Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The chronosynclastic infundibulum

As Vonnegut fans know, that's the place where all possible opinions are true. My recent encounter with AIDS denialists, like an earlier (longer lasting and more intense) encounter I had here with creationists, has forced me to think a bit about the nature of knowledge, and why there are so many people out there who fervently believe stuff that I know damn well just isn't true. Obviously, they think the same about me, so I have to be able to show that there's a difference, that you, dear reader, have a basis for concluding that I'm right and they're wrong.

This is obviously a complicated subject, which is why half of philosophy is epistemology. There's a denialism blog, if you're interested in getting into the subject in depth. But what's the difference between denialism and legitimate intellectual dissent? There have been plenty of examples of people whose ideas were considered wacko at one time, but are now entirely accepted, e.g. Copernicus and Stanley Prusiner. The Denialism bloggers define it this way:

Denialism is the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one's viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing, but ultimately empty and illogical assertions.

Okay, but what makes me and Mark and Chris Hoofnagle the judges of what constitutes overwhelming evidence and what constitutes empty and illogical assertions? Our friend PZ Myers at Pharyngula (see sidebar) spends his blogging days arguing with creationists; he takes the time to engage them point by point. I personally agree that he proves they are deluded and generally incapable of coherent thought, but that does nothing to convince them or for that matter half of the American people. (Granted most of them know nothing about biology or paleontology and just believe whatever Rick Warren tells them to believe.)

I personally have made a substantial study of the subjects I write about here, including the pathology of HIV, and the scientific evidence concerning the history of the earth and of life hereon. However, I must admit that I fit a lot of other beliefs into my complete system without having in-depth knowledge. I accept the explanations of physicists and chemists essentially because I trust the institutional structures within which they work. I do read their stuff in Scientific American but that doesn't mean I understand the foundational work on which the conclusions they present for educated lay people are built. I basically just have to accept what they are saying.

This does not, however, make me comparable to creationists. True, most of them do invest credibility in some form of institution, usually a church. But it's the source of that credibility which is different. Faith-based denialism can be described and explained fairly easily, I think, as I have done in my post Thinking Backwards and a follow-up post.

But AIDS denialism is another matter. It has nothing to do with religion, or the violation of some prior belief system. The same goes for the thimerosal and autism nonsense, and global warming denial. These faux controversies are driven by people who claim to be rational empiricists, who are following the evidence where it leads them. It's just that their arguments are utterly nonsensical. What they have in common is a kind of political stance, that the entire scientific establishment, in each respective field, is actually a vast conspiracy against the public. Purported motivations include greed for research grants, a deeply vested interest in conclusions to which they jumped too soon, or an ulterior motive such as the destruction of capitalism or profits from drug sales.

That so vast a conspiracy is implausible -- involving, as it does, not only established scientists who lead research teams and publish in leading journals, but also every Ph.D. candidate, all of whom are successfully recruited into the conspiracy and none of whom blows the whistle; research assistants who even if they don't have a doctorate know enough to figure out the fraud; journal editors; public and private funders; and scientists in related fields who know enough to see through the fraud -- does not give them pause. But then you read the denialists' actual arguments and they are just absurd -- wrong on both facts and logic.

So we really need to look at their motivations. Some are con artists who are simply taking money from suckers. Others are more interested in self-aggrandizement and attention. I'd put RFK Jr. in that category, though he's made some money off of the deal as well. Some AIDS denialists just don't want to face up to the reality of their own situation, I suppose. How would you explain it?


kathy a. said...

all i've got is a hypothesis based on random anecdotes gathered over a lifetime. and the hypothesis is: every family has at least one nut, who thinks the entire universe is about him/her, that everything bad that happens can and must be blamed on someone or something, and that his/her polished rendition of the grievances is the definitive account.

as to one such relative in my family, my aunt refers us to "borderline personality disorder": which is all well and i'm nodding my head along with the diagnostic description -- but damned if anyone i know has a good method for dealing with it on an individual level, much less when a few folks get going.

roger said...

no one has personal experience of the "big bang" or subatomic processes or molecular chemical reactions. well, IMHO anyway. so there may be intellectual or scientific quibbles or refutations but there are no personal stories to assert as anecdotal evidence.

not so for illnesses. anecdotal evidence is widely, and sometimes mistakenly, accepted as "truth." it's a mystery to me too. isn't there some sort of logical fallacy about generalizing from the particular to the whole?

Cervantes said...

Indeed Roger, scientists have a well-known disdain for so-called "anecdotal evidence," and with good reason. You do make a good point -- quackery is largely dependent on testimonials. But now that Ms. Maggiore has, in fact, died of AIDS, as did her baby, you would think the power of that particular testimonial would wane. As we have seen, it has not.

I'll try to say something about the problem of generalizability soon, it is a fascinating question.

Anonymous said...

I know that in the field of obesity, in fact some of these "denialist" hallmarks are actually true. People are motivated by grant money, the drug companies splash vast amounts of money around and so on. It doesn't exactly mean that people invent real falsehoods, but more that they consciously or unconsciouly are pretty biased in a sort of "anti-obesity" direction, where obesity is the worst problem to ever come down the pike. THen I can see a tendency for people who seem to not completely agree with this orthodoxy to be accused of being paid off by the food industry! Somehow it seems that the "pharmashill" gambit is the hallmark of a denialist, but the corresponding "Twinkieshill" is considered the mark of a scientific thinker. There is a strange non-parallelism that creeps in. You can take plenty of money for lecturing for pharmaceutical companies on the side and no one is allowed to criticize your ideas or suggest you have a conflict of interest, but if Coca-Cola or the Cattlemen's Association gives you any funding, then you are eternally biased. THere was a fascinating write up (perhaps in the NY Times?) some years ago, by a doctor who liked some treatment, got invited to be one of these lecturers, made a lot of money, but then made the mistake of mentioning a few issues that didn't quite go with the drug company's spin, and they started to subtlely and not so subtlely suggest to him that perhaps he shouldn't really be interpreting one study quite the way he was, or perhaps he shouldn't really mention it at all, and just slowly shaping his behavior, until he finally ended up quitting. You wonder how many other of these lecturers don't end up quitting and do end up just not mentioning that negative study after all. There are similar issues with setting cholesterol guidelines and blood pressure guidelines lower and lower, when almost everyone on the committee has some degree of potential conflict of interest. The pharmaceutical companies are real, they do have and spend a lot of money, they like to get their hands on "thought leaders" and they like to sell their products. These factors actually do have an impact.