Tag Archives: Conspiracism

The Galileo gambit and other stories: the three main tactics of climate denial

The Conversation
Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Bristol

The recently elected One Nation senator from Queensland, Malcolm Roberts, fervently rejects the established scientific fact that human greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change, invoking a fairly familiar trope of paranoid theories to propound this belief.

Roberts variously claims that the United Nations is trying to impose world government on us through climate policy, and that CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology are corrupt institutions that, one presumes, have fabricated the climate extremes that we increasingly observe all over the world.

In the world of Malcolm Roberts, these agencies are marionettes of a “cabal” of “the major banking families in the world”. Given the parallels with certain strands of anti-Jewish sentiment, it’s perhaps an unfortunate coincidence that Roberts has reportedly relied on a notorious Holocaust denier to support this theory.

It might be tempting to dismiss his utterances as conspiratorial ramblings. But they can teach us a great deal about the psychology of science denial. They also provide us with a broad spectrum of diagnostics to spot pseudoscience posing as science.

The necessity of conspiracism

First, the appeal to a conspiracy among scientists, bankers and governments is never just a slip of the tongue but a pervasive and necessary ingredient of the denial of well-established science. The tobacco industry referred to medical research on lung cancer as being conducted by an “oligopolistic cartel” that “manufactures alleged evidence”. Some people accuse the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of creating and spreading AIDS, and much anti-vaccination content on the web is suffused with conspiratorial allegations of totalitarianism.

This conspiratorial mumbo jumbo inevitably arises when people deny facts that are supported by an overwhelming body of evidence and are no longer the subject of genuine debate in the scientific community, having already been tested thoroughly. As evidence mounts, there comes a point at which inconvenient scientific findings can only be explained away by recourse to huge, nebulous and nefarious agendas such as the World Government or Stalinism.

If you are addicted to nicotine but terrified of the effort required to give up smoking, it might be comforting instead to accuse medical researchers of being oligopolists (whatever that means).

Likewise, if you are a former coal miner, like Malcolm Roberts, it is perhaps easier to accuse climate scientists of colluding to create a world government (whatever that is) than to accept the need to take coal out of our economy.

There is now ample research showing the link between science denial and conspiracism. This link is supported by independent studies from around the world.

Indeed, the link is so established that conspiracist language is one of the best diagnostic tools you can use to spot pseudoscience and science denial.

The Galileo gambit

How else can science dissenters attempt to justify their contrarian position? Another tactic is to appeal to heroic historical dissenters, the usual hero of choice being Galileo Galilei, who overturned the orthodoxy that everything revolves around the Earth.

This appeal is so common in pseudoscientific quackery that it is known as the Galileo gambit. The essence of this argument is:

They laughed at Galileo, and he was right.

They laugh at me, therefore I am right.

A primary logical difficulty with this argument is that plenty of people are laughed at because their positions are absurd. Being dismissed by scientists doesn’t automatically entitle you to a Nobel Prize.

Another logical difficulty with this argument is that it implies that no scientific opinion can ever be valid unless it is rejected by the vast majority of scientists. Earth must be flat because no scientist other than a Googling Galileo in Gnowangerup says so. Tobacco must be good for you because only tobacco-industry operatives believe it. And climate change must be a hoax because only the heroic Malcolm Roberts and his Galileo Movement have seen through the conspiracy.

Yes, Senator-elect Roberts is the project leader of the Galileo Movement, which denies the scientific consensus on climate change, favouring instead the opinions of a pair of retired engineers and the radio personality Alan Jones.

Any invocation of Galileo’s name in the context of purported scientific dissent is a red flag that you’re being fed pseudoscience and denial.

The sounds of science

The rejection of well-established science is often couched in sciency-sounding terms. The word “evidence” has assumed a particular prominence in pseudoscientific circles, perhaps because it sounds respectable and evokes images of Hercule Poirot tenaciously investigating dastardly deeds.

Since being elected, Roberts has again aired his claim that there is “no empirical evidence” for climate change.

But “show us the evidence” has become the war cry of all forms of science denial, from anti-vaccination activists to creationists, despite the existence of abundant evidence already.

This co-opting of the language of science is a useful rhetorical device. Appealing to evidence (or a lack thereof) seems reasonable enough at first glance. Who wouldn’t want evidence, after all?

It is only once you know the genuine state of the science that such appeals are revealed to be specious. Literally thousands of peer-reviewed scientific articles and the national scientific academies of 80 countries support the pervasive scientific consensus on climate change. Or, as the environmental writer George Monbiot has put it:

It is hard to convey just how selective you have to be to dismiss the evidence for climate change. You must climb over a mountain of evidence to pick up a crumb: a crumb which then disintegrates in the palm of your hand. You must ignore an entire canon of science, the statements of the world’s most eminent scientific institutions and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals.

Accordingly, my colleagues and I recently showed that in a blind test – the gold standard of experimental research – contrarian talking points about climate indicators were uniformly judged to be misleading and fraudulent by expert statisticians and data analysts.

Conspiracism, the Galileo gambit and the use of sciency-sounding language to mislead are the three principal characteristics of science denial. Whenever one or more of them is present, you can be confident you’re listening to a debate about politics or ideology, not science.

The ConversationStephan Lewandowsky, Chair of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Please don’t explain: Hanson 2.0 and the war on experts

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Along with Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” Pauline Hanson has long stood as a grim reminder that the second half of the 1990s was much worse than the first half. And now, 18 years later, Hanson finds herself back in Canberra.

Hanson’s racist agenda will be a stain on the Senate just as surely as the views she represents are a stain on Australia itself. For that reason alone, her return is a cause for dismay. But it is not the only cause.

Both Hanson herself and her wider party have a vocal sideline in science denialism: the view that expert consensus on various topics is corrupted and unreliable.

Hanson has pushed the myth that vaccination causes autism, and wants a royal commission into the “corruption” of climate science, declaring that “Climate change should not be about making money for a lot of people and giving scientists money”.

At the time of writing, it’s quite possible Malcolm Roberts, who has the number two slot on the One Nation Senate ticket in Queensland, will be joining Hanson in Canberra. Roberts is a project leader of the Galileo Movement, a lobby group who deny anthropogenic climate change and insist the global scientific community and governments are corruptly hiding the truth from their publics.

Conspiracism in public life

This might seem small beer next to the potentially disastrous effects a Hansonite revival might have on Australia’s pluralist and multicultural society.

But remember: Hanson had an outsized impact on Australian politics in the 90s precisely because she gave voice to views that resonated with much of the electorate and, unlike other politicians, wasn’t quite canny enough to reach for the dog whistle. In openly using phrases like “swamped with Asians,” Hanson shifted the Overton Window until the political establishment found the only way her views could be contained was by absorbing them.

Enter Roberts, a man who honestly believes a “tight-knit cabal” made up of “some of the major banking families in the world” are advancing corrupted climate science with the aim of global domination. Such language has some very dark associations in the history of conspiracy theory. Hence Andrew Bolt disassociated himself from the Galileo Movement for peddling a view that “smacks too much of the Jewish world conspiracy theorising I’ve always loathed.”

One might think that if even an arch-denialist like Bolt can’t abide views like Roberts’, One Nation’s climate conspiracism will end up either repudiated or ignored. But then, nobody in 1996 thought “swamped with Asians” rhetoric would have such an impact on the Australian polity either.

‘Post-truth politics’?

Besides, this has been a good season globally for political expertise bashing. Perhaps the new One Nation senators will find that, in another echo of the Howard years, the times will suit them.

In the lead-up to the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union, Tory MP and leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove declared “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Gove is now in the running to become the Prime Minister who will preside over the UK’s divorce from the EU – and quite possibly, the breakup of the United Kingdom itself.

Michael Gove says people have had enough of experts. Paul Clarke/Wikimedia Commons

Should Gove get the gig, his counterpart across the pond come January 2017 may well be one Donald Trump, a man who believes climate change is a hoax and that vaccines cause autism (and has given voice to suspicions that Obama wasn’t born in the US and that Ted Cruz’ father was involved the Kennedy assassination).

And of course, denialism won’t be a novelty in Canberra either. Denis Jensen won’t be there when Senator Hanson arrives, but his colleague George Christiansen will be. David Leyonhjelm may no longer grace the Senate crossbenches, but thanks to him we’ll still be paying for a Commissioner to investigate Wind Turbine Syndrome complaints despite the lack of evidence for any such condition. And lest this be dismissed as a mere lefty rant, we should also note the Greens’ stance on genetically modified organisms.

All of this might be ascribed to “post-truth politics,” the condition in which political discourse is no longer constrained by norms of truth-telling. But simply insisting people tell the truth – hardly an outrageous demand – won’t help with this specific problem. To invoke the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s ingenious distinction, post-truth politics is not fundamentally about lies, but bullshit. The liar knows the truth, and cares about it enough to conceal it. The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care (and may not know) if what they say is true; they just care that you believe it. Trump, it seems fair to say, is a bullshitter. Much of the Gove-Johnson-Farage Brexit campaign was certainly built on bullshit.

But science denialists are not, or at least not necessarily, liars or bullshitters. Their beliefs are sincere. And they are shared by a great many people, who by definition won’t be persuaded by simple appeals to expert opinion because the authority of expert opinion is precisely what they deny. How should we respond to this?

Naïve Reason won’t save us

One disastrous answer would be to retreat into a naïve conception of capital-r Reason as some sort of panacea. Surprisingly smart people end up plumping for such a view. Consider this bit of utopianism from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Even if Tyson’s being tongue-in-cheek here, this is emblematic of a fairly widespread view that if we just consult The Facts, and then simply apply the infallible techniques of Reason to these Facts, it becomes blindingly obvious precisely What Is To Be Done. This view is only slightly less naïve, and barely less self-congratulatory, than those it opposes.

You sometimes come across people who want to insist that battles over science denialism represent a conflict between “reality” and “ideology.” But there’s no direct access to “reality” – all knowledge is mediated through our existing concepts, language, and so on – and so, arguably, no non-ideological access to it either. Human knowledge doesn’t drop from the sky fully-formed and transparently validated by some infallible faculty of Reason. It’s always filtered through language, culture, politics, history, and the foibles of psychology. Producing knowledge is something humans do – and that means power relations are involved.

Distributed knowledge and trust

While anti-intellectualism and suspicion of expertise is nothing new, the problem is amplified by the very advances that make modern life what it is. Put crudely, we now know so much that nobody can know it all for themselves, and so we have to rely more and more on other people to know things for us.

Under such conditions of distributed knowledge, trust becomes ever more important. You can’t be an expert in everything, and so you have to take more and more on trust. Is human activity warming the climate? Does the MMR vaccine cause autism? Would Brexit tank the UK’s economy? These are not questions you or I can answer, assuming you or I aren’t researchers working in the relevant fields. So we have to defer to the relevant communities of experts – and that’s a problem if you’re not good with trust or deference.

The physicist Brian Cox recently said of Gove’s expertise remark that it represents the way “back to the cave.” If that’s a fate we want to avoid, we’re stuck with distributed knowledge, and the reliance on others it involves.

That being so, we need to enhance trust in the knowledge-generating social structures we depend upon. Of course, a certain proportion of people are always going to insist that scientists are secretly lying to us for profit or that doctors are incompetent or evil. The paranoid style, as Richard Hofstadter called it, will always be with us. And there will always be demagogues willing to exploit that paranoia, to turn expertise into an us-and-them conflict, or to feed resentment and flatter egos by telling people they know better than their GP or climatologists.

But such views can only gain broader traction if people are alienated from those sources of knowledge, if they see them as disconnected from and perhaps even hostile to their own lives and interests.

Technical knowledge is predominantly produced by universities, and utilised by a political class. These are institutions that are much harder to trust if university is a place that nobody like you goes to, or if nobody in the political class sounds like you. It’s much easier to see “government” as some sort of malign, alien force if you have no investment in its processes or hope of benefiting from them. Equally, when “government” means your friends and family who work in public service rather than a distant and abstract locus of force and authority, pervasive suspicion becomes harder to maintain.

Expertise denial has become a deeply corrosive feature of modern political society. It needs to be called out wherever it appears. But we also need to think about how we reduce people’s disconnection from the sources of epistemic authority. That is a far more wickedly difficult problem. It’s one we’ll still be dealing with long after Hanson’s second fifteen minutes are over. But we can’t wait until then to start.

The ConversationPatrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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