The Denialism Frame

  1. Problem: direct assessment cannot reliably distinguish ‘realists’ from ‘denialists’

Conspiracy theories and logical fallacies often abound on both sides of a long contested domain that has major social significance. So bullets 1 and 5 are unreliable criteria for who, overall, is ‘denying’ reality. This is because major social conflicts attract individuals with all sorts of beliefs and motivations; some of these people will generally back the evidential side, i.e. the ‘right’ side, yet for the wrong reasons and / or deploying the wrong arguments. Their impacts on the contest may be modest, e.g. as is often the case regarding folks with theoretical rather than emotively driven motivations2, or strong, e.g. typically from folks who’ve slipped into noble cause corruption3. In some cases a much more systemic promotion of the ‘right’ side yet via culturally driven and not evidentially driven arguments, will also occur because of cultural alliance effects.

So, consider a contested issue which features a largely evidential position, E, opposed mainly by religious believers. The religious side has a strong cultural alliance with a political party, X, which hence is pulled in for that side. This sparks a reaction whereby X’s political opponent, Z, weighs in on the evidential side, yet by default not with evidential arguments but instead deploying their regular range of cultural weapons, such as ‘folks who support the X party (or via association oppose E) have inferior brains’, which range will typically include some conspiracy theory, logical fallacies and so on. Hence the ‘right’ side ends up inextricably tangled with various cultural promotion and defensive behaviors (footnote 6 illustrates this for the climate domain).

Due to these various effects (plus another immediately below) not only will conspiracy theories and logical fallacies arise on both sides of a socially contested domain, it is likewise for cherry picking and false experts too. The only underlying criteria that D&M2009 recommends to which we might turn for some guidance regarding who is who within a contest featuring such mirrored behaviors, is that of a ‘dominant’ scientific consensus. The paper claims that the ‘right’ side must be the consensus side. Yet there is no acknowledgement of the difference between a scientific consensus and a social consensus, or that the latter can pose as the former7. Influence from an enforced social consensus increases the chances that scientists too will straddle the rift between sides, or maybe even end up mostly on the ‘wrong’ side. Authoritative, apparently settled science has been overturned many times8; scientists and policy makers are not magically separate from society and like everyone else they are subject to dynamic bias patterns that evolve across their society, for instance emotional bias regarding climate issues.

  1. Problem: direct assessment cannot escape domain bias

Considering the above effects one would expect most cherry picking to be the inadvertent result of bias, and probably subtle in nature. Yet even for more blatant cases, in a complex domain mired in claims and counter claims to the nth degree, it can be difficult to correctly identify cherry-picked data without fairly extensive domain knowledge. And likewise the picking of ‘discredited papers’ is a subjective criteria. It depends upon believing those who did the discrediting and their reasons for doing so, which implies a prior judgment that can only be based upon reasonable domain knowledge (and/or bias). Indeed the very allegation of cherry picking could itself be a cherry pick, if for instance this only presents an unfavorable part of the original case. So the criteria that reveal evidence choices as cherry picks are in themselves domain dependent, which tends to thwart objectivity.

It is likewise regarding experts. To reliably know whether an expert is ‘false’ or not requires domain knowledge. What they are paid and by whom is not on its own a definitive criteria (or even major criteria; ideological bias often motivates more than money, though the two can also be aligned). Navigating the often labyrinthine funding paths within a contested domain can be almost as complex as evaluating direct domain evidence; the public certainly don’t have time for this, and interpretation of funding network influences is itself subject to bias and polarization. For a major contested domain one expects opposing networks, nor is there a simple rule of thumb to interpret them, such as: ‘scientists paid by industry are less reliable’. Via the grant funding circus, government scientists or university employees have just as much skin in the game as industry has via market influence. It’s also the case that where strong culture is present in a contested domain (absent this there wouldn’t likely be ‘denialism’ anyhow), the more domain knowledgeable individuals are the more polarized they are too9. Hence advice sought from further up the knowledge chain on say cherry picking, or anything else, is potentially a slave to that polarization, though whether the effect continues up to the level of true ‘experts’ would be hard to determine, and also depends on how domain expertise is defined. There many accounts of highly polarized experts, albeit anecdotal.

So absent some novel methodology (D&M2009 does not suggest any) we have fatal recursion: correctly identifying cherry picking and false experts implies a reasonably deep and yet also unbiased domain knowledge. In turn this means already knowing, despite the confounding factor of a highly polarized environment, which side is in fact ‘speaking to truth’ and which is ‘denying’; yet this is essentially what we were meant to be finding out in the first place. Or in other words, the domain knowledge needed to investigate these characteristics brings with it domain bias, which bias may lead to erroneous judgment.

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18 Responses to The Denialism Frame

  1. hunter says:

    Excellent deconstruction of yet another in a long list of strange consensus papers whose author(s) work so hard to delegitimize skeptics. The lack (or avoidance?) of self reflection is the most interesting aspect of the derivative hackneyed paper.

  2. andywest2012 says:

    Thanks, hunter, appreciated. Agree on lack of self-reflection, not to mention a complete lack of awareness that the paper will simply ‘legitimise’ anyone to arbitrarily call out any group they don’t like as ‘denialist’.

  3. Brad Keyes says:

    Andy, do the paper’s perpetrators even seem to know whether, in proposing those 5 “characteristics,” they’re DEFINING denialism on one hand, or making contingent CLAIMS about denialism on the other?

    (That distinction makes all the difference—a fundamental difference—to any attempt to grapple with such feculent thinking, yet if adherents to said thinking are any guide, the question doesn’t even seem to have occurred to these sewer-skulls.)

  4. andywest2012 says:


    It’s difficult to tell, but I think they are attempting in some way to define it, even though they only consider what one might call the shallow externalities of their proposed ‘condition’. With a few changes, pretty much the entire thing comes from Hoofnagle, and his blog is entirely about drawing a circle around ‘denialists’ and neutralising them, so to speak. It boggles me that they appear to have done no research whatsoever into the social and psychological conditions that might be in play, or at least practically nothing reflects this angle, it’s all just about the rhetoric that is supposed to identify this behaviour. In fact, their paper legitimises anyone calling practically any group ‘deniers’.

    • andywest2012 says:

      P.S. insomuch as anything like this exists, it is not an independent psychological condition, it is an extreme cultural reaction, which means it is wholly cultural value dependent.

  5. Brad Keyes says:

    The saddest thing is that, once you get an opinion pieces like this published adjacent to actual papers, everyone else is then licenced to say “there is a body of serious research on the phenomenon of denialism and how it works,” switching at will between using your baseless insults as a definition of the word denialism, on one hand, and as a contingent finding about the people who exhibit whatever it is you choose to call denialism, on the other hand. At times like this Will Janoschka’s hatred of academia seems less irrational.

    • andywest2012 says:

      I couldn’t agree more on that point. They have essentially provided academic license via a flawed test regarding a spurious ‘psychological condition’, that anyone can use in accusing anyone else, hence contributing heavily to all-out warfare within any conflicted domain. This has hugely undermined everything that they hoped for out of this initiative (Hoofnagle particularly seems to have spent years attempting very nobly yet ineptly to fight ‘science denial’). More than sad, absolutely tragic.

      • Brad Keyes says:

        Really? I thought the Hoofnagles (both of them) were just anti-skeptic tools? Can you tell me more about the nobility (albeit ineptitude) with which they’ve done… well, anything? Do you mean they were ‘fighting’ [with science-based arguments, I hope] against deniers of modern biology or something like that? I know of the Hoofnagli is a physiologist, so I’m just guessing here.

      • andywest2012 says:

        Yes. One of the brothers has a site somewhere, where they nobly enthuse folks to combat the anti-science demons in various domains, from memory including creationism, second hand smoke (usually called ETS I think, Environmental Tobacco Smoke), and others as well as of course climate change. Somewhere or other on there it sets out their noble motives as I recall, though I’d say the effort generally falls short of science based arguments (hence the arisal of the rhetoric tests), albeit in ETS I think they had some domain expertise. The fact of nobly ‘fighting’ doesn’t automatically mean fighting with the right tools (!) even if they think they are using science for its own defence.

        I think it’s from there I first looked at the ETS issue; if you want to see arterial blood sprayed around, that’s a great place to go, albeit the domain is much smaller than the climate one. I never questioned the conclusion of (the highly damaging effects of) SH smoke until I saw that there seemed to be major cultural behaviour on both sides of the fight. Unfortunately, unlike the CC domain, it is nowhere near big enough to have the social data to say where the root cultural behaviour lies, so I now withhold judgement. Although in a completely unsupported don’t quote me pure speculation sort of way, I will say that the orthodox side did give me a few of the gut feel creepies that are rather too reminiscent of the climate orthodox side. This is from maybe 3 years back or so I guess, don’t know what it looks like now. Can’t find my Hoofnagle link, I’m sure you could turf him up within a minute or so though.

  6. Brad Keyes says:

    Thanks for all that added context Andy. I still don’t get the gist of your remark that they’ve undermined their aims with this Denialism ‘scholarship’—isn’t it presumably exactly what they intended to do: provide an academic fig-leaf for hate speech against the out group? Or do you mean, they did it so ham-fistedly that people will hate them rather than their intended victims? Or is it some third interpretation I haven’t thought of?

    • andywest2012 says:

      I think you may be over-thinking this 0:

      I don’t recall the actual wording, but the intent was to provide tools that would help people defend science against attack and help squelch the rampant spread of anti-science myths. The fact that depending on the domain they are sometimes *not* on the side of cultural consensus (which is always wrong), e.g. creationism, maybe GMOs I can’t recall (as well as sometimes being adherents to a cultural consensus, e.g. that of CAGW), emphasises that their intent was genuine. They really believe that they have derived a tool that will help defend the boundaries of science, and encouraging its deployment over all domains demonstrates not some conscious or indeed nefarious attempt to silence critics inside just one domain where they happen to particularly hate ‘the enemy’. No, they really believe they have something workable, and they really do think that the sides they vigorously defend *must* all be right and are underwritten by ‘the’ science. Essentially they always default to the dominant consensus. They complain about aggressive rhetoric somewhere; it is their intent to lessen it (despite having also partaken). Never blame conspiracy or mal-intent before ruling out the far more common ineptness and noble cause.

      • Brad Keyes says:

        I’m less charitable. I have trouble sympathising with the motives of anyone who develops a tool that can so easily—almost as if by design—fall into the hands of any majority that wishes to entrench its paradigm against new ideas, i.e. STOP SCIENCE in its tracks.

      • andywest2012 says:

        Many things look like they are designed. But for instance the social phenomenon of CAGW is a feature of cultural evolution as the eye is feature of biological evolution 😉 We sometimes have to resist the default assumption of design. Regarding individuals, they clearly invent things, but that doesn’t tell what was in charge of their thoughts at the time. And it’s also quite obvious that whatever they were thinking, it is indeed an inept effort. Given Diethelm and McKee have already complained some years back that ‘denialism’ is being used by a ‘wrong’ side, I think they literally had no idea that this tool was so flawed it would go wild, and can get used by anyone against anyone, including against dominant consensuses.

      • Brad Keyes says:

        The Hoofnagli also haemorrhage (my) sympathy with their laughable definition of denial in terms of ‘the illusion of debate,’ which they explain as ‘the use of structured arguments by two sides against each other’s points of view in order to create the false impression that there are two sides debating each other.’ Shorter Hoofnagli: denialism is debatalism, and debatalism is bad because it involves debating in such a way as to make people think there’s a debate.

        Such ineptitude sure seems effortful to me. They’re supposedly high-school graduates. How two brothers with half a brain each could come up with something so brainless boggles the brain, unless it was on purpose.

  7. Brad Keyes says:

    And more primitively, the excuse of defending science against scientifically-incorrect beliefs is incoherent. A category error.

    You “defend science” by protecting the method at its heart, not by crushing mistaken belief systems. You defend science, in other words, AGAINST NAOMI ORESKES and anyone else who tries to vandalise the machinery of the scientific method. Not against Creationists, who pose no threat to it whatsoever.

    • andywest2012 says:

      “Such ineptitude sure seems effortful to me.”

      Easy as falling off a log; in most cases you don’t even have to think at all. Nonsense like this circulates constantly, often with emotive strength (probably ‘moral high ground’ or some such in this case), which engages those not on their guard or when (at first intrusion) that guard is overridden by cultural values that happen to align with the source or content in some strong way. I wouldn’t be surprised if the seeds came from elsewhere. Each one who passes on makes a ‘contribution’ or tweaks the language. There are lots of rhetoric recognition lists with far more types than in the Hoofnagle / DM list, and they aren’t the first ones to look at the role of such rhetoric in cultural conflict, but they may be competing for the shallowest end of the pool!

      I don’t think creationists have posed zero danger to science. Cultural groups tend to believe the science that aligns to their values and resist the science that challenges those values. Defending science depends on understanding this (among other things), and Dan Kahan is a useful resource in this area. But I completely agree that trying to crush whom one believes is the enemy is a very mistaken approach (partly why I don’t like the term ‘enemy’ in any conflicted domain). Anyhow they fluffed it big-time with their denialism test, and indeed the very term, which destructive genie for all domains will never be coaxed back into the bottle.

  8. Brad Keyes says:

    Where does your profound loss of cynicism come from, Andy? Some childhood incident? Who failed to hurt you? What will it take to restore your lack of faith in humanity? It’s not too late!

  9. andywest2012 says:

    I would like to think that I have neither faith nor lack thereof (on the basis that ‘lack of faith’ is usually interpreted to mean you think badly of something, but like faith, via emotion not reason). In practice, this is not possible.

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