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Doubt is our product

One of the remarkable things about the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster is their denial of the existence of underwater plumes of oil. It seems odd, inexplicable really, for BP to deny what’s been confirmed by independent scientists. It ceases to be odd though, when you try to put it in context.

I am reading Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s excellent book Merchants of Doubt. In it, they trace the history of the marketing doubt and undercutting science, from tobacco, to SDI, acid rain, ozone depletion, secondhand smoke, global warming and finally to the recent revisionist attacks on Rachel Carson. From that context, BP’s outright denial of the science seems terribly familiar. It’s not important whether your position is defensible or not. You simply have to repeat it, over and over, and depend on the pro-business media, politicians and “experts” to take up your case. So far, no one but Rand Paul is defending BP. But give it some time. You’ll soon hear about the “junk science of oil plumes”.

Scientific medicine denialism

Orac suggests an alternative to “altie”: scientific medicine denialist.  It makes sense – the shoe fits, so to speak; Orac takes a look at them in the context of Mark Hoofnagle’s definition of denialism.

Climate denialists vs creationists

Who’d have thought that climate change denialists were even more amusing than creationists?  My post on Climate Debate Daily really brought out some strange ones.  While I wasn’t looking, the libertarian capitalists have embraced the logic and language of the Soviets.  “Freedom” means denying reality (climate change) in order to prop up the approved systems of production, no matter how outdated or inefficient they are.

The IDists have already embraced Lysenkoist “science”.   Now their friends, who call themselves “capitalists” (but defend a statists model of government designed to funnel public money into the hands of their cronies), seem set to embrace the rest of the Soviet model.  Fun, fun.

Climate Debate Daily

Climate Debate Daily is a website which claims to offer “a new way to understand disputes about global warming”:

Climate Debate Daily is intended to deepen our understanding of disputes over climate change and the human contribution to it. The site links to scientific articles, news stories, economic studies, polemics, historical articles, PR releases, editorials, feature commentaries, and blog entries. The main column on the left includes arguments and evidence generally in support of the IPCC position on the reality of signficant [sic] anthropogenic global warming. The right-hand column includes material skeptical of the IPCC position and the notion that anthropogenic global warming represents a genuine threat to humanity.

On the surface of it, it sounds promising. Present all the evidence to people and let them make up their own minds. Isn’t that what informed democracy is all about? Sadly, no. Science isn’t a democracy. Good science is separated from bad based on the weight of evidence. In order to evaluate the evidence, you need to understand the field as a whole. Context is everything – and if you don’t understand the context, it’s almost impossible to gauge the significance of any one paper.

The site is run by two philosophers – Douglas Campbell a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Arizona (who is impressed by the breadth and depth of the scientific evidence supporting the theory of anthropogenic global warming) and Denis Dutton, an associate professo at the University of Canterbury (who is skeptical about the degree to which human activity has contributed to the general warming trend). Therein lies the first problem – philosophers have a bad habit of weighing arguments instead of weighing evidence. I’ve seen that approach among philosophers and historians of science in the evolution-creation debate – some of them seem almost naive in their willingness to suspend judgment.

Looking a little deeper at the site, more red flags pop up. It pits a graduate student against an associate professor. Hardly a battle of equals. It is funded by Peter Farrell, who is skeptical of the threat of anthropogenic global warming. That shifts the balance of power even more.

Farrell is quoted as saying “Let the best argument win”. Sadly, that is the problem that’s at the heart of the issue. Science isn’t a battle of rhetoric – it’s a battle of evidence. And whatever its public policy implications, climate change is a scientific issue.

A quick search on Google turns up quite a few links to this site. Most simply document its existence, or broadly fall for its spin. A few sites call it for what it is – a website playing the Fox News game of deception “we report, you decide”. And then there’s a wealth of libertarian/Objectivist sites which, unsurprisingly, are almost giddy over the site. Perhaps that the most telling bit – the people who are praising the site are all “skeptics”. No one pro-science seems to have anything positive to say about the site. Only the “skeptics”. Curious, isn’t it? Continue reading

John McCain: Denialist

I suppose it takes a good measure of denialism to be able to say that the war’s not going horribly, but this still shocked me

McCain said, per ABC News’ Bret Hovell, that “It’s indisputable that (autism) is on the rise amongst children, the question is what’s causing it. And we go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”

Really?  It’s indisputable?  No, it’s indisputable that autism diagnoses are on the rise, but there are people who wonder how much of it is real and how much of it is related to changing diagnostic standards and greater awareness.  As for strong evidence?  Huh?  Oh, you mean something like the evidence that the US is winning in Iraq, and that Saddam had WMDs?  So does McCain simply not care whether he knows anything before he chooses to run his mouth on a subject, or is this just part of his outright falsehoods (I never met with Buckingham, I don’t do favours for lobbyists,…)  Or maybe it’s the Ronald Reagan excuse – after all, he’s older than Reagan was when he ran for the presidency.

McCain said there’s “divided scientific opinion” on the matter, with “many on the other side that are credible scientists that are saying that’s not the cause of it.”

Ahh. Teach the ControversyTM, shall we?

Fortunately, ABC’s Jake Tapper got the actual facts into the story

The established medical community is not as divided as McCain made it sound, however. Overwhelmingly the “credible scientists,” at least as the government and the medical establishment so ordain them, side against McCain’s view.

Moreover, those scientists and organizations fear that powerful people lending credence to the thimerosal theory could dissuade parents from getting their children immunized — which in their view would lead to a very real health crisis.

H/T Aetiology.

Generalising Russell’s Law?

Barbara O’Brien reports on a spoof global warming denial site which many people – including ‘comedian’ Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and possibly Senator Jim Inhofe’s staff – took for the real thing.

Russell’s Law states that it’s impossible to distinguish a creationist from a parody of a creationist.  This incident makes me wonder if it’s possible to generalise Russell’s Law to all forms of denialism.

Evolution denialism as biblical scholarship denialism

Denialism is a term used to describe the position of governments, business groups, interest groups or individuals who reject propositions that are strongly supported by scientific or historical evidence and seek to influence policy processes and outcomes accordingly.[1]” (From the denialism article on Wikipedia.) The article continues: The term has been used in relation to ‘holocaust denial‘, ‘AIDS reappraisal‘,[2][3][4][5][6] and ‘climate change denial[7][8][9] and the creation-evolution controversy.[10]

The creationist movement seems to fit the overall definition of denialism quite well – it “reject[s] propositions that are strongly supported by scientific … evidence”, and it “seek[s] to influence policy processes and outcomes accordingly”.  While there is a small Islamic creationist movement, creationism is still primarily linked to a literalist interpretation of the Genesis creation story.  Any literalist reading of the bible, especially one that considers the bible to be inerrant, forces a person not only to reject 150 years of biblical scholarship, but also forces a person to harmonise what are obviously contradictory accounts.  It is only after you have denied biblical scholarship (and the bible itself) that you move on to evolution denial.