Friday, February 02, 2007

The "Deniers"

I'm talking of course, about groups who deny various historical or scientific facts despite mountains of evidence. Holocaust deniers, Intelligent Design proponents, Flat-Earthers, heliocentrism deniers (they think the sun revolves around the Earth), and moon landing conspiracy theorists are just some of the representative groups that I usually think of in this context.

I guess I sort of knew about HIV/AIDS deniers, having heard of them once or twice on NPR, but I didn't think about them much. But they are out there. One of them testified in a trial in Australia recently, voicing the view that:

The group's key claim is that HIV has never been isolated and identified as a
retrovirus. HIV is the result of the misinterpretation of laboratory phenomena
and experiments, the group says.

Ms Papadopulos-Eleopulos says AIDS is a disease that results from the oxidising of the inside of the body from repeated exposure to semen resulting from passive anal intercourse. It is not a "virus" and cannot be "transmitted" from one person to another during sex.

And, apparently, she's willing to risk her life (at least in theory) on this belief:

She was asked by prosecutor Sandi McDonald whether "you would have
unprotected vaginal sex with a HIV-positive man".

"Any time," replied Ms Papadopulos-Eleopulos.

She's clearly not a very sophisticated denier, though, because her answer should have been: "There is no such thing as HIV, so I don't believe it is possible to have unprotected vaginal sex with an 'HIV-positive man.'" But still, this is a medical worker who is, in effect, denying the germ theory of disease! Amazing.

These denial groups are really all the same. They use the same flawed logic, the same emotional arguments, the same tautological reasoning to arrive at their positions. The fact is that the particular topic they choose to focus on, be it the Holocaust or HIV, is pretty much a MacGuffin. It could be anything, really. You could deny anything with the sort of reasoning Holocaust deniers or creationists use. And someone out there is doing just that right now on just about any topic you can think of.

Once again, I have to say, no wonder alien intelligences haven't visited us. Jeesh.


At 5:00 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

Your term seems too broad to me. Certainly, at some level, one might suggest that skepticism is an extreme form of "denial" ... deny everything until sufficient evidence has been presented to be convincing. But skepticism is not what you are talking about.

The problem is one of a lack of falsifiability. This is the chief problem I have with conspiracy theories (on the left and the right). It isn't that conspiricies do not occur (clearly people conspire) ... or even the fact that large, sweeping conspiracies are so unbelievably unlikely to remain covered-up (I can work the math, if any of your readers want me to). It's that the "consipiracy theorist" stereotype forms a mindset which is unassailable because their position is not falsifiable.

If you say, "What about evidence X, Y, and Z that something else is the reason?" ... they say, "The evidence was manufactured to throw us off the scent."

If you say, "What about factors A, B, and C that the conspiracy explanation fails to address?" ... they say, "There are elements of the problem of which we are still ignorant."

The more you try to convince them, the more recalcitrant they get.

If a position cannot be falsified, it is not a rational position. A rationalist adopts a position and subsequently seeks to invalidate it, upon which a superior explanation must be substituted.

The question I always have is: "How can you be convinced otherwise?" Sometimes the answer is as simple as: "I cannot." The the conversation is over, and you go away knowing that the person is just not reasonable. Other times the response is quite subtle ... a series of particularly vague criteria, or an attack on the contrary evidence

(BTW: I am not saying that evidence cannot or should not be attacked, I am saying that attacking the evidence avoids the quesiton "How can you be convinced?")

I guess I would less-articulately call this category of people "The un-falsifiability argument people." Alternatively, "True Believers".

Of course, people cannot be so easily classified ... we are all "True Believers" about some things and reasonable about other things. But the goal should be (I hope) to maximize the number of reasonable positions one has.

To that end, I think it is always a good idea to examine any position one has for its falsifiability. From time to time we should ask ourselves (about our most deeply held positions): "How can I be convinced that this position is false?" If we are unwilling to ask ourselves that, or we do not believe it can be falsified, we've got a problem.

At 7:49 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

I agree that not anyone who denies anything is a "Denier" in this context, which is, I suppose, why I put quotes around the term. Because, even though your "un-falsifiable argument people" is more accurate, it's not a very punchy title for an article.

In the Michael Shermer book I just read, he had a great example of a non-falsifiable belief: Someone told him that there's a big Satanistic cult in the US doing things like kidnapping people for rituals and stuff. When Shermer asked why there isn't any evidence of it, the person said, "Of course there isn't! They wipe everyone's memory!"

I think another way to identify an un-falsifiable belief is when lack of evidence for the belief is held up as a pillar of support for the belief.


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