Keith Kahn-Harris published a fascinating, and potentially controversial, article over a the New Humanist Website (the website of the UK’s Rationalist Association).
It follows the lead of the recent New Scientists special on the rise of “denialism” and its social, political and health implications.
Like many of us, Kahn-Harris notes with concern the troubling upsurge in those abandoning of “enlightenment” ideals:
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We were supposed to be living in a world in which the methodical, rational, scientific accretion of knowledge would lead us down a path to a better world. That was the dream of Enlightenment, the bedrock of modernity…”
And then there is the term “denialism” itself:
“I’m talking here about the problem of denialism. Denialism is the systematic, institutionalised attempt to deny a firm consensus established by scholarly, scientific enquiry. The term’s origins are obscure, but it has come to be widely used especially within the blogosphere to describe a collection of organised campaigns of denial…”
Much of what he has to say I agree with, but then some parts of his essay really got me thinking. In particular his view that “debunking denialism” is of limited use:
“In any case, the debunking of denialism is often of only limited use. While it is important that denialism does not go unchallenged, it is nevertheless largely impervious to that challenge. It may be that the open-minded person looking for answers will be convinced by the debunker rather than the denier, yet deniers and those convinced by them are by their very nature not open-minded people looking for answers. Denialists rarely recant, although they sometimes give up the struggle – the Holocaust denier Mark Webber, founder of the Institute for Historical Review, recently conceded that his movement had made little headway and it was better to focus on fighting “Jewish-Zionist power”. Debunkers and denialists find themselves in a mutually created trap. Neither side can convince the other, they both find themselves desperately fighting for the support of the uncommitted. Both sides are convinced of the value of science and scholarship to support their cause…”
Kahn-Harris then concludes his essay with the following:
“Which brings us back to Stan Cohen. He thinks the preoccupation with debunking denialists is part of the problem: “You get the impression from reading the debunking literature that these people are not aware of the last 30 years in the social sciences. They see themselves as old-fashioned rationalists. They’re often actively hostile – they are themselves naive.” Instead Cohen thinks we need “to find a path between a radical relativism that doesn’t allow for any notion of truth and an old-fashioned commitment to the only truth…”
Obviously this blog is about debunking the claims made by deniers. Therefore, one might think I’d be outraged at the opinion of Kahn-Harris. Actually, I think he raises some valid points.
All too often the “debate” is a shouting match. Witness my recent exchange with New Zealand climate sceptic Rob Yallop on this blog:
[Rob to me] … I can’t believe you publish such an insulting website… Denialists are people who ignore clear evidence such as the occurrence of the Holocaust, evolution, vaccine efficacy etc. These people are either stupid, wilfully ignorant or just plain spiteful… Climate science has no such evidence. You speak of “thousands of scientists” all [proving?] CO2 is a crucial driver of temperature and yet that is patently untrue. Most of the so-called “thousands” of research papers do not examine this issue at all, they simply accept it as read and proceed to speculate what impact this will have on some cute animal.”
I’ve offered to formally debate Rob, to which he is non-committal.
So why bother to engage with “climate sceptics”?
Why systematically and painfully examine their claims at all?
I see the process of debunking as an “auditing” function. The denial movement has proclaimed itself to be a [cough] grass roots [cough] “auditing” movement. They project themselves as tireless fact checkers. Indeed, Jo Nova on her recent blog makes the hubristic claim that there have changed the way science is practised:
“In years to come history books will be written about the grassroots scientists with next to no resources except their wits, who blew the whistle on the biggest scientific scandal of the century and changed the course of billions of dollars, and thousands of careers….”
I’m not sure history will record it that way, but this is how they like to project themselves to their supporter base and the media. Its what the creationists tell themselves every day.
Who audits the auditors?
This blog and the many others are part of a grass roots effort that audits the auditors.
Who audits the auditors? We do.
“Sceptics” such as Nova, Anthony Watts and the like are not exempt from criticism. Actually, I’ve noted that climate “sceptics” have a glass jaw. They rankle at the term denier (“How dare you!), and yet throw the most vile invective at scientists and pro-science advocates such as myself. Like many bloggers I’ve received some fairly disgusting and thinly veiled “threats” via posts and email. But I’ve learnt to brush it aside.
Does auditing the deniers help?
I think it does, as part of a multi-pronged strategy. There are many things we can do to counter the effects of the denial movement. I started this blog to monitor and “debunk” some of the more outrageous claims of the deniers. I’m a bit player in the debate, a tiny voice. But I’m not in it for the gold.
As noted sceptic Michael Shermer noted in the recent New Scientists special on “denialism” truth is our weapon:
“Case in point: Holocaust denial. In the 1990s, a number of us engaged Holocaust deniers in debate and outlined in exhaustive detail the evidence for the Nazi genocide. It had no effect. They sailed on through into the 2000s making the same discredited arguments. At that point I threw up my hands and moved on to other challenges. By the late 2000s the Holocaust deniers had largely disappeared.
Throwing up your hands is not always an option, though. Holocaust denial has always been on the fringe, but other forms – notably creationism and climate denial – wield considerable influence and show no signs of going away. In such cases, eternal vigilance is the price we must pay for both freedom and truth. Those who are in possession of the facts have a duty to stand up to the deniers with a full-throated debunking repeated often and everywhere until they too go the way of the dinosaurs…”
A waste of time?
Yes, it is exhausting having to counter the “polar bear myth” again and again. Yes, it is tiresome having to listen the same claims to conspiracy. But Shermer has a point: tackling the claims of the deniers head on is a viable strategy.
I have a saying: “Victory comes from a thousand small advances on a broad front, not a single rush”.
Being patient, respectful and committed to the truth is one of our most effective strategies. It is the cumulative effect of all our efforts that makes a difference.
I’m in it for the long haul.