A pro-science article… on HuffPo???

By Phil Plait | January 8, 2010 7:30 am

huffpologoSteven Newton, a project director for the wonderful National Center for Science Education — a group that fights creationists who want to shred the Constitution — has written a nice article about science denialism in, of all places, the Huffington Post. Generally, HuffPo is a wretched hive of scum and villainy a repository of antivax and alt-med nonsense, but it’s nice to see that some of the contributors are pro-science. Full disclosure: I wrote several astronomy articles on HuffPo, but stopped when the antivaxxers became the darlings of the site.

Newton’s article talks about how science learns, but denialists remain firm in their denial. It’s a good read.

Speaking of which, I just finished reading Michael Specter’s book Denialism. It’s an interesting look into the attitudes of people who deny obvious reality — people like antivaxxers, creationists, and so on. The book is mostly specific examples of these folks. Specter does discuss a bit why some people are denialists, and it’s mostly what you’d expect: it’s safe, it’s comforting, we have a tendency to believe pre-conceived notions and look for confirmation. I’ll note the book goes off the rails a bit in the last two chapters where he talks about genomics; it becomes more pro-genomics than a refutation of denialism. He pulls it out in the last few pages though, and all in all I’d recommend the book.

All of us — especially skeptics, but all of us — need to understand why people deny reality. In many cases the only thing these people damage are themselves. But they also vote, and cause health problems, and never forget that not only do they run for political office, they often win. Denialism is safe and comforting, and while science is more important in the long run, the denialists are getting more and sometimes better press.

We can deny that all we want, but what does that make us?

Comments (36)

  1. Jya Jar Binks Killer

    All of us — especially skeptics, but all of us — need to understand why people deny reality.

    Ah but what is reality? That is the question! ;-)

    & who was it that said “I reject your reality and replace it with my own”?

    We can deny that all we want, but what does that make us?

    Human? ;-)

  2. Plutonium being from Pluto

    How many stars BA, how many stars?

    Sounds interesting if I ever get time to read it.

    Doggrel of my night on this topic :

    Why do we deny?
    For love or money?
    For a joke coz its funny?

    Poe you know or do you?
    (Poor Edgar Allen, what would he think if he were ’round today?)

    Do we deny what we can’t see fly
    Do we deny what we don’t want to know flies?
    No flies on me,
    ..Or are there?

    Are you blind or am I?
    We see at different wavelengths
    But can we believe our eyes?

    What is truth asked Pilate? (Pontius, not much of a pilot that guv’nor)
    Not sure he ever got an answer
    (Least a straight one anyways. Was Jesus gay?)
    A thousand philosphers still debate it nonetheless.

    Ole stream of consciousness
    That’s all we ever know

    (Unconsciousness unknowable and sub-conscious but a dream.)

    I think therefore I am
    But so often don’t think at all
    Its paradoxical.

    What is truth?
    Who tells us what it is
    & how are we to know we can believe ‘em?

    Epistemology the subject.

    What sources, what resources from whose brain did this come?
    Can we ever really know outside ourselves?
    Or even inside ourselves at that?
    Am I too deep, too shallow or just too drunk?
    Who claims to have any answer?

  3. Hey, even the Weekly World News published factually accurate articles at times.

  4. The Huffington Post endorsing rationality? Mercy — what’s next?

    Cats and dogs sleeping together? A Slashdot article praising Microsoft? PZ Myers born again?

    All our best metrics for a stable reality have gone kablooey!

    Yours,
    CBB

  5. Ian

    “All of us — especially skeptics, but all of us — need to understand why people deny reality.”

    Perhaps a good first step would be to stop calling yourself a ‘skeptic’. Surely as a scientist you are in search of truth and that should stand on its own. Why create a group within a group? Surely this only creates barriers.

    Just stand as someone in search of truth, and then you might find yourself sharing more with those who disagree with you.

  6. Graham

    Why did you stop writing for HuffPo just because other writers came wrote stuff you disagreed with? Isn’t the whole point of Bad Astronomy to be calling them out and correcting them? If so, what better place than on one of the popular sources of mis-information?

  7. TXjak

    Check out James Downard’s guest post at the Panda’s Thumb. http://bit.ly/5UGFwI

    It goes into confirmation bias and doesn’t spare skeptics.

  8. Lars

    @Ian: You speak like all scientists are skeptics, but not all skeptics are scientists. I think at least one of those statements is untrue.

  9. Jim

    Phil:

    Check out Bob Altemeyer’s – The Authoritarians for a social science based answer to why people cling to beliefs that have no rational evidence. It helped me to begin to understand the large group of people that have never made sense to me before.

    http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

  10. Kirk

    Please consider again submitting good science copy the HuffPo. Denialism depends on unchallenged ideology. The cultivation of stupidity can be checked with knowledge.

  11. I’m assuming the reason the HuffPo editors allow antivaxxer content is that they’re looking for original content and they simply don’t know any better. If on the other hand the scientific community keeps submitting more and more articles, not only would HuffPo have original content, perhaps they would include a science section as well?

  12. cuggy

    My friend Tim started writing for the huffpo recently and posted a pro-vax article

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tim-ellis/a-question-of-harm—the_b_349061.html

  13. Aerimus

    My two cents, the fact that HuffPo posted this article probably has less to do with reason and pro-science and more to do with the fact that most of those “creationists who want to shred the Constitution” are typically conservative/Republican. The HuffPo people probably see it more as a slap against conservatives than against woo.

  14. Ian, it sounds like you’re confusing “skeptic” with “cynic”. A scientist who is not a skeptic won’t be able to do his job well. We should all aspire to be skeptics.

  15. Ray

    I wouldn’t get too happy about an actual science article showing up on HuffPo. The usual crowd of hippies and loons will soon marginalize and ostracize Steven just like they’ve done with everyone else who was rational.

  16. Brian D

    Odd – Denialism was in many ways even shallower than Unscientific America, and it got a better review here. Its antivaccination chapter, for instance, was worse than many blog posts (including some of yours!) or magazine articles.

    There should also have been a red flag shooting up when, at length, he cited Gavin Menzies as an authority on Chinese history (a statement about as outrageous as calling Velikovsky an authority on astrophysics). Check page 82; Specter bought Menzies’ claims wholesale, when they’re essentially completely rejected by the experts in the field. What does that say about his critical thinking, by the way?

    How odd is it that a book on denialism doesn’t contain anything of note on creationism, tobacco, or climate change? Indeed, in the exchange he had in Slate with Chris Mooney, he said:

    “…It’s nice of you to notice approvingly that I skipped over the climate and evolution “debates” in Denialism. A few people have seen that as a failing — but my intention here was to address issues where there is some common ground and see whether I could shift it a bit. … If people want to believe…that the protracted, increasing, and devastating warming of the Earth is just nature doing its thing—I guess I feel I have more useful battles to fight.”

    Apparently, preventing the corrosion of science education or the long-term collapse of our biosphere is less important to Specter than getting greenies off of organic food.

    David Michaels’ book Doubt Is Their Product, although technically focusing on industry manipulation of regulation, still manages to be a better book on the general phenomenon of denialism than Specter’s, and I don’t think he was trying.

  17. Caleb Jones

    I like this quote from Pascal:

    “When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true. …People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”

    Basically he’s saying that if we want to convince someone with a different viewpoint about the validity of our argument, it is generally easier if we first understand the way they view things from their perspective and agree that given their background and experiences that their opinion (more often than not) is reasonable. But then present to them your perspective, experiences, and additional information that helps them to understand things from your perspective. Basically, start with common ground. It’s a kind of intellectual olive branch.

    Starting from the perspective of I’m right, you’re wrong handicaps the discussion from the get go. Remember it’s not about *who* is right, it’s about *what* is right. Nobody owns truth. Truth is something that we must accept when we see it (no matter the source).

  18. TXjak

    #17 — except when “for on that side it is usually true” is not, as when dealing with denial.

  19. Crux Australis

    Wow, but I wish my last name was Newton. Especially since I’m a physics teacher.

  20. Caleb Jones

    @TXjak

    You’re missing the point of the quote. When Pascal says “on that side it is usually true” he’s not saying the person who you’re trying to correct already has a correct opinion. What would be the point of what Pascal is saying if that were the case? What he’s saying is to first start with the assumption that the other person’s beliefs and assumptions are true, try to understand how they came to the conclusion they came to, and empathize with their viewpoint (as much as possible). THEN, ask them to do the same for you and introduce the knowledge that you have that you feel provides additional insight and ask them what they think about it and how that affects their assumptions.

    The term “denialist” gets thrown around WAY too much and, as a whole, does more harm in helping people understand reality than it does good (causes people to go into defensive mode). What Pascal is saying is that people respond more positively to empathy than they do to pure reason. It’d be nice if people always responded positively to reason, but we don’t live in that world so we need to humanize our approach to these kinds of things.

    Of course, there are people who do deserve the term “denialist”. Some people will stare reason and empathy in the face and spit on it. I agree that those kinds of people are frustrating (and scary). But be careful not to judge someone as being that kind of person without first trying to empathize with them.

    I try to take this kind of approach with people and information, and is generally why I don’t identify myself as a skeptic since most skeptics I’ve met seem to think empathizing in this manner is merely placation and is counter productive. Perhaps I’m suffering from hasty generalization here. Taking this approach also has the benefit of exposing yourself to information and perspectives you otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to.

    An interesting question comes out of this: Is this kind of empathize first approach against “skepticism” (however that is defined)?

  21. Gary

    @Caleb Jones
    Good advice. Labeling is sure to put people off and lowers your chances of convincing them of the correctness of your position. It’s a good tactic in all out battle to demonize your opponent, but if you want to make him an ally, you’ve almost guaranteed your own defeat.

  22. Actually the first time I’d even heard of the Huffington Post when when Buzz Aldrin started linking some articles he’d written for him about his methods of getting to Mars. I didn’t look at the rest of the site aside from his posts, but it disturbs me to hear it’s a home to the denialist crowd. I’m curious, what do you think of Aldrin writing for them?

  23. Brian G

    Don’t cede the playing field to the Jenny McCarthy’s of the world. I hit the HuffPost a couple of times a weak. I read the science based articles and I skip the Anti-vaccinators. My guess is the Huff Post is one of the more visited blogs, and why don’t you reconsider and help educated a nation in dire need of education? Please?

  24. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Ah but what is reality? That is the question!

    No, it’s not! :-D Only if you look for confirmation, as cryptoinductivists, instead of testing for falsification, as scientists, is it a question. In science it is settled.

    The best account for how to test for reality I know of is displayed by quantum physicist David Deutsch in “The Fabric of Reality”. In ch 4, “Criteria for reality”, I can excerpt testable criteria:

    From a parable of Dr Samuel Johnson refuting the solipsist idea of the non-existence of the material world by kicking a stone: generally, “if something can kick back, it exists“.

    This is of course part and parcel of mechanics, already in Newton’s laws as “action – reaction”, and more generally in quantum mechanics as “observation – observables”. So we already know that there are real things, test passed. We also know that everything we observe in the QM sense must be real.

    [“Unless it’s an illusion”, you may say philosophically.

    Then you can extend the simplest criteria to get rid of illusion, while still keeping testability. It involves looking at autonomous complexity and quantifying it with computer science. Computer simulations/illusions eventually yield to complexity. I refer to the book, if you are so inclined.

    But note that the simplest criteria is enough if you are a scientist, as you can pick the parsimonious theory.]

  25. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    What he’s saying is to first start with the assumption that the other person’s beliefs and assumptions are true, try to understand how they came to the conclusion they came to, and empathize with their viewpoint (as much as possible). THEN, ask them to do the same for you and introduce the knowledge that you have that you feel provides additional insight and ask them what they think about it and how that affects their assumptions.

    That is still not helpful. And btw, both sides claims may very well be true, as truth depends only on your choice of axiom and not facts.

    Socrates method applies when you have two sides in a court setting, not one consensus (accepted facts, science) or more than two groups in a normal social setting (opinions in general). And it got him poisoned, because such dialog was “corrupting the minds of the youth”. Test failed.

    [Well, not really. You would need statistics to know. But then again it is fair to put anecdote against anecdote, isn’t it? :-D]

    Is this kind of empathize first approach against “skepticism”

    Er, I think you have to talk with the (former?) president of JREF skeptics on your use of labels.

  26. Chris A.

    @Christian Ready (#11):
    “I’m assuming the reason the HuffPo editors allow antivaxxer content is that they’re looking for original content and they simply don’t know any better.”

    I’ve always assumed that their antivax stance is born of the “big pharma = corporations = right wing = bad” mindset. Hate to say it, but when it comes to alternative med woo, my sense is that the left (being more welcoming to the tree huggers*/earth mothers) seems to be a bit more susceptible.

    *It bears noting that I consider myself an environmentalist. I just don’t buy into the “crystal power/energy vortex/etc.” codswallop.

  27. Klem

    ” who was it that said “I reject your reality and replace it with my own”?

    One of the guys from Mythbusters said that. He also said “Science plus beer equals Good.” These are two of my favourite sayings. All that I have learned about life I learned from Mythbusters.

  28. Gary Ansorge

    5. Ian

    MAth has Proofs:

    Science has EVIDENCE.

    Skeptic: Definition of:

    One who withholds judgement until after they have seen the evidence.

    I’ve seen enough evidence of AGW to convince me, we have a problem, Houston,,,

    Gary 7

  29. you need to read “How We Know What Isn’t So” by Thomas Gilovich, still a feel good read, but gives a lot of data about how we believe what we want to and are too accepting of any “evidence” to support our view while remaining exceedingly skeptical of contrarian views, also we remember events easier than non-events, don’t intuitively grasp statistical concepts like the regression effect, and so on… lots of great examples, and while a little jargony in spots, it is easily understandable to a lay audience

  30. Brian

    I live by HuffPo. I pay little heed to the feel-good new agey content, but I love watching creationists and conservative cretins raked over the coals.

  31. StevoR

    @ 28. Gary Ansorge :

    Skeptic: Definition of:One who withholds judgement until after they have seen the evidence. I’ve seen enough evidence of AGW to convince me, we have a problem, Houston,,,

    Agreed entirely. Assuming, as I take it,. that you mean the Anthropogenic Global Warming idea is at best dubious and not scientifically supported & that the Global warming skeptics are right to question it.

    I wish the BA was more willing to question the AGW political orthodoxy & I hope the genuine skeptics who rightly question the AGW are not considered as “deniers /denialists” in this book. :-(

    On the contrary, it seems to me it is the AGW mob who are the ones in denial over what the evidence – & the Climategate scandal – is actually saying.

  32. fred edison

    Do it, Phil. If you have the time and they’ll let your reality cooties through the gates of HuffPo, I’d love to read the reactions from the anti-reality crowd in the comments section. More realistic and science oriented articles on HuffPo would be a welcome counterbalance to the preponderant nonsense that passes for helpful information.

  33. Gary Ansorge

    31. StevoR

    You assume incorrectly. Perhaps my entry was not as clear as it could have been.

    “I’ve seen enough evidence of AGW to convince me, we have a problem, Houston,,,” means, human civilization has a problem, not that there is any problem with the interpretation of GW as human caused.

    Sheesh! I REALLY should have more than a measly 3 cups of coffee before posting.

    GAry 7

  34. Ian

    @14, No – wasn’t confusing cynic with skeptic. My point was that we are all in search of truth – even those you disagree with. I disagree with lots of people, and they disagree with me – but I don’t go round saying ‘hey folks I’m a skeptic’, because they could claim the same – skeptical of my position and beliefs.

    Actions speak louder than words.

  35. Ian

    @8, It was not my intention to infer all skeptics are scientists. The point I was trying to make is that as a scientist Phil is in search of the truth, so why state that you are a skeptic on top of that. Surely that’s just creating a group of skeptic scientists as opposed to scientists who are good at their job, follow the scientific method and so on – no need for the ‘skeptic’ label. It’s a clique, surely.

  36. Jim

    HuffPro is anti-science? I don’t buy it at all. They’re so liberal and anti-Republican over there… and anti-Creationist, anti-Intelligent Design, etc… I find it very, very hard to believe that they’d be anti-science.

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