Dumping on Denial

New Scientist on “denialism”:

SPECIAL REPORT / DENIAL: From climate change to vaccines, evolution to flu, denialists are on the march. Why are so many people refusing to accept what the evidence is telling them? Over the next 10 pages we look at the phenomenon in depth. What is denial? What attracts people to it? How does it start, and how does it spread? And finally, how should we respond to it?

First, they dispel any doubts that denialists are wrong wrong wrong:

All denialists see themselves as underdogs fighting a corrupt elite. …

How to be a denialist …. Six tactics that all denialist movements use: 1. Allege that there’s a conspiracy. … 2. Use fake experts. … 3. Cherry-pick the evidence. … 4. Create impossible standards for your opponents. … 5. Use logical fallacies. … 6. Falsely portray scientists as … divided … Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected. (more)

Eventually they offer solutions.  Here are all remedies offered:

  • [Don’t] confuse these two types of questions – scientific and ideological. (more)
  • [Use] anecdote and appeals to emotion when speaking to lay audiences. (more)
  • Set the record straight. (more)
  • Stand up … with a full-throated debunking repeated often and everywhere. (more)

So if you saw yourself as an underdog fighting a corrupt elite, wouldn’t these four approaches win you over? Me neither. I’d be far more won over by betting market odds giving a low probability to my position, backed by folks who put their money where their mouth is. If that didn’t persuade me I’d at least see the betting system as less corrupt – it offers me big rewards when my side is proven right.

Now why do you think this betting solution is so much less appealing than “full throated debunking,” that it wasn’t even worth mentioning? If you think this solution just didn’t occur to them, do you think they’ll embrace it with enthusiasm if they are told? Me neither.

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  • roko

    > I’d be far more won over by betting market odds giving a low probability to my position

    Using yourself as a model for denialists will not work, Robin, for you are much more rational then them. These people are denialists for emotional reasons, whereas you are a contrarian for rational reasons. Your position on, e.g. ineffectiveness of marginal healthcare is, psychologically a million miles away from that of an AIDS denier.

  • I’ve tried the “betting” argument a couple of time. The answer is “I don’t do bets”. I don’t think enough denialists are going to bet on their position to get such a bet going.

    I suspect most denialists on some level know that they are wrong, or at least strongly suspect it. That’s probably why they usually are so dogmatic and loud.

  • These tips are not for convincing denialists, just for reassuring the lay audience that the official position is correct, right?

  • Matt

    “4. Create impossible standards for your opponents.”
    How would you set up a betting market with impossible standards for proof? When does the payoff take place?

  • Bill

    Whether you use prediction markets depends on how you allocate the votes to the persons allowed to vote on the question.

    If you allocate votes based on money–an oil company has more votes than humble me.

    If you allocate based on one citizen/one vote, we have an elective process that in essence is a binary prediction market through a proxy based on what the candidate can be forced to disclose to us before we vote for a candidate.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      An operating market has a couple of mechanisms beyond what an
      elective process (for predictions – preferences are different) has:
      – people who consistently bet wrongly in markets tend to voluntarily
      withdraw from them
      – people who consistently bet wrongly and don’t voluntarily withdraw
      eventually run out of capital and involuntarily withdraw

      • Bill

        It is difficult to argue at the beginning what a wrong bet is if you are rewarded outside of the bet for altering the outcome. In other words, Exxon could lose a few billion on a bet if it made more outside of the bet based on changing the government policy.

  • Kevin Dick

    Of course, in some cases, the evidence may actually be weak and there may actually be a corrupt elite. In that case, the New Scientist remedies won’t work because it is in fact the establishment that is wrong. The great thing about betting markets is that they work for that case too.

  • Harold

    In the case of racial differences in intelligence the elite are the denialists so tactics 1 and 6 don’t apply.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    1. Allege that there’s a conspiracy: there usually is a ‘bigger picture’ many find more important than any singular fact, whatever the issue, so in that sense there’s always a conspiracy?
    2. Use fake experts: defined as experts you disagree with?
    3. Cherry-pick the evidence: defined as anomalies you find unimportant?
    4. Create impossible standards for your opponents: every side’s most popular advocates use the straw man arguments,
    5. Use logical fallacies: defined as inferences you don’t agree with?
    6. Falsely portray scientists as … divided: are there any interesting issues where their isn’t disagreement?
    Insist “both sides” must be heard: well, if you disagree and want to be heard, what’s wrong with arguing for a chance to speak?

    Never in history has the expert consensus been right on everything. I’m not saying aliens built the pyramids, but indubitably some of our ‘standard theories’ are wrong and it isn’t clear which. I find those who focus on their opponents merely having bad faith as simple bullies. Their need to have everyone agree with them is very dangerous, because in practice people don’t agree on important matters, and to think disagreement is some major vice justifies all sorts of evil as a means to a greater end.

    • Doug S.

      Never in history has the expert consensus been right on everything. I’m not saying aliens built the pyramids, but indubitably some of our ’standard theories’ are wrong and it isn’t clear which.

      Wrong is relative. I think it’s a bit of an error to refer to Newtonian mechanics as “wrong” when it gives the same predictions as General Relativity to within one part in a zillion in most situations.

  • kebko

    The irony is that, even among the intellectual elite, there is rampant denialism about the effectiveness of markets. The lack of a betting market as a solution is a product of this denialism. Would the New Scientist recommend using these tactics to defend markets? Probably not. So, right off the bat, many of the readers of this article aren’t going to see this very clear application of the issue on themselves.

  • The problem is that the effectiveness of these four remedies are entirely neutral as to the truth value of the establishment and denialist claims. They’d work just as well defending lies as promulgating truths.

  • Its of course a political maneuvre to label opposition to a hypothesis “denialism.” Another political move is to group such non-controversial theories as AIDS-HIV link, and complete bunk like the vaccine-autism scare together with climate skepticism. Perhaps the scientific establishment, now firmly used to sucking at the public trough, and completely divorced from having to convince anyone but bureacrats to fund their research is so entrenched, myopic and delusional, that they have the airs to dismiss any and all concerns about the awful behavior of climate “scientists” like Michael Mann and Phil Jones as “denialism.” while using highly politically charged, and emotional language and using Green scares to increase funding mani-fold over the past decade, and crying that every opponent is in thrall to the oil lobby.

    Well, I say suck it up. Its no longer so easy to deceive.

  • groo

    there seems to exist a belief that ‘betting’ can be a cure to a lot of issues.

    I do’nt buy that.

    How a about a betting market on ‘God exists/not’ ?

    Betting on ‘heads or tail’ in coin flipping?

    I bet that I arrive at work with my car today without having an accident.

    Those bets obviously are nonsensical.

    For different reasons.
    Belief, belief in some method, belief that the game/market is not rigged, etc.

    Those are essentially META-issues!

    How about that:
    “I believe that there does not exist any single (betting) market that is’nt corrupted”

    Betting is a minor ‘solution’ on insignificant issues.
    Because You need a market-maker to enforce strict rules (think Goldman Sachs), which again is a META-issue, and is conceptualised in the colloquial term ‘trust’, as we all know.

    Some other hint:
    Soros’ take on Reflexivity in markets:

    Reflexivity (positive/negative feedback) makes ANY system – which is prone to that, and any system with human involvement is- nonlinear, which is not even a black-swan or long-tail issue.

    Forgot the lessons of first-order and second order cybernetics?

    There seems to be a ‘belief’ in Robin, that betting markets could be efficient.
    Circle closed.

  • Khoth

    I can see how betting markets can work for aggregating information about a question that’s not settled. How are payoffs decided for questions that are settled but not accepted by some people? You can’t just have things to buy that pay off if evolution is found to be true by 2011 or whatever.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      I agree with both you and Matt on this problem. This can be a problem even for bets on technical feasibility questions… E.g. how should bets on the feasibility of Drexler/Merkle atomically precise molecular manufacturing or the feasibility of a manned flight to Mars be decided if efforts to acheive them are never funded?

  • William H. Stoddard

    There was Julian Simon’s famous bet with Paul Ehrlich. But that didn’t turn out so well for the orthodox green position. Perhaps that helped make greens unenthusiastic about making bets.

    • Carl Shulman

      Ehrlich subsequently proposed a bet tailored to win even if Simon was right about increasing welfare:


    • Great example because Julian Simon would be the denialist. Julian Simon even wrote some on AGW, I believe his position was watchful waiting that he did not think the likely level of warming would do enough damage to justify the interventions.

  • Nate

    I have to agree with Matt’s post. For many people that are anti-vaxers, if you ask them what evidence will falsify their hypothesis, they will say that there is no evidence that will convince them. There are many people who still believe the MMR vaccine causes autism, despite new evidence that autism onset can be diagnosed before the MMR vaccine is administered. Heck, there are many that still blame it on thiomerisal, despite the fact that it was taken out of the childhood vaccine schedule years ago.

    These are not the behaviors of ration actors, and I’m not sure that any kind of rational action can possibly change their mind.

    Bets work, and have worked, between scientists, because they understand how to change their mind with evidence. How do we apply this to the rest of society, though?

  • C_Whatever

    Let’s make fun o those nuts that say abestos causes cancer, or maybe the crazies that say their child was brain-damaged by lead paint?

    Joshing those paranoid mothers is always good fun. Just cause their dumb so they had retarded babies. Always blaming others for their problems.

    Oh yeah, that’s dated.

    Hold the line! Hold the line! You can always forget your “sincere” beliefs the instant they no longer are useful!

  • groo

    @ WHS,

    yeah, this is a very appropriate case, which does not quite fit into my interpretation of the betting process above.

    One more recent one is Steve Keen and

    (walk from Parliament House to Mt Kosciuszko, to fulfill the famous bet with Rory Robertson over house prices.)

    But those are bets between honest individuals, and NOT markets.

    I mostly bet against myself for lack of honesty around me, haha.

    But seriously:
    The Ehrlich/Simon case was a bet of model-spaces, and the losing factor was an error of timing, and not of essence, if I remember correctly.

    The moral on that is, that betting on long-term-processes is not the right way to keep humankind on track.

    One other striking example would be ‘Limits to Growth’, which is no betting field either.

    This is a subset of the art of doing science on the edge, and not of some betting monkeys in rigged marketplaces, to repeat myself.

    • The Ehrlich/Simon case was a bet of model-spaces, and the losing factor was an error of timing, and not of essence, if I remember correctly.

      If that’s how you see it, I think you’re missing the point. The problem with Ehrlich’s position is that it never even occurred to him that there migth be markets that divert resources to potential shortages like the ones he wanred about. So frankly, even if Simon had been wrong about prices going down, the bet most certainly wasn’t priced at the commodity future equivalent trading price, and Simon could have made a complementary bet there that guaranteed him a profit.

      Ehrlich was so wrong on the issue he couldn’t notice himself being Dutch booked.

  • roko, I am also driven by many emotional reasons, and rationality is a matter of degree.

    Lennart, if anti-delialists will bet and denialists won’t, that would be a nice clear signal to the rest of us.

    Bill, what votes are you talking about? I’m talking about bets. I’ve posted before on manipulation.

    Eric, yes contrarians are sometimes right; but it very much matters what are the chances of that in any particular case.

    Peter, good point.

    groo, who said bets work perfect on all possible issues?

    Khoth, these would best be very long term bets, perhaps a century.

    Jeffrey, if your claim is conditional on funding, make a conditional bet.

    Nate, most contrarians believe that convention opinion in a century will vindicate them.

    • Bill

      If this is to be used simply for betting as an aggregation of beliefs, how can I be sure it won’t be used for policy or voting? Then we get back to manipulation.

      Ask yourself this question: how many times have you heard Intrade bets being used as a reason for doing or not doing something?

    • groo

      this from my notebook:
      In hindsight, I would change the wording a bit.
      E.g. Robin says:

      I’d at least see the betting system as less corrupt,

      which I translate into:
      There seems to be a ‘belief’ in Robin, that betting markets could be efficient.

      I.e., I am taking the probabilistic part of his argument/’belief’ out.

      So the semantic span is condensed from “less corrupt” to “could be efficient”.
      Bayesians are hard to catch otherwise 😉

    • Bill

      I didn’t want to sound harsh, and I am not saying betting on some items– to find intensity of belief and to weed out the belief we know is not true–is not a good idea.

      But, even if it is a bet, you do have to be concerned about allocation of resources of those participating in the bet, as, for example, if you asked for a bet on the question: Do you believe there is racial discrimination. If the majority is wealthy, and the racial minority is not, then the bet will have certain outcomes. Majority wealthy bet one way; minority non-wealthy bet another, and drop out of the betting because their resources are depleted.

      I would feel more comfortable if the bet were reputation or identity, and not money. That is, if you publicize my views are x on the belief that asbestos does not cause cancer…everyone has reputation and identity, not necessarily money.

    • Bill


      What I would be interested in working on–to weed out inconsistent beliefs–would be a combinatorial betting system–where people would bet on a set of events or outcomes–and from that core deduce whether there is an inconsistency in the bet, or whether persons were betting consistently with their belief.

  • Chris T

    Of course assessing when others are being ideological is easy, doing it for your own side is much harder. A lot of mainstream arguments are believed empirical, when they are, in fact, normative and sometimes the difference isn’t always clear.

  • Khoth

    Why will making evolution a 100-year bet help? In 100 years the scientists will say that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming and the creationists will say it isn’t, so the bet can’t be settled.

    Or, if you go for “scientific consensus” as what counts as the result then in 100 years, just like today, scientists say the scientific consensus is that evolution is true, and creationists will say there is real disagreement among scientists.

    • groo


      I prepared a (too) long argument for Your propositions:
      So I have to make it short:

      “Science is a (the) method of verification”

      Inverting this would e.g. say:
      “Nonscience is the (non)method of non-verification”

      So it is NOT about being right, but about having the right method.

      There is logical proof that if You incorporate a contradiction in Your beliefs/set of axioms, You basically can believe/prove anything.

      So You have two possible ‘positions’:
      a) believing in Logic (everything else follows, with some bifurcations, i.e. undecidables, think Cantor, Goedel, which unfortunately killed them.)
      b) believing anything

      (b) is not a position at all. It is at best ‘fragmented mind’ (in Bob Altemeyer’s sense) versus ‘coherent mind’.

      What Robin seems to propose is betting the incoherents (b) into the ground.

      Which to me is a very dangerous proposition, if I understand him correctly.

  • Jayson Virissimo

    Sometimes those in the “scientific consensus” are the denalists (something New Scientist seems to ignore). When Ignaz Semmelweis claimed that doctors were killing newborns by not washing their hands, he was called a fool and was eventually committed to a mental asylum.

  • CraigM

    I’ve suggested several times that people who entirely reject evolution should stick with Penicillin if their kids get MRSA infections. Strangely, no matter what they believe about evolution, people tend to demand drugs especially developed to kill organisms which have somehow changed so that they are no longer controlled using first-generation anitbiotics. Since penicillin is a whole lot cheaper than the latest and greatest, this is a gamble – money versus your child’s life. There are clearly a lot of evolution-deniers who are unwilling to place this bet that life was created and remain static…..

  • Linda Gottfredson’s Apprentice

    Evolution has been around for more than one hundred years and has been refined considerably. I find it a very useful framework.

    I also had my children vaccinated, but I can sympathise with those whose children are not strong enough to live through the vaccination process.

    I suspect that all the noise about cigarette smoking is guaranteed to cause cancer is wide of the mark and I have nothing but contempt for the pushers of the second hand smoking nonsense. I have never smoked by the way.

    I find that there is no good evidence for the proposition that human production of CO2 (and there is no question that we are producing CO2) has had any effect on world average temperatures, and even if it did help to increase temperatures by a degree or two, it is nothing the Earth has not experienced before, and warmer temperatures are better for us that colder temperatures, and I think there is a great deal of evidence that the atmosphere/hydrosphere/biosphere maintains temperatures within reasonably narrow margins.

    So, a denialist? Nope. A sceptic. Yes.

  • I like the general idea of betting, but it’s not clear to me how to routinely shoehorn scientific controversies into the betting format. E.g., how would you propose to construct clean bets about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, or continental drift? Now that the battle is long over, and measurement tech has enormously improved, I think I see how to do it for continental drift. But it’s not clear to me how to do it for the Heisenberg uncertainty principle even today (well enough to convince fundamental skeptics like Einstein, looking for a deterministic alternative). And it’s not clear to me how to do it for either controversy ca. 1925.

    I think you have a better chance of addressing the general problem by backing off to (modern generalizations of) Occam’s Razor. A really undeniable theory should in some suitable technical sense compress the data far more than its rivals, and with modern measurement tech continental drift easily qualifies. And this gives me some logical handle on why it’s still hard to convince Einstein-like skeptics about uncertainty. The only way I see how to express the uncertainty principle in formal compression terms (or at least in definitions careful enough to address the objections of people like Lakatos to the informal formulations of Popper) gives something like “supplying the the uncertainty principle as a free-of-cost subroutine for use in the theory will reduce the lower bound on the length of the fully-elaborated theory which describes the data.” I believe that’s a true claim, but I can see that it’s not all that much compression, merely by about the length of the uncertainty principle, compared to slightly twistier theories that match the data and still rank high in people’s priors. I think the small amount of compression is what makes modern Einstein-ish uncertainty denial more reasonable than continental drift denial (damning with faint praise, yes), and I think the compression-oriented definition gives some idea why it’s hard to construct bets.

  • GNZ

    Yor bets don’t get decided decicively within a reasonable period of time so a person could reasonably savely place a bet and just continue to point out hte corruption of the system or the stupidity of the majority and the odds moved around.

    Possibly use those as a reason not to bet, because they might temporarily register a loss (and temporary mignt be a lifetime in some conspiracies) when they needed the money.

  • GNZ

    FWIW regardless of htat I do like hte betting idea at least for some context. I’d like to see politicians have to place bets on their positions nad that be recored in a easily searchable database online.

  • If you think this solution just didn’t occur to them, do you think they’ll embrace it with enthusiasm if they are told? Me neither.

    I for one, think that they might embrace it with enthusiasm if they are told.

  • As I was running some errands, it occurred to me that the snatches of the _New Scientist_ position presented here seem to suggest a Hansonesque blog post title observation, “denial is about being in the wrong political faction” or some such thing.

    The lead sentence you quoted seems to illustrate that. “From climate change to vaccines, evolution to flu, denialists are on the march.” Climate change economic risks and some strategies to reduce CO2 emissions are tied to policy about genetically modified organisms, especially GM crops. And numerate technically conservative strategies for producing energy while reducing CO2 emissions are closely tied to nuclear policy. Thus opposition to GM crops and nuclear power should be a very big deal by the official mindset of the _New Scientist_. So why pick on people who stand on silly objections to vaccines in preference to, say, people who stand on technically silly objections to proposals for nuclear waste storage? Maybe I move in the wrong circles, but my impression is that the technical consensus about the tractability of the nuclear waste storage/disposal problem[*] is stronger than the technical consensus that the expected damage from climate change caused by CO2 emissions justifies imposing very large energy consumption cuts, and other very large costs involved in rejiggering energy production technologies.

    [*] E.g., “resolved: that the fundamental technical risks of depositing nuclear waste in a facility comparable to Yucca Mountain are not large compared to the risks associated with using coal to generate the corresponding amount of electrical energy.” (Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that nuclear waste policy can’t be horribly screwed up in practice, just as “resolved: 1960s-era-technology syphilis treatment is fundamentally a good idea” doesn’t guarantee you can’t end up with the Tuskegee experiment. But climate change policy can be horribly screwed up too…)

    (And alas, I can’t see how to construct a tidy “Yucca Mountain facility works as designed” bet.)

  • Tom Adams

    Sometimes the deniers are right:


    If futures markets were used against deniers, they would point to Y2Kdth and similar to support their denials. Just as AGW deniers point to early 20th century eugenics science.

    Betting challenges against experts can sometimes undermine their credibility, like James Annon’s challeges to Richard Lindzen on global warming.

    Applying the inverse of the Kelly betting formula to the bids of person in a betting market should reveal an odds estimate that should align with what the person thinks about the future; this could be a sort of mathematical mind reader. It should reflect what they really believe as revealed in their presumed attempts to maximize their utility function. A metric for the distance between your money and your mouth.