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Denialism vs Skecpticism
Christopher Reinert   Feb 23, 2014   Ethical Technology  

In the past few weeks, I have been working on an in class project where I had to explain the ethical issues scientists face when presenting their research to the public. During my research, I found an essay that inspired me to write the following…

Skeptics do not “ignore the facts”; they simply do not respect the facts lauded by scientific frameworks. Instead, they replace those facts with their own facts such as the importance of God’s role in human origins, the autonomy of parents over children, and the benefits of short term party loyalty over long term environmental protection. The issue is not ignorance, then, but the warring frameworks that are currently empowered by a skeptical culture to reject scientific authority. The focus should be on separating what is science and what is not, giving skeptics a voice, but not allowing that voice to be labeled “scientific.”

I think this paragraph provides the most articulate summary of any science denial movement I have come across as it highlights the philosophical differences between science denialists and skeptics.

I am hesitant to call denialism movements skeptic on the following grounds. First, while there are those who are skeptical about a particular claim, for instance the origin of life, a general consensus has been reached about the definition of what is under debate. Denial movements seem to rely on misconstrued definitions or specific instances when creating their platform. For instance, creationists using differing definitions of evolution when attacking the concept.

Two, skeptic movements are okay with being proven incorrect. If presented enough convincing evidence, skeptics are willing to admit they were incorrect and move on. Denial movements cannot be and cannot stand to proven wrong. There is no amount of evidence we can present to a denialist that will change their mind as they will move the goal post or cherry pick specific examples to prove their point.

This leads to the third distinction, that is underlying motivation. Skeptics are motivated by the desire to enhance our collective understanding by demanding claims have sufficient supporting evidence. Denialists are not interested in advancing science. They want to advance a particular political or social agenda. This makes debating science denialists an arduous task as they are not relying on scientific knowledge to gain support, but appealing to a political, social or religious be- lief to capture their audience.

Finally, skeptics ask questions that can be answered while denialists ask questions that are unan- swerable or unverifiable. One example of this point that I have encountered the question of could machines achieve human level consciousness or have their own emotions. Ample reasons exist to be skeptical of this claim. One common skeptical claims is that we do not know what it is that makes humans conscious, so how would we know what to give a machine? I consider this an example of skepticism as it poses a question that can be answered, even if the answer is not immediately apparent.

​The denialist position asserts that we could never make a conscious machine as consciousness requires a spark of divinity. This is a catch all term that applies to any instance where someone claims humans are unique because of some unidentified special endowment. The questions raised by this position are inherently unanswerable in many ways. Claiming "God did it" automatically casts the other side as the godless heathen who hates your religious or political subdivision.

In addition to being an untestable claim, this deliberate conflation of deeply held personal belief with a question not yet answered transforms any criticism into an attack on the individual. This is where any debate, no matter how articulate, fails to reach the intended audience. Denialism is not driving by the desire to learn more but by the inner anger of those who feel their privileged position is being attacked by something they have chosen not to understand. Skepticism is driven by the desire to learn more, but with the realization that one may be proved incorrect.

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Christopher Reinert
Christopher Reinert is a Masters student of Human Computer Interaction at Georgia Tech. His interests include human robotic interaction, brain machine interfaces, and the public perception of science.


An interesting anatomy, though in the end I disapprove.  Sorry.  I prefer to reserve “skeptic” to be a positive term, applying to someone who is simply unconvinced by a scientific consensus and pokes at holes in that consensus in the true spirit of science… which is an adversarial full-contact sport.

The best example would be Berkeley’s Robert Muller, who angered many in the climate community for hectoring them with questions until… and this is the crucial trait of a true skeptic… a day came when his questions were satisfied, at least within range for him to declare “I am convinced that the current consensus climate models are close enough to merit serious action while we learn more.”

I have parsed denialism as a political cult with attributes that I carefully lay down here:

One major difference… a genuine scientific skeptic would avow that we should act on the best advice of the 97% of scientists who believe the warming model WHILE poking at the model.  TWODA means Things We Ought to be Doing Anyway… prudent measures for energy efficiency that will benefit us all - even if the model proves wrong!

The clear agenda of the Kochs and other monsters is to prevent TWODA for their own profit.

With cordial regards,

David Brin

For the most part, David and Christopher seem to be saying exactly the thing: skepticism is a positive, curiosity-driven refusal to automatically buy into “facts lauded by scientific frameworks”, while denialism is agenda-driven, and fundamentally dishonest. Of course, those who question the scientific consensus on climate (or any other issue for that matter) are not neatly divided into “skeptics” and “deniers”, most are presumably a mix of the two, but the distinction is a useful one nonetheless.

At first this therefore left me wondering what it is that David thinks he disagrees with in the article, since, again, he seems to be saying the same thing. Is it the idea that skepticism can also involve “replac[ing scientific] facts with…facts such as the importance of God’s role in human origins, the autonomy of parents over children, and the benefits of short term party loyalty over long term environmental protection”? If so, I would certainly agree (with David) that the terminology in this sentence is bizarre. This seems to be not so much a question of warring factual frameworks as a failure to distinguish between values and perceptions about reality. Also, the idea that one should regard “God’s role in human origins” as “important” seems to assume that the God of the Christian imagination exists independently of that imagination, i.e. that He is more than just a figment of our collective imagination. Of course this has not been exactly disproved (though there do seem to be some pretty intractable logical inconsistencies, mainly relating to the problem of evil, which the best edforts of centuries of theologians have failed to resolve in a genuinely convincing way), but it is fairly clear that one has to be motivated by something other than curiosity to be seriously influenced by such ideas.

However, the basic idea that this is essentially a question of warring frameworks empowered by a skeptical culture seems correct in my view, and I personally find it a useful message for those of us who might otherwise be tempted to foam at the mouth when we come into contact with climate-, evolution- and other deniers to bear in mind. We’re probably better off making an effort to actually understand these guys, and not pin the entire problem on agenda-driven “monsters”.

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