Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Denialist taxonomy

Continuing a discussion in the previous post's comments, I think it's helpful to come up with categories of denialists. The overall point is to use a word that's distinguishable from skeptic - a skeptic displays rational doubt, while a denialist displays irrational or insincere doubt ranging to certain disbelief.

(This is my simplified and somewhat different version of John Mashey's Reasons for Anti-Science, well worth reading.)
  • True Believer: sincerely believes each subsidiary argument that he (yes, he) uses. Computers climate models don't work, all the instrumental record compilations don't work, no proxy for paleotemperature works, satellite records are too short, who would trust weather balloon data, and physics is too tricky.
  • Kitchen Sinker: will asset subsidiary claims that the denialist doesn't necessarily believe, while believing the overall conclusion that anthropogenic global warming is a hoax. More ethical variants of Kitchen Sinkers will merely "note" arguments that support their side while not overtly stating their belief in those arguments.
  • Cure Evader: these ones think the cure is worse than the disease, but instead of making that argument they claim that there is no disease. They may or may not believe that the disease exists, but what really motivates them is their certainty that the cure is a mistake.
  • Gamer: they're not really concerned with the truth or falsity of the subsidiary argument or broader issue, or with the broader effect that their position has, but with fighting the game for themselves or possibly their side. I'm pretty sure this describes Steve Milloy of Junk Science, and maybe Marc Morano as well.
Overlays of contrarian personalities, Dunning-Kruger (overconfidence in self expertise, underconfidence in others), ideological disbelief in inconvenient facts, retired-professor-disease, and economic interests for a small percentage can all influence the above.

I'd also emphasize Locked-In-Syndrome, which may be my one semi-original contribution to this study. A new hypothesis appears with only a small amount of evidence, and some people for any of the above reasons come out against it. They've started the process of being Locked In, where it's easier for them to reject each new piece of evidence than it is to reject their belief structure. This might be why science sometime proceeds one funeral at a time.

And then, just to screw up everything I've said so far, is my tendency to label people as "true skeptics" and not denialists if they're willing to put their money where their mouths are and bet over climate change. The idea is the person has shown sincerity and depth of commitment to their position by putting skin in the game. But the true skeptic could be just as irrationally wrong as a True Believer, and a True Believer just as sincere as a true skeptic.

In conclusion, I am inconsistent and contradictory in terminology - but only somewhat so! Maybe the "true skeptic" label is just an indication of respect for betting opponents. Anyway, I'm open to alternative terminology that distinguishes false skepticism form the worthwhile version.

1 comment:

  1. What you call "locked-in syndrome" is a problem in political aguments generally and applies to both sides. If I know ten reasons to favor a hypothesis, each single reason to oppose it can be dismissed on the basis of "the balance of the evidence still favors my position". Having dimissed that piece of evidence against, you can do the same to the next ten, twenty, or hundred.

    In that light, consider the NAS report on the hockey stick - they concluded "yeah, MBH98/99 has some problems, but a bunch of other studies reached a similar conclusion, so it's probably all right" and didn't even bother to check if the "bunch of other studies" had much the same set of problems. (which, as it happens, they did.) They assumed the consensus view was correct, so they didn't look as hard to find reasons to dismiss it as they did to find reasons to support it.

    "Locked-in syndrome" is a reason why you *need* contrarians around. People who are actively *trying* to find fatal flaws in the consensus view are more likely to find them - if any exist - than are people who are trying to repair or defend the consensus. It's like the difference between QA engineers trying to break a software program and developers who wrote the code being tested.


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