March 6, 2010
Theories, Facts, and 'Denialism'By Daniel H. Fernald
Several years ago, as a member of a discussion listserv, I was surprised to learn that even prominent scientists do not necessarily hold with certain central tenets of what has traditionally been understood to be scientific method.
A world-class scientist on the listserv claimed in the course of an unrelated debate that gravity was a fact, not a theory. This struck me as fundamentally wrongheaded, and it still does. It is, of course, a "fact" that unsupported objects fall. What explains this observable fact is the theory of gravity. Gravity is the theory; the falling object is the fact. The theory explains the fact, but the theory never becomes a fact.
This scientist was quite adamant on the point, going so far as to assert that we inquisitive laymen on this listserv should just take his word for it, since he is an expert and we aren't.
I wondered at the time how such a universally acclaimed scholar in the sciences could make an error so elementary that even my freshmen logic students could see it, while also so blithely refusing to engage in constructive discussion. The recent Climategate scandal is instructive in this regard.
One sees the same lack of openness and intellectual rigor in the arrogance, stonewalling, name-calling, and apparently deliberate obfuscation that have characterized the response of some global warming/climate change supporters to the legitimate questions that have been raised by scientists and laymen alike.
Even those sympathetic to the claims of climate change scientists are ridiculed for asking honest questions. Such "Climate Deniers" are implicitly compared to the unbalanced and ignorant few who claim that the Holocaust never happened -- i.e. "Holocaust Deniers." Wikipedia even has an entry on "Denialism" (which has my vote for the silliest-sounding ad hominem attack ever).
This linguistic three-card Monte is made possible only via the same conflation of facts and theories in which my former colleague engaged. The climate is constantly changing. That is a fact. The notion that climate change is caused by human activities is a theory that seeks to explain the fact. By calling the theory a "fact," climate change scientists have effectively foreclosed the possibility of further discussion. After all, only a fool argues about facts, right?
This seemingly obvious ruse has been surprisingly effective, and the whole business hinges on the words used. "Theories" are fair game for discussion and debate because these are simply frameworks within which facts are to be understood. "Facts," conversely, just are what they are. Every reasonable person agrees that while we are all entitled to our opinions, we are not entitled to our own facts. Thus, in order to shut down the opposition without the bother of having to argue with them, the faux scientist need only redefine what a "fact" is.
When that hasn't worked, "Denialism" is invoked to shame those persistent enough to continue to ask questions.
Diehard "Cheers" fans may recall that when the ever-amorous Sam Malone finally persuaded perennial gold-digger Rebecca Howe to give up waiting for "Mr. Right," she consoled herself by saying, "After all, it's not like Donald Trump or Robin Colcord is going to walk through the door and sweep me off my feet."
"Robin Colcord," of course, does not exist. The "Cheers" writing staff used a neat little trick to introduce a new character. They had Ms. Howe refer to the fictional "Robin Colcord" as a peer of the well-known Donald Trump, and -- voila! -- a mogul is born!
"Denialism" slouched into existence as a result of similar sort of legerdemain. In just the way in which the talented "Cheers" writing staff created a billionaire out of whole cloth by doing nothing more complicated than putting his name next to Donald Trump's, so too did the no-less-imaginative Climategate fabulists associate those who question the AGW thesis with Holocaust Deniers.
After all, questioning a scientific theory and turning a blind eye to genocide are pretty much the same thing, right?
But wait, there's more.
The Wikipedia entry on "Denialism" portrays "Deniers" as engaging in the following: Conspiracy Theories, Cherry-Picking, the use of False Experts, Moving the Goalpost, and Logical Fallacies.
The very people who came up with this silly "ism" are guilty of every one of these.
First, they attribute every challenge to the AGW theory to dark ulterior motives and often point to an underlying conspiracy. To hear them tell it, you would think that a wicked cabal made up of George W. Bush, Halliburton, Dick Cheney, Talk Radio, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Bird, The Dallas Cowboys Defensive Line, and Karl Rove's tailor is trying to discredit these hard-working warriors for truth.
Cherry-Picking: The tree-ring evidence used to support the temperature change assertions required for the AGW thesis were taken from a very small number of anomalous samples. Cherry-picking extraordinaire!
As for false experts, has anyone heard of a fellow named "Al Gore"? The former U.S. vice president and divinity school flunk-out has no scientific background, yet this eco-guru has earned a Nobel Prize for his error-riddled slide show, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in climate-related business ventures.
Moving the Goalpost: Depending on the weather during a given year, we are either told that high temperatures are evidence of global warming or that low temperatures are evidence of global warming. (In logic, they call that a "tautology." In real life, they call that "having your cake and eating it, too.") Those goalposts are not just moving; they're sprinting!
Finally, the logical fallacies committed during the Climategate imbroglio are too numerous to count, but their abusive use of just one fallacy -- the argumentum ad hominem (personal attack) -- is so noteworthy that even Triumph the Insult Comic Dog is reportedly telling them to ease up.
Gee, this makes the AGW cohort sound a lot like "Deniers," doesn't it? Hmm.
The psychological term for attributing one's own trickery and failings onto others is "Projection."
This describes "Denialism" perfectly: projection of the dishonest, illiberal, and anti-intellectual tactics of the Enviro-Inquisition onto those "eco-heretics" who dare to question, however politely and intelligently, these dedicated adherents of the One True Faith.
This corruption of science is an object lesson to the rest of us never to hesitate to look with a gimlet eye at those who are more skilled in the use of invective than rational argument. The truth need not express itself with a sneer.
The writer holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and rhetoric from Emory University and is an Associate Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in South Korea. He has taught and lectured in the United States, Asia, Europe, and South America. He may be reached at email@example.com.