24 April 2012

The denial manual

Yesterday, my productivity was way down, because I was watching the Science Writing in the Age of Denial and the Experimental Biology conferences unfold on Twitter. Thanks to all who have been tweeting from them!

I was particularly interested in this “denial manual,” discussed by Sean B. Carroll in the former conference. It was taken from chiropractic attacks on vaccines, but you can see the exact same playbook at work in evolution, global warming, and so on.

  1. Doubt the science.
  2. Question scientists’ motives and integrity.
  3. Emphasize disagreements.
  4. Exaggerate potential harm of a position. For example, blame Nazis and WWII on acceptance of evolution.
  5. Appeal to personal freedom. For example, use phrases like, “Nothing should be compulsory,” “teach balace,” “allow opt-out.
  6. Argue that accepting the conclusions this would invalidate some key personal philosophy.

And that last one is the biggie. Evidence will only matter to someone who hasn’t dug in on that last point.

And, as if to demonstrate, a few climate change denialists found the #sciencedenial and #denialconf hashtags on Twitter. Among the first words they typed were accusations of some of those at the conference being liars and idiots – neatly showing how Point #2 above works.

Similarly, one hashtag got flooded with automated porn spambots. The switch to a second hashtag was seen as evidence of those at the conference not wanting to listen to arguments and “paranoia,” rather than not wanting to wade through irrelevant, automated tweets linking to pornography.

To get a glimpse of Point #5 in action, have a listen to Marc Morano on The Science Show. Morano says to Anna Rose (co-founder of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition):

You are the face of one of the greatest threats of our liberty, and that is intellectual, international bean-counters trying to control average people's lives because they think they know better how people should live, because people left to their own devices will somehow destroy the planet.

If you don't want to listen to Morano, you should listen to Ben Goldacre later in the clip, who has a memorable description of how frustrated he is with the climate debate.

A Storify of the first part of the Science Denial meeting can be found here and here.

Additional: Interesting. The Twitter stream for #denialconf was subject to another attack by porn bots today, at about the same time of day as yesterday. It certainly looks like a deliberate attack on the conference stream, not just happenstance.

As for whether yesterday’s switch to a new hashtag was refusal to engage, here’s a screen grab from today to give an idea of the level of tweets that led to the switch. Click to enlarge.

More additional: A nice blog post about where credibility comes from.


Kit Thornton said...

Since knowing things - understanding the whats and whys requires study and effort, and believing things does not, believing will always be more popular than understanding. And in a forum open to everyone, the believers will massively outnumber, then shout down the understanders.

Guy Martin said...

It is the duty of the 'understanders' to communicate efficiently to the 'believers'. Unfortunaltely, few are good communicators.
Awesome how with all this technology and media we can't talk ...
The Ancient Greek used to debate on the market place, in public, ...

Anonymous said...

Fascinating read. I had no idea things got that bad - it's a shame that rather than entertaining civil discourse, people resort to name-calling and ad hominem attacks.