Who audits the auditors? The limits and effectiveness of debunking

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.

7 thoughts on “Who audits the auditors? The limits and effectiveness of debunking

  1. Hammiesink says:

    I actually registered the domain skepticaudit.com a while back, intending to create a counterpoint to McI’s site. (Although, McI is one of the less egregious offenders so it would probably focus more on the Watts/Nova types). Sometimes I think I just shouldn’t get involved that heavily; life is too short, I have reading and travelling to do, etc.

    T’would be a shame to let the domain go to waste.

    • Could open it up to a few contributors that come across some of this silliness and offer a level headed rebuttal?
      …It definitely would be a shame to go to waste.

  2. Certainly food for thought. As stated above; deniers will go on denying even when their arguments have been debunked, which I feel is because their “truths” are being attack by reason, not the source.
    Creationists will never accept evolution not because evolution lacks anything, but because it argues with a tentacle and not the beast; it argues with one part of a belief that they strongly believe in – God.
    Climate change deniers will keep on denying because we’re not challenging the principles of their faith. It’s not so clear cut as with creationists, but there are a few that I’ve noticed; God is omnipotent (we can’t possibly damage the atmosphere); Conspiracy – the government or some secret society are behind the scam to make trillions at our expense); self importance – they’ve heard Monckton et al talk about the death of millions and now that’s their reasoning (they’re heroes defending free markets and starving people.. also fits with the conspiracy) – as you write about Jo above, she truly believes the history books will paint her picture not unlike the cover of a Starwars movie, fighting injustice; Scientific fear – this is much like a common witch hunt, but a lot of people are happy to use all the tools of scientific understanding, but are quick to fall back on the sci-fi image of mad scientists messing around unnaturally with nature (ie. science is evil – fits in with the God crew and the conspiracy camp also); and half-baked business-as-usual economic junkies – these people are always the first to say ANY changes to policies will cost jobs and kill economy… they’re often loud and good enough with numbers to produce interesting graphs but are very short sighted.
    I guess I’m in it for the long haul as yourself, and am thankful for work like yours, only in it for the gold, skeptical science and AGW observer who go to great lengths to fight absurdities in denial, but I hope to offer a candle down the tunnel, that change is good, rather than fight in this ring! 🙂

  3. Fred Orth says:

    Please, keep up the good fight!

  4. Ju says:

    Great post. I agree somehow that we’re not fighting against rational people but dogmatists. Climate change goes against their deepest beliefs, psychologically it’s really hard to try and change people.
    Better concentrate on those who actually don’t really give a sh*t/don’t have a clear opinion about it and grab them before they hear about all those fallacies…

  5. Anarchist606 says:

    The problem is that two clashes of approach are happening here. AGW is where the decades of research have led to – it is the conclusion that comes from the research. Denial, by contrast is an opening position that seek to shape opinion to match ideology. The first is a logical journey. The second is an emotional path.

    Take the example of the comments from Rob Yallop – a simple search on Google Scholar shows that this is an absurd claim – yet Rob seeks to protect a position that he has invested considerable emotion on creating. To people like him, AGW represents all the things they like not to be true.

    I think looking at the creation/evolution debate is more helpful – you will not convince the evolution denailists – theirs is a position of faith that can never be shaken. But the people in the middle – the audience – they can be. And for that I suggest we need to be strident in our view of the scientific method – yes to educate where we can, yes to translate complex science into simpler narratives – and yes to ridicule when they are stupid and point when they are hypocritical.

  6. Tony Sidaway says:

    I think you and Shermer are both wrong–Shermer in particular falsely distinguishes between holocaust denial and creationism and climate change denial, by saying that only the former is on the fringe while the latter two are influential. To which I say, only to the extent that they are still taken seriously by Shermer. They have no science in their support and they have no influence on how the science is done or the conclusions it reaches.

    In both cases, the opposite view (evolution and global warming) enjoy a virtually insuperable hegemony in their respective fields of science. The science in each case is so well established that all the opponents can achieve is to make noise that confuses the uneducated public.

    To put it simply, the denialists in either field have comprehensibly lost. They may temporarily influence public policy in zones of limited geographical scope, but only by making noise, and pretty soon the policy makers and voters tune them out because they offer no credible alternatives.

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