Citizen Action Monitor

Debating denialists — an exercise in futility?

Pointing out the fallacious arguments of denialists is like kicking a bee hive: the comments section will fill with lots of angry buzzing.

No 507 Posted by fw, June 19, 2012

The “bee hive” sub-title of this post paraphrases a sentence from the lead-in paragraph of Phil Plait’s absorbing personal narrative, A case study of the tactics of climate change denial, in which I am the target, published on his blog on February 2, 2012 in Discover Magazine. (Phil Plait, Ph.D. is an American astronomer, formerly in the physics and astronomy department at Sonoma State University, who resigned in 2007 and now writes full time).

Turning to the title of this post, it derives from an experience related to my June 13, 2012 post, Climate change denier meets his nemesis. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find two comments submitted challenging my concluding sentence, “And on that closing note, I say touché! Game, set and match to the climate science team.” In hindsight, I made the mistake of approving the two comments even though they bore the unmistakable denialist cant.

A day or two later I found parts of my post prominently displayed on another blog with this highlighted derogatory personal comment, which is pretty typical of the denialist crowd:

“This is so typical of the AGW hysteria crowd.  They can’t stand it that someone may possibly have a differing opinion.  Because we know for certain throughout history that consensus science was always absolute and irrefutable.  That’s why today we believe that the earth is the centre of the solar system, that the world is flat and that this planet is only about 6,000 years old.”

I knew then that I should have followed my initial intuitive reaction and permanently deleted the first two comments, not that that would have prevented my post from appearing on this other person’s blog. (BTW, I have since deleted the two comments and have created a firm new policy that as editor/moderator I reserve the right to reject comments that I judge to be from climate science/change deniers).

Although I was vaguely familiar with denialists’ tactics, I decided to gather evidence to support my decision to refuse, in future, to be suckered into a futile debate with denialists.

Here’s an overview of what I discovered, relying primarily on the writings of denialism expert Mark Hoofnagle

First, this piece of advice that comes right to the point: “Don’t make the mistake of actually debating denialists.” That from Mark Hoofnagle, who, along with his brother, Chris, is a leading observer of denialism.

Mark is a medical doctor, physiologist and blogger. He was one of the originators of the concept of “denialism”, especially in relation to global warming. His interest in denialism concerns the use of denialist tactics to confuse public understanding of scientific knowledge. Mark runs the denialism blog at ScienceBlogs. Chris, an attorney and consumer protection advocate, is the author of The Denialists’ Deck of Cards which defines the common attributes of denialism.

Here are highlights of what Mark has to say about denialism, excerpted from two sources Denialism and The New Scientist Debates Denialism

Denialism defined: Brothers Mark and Chris Hoofnagle, describe it as “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.”Arguing with denialists is useless, because they will invariably dismiss all evidence or arguments which contradict their ideological beliefs..(Source: Denialism).

Elsewhere, Mark writes: Whatever they are denying, [denialists] have much in common with one another, not least the use of similar tactics. All set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people. This conspiracy is usually claimed to be promoting a sinister agenda.

Common tactics and methodology used by denialists are largely similar, including, for example —

  • Conspiracism – Suggesting scientists have an ulterior motive for their research, or that they are part of some hidden plan or agenda.
  • Selective evidence – Relying upon discredited or flawed work supporting their idea while dismissing more credible work; presenting discredited or superseded papers to make a field look like it is based on weak research. The selective use of evidence by denialists includes quote mining and cherry picking.
  • False experts – Citing paid, partisan scientists, or self-appointed ‘experts,’ often from an unrelated field, inflating favorable ‘evidence’ while discounting the contradictory, often while misrepresenting the significance of each.
  • Impossible expectations – Seeking to prevent the implementation of sound policies or acceptance of a theory by citing the absence of ‘complete’ or ‘absolute’ knowledge.
  • Misrepresentations and logical fallacies – Denialists sometimes employ logical fallacies: red herringstraw manappeal to consequencesfalse analogy.
  • Additional propaganda techniques that, while sometimes convincing, are not necessarily valid include: flag-wavingglittering generalitiesintentional vagueness,  oversimplification, rationalizationslogansstereotypingtestimonialunstated assumption.

Ideological denialism

Ideologies that conflict with commonly accepted scientific theories or facts can drive their holders to engage in personal forms of denial, either to favor their personal beliefs, or to avoid having to reconcile those beliefs with contradictory evidence.

Corporate denialism

International corporations such as ExxonMobil have been heavily criticized for contributing to scientists and scientific experimentation disputing the scientific consensus on global climate change. ExxonMobil has strenuously denied the accusations, stating that “The recycling of this type of discredited conspiracy theory diverts attention from the real challenge at hand: how to provide the energy needed to improve global living standards while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” Newsweek and Mother Jones have published articles stating corporations are funding the climate change denial “denial industry”.

Political denialism

The GW Bush Administration’s replacement of previous science advisers with industry experts or scientists tied to industry, and its refusal to submit the Kyoto Protocol for ratification due to uncertainties they assert are present in the climate change issue, have been cited as examples of politically motivated denialism in the press.

Conspiracy theories

Denialism also takes the form of conspiracy theories, such as the government blew up the World Trade Center, not terrorists, and the Apollo Moon Landing hoax accusations.


  • Skeptical Science: Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism — Be sure to check out “MOST USED Climate Myths, a treasure trove of responses to all the usual denialists’ arguments, including, for example: It’s the sun; There’s no consensus; It’s cooling; Models are unreliable; Measurements of average temperature are unreliable; Animals and plants can adapt; It hasn’t warmed since 1998; Antarctica is gaining ice…
  • SourceWatch –The Center for Media and Democracy publishes SourceWatch, a collaborative resource for citizens and journalists looking for documented information about the corporations, industries, and people trying to influence public policy and public opinion. With the help of volunteer editors, SourceWatch focuses on the for-profit corporations, non-profit corporate front groups, PR teams, and so-called “experts” trying to influence public opinion on behalf of global corporations and the government agencies they have captured.
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This entry was posted on June 19, 2012 by in climate change, evidence based counterpower and tagged , , .
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