens to hold the same view when interpreting the evidence.
  2. Point out studies that contradict the consensus. There are always studies that conflict with the consensus. If there weren’t, you would have to be suspicious that science was even happening. General agreement emerges when all the evidence is weighed by people who know how to fairly evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of research studies and how they balance each other. Citing a few one-off studies that support your view doesn’t cut it. Especially egregious is citing badly designed or underpowered research that may be published in a journal with little or no reputation for serious science. My response to this tactic is, don’t talk to me, talk to the scientific community. When all these organizations that currently support the consensus start to change their mind, I’ll believe you. They are the experts, not me.
  3. Claim that money or another corrupting force is influencing the science. I’ve heard this one before for both of these issues (GMO and climate science): “Those scientists just want to keep their grants going,” or “Lots of those scientists are linked to corporations, so their data is suspect.” Then why do the findings that lead to consensus still hold up over decades? Why do the data keep pointing in the same direction? Maybe you can fool some people some of the time, but how likely is it that there’s a broad area of science in which most every journal and every professional organization has been hoodwinked for 30 years (GMO) or 50-75 years (climate)? They somehow never realized the extent of the subterfuge? Not likely. Oh wait! Maybe they are all in on it. See next bullet point.
  4. Claim there’s a conspiracy to hide the truth. This requires literally thousands of people to be in on a secret plot to distort the facts and put one over on the entire world for decades. And no one ever comes forward to expose the nefarious plot. If you accept this, you must wonder whether anything at all is true. Cue the X-Files theme music.
  5. Move the goalposts. This is the strategy of saying, “O.K. Maybe X is true, but what about Y?” In other words, once you’ve convincingly made a point, it’s suddenly no longer good enough. You must prove more and more and the demands never end. I think that people who move the goalposts usually aren’t acting in good faith. They’ll concede part of the argument for one conversation, but before long they are right back to claiming to the original argument, having conceded nothing. It’s not about getting at the truth, it’s about winning an argument.
  6. Use the shill gambit. This one is surprisingly common. If someone disagrees with you, they must be getting paid by Big Agriculture, or Big Climate, or Big Pharma, so you can disregard everything that person says. It’s the assumption that there’s no way someone can honestly come to a differing opinion. If true, then where’s my paycheck, damn it?

To sum this up, I need to repeat two things I’ve already said:

Pretty much every major scientific organization in the world that has authority and expertise in these subjects has made a statement. GMO foods are safe. Global warming is happening. And so on for vaccines, evolution, and a round-y world.

When all these organizations start to change their mind, I’ll be persuaded to change. They are the experts. If you know more than they do, if you are a bold rebel that will show us the truth, then get into the game at the level where great ideas are published and debated and hashed out. Do excellent science and don’t make the excuses I’ve listed above.

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