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)


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