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Let The Best Ideas Win: Should Skeptics Engage Conspiracy Theorists Directly? PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by DJ Grothe   
Mark Hoofnagle, the influential blogger who is one of the folks who came up with the concept of “denialism,” and who writes at National Geographic’s Science Blog on the topic, has an interesting post about what happens when conspiracy theorists turn their attention to those who theorize about conspiracy theorists. He reports on the paper by Stephan Lewandowsky et. al. in the journal Frontiers in Psychology about how conspiracy theorists react to being the focus of academic and journalistic scrutiny, coming up with new conspiracy theories in the process.

Lewandowsky, and his coauthors John Cook, Klaus Oberauer, Michael Hubble, studied how conspiracy theorists reacted to a previous paper that some of them authored on conspiracy theories, ”NASA faked the moon landing|Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science“.They used Google searches and other methods to catalogue responses to the paper, and organized the responses into six categories. Responses demonstrated:

  1. an assumption of nefarious intent on the part of the authors of the paper
  2. delusions of persecution
  3. a “nihilistic degree of skepticism”, paranoia, what I’d call “hyper-skepticism”
  4. an inability to believe in mere coincidence
  5. a toleration of inconsistencies and contradictions in their own counter-hypotheses as long as they challenge the “official” version
  6. the incorporation of contrary evidence as further evidence of a conspiracy thus “self-sealing” their hypothesis

All six of these types of responses are the standard fare for any conspiracy theorist as he or she deals with scrutiny or criticism. These responses could easily turn into a Conspiracy Theory Bingo game to make listening to Alex Jones even more fun.

Hoofnagle summarizes the paper:

For the meat of the study, the authors then go through the evolution of reactions to their paper, and it’s fascinating. Starting with lots of allegations of “scamming” (must be wrong) and a smear to make them look like nutters (persecution victimization) the conspiracy theories then evolved about everything to whether or not the authors didn’t actually contact skeptic blogs (amazingly the blogs they did contact came out and appear to have lied about not being contacted), persecutorial delusions about the authors blocking individual skeptics IP addresses from accessing the paper (and further conspiracies that when they are being unblocked it’s just to make them look paranoid), conspiracies about it being a ploy by the Australian government (nefarious intent), and it gets crazier and crazier from there.


The most important part of this paper is when the authors explore the implications of their research on these conspiracy theorist responses to their previous paper for science communication in general. They essentially argue that because of the nature of conspiracy theories, and how they are seemingly immune to criticism and disconfirmatory evidence, that it is a waste of time for science educators (and they might as well say skeptics, as well) to even engage with conspiracy theorists and treat them seriously at all. Hoofnagle seems to agree with Lewandowsky et. al. here. The argument goes that if conspiracy theorists are ridiculed and exposed as the “defective brains that they are,” to use Hoofnagle’s phrase, instead of directly challenging them “as if they’re honest brokers,” then their influence and numbers will wane.

This is not completely unlike the argument that scientists should not debate creationists, a position that leading science educators like National Center for Science Education's Eugenie Scott have made over the years, and that scientists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen J Gould have also expounded.

I guess I disagree, even while recognizing that Hoofnagle and Scott and Dawkins make some really good points. Yes, debating denialists and peddlers of anti-science or conspiracy theories may seem to legitimize them. In the minds of a public undecided on the issues, whether we’re talking climate change or evolution or other consensus science challenged by the fringe, mainstream thinkers may lend credibility by giving them attention. But, indeed, I disagree that directly engaging the fringe is not useful. This is because, as a veteran of a few debates and a lot of direct engagement with creationists over the last 15+ years (and dozens of other debates and direct engagement on other interesting topics, like the proper role of religion in public schools, the existence of God, gay marriage, etc.), I have a pretty firm faith in public debate, in directly engaging my cultural competitors. I have to believe that the best ideas, argued well, will rise to the top. And shouldn’t science educators and science communicators and other professional truth-tellers be willing to engage their cultural competitors publicly, knowing that the best ideas will win if effectively communicated? Or should the destructive ideas of conspiracy theorists and others be ignored, ridiculed, or only addressed in the academy, unavailable to the wider, interested, low-information public.

Public argument and debate — direct engagement — even with the believing fringe, is an important antidote to the regrettable truth that throughout their lives, most people only interact with others who already share their central beliefs,whether about God, government, the paranormal, or issues like climate change, or important social issues. I used to run a program when I was at the Center for Inquiry called “Faith In College,” which were public events we put on at universities in cooperation with campus skeptics and freethought groups. These Faith in College events consisted essentially of panel discussions (often with much rigorous, if moderated, debate) among and by students of differing religious worldviews. It was always breathtaking to me to hear a student say publicly in front of an astonished audience that yes, he actually believed his good friend sitting next to him, well, was in fact going to burn in hell for eternity. Or to hear the atheist talk about why she lacked belief in God. Or to hear a Buddhist or Muslim or Sikh or Satanist share their experiences. Or to hear a secular humanist talk in front of the audience about where she gets her sense of right and wrong from, if not from God Almighty.

What was most spectacular, however, was to hear various perspectives rigorously challenged by other student panelists, in a public forum. That sort of direct scrutiny of belief happens far too infrequently, especially of fringe views. I may be too optimistic but I believe audiences left these and other similar events we put on asking themselves important questions about why they believed what they believed. And I think we owe the same opportunity to conspiracy theorists and denialists by challenging them directly, and talking to them, not just only ever about them and their whackaloon views.

It is, I think, a tad too fatalistic or defeatist to hear arguments that people of strongly different views, even on very important issues like climate change, complementary and alternative medicine, or the grand suspicions that fuel political conspiracy theories, have insurmountable differences that cannot be bridged by direct debate and engagement. Such fatalism, such rejection of any attempt to directly challenge conspiracy theorists of all stripes in public debate or argument, seems to foreclose any meaningful opportunity for mutual understanding, and seems far too acquiescent to the view that those who have fringe and unsupportable views will never be able to change their minds. Instead, I say Let The Best Ideas Win.

D.J. Grothe is president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and host of the interview program For Good Reason. A version of this post first appeared at conspircacycheck.net, his blog focused on analyzing conspiracy theory culture and psychology.

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written by metzomagic, March 03, 2013
Respectfully, DJ, most attempts at science addressing pseudo-science in a public debate format have failed miserably. The pseudo-scientists inevitably resort to the infamous "Gish gallop", throwing out so many falsehoods in a short period that the scientist can't debunk them all given the limited speaking time available for each of the participants. It takes much longer to conclusively debunk a pseudo-scientific talking point such as "The globe hasn't warmed in the past 16 years", or "But... irreducible complexity!" than it does to casually toss these out there.

In the end, the audience nearly always perceives that the pseudo-scientist has 'won' the debate. Not good for the cuae of science, and that is precisely why Dawkins and the NCSE have this policy. Now, a written debate via e-mail where the scientist has ample time to debunk the talking points and provide references to the literature. Well now, that is an entirely different matter.
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written by daveg703, March 03, 2013
There is another ploy of the creationist crew that I have never seen mentioned in online discussions, but which has been thrown at me a number of times in verbal confrontations with "true believers." Although the irony of its use escapes the user, it appears to be the last gasp in an ad hominem attack, when the cold light of objectivity and scientific fact has illuminated the fallacy of each of their arguments up to that point. It goes like this:
In other words you're saying 'My mind is made up- don't confuse me with facts!'

It's quite amusing to hear them actually verbalize their creed without realizing it.
in their arsenal coup de grace
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written by daveg703, March 03, 2013
Oops! Please ignore
coup de grace
that sneaked in from off my screen in the message box. Actually, I regard that ploy as a self-inflicted coup de grace when deployed. Hmm... If a ploy is deployed, does that effectively negate it? Topic for another time. smilies/smiley.gif
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written by ianmacm, March 03, 2013
Direct debate with people who accuse their opponents of bad faith/conspiracies etc is difficult. Smart media sources and educational institutions will not give a platform to people who use this tactic to deflect scrutiny of their theories. They can say whatever they like on their personal websites, but public debate is a two way street.
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That's not how debating works.
written by Bruno, March 03, 2013
Hi DJ,

You're arguing from faith now?
I have to believe that the best ideas, argued well, will rise to the top.


There is a whole field of study concerning which ideas rise to the top. It's called "memetics". One of its great successes is explaining how religions arose and evolved.

The crucial problem is that the truth is what it is, regardless of whether it's easy to grasp or memorize for the layman. Ergo, there's almost always a false claim that will be easier, more plausible sounding, more memorable or juicier than the correct one.

I am not saying we should give up, but it helps to realise the game we're in. When you're debating, you're not pitting truth against untruth but the wits of the debaters against eachother. Remember that debating training and contests hinge on the ability to defend successfully a randomly chosen view against the opposing view.

The best debater wins, not the one who's right.

B.
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I see this all the time
written by drxym, March 04, 2013
I've written a few critical comments on YouTube concerning MMS and the Burzynski clinic asking for evidence that supports the claims put forth by supporters of both groups. Invariably the responses are rants about the FDA and big pharma. If I press the question I'll usually be accused of being a shill or having ulterior motives.

The truth is it's just fun to observe the mental gymnastics that True Believers will go through to avoid answering simple questions and these are dangerous beliefs that need to be kept in check.
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Sometimes it IS the messenger.
written by Morgan5436, March 04, 2013
Gentleman, I have read for the past few years many articles written here agreeing with many but not all. Over the years I have considered the ones I have not agreed with and found myself becoming more critical in my thinking and seeing the points made by the various authors.

As I read this article today it occurs to me that many times when I have been at odds with a particular viewpoint it is sometimes not the message but rather the messenger I find objectionalable.

I recently retired after 25 years in law enforcement and during those years I had numerous occasions in which I was called upon to settle a family or neighbor dispute. My job was not to judge the merrits of the opposing parties viewpoints but to settle the disturbance. I often found that treating all parties with respect regardless of whether I agreed with their side or not made my job much easier and many times brought the parties closer in agreement in the long run.

I do agree with D J Grothe that the numerious points points of difference between the skeptics, the belivers and the conspicacy theroist would be better debated in the public forum and the audience allowed to make up their minds. I also agree with the concept that the better ideas will rise to the top however it does take a good debater to bring those idea to the debate and present them in the best light possible.

Terms such as "defective brains", "fringe", "whackaloon views" and "low-information public" serve only to inflame emotions and take away from a compelling agrument rather than aid it.

Knowledge is power and the best way to instill that power in another is to ensure the other is willing to receive it.
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written by metzomagic, March 04, 2013
Morgan5436, hi,

That is a noble goal shared by yourself and DJ, but it will not work in practice. Most of the public, in the U.S. anyway, believe in a Christian god. They want to hear what makes them feel good: that they were put here on Earth by a creator. That they are special, and that life has some kind of divine 'purpose'. They don't want some realist telling them that there is no creator, there is no purpose, and that when they die they will soon be nothing more than dust in the wind.

That's the way it is, and that's the way it will stay until a majority of the populace can somehow be convinced that religions are a complete sham, built on lies and superstition. Forget about religion, even. Look how difficult it is just to get rid of homeopathy, even though there is absolutely zero evidence to support it. Why? Because some people make a lot of money out of the collective ignorance of Joe Public. That's why it's important that we teach children how to think critically. Public debate won't help to do that for reasons mentioned by myself and others above.
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Antidote?
written by Wave, March 04, 2013
Where is the evidence that public debate serves as an "antidote" to anything? If someone made such a claim about a product, the bloggers on this site would be hounding them to provide proof of efficacy as well as test results that demonstrated that there were no ill effects. Should not the same principles be applied to the science of persuasion?

It seems to me that people who are interested in critical thinking should devote more effort to finding out what actually can induce epiphanies in others. In some cases it seems that the techniques used by those on the other side are demonstrably more effective. We have the tools to evaluate various approaches. I think that we should use them to come up with strategies that are likely to induce persuasion.

It may well be that marshaling the best arguments is necessary, but I doubt that it is sufficient to accomplishing much. Persuading people is a tricky business, but surely application of scientific principles to the subject is a better basis for strategy than just relying on anecdotal experiences.
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1:1 is one of the problems
written by gewisn, March 04, 2013
One of the problems with these "debates" is that the presentation of 1 on each side inherently misrepresents the situation in a number of ways:
- as has been pointed out above, a debate is not designed to find out the truth. It is designed to discover who is the better debater.
- a debate signals to the audience that there are two equally reasonable views of a given topic
- a debate implies equality among the opposing approaches to the topic. Richard Dawkins and a tiger have different approaches for how to properly deal with the pot roast in Dawkins' hand. (Both agree that it will be best if the tiger takes the whole thing, but the tiger would suggest a side of Dawkins.)

I think perhaps issues of science are best settled in ways other than debate. Perhaps the best process to settle issues of science is...science?
Now if you want to discuss the merits of how one should go about learning about the rules of the universe, then a debate is possible - perhaps between scientists and anti-scientists.

As for how to discuss in a public forum the merits of different scientific views, perhaps a better venue is a panel discussion representing the prominence of different views: like a panel of 1000 published climate scientists who agree global warming is real and 1 who disagrees.
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A Thomas Jefferson quote is relevant here (I got it from Mark Crislip)...
written by skepticnj, March 04, 2013
"Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them."

Whoo boy! Doesn't this apply to conspiracy theorists and denialists?
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written by Mark P, March 04, 2013
Lewandowsky, and his coauthors John Cook, Klaus Oberauer, Michael Hubble, studied how conspiracy theorists reacted to a previous paper that some of them authored on conspiracy theories,

What the author of this post failed to mention, was that the previous study is rubbish. It's not rubbish because it attempts to prove that people who hold alternative views on climate change are prone to conspiracy theories. That is an acceptable avenue to investigate. It's rubbish because the "analysis" inside is not acceptable.

In fact their original study shows that of people who believe outlandish conspiracies, that the rate for believers in CO2 caused climate change is as high as for non-believers. Despite the title invoking moon landing denial, virtually no climate sceptics believe that.

There are conspiracies that are believed at a higher rate by people who don't believe in CO2 induced warming -- illuminati etc. But there are conspiracies that are believed at a much higher rate by their opponents: 911 Truthers are mostly left-wing, not right.

Lewandowsky totally failed to prove his point with remotely enough power. It is an indictment of modern social sciences that a professor can put out something this weak.

His aim is not to show that a small portion of climate oppositionists are prone to conspiracy theory. His aim is to demonise all of them, by association.

Calling people you despise as mad is a very effective technique. But that doesn't make it right.
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written by metzomagic, March 05, 2013
Mark P,

As with most that are extremely critical of the "NASA faked the moon landing -- Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science" paper (aka LOG12), you focus on the secondary finding of the paper (that people who are prone to believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to believe that human-induced climate change is a conspiracy promulgated by thousands of climate scientists all around the world). The primary finding of the paper was, from the abstract:

Paralleling previous work, we find that endorsement of a laissez-faire conception of free-market economics predicts rejection of climate science (r ~= .80 between latent constructs). Endorsement of the free market also predicted the rejection of other established scientific findings, such as the facts that HIV causes AIDS and that smoking causes lung cancer.


Also note the 'paralleling previous work'. There's a pattern here. The fact that the secondary finding was frivolously chosen as the theme for the title of the paper really has you folks riled up, doesn't it? :-)
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written by Undecided, March 05, 2013
Debating is a poor way of communicating information. Debating is simply not compatible with how most people learn or digest new information. In most debates that skeptics get involved, it is a disservice to the public to even concede that there are two actual sides to the issue. In most debates that skeptics get involved, the issue being debated does not help advance public skepticism and critical thinking, even in regards to the debated issue. Showing that the other side is wrong, stupid or dishonest doesn't generally help the public change or revise their position on an issue.

Take Atheism as an example. Debating God vs No God doesn't lead anywhere. It also doesn't really leave the audience more informed and they rarely take away anything from the experience. The typical outcome is more akin to whether your team won or lost this time... and fans don't typically change teams even when their team loses. If you are an Atheist, you are not an Atheist because there is no God or you don't believe; you are probably an Atheist because of a wealth of observations and insights, which are not adequately being shared because you are presenting a conclusion before what led you to that conclusion.

Take Theism as an example. Theists have no problem debating God vs No God. Theists more typically have a problem with science and education. What Theists seem to get, which Atheists don't seem to get, is that the way to spread information or misinformation is more often achieved by putting effort into tangential or foundational topics. Communicating conclusions is a socially inept strategy for educating others.

Consequently, I see little value in debating. Where I see value is presenting ideas and questions that are taylored to make your audience think and perchance to learn.
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Sigh.. here we go again...
written by Mostly Harmless, March 12, 2013
I realize this is a bit off-topic, but I have to call you on the demeaning of anthropogenic climate change skepticism which is a re-occurring theme on this website.

The association of ACG skeptics with those who think the moon landing was faked is ludicrous. You have no shame or intellectual integrity on this matter.

The emotional energy I see expended to constantly belittle those who question ACG belies to me a fear about the incontrovertibility of ACG. I can empathize with why Copernicus was reluctant to challenge the earth-centered orthodoxy of his day... sorry, meant to say consensus.

Old news, but, coincidentally, I just came across a story about retired RPI physicist professor and Nobel Laureate Ivar Giaever who resigned from the American Physical Society in 2011 over it's official endorsement of ACG:

"In the APS it is ok to discuss whether the mass of the proton changes over time and how a multi-universe behaves, but the evidence of global warming is incontrovertible?". He also reflects my long-time observation when he said: "Global warming has become a new religion."

Ah, but he was 82 at the time. Probably just a cranky old guy who needed to give up some of his professional associations as he was already weighted down with various other pet projects such as moon landing debunking, proving aliens create crop circles and staying one step ahead of bigfoot who was stalking him.

82 is a tough age. It's the same age that Roger Revelle, the father of the anthropogenic global warming theory co-authored a paper which suggested that the scientific base for greenhouse warming may not be as certain as previously thought and concluded that "There is little risk in delaying policy responses."

This had little impact though on environmental scientists as High Priest Al Gore deemed him senile at that point. Whew, ACG dodged a bullet there. Ok, I'm being a bit snarky. In fairness, I should point out that Al Gore was also a Nobel Laureate and so as scientifically qualified as Prof Giaever. Perhaps even more so since he was also awarded with an Oscar and an Emmy for his achievements.

Who am I, though? Just a smart-assed ACG skeptic. But, Prof Giaver represents one of thousands of accredited scientists who are also skeptical. To cast ACG skeptics in the same shadow as moon-landing deniers only undermines the intellectual credibility of those making that case.
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