Denialism evolved from Apes. OK, maybe not.

Science democracy – debunking the strategies of denialism

I’ve always considered all forms of denialism, whether it’s climate change, creationism or the latest antivaccine lunacy, to be based on the same type and quality of arguments. It is essentially holding a unsupported belief that either science is wrong or, worse yet, is a vast conspiracy to push false information onto innocent humans.

One of the “tools” often used by science deniers is trying to convince the casual observer of a science democracy – that is, there is some kind of vote, and some number of “scientists” are opposed to the consensus.

I’ve often joked that science deniers all get together at the World Denialist Society meetings and compare notes. They all use the same strategies, including the myth of the science democracy, which seriously doesn’t exist.

Others have observed this convergence in denialist strategies. In Earth Magazine, Steve Newton wrote an article, Voices: Defending science: The link between creationism and climate change, which discusses the commonality between creationists and climate change deniers. Newton asks one simple question: what do the two groups have in common?

The answer…is that creationists and climate change deniers have a lot in common — most especially in their assertions about science itself. In addition, they are often the same people! For example, Answers in Genesis, the young-Earth creationist ministry that runs a creation museum where animatronic dinosaurs cavort with humans in the Garden of Eden, also produces a DVD entitled “Global Warming: A Scientific and Biblical Exposé of Climate Change.”

In another case, Roy Spencer, a climatologist featured in the film “The Great Global Warming Swindle,” has written that he regards “the theory of creation” as having “a much better scientific basis than the theory of evolution.” What it boils down to is that creationists and climate change deniers both reject central principles of science on ideological, religious and political grounds.

Moreover, they deny not just these principles, but also the idea of science itself as a way of knowing about the world. Attacks on evolution and climate science are both based on the rejection of well-established scientific techniques. Geologists demonstrate the age of the Earth with the techniques of radiometric dating. “Bunk,” say young-Earth creationists: These techniques rely on unproven assumptions. Climate scientists develop complex computer models as a technique to understand what might happen to future climates. “Bunk,” say climate change deniers: Such models are just a convenient fiction.

 

Of course, what the denialists say is “bunk” are part of the armamentarium of tools that are used by scientists to date geological processes. But these are tools that are used throughout all of science. As Newton states, “whether they realize it or not, climate change deniers and evolution deniers are committed to rejecting basic methodologies accepted by scientists across the disciplines.”

And they make these claims against these tools without really providing a valid reason for it. The deniers know that if they can attack the foundations of the sciences of evolution and climate change, and make the “charges stick”, then the science will collapse without said foundation; it’s a laughable to real scientists, but the deniers have an ulterior motive:

Having failed to convince the scientific community of the credibility of their views, both creationists and climate change deniers have taken their case to the public in a way that distorts and misrepresents the nature of science.

One of their favorite methods of attacking the credibility of science is to use petitions, a form of science democracy in their minds:

  • Creationists use the Discovery Institute’s (an Intelligent design “think tank”) A Scientific Dissent from Darwin to prove to people that scientists disagree with evolution. Except the list contains few biological scientists, it’s mostly made up of engineers (not science) and others with marginal credentials. That being said, about 1000 individuals have signed the petition, or less than 0.03% of the world’s scientists (if we allow that all the signatories are really scientists). If evolution were subject to a vote, the dissenters got demolished.
  • Not to be left out, the global warming denialists have their Oregon Petition, which has signatures of about 31,000 “scientists” who deny the existence of anthropogenic global warming. Of course, it’s impossible to verify any of the names, because the signatures are on little pieces of paper and no one has been able to determine if the names are genuine. Furthermore, even if we were to assume that all the signatures were valid, only a tiny number (less than 10%) are actual scientists with expertise in the fields of climatology, geology, or something relevant to the climate sciences. Once again, if the vote were held between all Ph.D.’s in those fields, the vote would be overwhelmingly in favor of climate change as a scientific fact.

As a counterpoint to these petitions, there is Project Steve, which is a petition that only includes scientists named Steve (or variations like Stephanie or Stefan) who accept the fact of evolution. And if we are going to discuss the science democracy of evolution, over 99.9% of scientists in the natural sciences (geology, biology, physics, chemistry and many others) accept that evolution is a scientific fact (pdf, see page 8). Despite the landslide, that’s not why evolution is a fact–it’s the overwhelming evidence.

These petitions are using the Appeal to Authority logical fallacy, trying to use individuals with impressive credentials to validate their denialism, even if those credentials are either suspect, irrelevant to the discussion (not being an expert in the area), or with a bias towards the denialist belief.

Moreover, even with these credentials, these “scientists” represent an extreme minority viewpoint, and have provided little to no evidence in support of their minority view. As I’ve stated before, science is self-critical, it’s whole purpose is to test itself over and over again. But, there is a distinction between simply stating that the prevailing consensus is wrong and providing the breadth of evidence that shows the consensus is off-base.

I’ve written about a couple of science denier “authority” figures that are used by vaccine deniers–Peter Doshi and Tetyana Obukhanych. The antivaccine cult refers to their writings to “prove” that all of the available science about vaccines are wrong. However, neither provide peer-reviewed scientific research that supports their beliefs. Typically, deniers use the Appeal to authority in hopes of deflecting the discussion from evidence (or, in the case of the vaccine deniers, the utter lack of evidence).

Because we can’t all be experts in all fields of science, information from authorities can be useful, but it has to be weighed against the whole body of authorities, not picking or choosing those who support your point-of-view. Newton further stated that:

such petitions convey the misleading impression that science is a popularity contest. Whether evolution and climate change are good science is, ultimately, a matter of evidence, not of who can amass more signatures. But that’s not the way deniers portray it.

Credentials can matter, but evidence matters more, irrespective of the credentials of the authority figure. When examining the totality of evidence, the scientific denialists are generally on the far fringe of science, no different than those who claim that homeopathy works, or that sasquatch lives.

Annoyingly, even if these petitions were valid, even if they represented a larger group than they do, and even if these so called scientists (not engineers) really did believe in their denialism, science democracy does not exist. There are no votes of some committee and House of Representatives of biology, chemistry, anthropology or whatever science.

It is based on consensus, where the scientific understanding of a topic “evolves” over time. There isn’t a particular point in time when science accepted global warming or evolution, eventually the scientific theories become formalized and accepted. But that doesn’t mean that one could not present evidence that disrupts the consensus, but it isn’t going to happen without evidence.

Worse yet, the denialists try to paint those who accept evolution and climate change with “ideological prejudices, not on the basis of evidence.” Some argue that evolution is not a science but a religious belief, which is why a lot of creationists use the term “evolutionist” to describe those who accept the science of evolution.

Some individuals make the same claim about global warming. Newton states that:

This strategy posits that science comes from ideology rather than evidence. This is a convenient assertion for creationists and climate change deniers who do not have scientific data on their side, but it is harmful to the public understanding of science. This is an attack on science itself.

Ironically, the complaints that the denialists have filed against real science are exactly what constitutes the denialism itself. Ideology matters to them, not real science, and in the end, it intentionally misleads people from understanding an accepting real science.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2013. It has been completely revised and updated to include more comprehensive information, to improve readability and to add current research.