Deniers, skeptics, and mavericks

Suppose a scientist holds a minority opinion. There’s a trend in journalism to call him a denier if you think he’s wrong, a skeptic if you don’t care, and a maverick if you think he may be right. If this had been the norm in Einstein’s day, he might have been called a Newton-denier.

“Denier” is an ugly word. It implies that someone has no rational basis for his beliefs. He’s either an apologist for evil, as in a Holocaust denier, or mentally disturbed, as in someone in psychological denial. The term “denier” is inflammatory and has no place in scientific discussion.

29 thoughts on “Deniers, skeptics, and mavericks

  1. When will Thomas Kuhn’s writings ever make it into popular science or at least be read by journalists who cover science.

  2. Popular science? My impression is that most professional scientists have only contempt for the philosophy of science…

    Also, great definition of “denier”, “skeptic” and “maverick” as used in journalism. I think the term “denier” is used quite deliberately for its connotations of heresy and madness. The bulk of journalism is about social power, not scientific discussion.

  3. You shifted talking about from mainstream journalism to talking about science. In Einstein’s day the scientists would have read his published work and analyzed that. At no point did Einstein deny evidence, at no point did he simply assert others were wrong. Evolution deniers and climate change deniers simply reject the evidence and the science. They are not following in Einstein’s footsteps at all.

  4. So what term would you use for the people who refuse to accept that climate change is happening, despite decades of scientific evidence? Would you call them mavericks for being bold enough to challenge the facts? Skeptics because you just don’t care that the climate is changing? When the evidence presented leads to one conclusion, it’s denial to say that that conclusion is wrong.

  5. Matt S: There are people who reject scientific theories by simply refusing to consider evidence, but there are also people who examine the evidence and reach different conclusions. Perhaps we should call the former “deniers” and the latter “skeptics.” But before doing so, we need to read their minds and determine whether we approve of how they reached their conclusions. And while we are judging thought processes, I suppose we should create a pejorative term for people who accept mainstream opinion without having sufficiently examined the evidence.

    Mikey: You are assuming that everyone who examines the data regarding climate change must reach the same conclusion. This simply isn’t true. Respectable scientists have come to a variety of conclusions.

    Name-calling doesn’t advance science. If you disagree with someone’s scientific conclusions, you make specific criticisms of their methodology or analysis. You don’t attack their character or mental health.

  6. “assuming that everyone who examines the data regarding climate change must reach the same conclusion.”

    That’s KINDA the whole idea behind objectivity.

  7. This simply isn’t true. Respectable scientists have come to a variety of conclusions.

    How broadly do you define respectable? Can you think of examples of scientists who aren’t conspiracy theorists or paid by oil companies? Scientists who have done important work? I think it many cases the use of the word deniers is appropriate.

  8. But there are some very clear cases, like Kent Hovind, who is clearly no scientist at all. Denier is the wrong word, especially since unqualified it often means Holocaust denier, but there should be a clear term for a person who is acting outside the bounds of science. Whatever that term is, it will inevitably be taken with at least some personal offense, and I think that is okay.

  9. J. Cross: Freeman Dyson is one example.

    But does it matter? Suppose there isn’t a scientist in the world who believes some proposition. For example, suppose someone claims to have produced a perpetual motion machine, something everyone agrees is impossible. How do you respond? It doesn’t help to call him a nut job or question his integrity. You could explain how the laws of thermodynamics apply. You could help him find where additional energy is entering the system unaccounted for. Or even better, you could try his machine and measure its efficiency.

    Or suppose someone claims to have evidence of neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light, something that of course happened recently. This was handled beautifully. The discussion was very polite. People proposed explanations, but they also considered the possibility that perhaps the neutrinos really were traveling faster than previous thought possible. But nobody was called a relativity-denier.

  10. I have actually tried that back and forth with a guy (who had scientific training) who was trying to build a perpetual motion machine. For every argument I made there was a website that he could point to that said otherwise. I was entirely unable to convince someone who didn’t want to be convinced.

    This does matter when public policy hinges on the science and there are those who for ideological reasons would like to act like the science is up in the air.

    I think Dyson’s main point is similar to yours, namely that no one should be silenced or ridiculed.

  11. Mayson Lancaster

    Freeman Dyson is a climate-change denier. There’s enough physical, biological, and geological evidence that climate is changing (for whatever reason) that his stance of “maybe” is not supportable by the evidence. If he or you get offended by that label, tough: it’s accurate.

  12. Calling those who disagree with you “deniers” implies that they cannot possibly have good motives and good mental health. It’s arrogant and unhelpful.

    This post is not about climate change or any other specific controversy. It is about civility and scientific discourse. And while some scientists have been uncivil and unscientific in the response to differing opinion, the worst offenders have been journalists and politicians.

  13. I’d say that most value-laden words have no place in science. It’s a real testament to the rhetorical trickery of mathematicians that so many abstract concepts in statistics were given names that make them sound more important they are: expectation and bias, for example.

    That said, we use those value-laden words precisely because it’s sometimes necessary to exploit rhetoric to keep up with others who already doing so. We sometimes have to call people “deniers” because the opposite side is already calling people “liars”. It’s a terrible tradition, but I don’t see any fast way out of it.

  14. We can’t forget that there are cranks out there as well…

    I’d say that deniers shouldn’t be used in a scientific paper, but can be used in a Blog, for instance….

  15. If you’re going to reject “denier,” you should also reject “maverick,” since both words are primarily about the speaker’s attitude toward the person spoken about. I agree that these terms are inappropriate in scientific papers, but perfectly appropriate in blog posts, where the point often is to express one’s opinion.

  16. John Myles White: I’d say the way to avoid a rhetorical arms race is to refuse to participate. Science needs to hold to its (mythical?) tradition of evaluating ideas on their merits, avoiding both ad hominem arguments and appeals to authority, etc.

    As for statistical jargon, I try to remind people of definitions. Particularly when I say that something is “best,” such the best estimator of some parameter, I’ll say parenthetically, “best in the sense that …” Often what we call “best” is best by criteria chosen for mathematical convenience.

  17. Calling people anything in this context is almost inevitably loaded. When the media attack someone as a denier, they do us all a disservice. Science is about peer review, about challenging evidence and conclusions and aiming to find the truth. When politically-motivated people use a loaded term they risk undermining the scientific method in the eyes of the less scientifically minded public.

  18. “they also considered the possibility that perhaps the neutrinos really were traveling faster than previous thought possible”

    Yes, they did not appeal to authority or the motives of those who made the measurement. Sure, everyone thought that the most likely explanation was something other than light traveling at a different speed but scientific processes were followed to verify. Attempting to solve this by rhetorical means would have made an interesting situation ugly.

    Attempts to falsify are always valid no matter how well anything is accepted. Some of these attempts are out of ignorance or to confirm prior beliefs. Even then it is a genetic fallacy to say that they are wrong because of this. You cannot simply reason back from non-consensus conclusions to non-scientific motives.

  19. The worst sort of denial disagreement seems to be politically motivated, and the science on one side (maybe both sides) may be questionable or missing entirely. It has been my experience that pointing out that someone’s argument is politically motivated does nothing to persuade them.

  20. And pointing out that someone’s argument is politically motivated does not address the issue of whether they are correct. Someone might be politically motivated and correct. Or not.

    Obviously companies are out to make money. Less obviously, so are university researchers and bureaucrats. Nobody is completely unbiased, so if anyone is correct — and on a complex issue perhaps no one is — they’re correct and biased.

  21. Freeman Dyson is one example.

    According to the Wikipedia page about Freeman Dyson — is it correct? — “Dyson agrees that anthropogenic global warming exists” and he has written that “one of the main causes of warming is the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from our burning of fossil fuels”.

    So citing Dyson doesn’t seem to offer much support for the idea that reputable scientists have “come to a variety of conclusions” on whether there is anthropogenic global warming. (Also, it seems to me that the relevant question is whether people active in the field have come to a variety of conclusions, and Dyson’s opinions aren’t relevant to that for multiple reasons.)

    There really is a very strong consensus among climate scientists that the climate is getting hotter and that a major cause of this is industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. (Taking “industrial” fairly broadly.) John, I really don’t think you’ve addressed Mikey’s original question. People who say there isn’t anthropogenic global warming are taking a position on a scientific question which is strongly rejected by the great majority of experts in the field. Perhaps calling them “deniers” is rude; perhaps it’s counterproductive; perhaps it suggests things about their motives that aren’t reliably correct; but what they are actually doing is pretty much isomorphic to what people who disbelieve in evolution, or in the Holocaust, or in the connection between HIV and AIDS, are doing.

    This post is not about climate change or any other specific controversy.

    Not explicitly, no. But climate change does seem to be far the most prominent area in which the term “denier” gets used about scientists who aren’t completely and blatantly 100% crazy. I can’t say I’ve ever heard, e.g., “Higgs boson denier” or “string theory denier” or “ADHD denier” or “inflation denier”. Would you care to say more about the particular instances that prompted you to write the post?

    It’s natural to speculate on why the term “denier” gets bandied about more in this area. What seems to me the obvious explanation is: This controversy, unlike those over string theory and (cosmological) inflation and so forth, was largely created — deliberately and dishonestly — by deep-pocketed organizations with a strong vested interest, so that most of the most prominent people on the “denying” side really *have* been “apologists for evil” (though of course not on at all the same scale as anyone defending the Nazis), and many of the others are simply their dupes. (Of course there are exceptions; Freeman Dyson is probably one. There are exceptions to everything. I bet there have been people who have been very doubtful about the Holocaust as a result of honest general skepticism and who are in no way Nazi apologists, too.)

    Perhaps there’s some other credible explanation that makes the term “denier” more obviously inappropriate. The one above has the merit that it fits all the facts, and the further merit that the people it ascribes malice to — I think any explanation is going to involve some degree of malice somewhere — are ones who have demonstrably engaged in dishonest practices, and who have repeatedly been shown to be wrong about the scientific questions.

  22. If both sides of a topic have scientific merit, there should be politely professional arguments about it, and in that setting I agree “Denier” in inappropriate. When pseudo science, misquotes, misinterpretations, and worse enter into it, then it’s clearly not about the science any more.

  23. I think there are limits to what we know. And when we are talking about topics that are meaningful to people, generate a lot of government funding and corporate interest, and actually very difficult to quantify then politics enter the picture. There are too many vested interests to actually look for the truth, to question assumptions. I think this is true with climate change, and other soft sciences like economics, psychology and sociology. As for the Higgs Boson, there is not a strong constituency besides the physicists who want a job. It is not politically charged.
    Then when politics enter the picture, then the ad hominem attacks begin because they work. It is unfortunate but it is human nature.

  24. @ Heath Robinson As Chris Nahr points out, most scientists, physicists in particular, hold philosophy in pretty low regard. The one key thing about philosophy of science is that the various frameworks put forth for science all end up being wrong in some regard. Taking Kuhn as an example, his idea really only fits the acceptance of quantum theory in physics, and only to a point. Physics never abandoned classical physics in favor of purely quantum, although most did their research in the “new” physics. Newton and all that are still being taught today to any aspiring physicists. Also, Kuhn took the next step in his later works of claiming an incommensurability between the paradigms, which is generally not how science works.
    For me, Feyeraband’s “anything goes” philosophy of science probably comes closer to the actual practice of science. And his research definitely shows instances where scientists were far less than professional in their disagreements with each other. That was the case even during my undergraduate years, when string theory was considered a fringe idea (well, it was considered to be wrong by many), and even Prof. Hawking needled it as such when he gave talks.
    Scientists, by and large, are pretty rude when they feel strongly that the “other side” is wrong. “Denier” is probably one of the nicer things they would say about their opponents.
    But not all debates degenerated into calling each other names: Hawking used to bet with Kip Thorne on various issues they each felt strongly about. Many of the wagers had subscriptions to Playboy as the prize.

  25. I don’t know if it is possible to say this without being labeled
    I don’t think the evidence for climate change is in the same catagory as evolution.
    Its a complex argument, and I don’t feel like going into the details, but any darn fool can see evolution in action: dog breeding, antibiotic resistant bacteria , the fossil record.
    If you are open minded, it is a simple explanation for bio diversity, and is consistent with a lot of *easy* to understand data

    Climate change on the other hand – the signal is small (whenever you need a lot of fancy statistics, that is my def of a small signal) and there is huge day to day variation in climate, etc; it is a lot harder for people to grasp, and, my reading of the literature (eg Schmittner et al in Science (AAAS), dec 2011, is that the error in the climate change models is a lot lot higher then the error in the evolution models

    but, I’m a molecular biologist, comfortable with DNA, and totally uncomfortable with the fancy math used in climate change

    and, please, – please – don’t say, well [CO2] (chemists use square brackets for concentration) is going up in the mountain in hawaii, and therefore…unless you can really demonstrate that you understand all the complex feedback loops between [CO2] and avg global temp, like how the average “roughness” of the ocean surfce in teh south pacific has a huge effect (the ocean is a sink for CO2, and the rate at which CO2 goes into the water depends on the wave structure….)

    but the main point i want to make is, for an *average* person, the data for evolution are simple and compelling; the data for climate change are about as clear as the data for the Higgs Boson

  26. @ezra

    Absolutely. Climate science is hugely complex whereas Darwinian evolution by natural selection is beautifully simple.

  27. Well said, Ezra.

    I did some hydrologic modelling back in grad school, not nearly so complicated as todays climate models, but it gives me some idea of what goes into them and what they can tell us. I don’t completely accept the climate models, but some of the criticism brought against these efforts is based (at best) on a lack of understanding, or (at worst) simple political mudslinging.

    John, thanks for the topic and hosting this discussion.

  28. Great discussion! Regarding this in your response to Matt S:

    But before doing so, we need to read their minds and determine whether we approve of how they reached their conclusions.

    I think that is spot on. And yet I find my sympathies align with Matt’s.

    Trust and openness are essential to good science, but they are not unalloyed virtues. They also make the system vulnerable to subversion by bad actors in the same way that a criminal justice system with a too-accommodating appeals process can be subverted. I don’t have a good answer to the thorny question of how to distinguish bad-faith charlatans from good-faith mavericks, but your instinct to ban “denier” from the discussion seems a little utopian.

    Yes a robust scientific system needs to accommodate mavericks like Einstein. But must it not also have a mechanism for rejecting the Heartland Institute? Every person-hour spent rebutting Heartland and its ilk is a person-hour not spent expanding our understanding of the universe.

  29. “Denier” now comes pre-loaded with shades of danger associated with costly and/or distracting wrongheadedness. I’m not sure what happened to the confidence that good ideas eventually prevail because they confer advantages that bad ones do not.

    If that takes time, so be it. Pasteur’s ideas conferred advantages on those who accepted them, even if it took a century and a surgeon like Halsted to vindicate the ideas.

    The term “denier” has less to do with the merit of an idea than the amount of money at stake.

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