whatever you do, don’t call them denialists?
Last week I mentioned a special report in New Scientist magazine on science denialism featuring essays on the roots of various denialist movements and what scientists and skeptics can do to counter them. Other than carefully omitting the media’s role in spreading misinformation with its careless attitude towards science, it was a very reasonable set of articles which pulled few punches, with the notable exception of a short essay by Michael Fitzpatrick which balks at the very notion of using the term “denialist” under the red herring that a few questions about scientific findings shouldn’t be treated as blasphemy. Using his logic, we could say that someone who thinks he can fly because gravity doesn’t apply to him is just asking questions about the theory of gravity and that it’s perfectly normal to ignore the advice of every competent physicist and walk off cliffs to try one’s hand at flight. Unlike philosophy, scientific questions often have a very clear right or wrong answer…
We’ve been over this before with with “science v. religion” reporting, but even though the problem with saying that every opinion is always equal has been pointed out time and time again, the media still does it. I have very few doubts that Fitzpatrick was trying to score points with those who equate a recitation of claims without any empirical evaluation with open-mindedness, and he probably achieved his goal. But at the same time, he also demonstrated that he doesn’t know the difference between a scientific debate and an exchange of opinions. When debating politics, personal beliefs, and things like one’s taste (or lack of taste) in art and music, there’s usually no right or wrong answer. But in the scientific world, what matters are the facts, not how passionately someone feels about a particular issue. The intensity of a scientific debate is just a tiny part of what’s really going on because the real battles take place in scientific journals, with math, experiments, and peer reviewed papers in which today’s bleeding edge theories are dissected, tested and refined over the years. To say that someone who has no real evidence on his side has just as valid of an opinion as a person who’s done the research and has the facts at hand is intellectually lazy at best and irresponsible at worst.
I really don’t care about Fitzpatrick’s defenses of Wakefield and Duesberg and his plea for us to consider the idea that they might actually be on to something and treat them as scientists rather than cranks. That’s plainly ridiculous. Duesber’s HIV denialism is wrong and cost countless lives. Wakefield’s conduct was dishonest, unethical, and lead to a hysterical anti-vaccine movement that hasn’t the slightest clue about medicine and tortures kids with quack cures while he and his cronies get rich off pushing junk science to scared parents. And while countless peer-reviewed papers show that they were wrong and there really is nothing to what they have to say from a scientific standpoint, Wakefield and Duesberg wail in fake agony, continue to spread what was shown to be false for years on end, and fervently deny that anyone has proven them wrong, desperately trying to portray themselves as martyrs laid at the altar of Big Science. How else would you call this behavior but denialism? When you’re outnumbered a thousand to one by experts who put your ideas to the test again and again, and found zero evidence to support your assertions, you can’t just carry on as usual or pretend that you’re infallible. If you do, you’re not “asking questions about science.” You’re being an obstinate, and possibly very dangerous crank who places his self-esteem above scientific facts.
Likewise, if you’re a reporter who thinks you’re just so amazing, fair, and insightful because you fell for the old crank charm of the Galileo gambit, you may want to get your head out of the clouds and take a good long look in the mirror because you’re being used by someone who’s trying sell you the equivalent of a self-published math book which says that 2 + 2 = 5 and Big Math agents are trying to keep this fact secret with their 2 + 2 = 4 dogma your interviewee just wanted to question. And not only are you saying that there might be something to all this, but you’re going up to bat for someone who thinks he’s smarter than the rest of the world and breaks out the martyr act should you dare question his proclamations. Still feeling smart and insightful Mr. Reporter, or should we start breaking out the science books and calling up real experts to comment on the subject?