Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Denialism, the Masses, and an Independent Judiciary

I recently came across the denialism blog, a ScienceBlog dedicated to discussing the problem of denialists.

What's a denialist, you might ask?

Well, Denialism is:

"The employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one's viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing, but ultimately empty and illogical assertions."

A denialist would be one who engages in such tactics.

We've all come across such people. What's scary, however, is that denialists are frequently successful in convincing large numbers of people that their ideas are sound.

"Examples of common topics in which denialists employ their tactics include: Creationism/Intelligent Design, Global Warming denialism, Holocaust denial, HIV/AIDS denialism, 9/11 conspiracies, Tobacco Carcinogenecity denialism (the first organized corporate campaign), anti-vaccination/mercury autism denialism and anti-animal testing/animal rights extremist denialism."

Previously, I pondered why it was that so many social conservatives deny that humans are causing climate change despite the scientific consensus that says otherwise. While I found several explanations, I did not explore the tactics that those who hold this belief use.

denialism blog, however, does explore these tactics:

"5 general tactics are used by denialists to sow confusion. They are conspiracy, selectivity (cherry-picking), fake experts, impossible expectations (also known as moving goalposts), and general fallacies of logic."

The denialism bloggers regularly point out examples of such tactics being used and, I must admit, I'm a little jealous that they came up with this brilliant idea before I did! At the same time, denialism is offensive to many of our sensibilities, and I'm really glad for the sake of propaganda analysis that the bloggers are so good at what they do.

For, many people in our country are denialists, or they believe the teachings of denialists. Because they do not understand concepts like peer review and the scientific method, they believe denialist claims of "scientific consensus" conspiracies. Because a scientific theory conflicts with their religious beliefs, they argue that a scientific theory is just a theory and it doesn't prove anything. What is most frustrating to me is that, in the interest of presenting "both sides" of an issue, the media often perpetuates denialist claims thereby creating the appearance of genuine uncertainty over certain issues. As a result, although they lack truth and merit, many people then latch onto denialist claims.

denialism blog likens denialists, also called "cranks," to people with a mental illness as they "continue to hold unreasonable attitudes about the world in the face of evidence to the contrary." Perhaps a more descriptive definition of a crank, however, comes from a cited social psychology journal article describing "how people who are incompetent not only have an inflated sense of their own competence, but are also incapable of even recognizing competence."

(I can think of a few "debates" I've had with people from that one blog that shall not be named who pretty much define that description.)

Anyway, what is great about our country is, to use a cliche, that we have free speech and association. We can write blogs about almost anything we want. We can form organizations, clubs, and advocacy groups. But with this freedom, well... to steal the best phrase ever from Teh Portly Dyke, comes the ability to turn our channels of media (especially the internet) into kiddie pools full of poop. And, really, I don't have much confidence in the masses to distinguish the poop from the Snickers bars.

So there you have it. I admit it. I believe the masses can be easily, for lack of a better word, hoodwinked. (The reasons are myraid and entirely deserving of a post of its own.) And, in the face of such hoodwinkery and misinformation I don't believe it is appropriate for "we the bigoted people" to decide what other people's fundamental, constitutional rights are.

To use just one example: If the majority of this country believes, despite most credible scientific evidence saying otherwise, that a god created the earth 5000 years ago and that such a belief is "science," I don't want them to affirmatively vote to teach such belief as scientific fact in public schools. I want an independent judiciary, that was designed specifically to protect from tyranny of the majority, to step in and disallow that teaching. Even if most people want that teaching taught. Even if most people cry "let the people vote." Call me elitist, but I don't want a misinformed public having the final say as to what my rights are.

Do you?

This is all assuming, of course, that our independent judiciary is not composed of cranks.

In which case, goddess save our country.

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