Differentiating Between Debate and Denial

IO9 (in an article entitled “How to distinguish crap denialism from legitimate scientific debate”) linked to an article on the NIH website by Wendee Holtcamp, with the title “Flavors of Uncertainty: The Difference between Denial and Debate.” Both focus on the challenge the media and the general public faces in our day and age, when (to quote Holtcamp) “essentially, everyone has a printing press.”

The articles feature this helpful list of common denialist tactics offered by Sean Carroll.

But as the article notes, in practice simply being on the lookout for the above features does not always alert one to the presence of spin or denialism. Scientists (and historians and academics in general) need to do more to communicate the difference between cases in which there is genuine disagreement among experts about a matter, and cases in which experts have arrived at a consensus and the attempt to give the impression of widespread disagreement is disingenuous.

Increasingly in the courses that I teach, I focus more attention on these skills of information literacy and digital discernment. Whenever one searches for information on a topic like evolution or climate change or the historical Jesus or the Holocaust or whatever else, one will find denialist sites high up in the search results, precisely because it is those sites, and not mainstream academic ones, that present that topic as being a controversy. Information is available in our time literally at our fingertips – but ensuring it is reliable information requires more knowledge and skills than just the ability to type words into a search engine.

What do readers think of Carroll’s list of characteristics of denialism? What advice do you give to people trying to avoid being taken in by denialists?

  • Quixie

    This IS a real problem . . . . as is also the problem of the armies of purveyors of what is essentially a speculative discipline considering themselves “scientists.” The solution to both of these problems probably lies in intellectual discernment and in analytic honesty.
    All else is vanity.

  • Bob R

    Another symptom: As their bad arguments are refuted, they keep coming up with new bad arguments, again and again. They might also recycle the old bad ones, as if they’ve never been refuted. The last thing they’ll do is admit they’re wrong or give up arguing.

  • http://mythicpizza.blogspot.co.uk/ Paul Regnier

    What advice do you give to people trying to avoid being taken in by denialists?

    Here’s my quick denialism diagnostic check. Ask yourself three questions:

    1) Do your conclusions a given subject X differ radically from those of most expert authors in the field?
    2) Do you find that those authors who do agree with you tend to share with you some ideological position Y?
    3) Do you find that your conclusions about X support or confirm your ideological position Y?

    If the answer to all three questions is yes, then there’s a reasonable chance that your conclusions will turn out to be a form of denialism. It may help to stop reading books about X and take up a new hobby, like knitting or crosswords. If that doesn’t work, try turning your brain off then on again.

  • Dr. David Tee

    A secular scientist making up his own list of what is denial. What a crock. Since neither God nor Jesus told anyone to follow science over their words, the only people in denial are those who take science and promote it to an authority it isn’t entitled to.
    In reality, origins is outside the scope of science and is a theological issue not a scientific one. Those who do science are th einterlopers here and can’t mind their own business.
    The only people comming up with flawed and very bad arguments are the evolutionists as they cannot verify one claim they make. They say that creation is non-scientific because it is non-repeatable; well, the evolutionists idea of origin of life on this planet and the process from 1 celled to diversity are also non-repeatable. Which makes evolutionists a bunch of hypocrites.
    You can’t say that scientific experiemtns verify what is non-repeatable for then you would have to say that the act of creation is verified via the repeatable results of that act. i.e.; reproduction, boundaries of kinds, the sun ruling the day while the moon rules the night and so on.
    Sorry but evolutionists do not have a leg to stand on and are bullies.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      “Dr.” Tee, why are you so determined to spread misinformation and lies, and so bring disrepute to the name of Christ? Did Jesus tell people to ignore the evidence God placed in creation? Does not the fact that meier he mor any other person in the Bible said anything about modern science directly confirm the point that the Bible does not address issues of modern science? Why are you so hard-hearted towards God that you cannot even see the implications, gleaned from the Bible, which are implicit in your own comments?

      • Dr. David Tee

        Can’t or afraid to answer the questions are you? Jesus talked about using faith and never once talked about using ‘evidence’ nor the false ‘evidence’ secular man has constructed to avoid acknowledging God and His worl. Who would want to believe ina God who did not have the power to create as He said and did so?
        Actually the Bible does address modern science. It says not to follow the unbeliever for they are deceived and deceiving
        The last question is directed at you not me. As Jesus said to Paul at his divine encounter He says to you–Why kickest thou against the pricks?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I am not afraid to answer any questions. You, however, are avoiding the plain meaning of the Bible, and then accusing others of doing precisely that in a select few instances that suit you.

          I assume that, since there is no indication that those who mandate that we stop at red traffic lights are believers, you will refuse to follow them in this deception?

          No one said that God did not have the power to create – except for those young-earth creationists who seem to believe that God could not create instantaneously and thus insist that he must have taken no less than six days. Of course, it is ridiculous to dictate, based on a passage evidencing poetic parallelism, that God had to take a certain amount of time, no more, and no less. Who do you think you are, dictating what God must do or have done, based on mere human writings?

          I assume that you will consistently ignore evidence, and will never cite evidence in arguing for your own viewpoint against others, since Jesus did not tell us to pay attention to evidence?

          Can you not see that you are twisting the words and teachings of Jesus for your own ends? Please repent and be reconciled to God through Christ, and leave your arrogant wayward rebellion!

        • rmwilliamsjr

          re:
          Actually the Bible does address modern science. It says not to follow the unbeliever for they are deceived and deceiving

          googling dr david tee yields
          http://scotteriology.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/dr-david-tee/

    • rmwilliamsjr

      re:
      They say that creation is non-scientific because it is non-repeatable;

      no, not non-repeatable, but unfalsifiable, very different things.

      re:
      In reality, origins is outside the scope of science and is a theological issue not a scientific one.

      more AiG historical-origins vs experimental-operational-normal dichotomy. nonsense. all science has experimental and historical techniques. exactly how long ago does operational turn into origins science? 6kya, how convenient! preaching the coyote trickster god who puts up the YECist movie screen and projects the false evolutionary life from the back to deceive the rest of the world. not just bad science but bad theology.

      • Dr. David tee

        In all the discussion s I have had over the years you are the first to mention that idea.You need to understand that scientific criteria do not apply to God or the Bible but God’s criteria applies to you and all humans.

        • rmwilliamsjr

          re:
          You need to understand that scientific criteria do not apply to God or the Bible but God’s criteria applies to you and all humans.

          What a truly amazing claim. pretty broad as well.
          is textual criticism impossible then?
          how about historical archaeology of Biblical sites?
          or genetics of populations living in ancient Israel?
          how about tree rings in Lebanese cedars?
          or chemical analysis of copper vessels created from Solomon’s mines?
          how exactly does this extraordinary veil from the probing eyes of science descend from the heavens?

          —-a nonsensical, arbitrary and absurd claim.
          it’s God’s world, not some coyote trickster daemon who arbitrarily throws rugs over important pieces of this world to keep eager secularists from discovering his secrets.

          btw, your idea of God is really petty if these things are what he is whispering in your ear.

    • arcseconds

      Dr. Tee,

      can you tell me what the evidence for continental drift is?

      • Dr. David Tee

        It is made up by deceived men who were not present at the beginning and cannot hope to verify one thing they say about it.

      • Dr. David Tee

        It is made up by deceived men who were not present at the beginning and cannot hope to verify one thing they say about it.

        • arcseconds

          You’re not answering my question.

          Perhaps I should phrase it “can you tell me what geologists think the evidence for continental drift is”.

          I’m not sure what you mean by ‘verify’, either. We don’t have time machines, so we can’t go back and see what happened in the past directly. Is that the problem? If it is, then it would also seem to be a problem for investigating *any* claim about the past.

          As it happens, with continental drift we can actually verify directly at least one thing they say about it — the continents are moving right this minute.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Evans/100000619020207 David Evans

          And you can verify what you say? Were you there?

        • Mary

          So I see your answer is “no”. How exactly are you qualified to comment on something you admit you know nothing about?
          It is verifiable since it is happening now.
          You are the one who is deceived by your own hubris. You are using God as a pathetic attempt to boost your own ego. When people ask you for proof of your point of view all you do is throw a tantrum plus a bible at us.
          The “good doctor” knows absolutely nothing about science and doesn’t want to know either. Why? If you are strong in your faith then you shouldn’t be intimidated by a little science. Unless of course you are not as smart or knowledgable as you proclaim yourself to be.

    • Mary

      You have no proof of your point of view, but you have demonstrated the truth of what the author has said about denialist tactics. Your whining won’t convince anyone of anything. And it is the YEC’s who are the bullies. The only way they(and you) know how to “debate” is by labeling everyone as evil. Since, according to your “logic”, we are all minions of Satan’s, you don’t really have to have a good answer.
      Oh yeah, it makes a lot of sense to tell children “science doesn’t apply”. Only the parts we approve of are ok.

  • smijer

    There are always hints..

    The approach I take is to gently focus my own attention and that of others on the cognitive shortcomings we all have in common, suggest that we can do better, and suggest that if it isn’t really worth working hard toward the right answer, then it probably isn’t worth adopting an answer at all.

    A person who is painfully aware of their own ignorance and desperately craves an accurate answer to hard questions has hope of finding the answers.

    For someone who is satisfied with their own ignorance or isn’t desperately curious about the truth the odds are very poor, no matter how we try to distinguish between debate and denial.

  • arcseconds

    My question to Dr. Tee is my contribution of a diagnostic.

    If someone cannot describe the argument they are criticising, they do not understand it, and therefore are not in a position to criticise it.