Deniers?

I really enjoyed New Scientist’s Special Report: Living in Denial. What a fascinating phenomenon, and a fascinating batch of articles exploring it.

The denial of science is a growing problem. It’s not restricted to a particular ideology – while denying the harmful effects of smoking or the existence of climate change is typically a position of the far right, vaccine denial and H1N1 conspiracy theories are largely restricted to the left.

It occurs even among the well-educated, or among youth who are still immersed in up-to-date curricula. For example, this year at the university, a student group put up signs saying “Don’t get the swine flu shot – it contains mercury!” The chemistry students got mad, and said that labelling thimerosal as toxic mercury was comparable to saying “Don’t eat table salt, it contains chlorine gas!”

As Michael Shermer’s article explains, the defining mark of science denial is a refusal to change one’s mind based on evidence. This is easy to identify for something like Holocaust denial, where evidence is abundant in the public sphere.

It gets a little harder for more technical issues like climate change or vaccines. Scientific opinion is overwhelmingly on one “side”, but the average person does not know or understand the evidence to support this consensus. An article about the thermodynamics of the stratosphere won’t sell a lot of papers. Most people unconsciously follow the credibility spectrum and trust what their doctor or NASA scientists say.

However, some don’t realize that scientific credibility is not the same as an appeal to authority, and so express contrarian opinions. Vaccines cause autism. Global warming is nonexistent/natural/inconsequential. The way that the Twin Towers fell proves that it was orchestrated by the US government.

There are two groups of contrarians: the skeptics, and the deniers. The skeptics are the ones who will change their minds based on evidence – they just haven’t encountered that evidence yet. My favourite example of this is from the Friends episode when Phoebe declares she doesn’t believe in evolution. When Ross starts talking to her about fossils, she says, “Oh. I didn’t know there was actually evidence.”

It’s amazing how many insights you can get out of a supposedly “fluffy” sitcom. I could write an entire essay analyzing that clip…..

I have met dozens of very reasonable people who doubt climate change because they don’t know about the evidence for it. People my age throw around the phrase “it’s a natural cycle” a lot, until I explain that the climate doesn’t act like a pendulum. It doesn’t have to compensate for past periods of warming or cooling – it simply responds to forcings. If the forcing is cyclical, then the climate will be cyclical, but some forcings are a different shape altogether. Similarly, I know a teacher who previously thought that natural causation of the current warming was a legitimate scientific theory, due to a presentation from a teacher’s conference….until I did a bit of probing and discovered that this presentation was given by Tim Ball.

These people are very reasonable. They are willing to change their minds based on evidence. They’ve just been unlucky enough to be misinformed by our flawed system of science journalism.

Then there are the deniers. They call themselves skeptics, but they will not change their minds, no matter what evidence you give them. They either move the goalposts, change the subject, or continue to repeat the same claim even after you have rebutted it patiently multiple times. Go check out some YouTube comments to see what I’m talking about.

Often their ideology or worldview is extreme in some way. For many members of the far right, any problem that would be solved by the government (think cap-and-trade or smoking legislation) will be rejected out of hand. On the far left, anything that would benefit corporations (usually vaccines or traditional medicine) will face a similar reaction. As Michael Specter says, “We hate Big Pharma. We run away from Big Pharma….and leap right into the arms of Big Placebo.”

This phenomenon suggests that science communication is not the answer – for deniers. I learned long ago that trying to change the minds of deniers is a complete waste of time. However, I still feel that science communication and the rebuttal of common misconceptions is absolutely vital. The true skeptics need access to the evidence they are lacking, so that they will be more informed, and our population will move farther towards solving the many science-related problems we face.

These skeptics deserve our time, our efforts, and our respect. They are the target audience of my blog, even if my most active commenters and supporters are a different group altogether. The reason that any of us here do all this work in communication, I believe, is for the true skeptics.

Michael Fitzpatrick argues that we shouldn’t use the label “deniers” at all. I wouldn’t want to alienate the true skeptics by coming across as someone who insults others. However, I think that calling deniers “skeptics” is unfair to the skeptics. They are two completely different groups that we must distinguish between. Skepticism is a worthy quality in science, and giving the complimentary title of “skeptic” to someone who doesn’t deserve it is unfair to those who do. We need to cater to the people who are willing to learn and who don’t want to waste our time. Science communication shouldn’t have to be like No Child Left Behind.

Michael Shermer’s second article, similarly, says that we should participate in debates with deniers and give them a chance to be heard. The truth will prevail, he argues, even if the deniers refuse to give in. I would agree with this position if it were a matter of opinion or policy, which is wholly democratic. Yet science is completely different. Science isn’t about free speech and giving equal time for all views. It is about giving time to those who have the most accurate analyses and robust conclusions. In science, you shut up and listen until your ideas are strongly supported by evidence. Then you publish.

When papers skeptical of climate change get published (all three per year!), such debates are worthy. The authors passed the test of peer-review, and even if their papers are obviously sub-par and are soon to be retracted, they deserve some debate and discussion. Let’s debate contrarian science when it is actually science – when it is actually published.

By paying close attention to and publicly debating with the authors of blog science, however, we are further confusing the public’s already skewed image of science. “It doesn’t matter whether or not you publish,” we seem to be telling them, “it’s all about free speech.” The scientific process has rules, and if deniers can’t pass the necessary, but not sufficient, condition of peer-review, their work doesn’t deserve to be treated as scientific research, and we shouldn’t give them our attention.

Let’s ignore the people who aren’t worth our time, because we have limited time, and there are people out there who deserve every minute of it.