Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Guest post: Denialism as Pseudoscientific Thinking.

In pseudoscience there’s a subtype called Denialism. Denialism seeks to deny an established science and violate multiple principles of logic, and scientific methodology, this is mostly because of a priori beliefs and preconceptions. Typically the same cognitive and logical errors are committed in denialism reasoning.

The whole process starts with a desired conclusion, that a generally accepted scientific or historical claim is not true. Denialists have ideological reasons, and engage in motivated reasoning, rationalizing away the undesired claim.

In essence and practical terms, they work backward from their desired conclusion, filling in justifications.

1. Moving the goalposts

In moving the goalposts, they always demand more evidence for a claim, even if currently available. However when that burden of evidence is met, the goalposts are moved and more evidence is demanded.

They may use vagueness in defining a certain term to move the goalpost away from any possible dis-confirming evidence.

2. Unreasonable demand for evidence

Because science has gaps, they explore them as if it the specific scientific theory being discussed is invalid or not well established.

Let’s take the example of HIV denial. Deniers often demand a single study or scientific paper establishing HIV as the cause of AIDS. However, it is not established by a single study but rather by a large body of evidence.

In scientific reasoning we must see if the gaps are slowly being filled, and if predictions are met, and if it fits together with other lines of evidence, observational or experimental.

If a theory has been going around in circles and not progressing, that is a strong indication of pseudoscience.

3. Pointing out disagreements

Disagreements within a discipline are explored, often small details, as if the science in question is not solid.

4. Denying entire categories of evidence

Another strategy the narrowing of evidence that may count as “scientific”. The most common is using the logical fallacy of confusing correlation with causation.

Correlation is not the same as causation, not necessarily anyway. Correlations need to be used properly, and multiple correlations can triangulate a specific causal relationship observed in a correlation. Epidemiology is based on correlations and observational evidence, if they were invalid the entire field simply would vanish.

They can even deny all historical sciences such as astronomy, geology, or even forensics.

5. False dichotomy

This is an argument from ignorance. If a version of events is not true then the alternate claim or version must be. However, they rarely provide positive evidence for their alternate claim.

6. Campaign of Doubt

Little factoids can be gathered and taken out of context. The goal is to sow doubt, uncertainty, and distrust, focusing on apparent inconsistencies, or gaps. However in healthy skepticism we consider all the evidence in the proper perspective, and even though knowledge is incomplete, reliable conclusions can be achieved.

7. Conspiracy theory

As a last resort comes the conspiracy theory, claiming that the scientific evidence itself is fraudulent, a grand conspiracy. This tactic allows them to dismiss all the evidence and rationalize it away.

Grant, John. Denying Science. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2011.

Novella, Steven. “More on God of the Gaps.” NeuroLogica Blog.

Novella, Steven. “Skepticism and Denial.” The NESS.

Specter, Michael. Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. London: Penguin Press, 2009

Tokuno, Hajime. “Holocaust Denial.” The NESS.

For more information on Sérgio Fontinhas, see Big Fitness Project.

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