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Personal attacks in science denial

Orac, of Respectful Insolence, has a post about how global warming wasn’t "invented" by Al Gore, contrary to what many global warming deniers seem to think. However, the part I find especially interesting in his piece is his explanation of why denialists tend to attack people.

Here’s an excerpt:

If there’s one characteristic of denialists of all stripes, it’s that they have a strong tendency to personalize their dislike of their particular bete noir science.


The reason, of course, is that cranks can’t attack the science using good science and, of course, it’s far easier to attack a person than well-supported science. After all, all people have flaws that can be ridiculed or used as the basis of ad hominem attacks.

Like Orac, I’ve seen this from global warming deniers, anti-vaxxers, religious fundamentalists, and anti-evolution creationists. Whatever motivates them in their denial, it seems they share this common tactic of attacking the messenger.

…any messenger.

The How and Why of Denialism

From evolution to vaccinations to global warming, something I encounter on a regular basis while researching articles for this blog is denialism, rejecting the scientific evidence in favor of an alternative… an alternative which could be anything from pure woo to scientific-sounding arguments: “Just have faith” to “irreducible complexity.” Denialism is something that invariably causes a collective sigh an eye roll from the skeptic community because logical and fact-based responses seem to have no effect on denialists.

An article from the European Journal of Public Health defines denialism as “the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists.” The article goes on to identify five common characteristics of denialism. I’ve seen all of these “in the wild,” but items one through three are the ones I see most often.

These five characteristics were summarized by Debora MacKenzie in a New Scientist opinion piece titled Living in denial: Why sensible people reject the truth and are as follows:

  1. Allege that there’s a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
  2. Use fake experts to support your story. “Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility,” says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
  3. Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
  4. Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
  5. Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.

MacKenzie also adds a sixth characteristic.

Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.

In the New Scientist piece, MacKenzie looks at the “why” of denialism.

This depressing tale [about swine flu] is the latest incarnation of denialism, the systematic rejection of a body of science in favour of make-believe. There’s a lot of it about, attacking evolution, global warming, tobacco research, HIV, vaccines – and now, it seems, flu. But why does it happen? What motivates people to retreat from the real world into denial?

Her approach uses a softer glove than many skeptics use, avoiding outright condemnation of deniers but instead making an attempt to understand how denialism spreads: identifying common characteristics, tactics (above), causes, motives, and possible solutions.

The most notable common characteristic that MacKenzie defines is this.

All [denialists] set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people.

I can anecdotally confirm that statement, both in my personal life and in my readings.

Where MacKenzie goes after that is to a hypothesis that what really triggers denialism is a sense of loss of control… a hypothesis that seems a good fit to the major denialist issues.

It is this sense of loss of control that really matters. In such situations, many people prefer to reject expert evidence in favour of alternative explanations that promise to hand control back to them, even if those explanations are not supported by evidence

All denialisms appear to be attempts like this to regain a sense of agency over uncaring nature: blaming autism on vaccines rather than an unknown natural cause, insisting that humans were made by divine plan, rejecting the idea that actions we thought were okay, such as smoking and burning coal, have turned out to be dangerous.

She goes on to explain that this position is not necessarily malicious or anti-science. They simply require a human reaction.

It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts. Denialist explanations may be couched in sciency language, but they rest on anecdotal evidence and the emotional appeal of regaining control.

The origins of denialist claims are another matter, and MacKenzie talks about how many of the more prominent claims (tobacco, global warming) got their start with corporate backing, how deniers tend to attract other deniers, and how claims become politically and religiously charged.

The European Journal of Public Health article isn’t as philosophical in its analysis of denialist motivations, but hits home nonetheless.

Denialists are driven by a range of motivations. For some it is greed, lured by the corporate largesse of the oil and tobacco industries. For others it is ideology or faith, causing them to reject anything incompatible with their fundamental beliefs. Finally there is eccentricity and idiosyncrasy, sometimes encouraged by the celebrity status conferred on the maverick by the media.

Whatever the motivations (personal, political, financial, etc), the one thing that remains true among denialist claims is their distortion (or complete rejection) of the truth. For many issues, such as vaccinations and global warming, denialism has caused and will cause lives to be lost. For others, such as the rejection of evolution, their positions simply contribute to the “dumbing down” of America.

The frustration of dealing with most deniers is the almost impenetrable armor of ignorance they wear which deflects attempts at presenting actual evidence, be it factual or logical. They counter by trotting out any of the tactics listed at the beginning of this article, selecting the one that best fits the topic at hand. Cherry pick this evidence. Trot out this fake expert. Rage about this conspiracy theory.

When all else fails, bring up Hitler.


Religious Irrelevance

Horse Crossing While watching the riders at a 4-H horse show today (my daughter is a 4-H member), I started considering the role that religion plays in people’s everyday lives. I don’t live in the most religious area of the country (South-Central Pennsylvania), but even so, on my commute to and from work, a total drive time of about an hour, I can count twelve churches, seven church signs at township borders, a church-run thrift store, and up until about a month ago, a “Jesus is the only way to God” billboard… and that’s a drive that’s mostly highway and rural farmland.

Thinking about the social events I attend, the work I do,  and the conversations I have, it’s worth noting how little of a role religion plays, at least on the surface. At the horse show today, it was all fun and games: costume contests, relay races, apple bobbing, and the like. Everyone was having a terrific time, the weather was gorgeous, the horses were all behaving, and the conversations were light-hearted and good-natured. There was no mention of God, no intrusion of religion, no proselytizing… nothing. There were, perhaps, a few gasps of “Oh my God!” when a horse gave an unexpected buck or a rider lost balance enough to give a scare to the crowd, but I saw no bowed heads in silent prayer and certainly no obvious prayer circles, invoking heavenly protection from the forces of gravity on airborne, equine-launched riders.

It was a secular event. Most activities, for the vast majority of Americans, are secular activities: PTO meetings, birthday parties, book clubs, company meetings, family get-togethers, horse shows, sporting events, movie nights, grocery shopping, gardening, housework, fishing… the list goes on forever. The biggest display of religion that you’re likely to find at these types of activities is, perhaps, saying a prayer before eating. Your mileage may vary somewhat depending upon where in the country you live, but generally speaking, religion is only at the forefront at religious events like church services, funerals, and Saturday morning, door-knocking proselytizing by groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Almost all other religious activity is private… personal… internal.

Why, then, does the religious right insist on foisting their religious proclivities on others? Why lobby to ban gay marriage? Why insist on inserting Christian-specific clauses in legislation? Why put monuments of the Ten Commandments on government property? Why put up billboards that go well beyond advertising a religious organization, but condemn anyone whose belief differs from their own?

I don’t know the answer. I can only speculate.

There is, of course, the altruistic ideal of saving the unsaved masses from a lifetime of eternal torment in Hell. Perhaps some are motivated by that, but I doubt if it can account for the massive attempt of the religious right to assimilate all the unbelievers.

I think a more likely cause is the self-righteousness of fundamentalist religion… the unwavering faith that, as believers, they are, indeed, divinely special in the eyes of an almighty creator and are therefore granted unique privileges and special consideration in this world. They are overtaken by the notion that they are favored by God and therefore have righteous superiority and holy authority over the lives of others… and the infinite wisdom and enlightenment of their deity to decide what is best for everyone in public and in private.

Keep in mind that I’m not referring to those believers who quietly go about their business, say their prayers, attend their church services, and are privately devout. I’m talking about the minority of believers who are outward fundamentalists and vociferously insist that the rest of us fall in line, do what we’re told, and worship in the exact way they tell us… and respect their authority. They’re the ones who would turn our country into a theocratic nightmare, banish all non-believers (or “different” believers), and tell the scientists to back up the bible… or else.

They don’t like that religion is irrelevant in almost all the activities in which other people participate. It’s almost as if they’re secretly jealous and want to cover it up by proclaiming their beliefs to be the right ones… the important ones… the only ones. They want their religion to be everywhere, not just in religious activities, but in secular activities as well. If we let them, they’ll do it, too.

…and ruin a perfectly good horse show.

Preachy Comment Spam

I get email notifications when someone posts a comment on one of my posts and today, over the course of about an hour, I got 7 notifications that the same person was commenting. That’s great, I thought! Someone’s actually reading what I wrote and is taking the time to give their feedback!

As it turns out, “Truth seeker” is the commenter and it seems doubtful that he/she was actually reading my posts. All the comments were roughly the same, with bible quotes and preachy “God is great” declarations. Here’s an example.

God is sovereign creator of heaven and earth. He revealed Himself in His Word. He is in control and does His will. God is holy and man is sinful. In order to be in right relationship with God we must repent of our sins and believe in His Son, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross in our place. The wages of sin is death, but Jesus died for us so that we could be reconciled to God. God knows our thoughts and examines our hearts. He knows if you believe in Him or not. When we die, we will each stand before God in judgment. Those who have humbled themselves before God will inherit eternal life. Those who have rejected God or denied His existence will be damned for all eternity. Don’t believe the lie that God does not exist. He has revealed Himself in His creation, the world and universe, and in our hearts and minds. If you truly ask God to reveal Himself to you, He will. Scripture says if you draw nigh to God, He will draw nigh to you. Jesus said, if you deny Him in this life, He will deny you before the Father. I encourage you to humble yourself before your Creator God before it’s too late. Answers to this life and all eternity are found in His Word. God bless.

All the comments are about the same length and vary only slightly in content, but share something in common (other than the religious proclamations). They all contribute nothing to the discussion in their respective articles.

I won’t post any more full comments because it would be redundant, but I just wanted to quote a few select lines [sic]. My comments are in blue, of course.

  • Evolution has never been proven. In over 100 years of studying evolution, science has been unsuccessful and monitoring the evolution of anything. In all their efforts, they cannot turn a dog into a cat or a fly into a misquito. [I think truthseeker was channeling Ray Comfort or Kirk Cameron there]
  • Many people waste their entire lives believing in lies. [Isn’t that an ironic statement?]
  • Faith is a lie is called foolishness. [I was amused by this typo]
  • Evolution is too unbelievable. The odds and likelihood of all necessary events to result in this perfectly balanced universe is ridiculous. [Evolution and the origins of the universe… more Comfort and Cameron]
  • Global warming claims are trickery used to divert funds to other people and nations. [Divert funds from where to where?]
  • All you have to do is believe what God tells you to believe. [So I should hear voices in my head and listen to them?]
  • I choose God and true biblical religion over any and everthing this world has to offer. I don’t have to worry about downloading my memory to a disk [so cool!!!] before I die because my Creator God has kept an account of my life.
  • I encourage you to read the Bible and pray that God will reveal Himself to you. [I did part one. Part two is contradictory]
  • God does not change, His does not waver. Therefore, truths 2,000 years ago are truths today. [So genocide, baby killing, blood sacrifices, and stonings for minor offenses are all still perfectly fine, then?]
  • Every human will one day die. [I can agree with that one]

If you want to read all the comments, here are the links to each one. I marked them all as spam (with “*spam*” at the top) so new visitors won’t confuse them with legitimate comments.

Cherry Picking, Scary Church Signs, Vague God, Creationism = Intelligent Design = Not Science, I am a believer and an atheist, Howse wants to reclaim the church

Christian Vision of Reality?

Garden of Eden While perusing the news today, I came across an article on BeliefNet titled “Making Sense of the Natural World.” It was posted by the BioLogos Foundation, which is the organization founded by Francis Collins and, until recently, also headed by him. It’s an organization that promotes the compatibility of science and religion.

There’s been quite a bit lately about that topic… science and religion. Jerry Coyne started a new term, “faitheist,” to refer to atheists who are, what he considers, overly accommodating to religious beliefs. PZ Myers has written extensively about the topic as well.

In this article on BeliefNet, there was a quote by Alister McGrath, author of A Fine-Tuned Universe and The Dawkins Delusion?, which I found fairly representative of religious belief, though I’m not sure it was intended that way.

The Christian vision of reality offers us a standpoint from which we may view the natural world, and see certain things that others might indeed regard as puzzling, or strange — such as fine-tuning — as consonant with the greater picture that the Christian has to offer.

Here’s how I interpret that quote.

A Christian perspective offers an explanation for things that are puzzling or strange, thereby negating any need (or desire) to find out anything more about those puzzling or strange things. In other words, God did it and that’s all you need to know.

I don’t have the context surrounding that quote, so I don’t know to what the “greater picture that the Christian has to offer” refers or how that fits in with the idea that a supernatural explanation is any explanation at all. I suspect I’ll have to get a copy of McGrath’s book to find out.

I’ve said before that the whole of religion is a curiosity killer. Obviously not for everyone, but in general, if someone knows that “God did it,” what’s the point of moving further? If someone already knows the answer, they’re done… which is why science never “knows.” Science is always probing, always asking, always testing. Even the theory of gravity (yes, it’s “just a theory”) is constantly being tested and modified when necessary.

Religion is why fundamentalists reject evolution… and real cosmology… and, for some odd reason, global warming (or climate change, if you prefer). When the facts and the scientific analysis of the facts contradict their theology, they assume the science is wrong, and since they aren’t the ones who researched the facts (why bother, since they already know the answer), the facts are dismissed out of hand.

Though, to me, this is a sad state, it’s not a real problem… until these fundamentalists want to impose their theology on others. When they start to spread their anti-intellectual, anti-education, anti-science, anti-fact drivel to the rest of us who work and play in a reality-based world, it causes big problems. When people like this get elected into public office where they have the power and authority to set policy, it causes huge problems. And when people like this get put into positions where they have control over others and authority to command them, it causes deadly problems.

So McGrath’s “Christian vision of reality” really isn’t a vision of reality at all. Not really. It’s a vision of a building facade on a movie set. It may look real at first glance or when the camera pans across it, but there’s nothing behind it. There’s nothing there.

And when you look hard enough, you can see it’s fake.

Religion, Criticism, and Education… Oh my!

Science education Atheists tend to deliver a lot of criticism of theology, be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or some other flavor. We find fault with the resurrection of Jesus, the winged horse of Muhammad, Moses and the Ten Commandments, the Holy Trinity, and a myriad of other theistic claims made by these religions. We debunk their holy books, criticize their faith-based messages, argue against their primitive views of morality, and generally demand evidence for their extraordinary claims.

All of these issues, however, rest on one basic foundational principle of theistic beliefs… that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent god exists and has always existed without a creator of its own.

Many atheists spend time refuting the existence of a god while at the same time acknowledging that it’s not possible to prove the nonexistence of said entity. The refutations generally come in two main forms: pointing out the complete lack of any credible evidence and dismantling apologetic arguments (such as the cosmological argument). Many of the apologetic arguments consist of so much circus-like, semantic, hoop-jumping that they really should be dismissed out of hand for their absurdity, but we still go through the mental exercise of pointing out the fallacies or refuting the (attempted) logic or issuing counterpoints to invalidate the conclusions.

If the existence of a god cannot be proven (or even demonstrated), then why do we need to continually debunk the other theistic claims of specific religions? Why do we have to repeatedly explain how the biblical flood didn’t happen? Why do we need to point out flaws in the bible? Why do we need to show how the Qur’an is riddled with statements demanding violence? Why do we need to present evidence for evolution… again? Why do we need to do any of this since its validity all rides on the existence of a supernatural, all-powerful deity whose existence cannot be proven, demonstrated, or sometimes even coherently defined?

If there is no god, theistic religions are bunk.

Whatever the biological or psychological need is that nudges humans toward superstitious beliefs, it works fairly well. Most people believe in a god of some sort. Most people are brought up believing in a god, indoctrinated from birth to believe in, not just a deity, but in an entire system based upon stories of miracles and supernatural wonders that defy all rational understanding. It’s a system that can rarely be dismantled simply by attempting to remove the foundational block of god-belief. In most cases, the only way for it to be taken apart is from the top down, starting with the doctrinal beliefs.

The goal, for me anyway, isn’t to rid the world of religion. The goal is to keep religions from being forced upon unwilling recipients, be it via government intrusion, corruption of education, or imposition of archaic moral philosophies. I don’t care if John Q. Public believes in a deity. I care if he lets that belief affect decisions that effect me. I care if he wants to base public policies on unsupported religious doctrine instead of rational thinking. I care if he wants to impose his 1st-century view of morality on me and my family. I care if his religion dictates to me what I can and cannot do.

Most religious folks can handle this just fine. Their day to day living and decisions are based on societal norms and they don’t go around preaching to everyone they meet about how Jesus is the only way to be saved from eternal damnation. They’re generally friendly, fun, trustworthy, and enjoyable to be around. Many don’t even discuss religion except when they go to church on Sunday. It’s just not that important them in a social sense.

Sadly, the religious loud-mouths ruin it for them. From self-righteous abortion protestors to fire-and-brimstone evangelists to morally dubious right-wing politicians who attempt to push biblical policy into our political system, religious fundamentalists are a significant cause of atheists’ vociferous criticisms. And since asking them nicely to keep their religious ideology out of the political system tends not to work, the only way to combat their insidiousness is to speak out, often and loudly, against their theology… and since saying "there is no evidence for your god" tends not to work, the only way to block their religious tentacles from insinuating themselves into our government is to debunk their dogma… debunk their holy books… debunk their claims of biblical truth… debunk their muddled, 2000-year-old ideas of morality.

That’s what we have to do now to maintain our religious freedoms, but how do we keep the situation from continuing ad nauseum? How do we make sure that our children, and our children’s children, don’t fall prey to the same ideological black hole into which we are threatened to be pulled?

Polls show there is an inverse correlation between education levels and religious belief. It would seem that the best approach to stemming the tide of religious fundamentalism and its attempts to creep further and further into our governments, our schools, and our private lives is better education. Real education… education that includes not just memorization of numbers and historical facts, but tools for critical thinking and problem solving.

We need to teach our children to have a sense of wonder and curiosity about the universe instead of settling for the unenlightening answer of "God did it." We need to show them how science is the best way we have for understanding how things work and how language and communication skills are key to spreading knowledge. We need to help them learn the tried and true methods for evaluating evidence and reaching conclusions. We need to teach them that it’s okay if the facts leads somewhere new. We need them to understand that claims of truth require evidence. We need them to learn… learn… learn.

Until then, we’re destined to continue in the fight against superstitious ideology that fundamentalists want to impose on us. We’ll keep debunking, keep criticizing, keep educating, and keep learning… until we have dismantled the ivory tower of theistic dogma.

…from the top down.