Monday, 9 May 2016

Arguing with deniers

The other week I wrote about why we should argue with deniers - because their anti-science beliefs have real world consequences (delaying climate change mitigation, failing to vaccinate children against easily preventable diseases, allowing the deaths of hundreds of thousands from HIV/AIDS because they are denied life saving treatment, and so on).  Letting the deniers know they are wrong and educating them to understand better is a whole different matter.

When I began writing sceptical articles on this blog, it was because I had long been interested in it.  And being in education myself it was something I encountered quite frequently.  When I began in education, I met the Moon landing conspiracy arguments often and luckily a lifetime spent reading and studying the Apollo programme enabled me to answer the argument.  I knew my stuff.  For example, the famous picture of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, was one being hawked around as evidence that the landing never took place.

A little research, a little mental modelling of the landing site, and it was clear what was portrayed in the reflection in the visor is neither a helicopter nor a floodlight.  It's the camera that was giving us the TV images that enabled the whole world to watch (assuming they had a TV set).

The key to arguing with the lunar landing deniers, then, was evidence.  Give them evidence and they either had to deny the evidence was real or find another bit of evidence to argue.  As each bit of evidence of a conspiracy was knocked down, the deniers rapidly lost the will to keep going.  It wasn't worth it then because they were on their own with no one to back them up.  In a one to one, face to face situation, turning a denier around was not easy but it was feasible.

In the anonymous world of the Internet, however, arguing with deniers is much harder.  For a start, an ad hoc gang of deniers will find a comment thread to join and the token realist is often on their own.  And one reason they are often on their own is because they have strayed onto denier home ground where deniers congregate to show their ignorance to one another and pat one another on the back for being so ignorant.  Not that they would agree that that is the case but there you go.

And the Internet allows them to find the links to the spurious evidence to support their ignorance and smugly shout "Ha ha, gotcha" when they think of something that you might not be able to answer.  And when you answer it, they move onto another point that they hope you can't answer.

The first time I entered the lions den that is WattsUpWithThat, I chose to pick on something I didn't really know about and ridicule Roy Spencer about it.  Not a good idea because he quickly corrected me and I just looked like an idiot, which is pretty much what I was.  I decided that I wouldn't argue with better informed deniers until I was better informed myself.  In far too many cases, that actually meant only thirty seconds research, such is the lack of quality in the average denier.  It wasn't too hard finding points that I could win against the rather dim James Dealing Pole and Anthony Watts.  It took a bit more before I felt confident to take on some more cunning deniers.

The downside of all this online argument is that time is taken to find out that an idiot is still an idiot, just thousands of miles away and fast asleep when I come up with my best stuff.  Because the denier is so entrenched in their denial, they won't respond to the brilliance of the argument with anything like an intellectual comment.  Oh, no.  They will have spent their time trying to come up with a fancy, witty comment that amounts (and often is) to "Yah, boo, sucks".  Those ones are beyond reach.

The upside is twofold.  Firstly there are those that can be won over.  They are less entrenched and willing to examine evidence, and have the intellectual skills to do so.  I don't mean they are any more intelligent, just that they have critical thinking skills that enable them to make sense of scientific arguments. 

Secondly, researching debating points has educated me to the point that I don't care who I argue with now.  I am not an expert by any means, but I do have enough learning in climate science to be able to point to the evidence.  And that's the big point - evidence.

The denial side of any scientific argument usually decays into a conspiracy argument, that the scientists are all in the pay of the politicians who want to feather their nests with grants, backhanders or whatever.  By sticking to the science, the denier ends up looking stupid to outsiders, and probably quite stupid to an educated person on the inside too.  And as those educated people tire of arguing with jellyfish, they drift off and perhaps they do start to realise the science is reliable.  And that the planet is getting warmer.

I was lucky.  I was brought up with no particular ideology.  My parents were not especially religious (if anything, my dad worshipped Arsenal football club and my mum Emmerdale Farm) nor political.  Indeed, they both loved laughing at politicians and clerics and passed that attitude on to me.  I suspect if I hadn't found so much to laugh at when I was younger, I might have been collecting my deserved Nobel this coming autumn.  But I did gain something.  I gained a healthy scepticism.  I gained a set of critical thinking skills that I think aren't too bad.  They seem to do the job.

One of the least satisfying aspects of arguing with deniers is the repetitive nature of their arguments.  I'd master those several years ago.  Isn't it about time they threw in the towel or they found new arguments?  Well, the latter isn't going to happen.  They only have the former left.

And to return to Buzz Aldrin.  He got fed up of being harried by Moon landing deniers, so he punched one.  I haven't reached that stage yet (but the facetious comments of Richard Tol have given me cause to face palm with a bit too much force for my own good).

Friday, 6 May 2016

Little Jimmy Delingpile and the Rapid Decline Of Denialism

It's been a while since this blog mentioned one of its favourite authors, and surely Nobel literature prize laureate this year (it can only be a matter of time), Little Jimmy Delingpile.

Little Jimmy Delingpile

Charles Atlas
A quick recap for new readers.  Little Jimmy, the man who makes Charles Atlas look like a wimp, is a long time climate science denialist given a platform at the Daily Torygraph (until he was offloaded), The Spectator and Breitbat News upon which to spout his interpretations of interpretations.  He also writes books which no one seems to stock aside from Amazon. 

This week he has utilised valuable ink and paper to write what can only be described as drivel.  His article is entitled The Slow Death Of Environmentalism (archived).  As ever, Delingpile fails to understand irony while writing yet another example of it.  Isn't it ironic that he writes this:
the decline [in people identifying as environmentalists in the USA] has been far more precipitous among Republicans (down to 27 per cent) than among Democrats (down to 56 per cent)...If you believe the greenies, the blame for this lies with an intransigent right so imprisoned by ideology that it stubbornly denies ‘the science’.
Well, Mr Delingpile, you are a right-winger and you stubbornly deny the science (no scare quotes needed) because, er, you are imprisoned by your ideology.

I used to think that  libertarianism might have something going for it.  And smaller government.  Until I had the chance to think about it and then it took only a nanosecond to realise that those things just don't work.  It's the political equivalent of having your cake and eating it.  I used to pay little attention to environmental causes until I thought about them too.  I want my new grandson growing up seeing a real elephant, a living breathing one, rather than a stuffed one in a glass case.  If humans did drive mammoths to extinction when there were a lot fewer of us to do so, our industrial killing machines are doing the same job with awful efficiency for the smaller African Elephas today.

Never let it be said that Jimmy Delingpile will waste an opportunity, like Heartland with the Unabomber, to equate environmentalists with terrorists or despotic regimes:
Like the Viet Minh or the Taleban, the environmental movement has become hugely skilled in the art of asymmetric warfare.
Heaven forbid that he should ignore the chance for hyperbole.  He could have reached for his Nuremburg Trials reference again, but that would be like repeating his greatest hits.

He goes on:
The number of true believers is much smaller than you’d think — but they’ve managed in recent years to punch massively above their weight by infiltrating all the key positions of influence and by terrorising those who disagree with them.
An analysis of Twitter exchanges suggests the true believers population is much bigger than Delingpile would have you believe. You know he wants you to believe that.  He also wants you to think that they terrorise people, rather than correcting them.  I can't remember too many true believers going on email fishing expeditions but that's old hat for deniers with power.  I can't remember hackers going after denialist websites but SkepticalScience has been hacked in the past.  And so was the server with the CRU emails.

Ah, those emails.  Delingpile takes great delight in having coined the term Climategate.  Perhaps Delingate might catch on. 

Challenge the ‘consensus’ — whether you’re a scientist like Willie Soon or even a cuddly TV presenter like David Bellamy or Johnny Ball — and these people will stop at nothing to try to destroy your career.

I think we can all work out that neither Bellamy nor Ball were A-list celebrities when they went denialist, and Willie Soon was pilloried for "forgetting" to mention where the cash that paid for his stationery came from.  And the "deliverables".

I quote these two paragraphs without comment:
The letter (sent privately, but leaked in the Guardian) was signed by no fewer than 13 members of the House of Lords, several of them scientists, who had held distinguished offices ranging from Astronomer Royal and president of the Royal Society to chairman of the Financial Services Authority. Any casual observer might naturally assume that such pillars of the establishment must have a point.
It’s only if you’re familiar with the territory that you realise how often the same names — Lords May, Rees, Stern and Deben; Sir Crispin Tickell; Sir Paul Nurse, et al — recur with tiresome regularity. Probably in their fields they were once rather good. But since then prestige has gone to their heads and they’ve turned into professional political activists brandishing a spurious environmental authority which is all too persuasive to people who don’t know better.
But they do give me the opportunity to show this video again, from the recurring "with tiresome regularity" Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate:

Enough said.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Why bother correcting the deniers? Because it matters.

Some years ago now, I read a book called The Ancient Economy by Moses Finley.  I read it because Mrs Catmando had tried to read it and had given up in frustration.  She had been told that the book contained a model of the ancient Roman economy and could not find anything that resembled a model.  So she passed it to me and asked me to try.  I couldn't find the model either.

What I did find was a description of class in ancient Roman society.  This was framed in the wider idea of an economy but it all seemed quaintly Marxist and made little effort to connect the classes in any modern idea of economic activity.  And there seemed to be a desperately lacking understanding of what actually makes economies tick: human greed and acquisitiveness. 

But Mrs Catmando's archaeology professor swore by the book, said it was a classic and would not hear a word said against it.  He was steeped in the ideas that the book really did describe an economic model whereas, I suspect, any economist would dismiss that thought instantly.  His beliefs had gone without challenge for decades but one of my wife's fellow students did challenge them and did get an admission that, perhaps, the model wasn't so much a model as a set of pretty unconnected chapters.  Finley, it must be pointed out, did not go beyond the qualitative.

Mose Finley may or may not have been a Marxist.  He did appear before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities and he did keep quiet.  It does not matter if were a Marxist.  What matters is that his ideas were not being examined critically by my wife's archaeology professor, especially in the light of changing economic ideas over the period of time since Finley's book first came out (1973).  Undoubtedly, Finley was an impressive scholar but, even to a biologist like myself, it was clear that he was not an economist.  My economic understanding has come from a reading, many years ago, of a few books on basic economics, the titles of which now escape me.

I mention this because it is an example of the echo chamber at work.  Finley might be right by the archaeology professor did not ever seem to have considered that what Finley was doing was not what he professed to have been doing.  Indeed, a quick survey of work on the ancient economy in support of Finley seems strangely bereft of actual economists.  It might be the dismal science, but we should give them a hearing.  After all, they are the experts, the ones who have spent their working lifetimes in the arcane lanes and alleys of their subject, finding ever deeper and profound discoveries and explanations.

The question that the professor should have asked was this: what do economists say that might add to or alter the ideas presented by an historian of the ancient world?

The crucial question for deniers

There are deniers in so many areas of science and history.  There are Holocaust deniers, evolution deniers, climate science deniers, relativity deniers and, even, dinosaur deniers.  Having dipped a toe in many spurious debates that deniers have within their own communities, and having swum with the sharks in a few cases, there is one question I cannot recall being asked.

It is this:
what do the experts know that I don't?
 Yes, those experts in the field, the ones that have truly immersed themselves in the minutiae of a subject, have much to contribute and the accumulated years of knowledge and wisdom might just contain a nugget of information that could overturn the denier's unwarranted certainty.

Many years ago, I first encountered those that denied evolution.  I read the hippy dippy ramblings of Rupert Sheldrake and quickly dismissed it (I recently gave away my Sheldrakes, complete with marginal notes, to someone who thought he might have something worth listening to - I hate to disappoint that person but they really don't).  I also read Gordon Rattray Taylor's The Great Evolution Mystery, the most mysterious thing being that it got published at all.  The book appears wonderfully scientific.  It's just wrong from start to finish.

At the same time I was reading Stephen Jay Gould, John Maynard Smith, Colin Patterson amongst others.  What always struck me is the experts had so much evidence on their side and the deniers really had nothing.  Science is a jigsaw puzzle into which the pieces must be fitted as they are found.  If they don't fit, fundamental bits of the picture must either be modified or the piece thrown away.  If it cannot be found to fit, it isn't right.

So when deniers don't ask the question of why the experts believe that their science is true or at least as correct as we can make it at the moment, why don't they ask it?

I can hypothesise but I can't give a definitive answer.  There probably isn't one.  There are probably multiple answers.  The first is ideological.  Religious or political views can interrupt the intellectual journey and stall it at the starting line.  Many who deny evolution are creationists (I've come across almost none who deny evolution on scientific grounds alone, even when that is what they proclaim.  Stand up the Intelligent Design proponents, who, for all their hand waving for science, really aren't doing it for the science.) do so for religious reasons.  Many who deny environmental problems do so for political reasons. 

There is also personal incredulity.  How can humans be changing this enormous planet of ours?  Its so big and wide, there can't be any possibility that we have disturbed the balance of nature and ruined the thing.  This denial is also found in the political sphere as well.  Whereas once environmental concerns were the natural home of the conservative, they increasingly became a liberal matter. Caring for our home planet, caring for our fellow humans, caring for our fellow life forms, became something that the centre left espoused, so the knee jerk of the right was to oppose it.  Add in a little money from big business and, hey presto, a whole new area of denial.

If deniers don't want to like the experts, why don't they try to demonstrate the experts are wrong?

Well, they do but it is much harder to do unless you are an expert yourself.  Much easier to just make some stuff up instead.  And much, much easier just to claim that there is a gigantic conspiracy to suppress the real truth (ie the non-existent non-truth) that, for example, vaccines cause autism (they don't), carbon dioxide does not contribute to global warming (it does), the HIV virus doesn't cause AIDS (it does), dinosaurs never existed (they did). 

When deniers try to prove the experts wrong, they usually don't have full command of the facts, of the evidence, of the theories and their full implications.  Scientific mavericks are often reduced to just making stuff up to help their ideas along.  Non-existent morphic fields, for example.  Or they do spurious mathematical tricks that produce results they want but which are not scientifically or physically meaningful.  The now dead non-pause (or is it just pining for the fjords?).  Or they just outright lie and hope that no one will notice.  That's just about all of them.

If deniers are so concerned about the truth, why don't they listen when they are told the truth?

I have no idea.

So why correct them?

It matters because there are consequences to much of what deniers deny.  AIDS deniers have helped shape the policies that have led to thousands, if not millions, of unnecessary deaths over the last twenty years.  Climate change deniers are willing to see millions of people at risk of losing their homes and livelihoods as sea level rise takes them away.  Antivaxxers are willing to put their children at risk of preventable diseases, and to put those with compromised immune systems at risk of them too.  Shame on you for having had a kidney transplant through no fault of your own, they might as well say.

Since the scientific revolution four hundred years ago, science has produced an amazing accumulation of new knowledge from which deniers can pick and choose, as if it were an all you can eat buffet, denying the bits they don't much like. 

And sometimes the best they can do is to moan that they don't like being called deniers because that might make them sound like nutters, just like the Holocaust deniers.

I call them deniers because they are nutters, just like the Holocaust deniers (This is serious ad hom, is this the best that you can do? Ed.   Yes, Catmando)