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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Denialism vs Skecpticism

Christopher Reinert

Ethical Technology

February 23, 2014

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.

‚ÄčThe 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 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.


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