Home > Boneheaded stupidity, Science > Anti-anti-anti-science


February 28th, 2015

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, and Paul Krugman has given me a nice jumping off point with this column on how to respond to economists (including highly credentialled ones) who push zombie ideas such as the threat of imminent hyperinflation. As Krugman notes, providing evidence-based criticism, whether politely or rudely, has no impact on people who have strong reasons for wanting to believe something. This is even more true on topics like climate change than it is on economics.

Dan Kahan, among others, has made much of this fact, drawing the conclusion, in relation to the debate on vaccination that

The “anti-science trope,” in sum, is not just contrary to fact. is contrary to the tremendous stake that the public has in keeping its vaccine science communication environment free of reason-effacing forms of pollution.

Despite the phrase “contrary to fact”, Kahan doesn’t, as far as I can see, refute the anti-science trope that

concern about vaccine risks to disbelief in evolution and climate skepticism, all of which are cited as instances of a creeping hostility to science in the U.S. general public or at least some component of it.

. Indeed, it’s hard to see how it could be refuted, given that the attitudes cited are both widely held and obviously opposed to the conclusions of science. All he shows is that antivaxerism is much more of a minority position than climate denialism or creationism

Kahan does, however, show pretty convincingly that the use of the anti-science trope in relation to a particular issue tends to deepen the divide between the pro-science and anti-science sides, reinforcing each in their beliefs. Thus, he concludes, this trope should be avoided. The same kind of line has been put many times in relation to climate change.

The implicit, and false assumption in the anti-anti-anti-science position is that there is some better way of convincing the anti-science group to change their minds, for example by framing climate change in terms more congenial to political rightwingers. This is pretty clearly wrong. Long experience has shown that nothing is going to shift the right on an issue that has become a tribal shibboleth.

As Krugman points out, what matters is not the impact on the anti-science group themselves, but on the attitudes to that group among others. The recent measles epidemic didn’t have much of an impact on anti-vaxers, as far as I can see, but it certainly changed attitudes towards them, greatly reducing sympathy for their desire to pursue their deluded beliefs regardless of the risk to the rest of the community.

The other aspect, which evidently pains Kahan, is that this issue has a clear partisan dimension. Not only are specific anti-science attitudes far more common on the political right, but responses to the anti-science trope also break on partisan lines. I can’t find a link now, but the experimental evidence shows that the reinforcing effect of contrary evidence is stronger among Republicans than Democrats. The differences are much starker among the politically active: the discrediting of antivaxerism on the political left is just one example.[^1]

Following Krugman, the effect of the anti-anti-science trope is not to persuade Republicans but to undermine the centrist view, dominant until very recently, which saw the ideal outcome of politics as a bipartisan deal in which Republicans prevailed on most point. The underlying assumption that the Republicans were the sensible party has been eroded very gradually over time.

It’s an obviously debatable question as to whether this development will ultimately harm the right and benefit the left. Recent Republican electoral successes tend to support the observation of the con-man in Huckleberry Finn

“Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And hain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”

On the other hand, IIRC, he ended being tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail.

[^1]: The only remaining issue on which parts of the left still take a full-blown anti-science line is the claim that consuming GM foods has adverse health effects. There are plenty of reasons for concern about GM crops, and other aspects of the privatisation of genomic resources, and continuing to push discredited research on safety risks only weakens the position of anyone seeking to raise those concerns. But even here, it’s clear that the pressure to present a position in line with mainstream science is increasing.

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  1. jungney
    February 28th, 2015 at 20:15 | #1

    JQ: even as a test run this piece seems a bit confused. Planetary re-alignments are afoot. Science deniers, generally understood as ‘people of faith’, are matching their right to assert the dominance of their personal beliefs over the evidence of people of good faith, rationalists to a woman, who simply accept the facts and decide accordingly how best to act in their own interests which interests incorporate the interests of others, wherever they are, in the name of common decency and humanity.

    How to talk to the far right, then, in the light of these conditions? Is there a way to address the people who have drunk the neoliberal kool-aid, to make them see sense? Are they not aware of the hitory of science and rationality? No, not at all.

    There is no way to talk to the wealthy and powerful in such convincing terms as to make them change their course. If there were, it would have been discovered by now, between the beginnings of the industrial revolution and our times. In which period the subordinate classes did all they could, in every way, to protect their way of life through all sorts of rebellion and dissent.

    Those who rule us, the one percent and its underlings and lick spittles, managers to a woman, are surplus to planetary requirements. We are shifting from the period of competition to one of co-operation. A period when co-operative and communal consciousness will be more highly valued than the type of subjectivity that characterizes the ‘entrepreneur’.

    Which brings us back to what to do with the far right. Should we find a way into their dysfunctional neurological pathways, soft sop them while they are restrained in MRI units, and somehow turn their infantile narcissism to the common good.

    Or should we just lay waste to the bourgeois suburbs in Sydney and the other state capitals? Would corpses hanging by the neck from lamp posts not have a more reviving effect on the mind state those classes currently driving ecocide than trying to reason with people who see the numb nuts Bolt as a saviour?

    I say it would.

  2. Megan
    March 1st, 2015 at 00:08 | #2


    As a general rule I am very much against “corpses hanging by the neck from lamp posts”, regardless of who does it and for what purpose.

    When I read that part of your comment I had one of those “plate of shrimp” moments.

    Then I remembered that I had seen a similar passage today from the latest Pilger article – “Why The Rise of Fascism is Again the Issue”:

    Operatives who would eventually join the Taliban and al-Qaeda, were recruited at an Islamic college in Brooklyn, New York, and given paramilitary training at a CIA camp in Virginia. This was called “Operation Cyclone”. Its success was celebrated in 1996 when the last PDPA president of Afghanistan, Mohammed Najibullah – who had gone before the UN General Assembly to plead for help – was hanged from a streetlight by the Taliban.

    Perhaps it’s OK when “we” do it to “them”?

  3. March 1st, 2015 at 00:38 | #3

    John, sou at hot whopper has two nice pieces on this issue at the moment, the first here and the second immediately above it. The second concerns a paper that presents consensus argument as an effective method to bring deniialists into the fold, and the linked article gives a good example of a denialist not being able to convert a friend because he can’t argue against the consensus. This approach contradicts some part of kahan ‘s theories, I think.

    Note that kahan finds equal support for gmo on both sides of politics and argues against using the anti-science label precisely because he thinks it will create a political division on the issue, and once division exists political partisans have a reason for motivated thinking.

    I would say that both the approach described by sou, and kahan’s theories, won’t work in economics because the mainstream consensus (at least, that seen the public) is largely zombie ideas.

  4. Philip Leclerc
    March 1st, 2015 at 04:11 | #4

    “The only remaining issue on which parts of the left still take a full-blown anti-science line is the claim that consuming GM foods has adverse health effects.”

    What’s your take on the median left reaction to nuclear power?

  5. James Wimberley
    March 1st, 2015 at 05:25 | #5

    @Philip Leclerc
    The median left take on nuclear power might be that that it’s (a) risky (b) very expensive and (c) made unnecessary by cheaper wind and solar power, plus a few tricks to deal with the differential backup question. These views are supported by evidence. You can of course make an evidence-based case for nuclear power, but it’s becoming harder all the time. My subjective impression is that it’s nuclear supporters who are now on the slippery slope to unreasoning cultism.

  6. John Quiggin
    March 1st, 2015 at 09:35 | #6

    @Philip Leclerc

    What James said, though I would put (b) and (c) ahead of (a). http://johnquiggin.com/2014/04/19/tu-quoque/

  7. jungney
    March 1st, 2015 at 10:31 | #7

    Of course I am speaking rhetorically.

    Good luck to all those who think a way can be found to bring those with a denialist mind set ‘inside the tent’. My view is that if that project was going to succeed then it would have happened by now.

    That they only understand force is illustrated by the rapidity with which they use force.

  8. alfred venison
    March 1st, 2015 at 12:02 | #8

    you can’t reason with people who reject rationality as the basis of reasoning. -a.v.

  9. John Chapman
    March 1st, 2015 at 14:24 | #9

    JQ: Is that anti-carbon pricing guy still running round, shouting, and polluting UoQ with his undefended assertions ?

  10. Neil
    March 1st, 2015 at 14:36 | #10

    @alfred venison
    Isn’t that Jonathan Swift?

  11. Hermit
    March 1st, 2015 at 14:52 | #11

    @James Wimberley
    Whilst sliding some of us take take the time the time to look at statistics, for example BREE Energy in Australia 2014. On Table 8 electricity we find 86.9% comes from burning fossil fuels and 5.8% from nonhydro renewables. For primary energy consumption by sector Table 5 we find 37.9% is for transport which in turn is nearly 100% based on oil. What was that argument again?

  12. alfred venison
    March 1st, 2015 at 15:11 | #12

    hi John Chapman – if it is swift, j., that’d be an inadvertent allusion on my part. -ta, a.v.

  13. Donald Oats
    March 1st, 2015 at 15:49 | #13

    In Australia during the first Rudd-led government, we witnessed first hand how a supposedly acceptable, market-based CPRS (Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme) was reduced to ashes by a hostile theo-neo-con faction within the then opposition party, the Liberals. Even in opposition, this (significant) faction prevailed, not only over its own party, but over the sitting government. Now, I know the Greens weren’t happy with the far too modest targets of the scheme, and hence wouldn’t agree to it in its initial form; although they were perfectly correct from a scientific perspective, it’s arguable that they should have let it through, arguing for change at a later date once the scheme was up and running. Even so, the LNP opposition members were the ones who eventually killed it off.

    I said some time before this occurred that the theo-neo-con faction were running a strategy to defang or destroy the ETS, and in particular, the CPRS. They let Malcolm Turnbull negotiate with the ALP for months, and then on the eve of an agreement, spilled Malcolm Turnbull from the opposition leader position and installed the theo-neo-con icon in the form of Tony Abbott—by one vote! (Andrew Robb, who had been on sick leave for depression, returned to vote—just for that day.) I’m sure that the theo-neo-cons smirk whenever they think of the lost decade of inaction, thanks to their political savvy; in retirement, they won’t be thinking of the damage they have wrought.

    As they say in the Terminator movies, you can’t stop them, you can’t reason with them…

  14. Donald Oats
    March 1st, 2015 at 16:02 | #14

    The trouble with left vs right is that while left wing has remained static at the fringe, and shifted more to the right, the right wing (in Australia) has been shifting the entire fringe even further out, to the point where I no longer have a clear anchor point from which to make comparisons. Put another way, I’ve lost all philosophical contact with patrons of the far-right, which is now the new right, if that makes sense. I have no common ground on which to base an argument with them on topics of consequence.

    On some topics, I could agree, or at least mildly-disagree, with Fraser. On fewer topics, but still the odd one, I could concede some ground with Howard. I haven’t found any point of contact with Tony Abbott. What has happened?

  15. Fran Barlow
    March 1st, 2015 at 16:49 | #15

    @James Wimberley

    And speaking as someone who is not in principle opposed to nuclear power and definitely on the left I would add that resort to nuclear power in the present context raises serious issues about citizen-state relations and transparency that would not be raised by more diffuse and decentralised power sources most commonly described as renewables.

    It might well be entirely rational for the citizenry to decide on this ground alone that if resort to nuclear power entailed serious and apparently arbitrary impositions on freedom of movement, accountability etc in the name of national security then the cultural price of resort to this energy source was too high.

  16. Will
    March 1st, 2015 at 19:37 | #16

    Dingdingding! Sure as eggs, whenever any mention of the proclivities of the right to be more anti-science than the left occurs, comes comments like: “But what about GMO/nuclear power/environ-mentalists??????” One of the prime failures of the right is inability for introspection which is replaced by a vicious attack mentality. See: Abbott, Obama’s opposition in the US, this board.

  17. Nevil Kingston-Brown
    March 2nd, 2015 at 13:44 | #17

    @Donald Oats
    My memory may be faulty, but people who blame the Greens for the original CPRS’ failure seem to forget that to pass against Liberal opposition it would have required votes from not just all the Greens, but Nick Xenophon and (crucially) Steve Fielding as well. Fielding was a classic closed mind of the type described in the OP, guaranteed to oppose anything the Greens supported because the Greens were supporting it, and there was no way that anything he would vote for would in any way reflect either the political realities or the scientific consensus. Green support would probably have triggered an outright coalition revolt much sooner than it eventually occurred, as well. The failure to get anything passed is pretty squarely on Rudd for deliberately wedging Turnbull rather than working with him.

  18. Philip
    March 2nd, 2015 at 14:26 | #18


    If this is in reference to my question above: my politics are largely to the left, not the right, so I’m not sure it says much about folks on the right that I asked the question. I’ve just not read any of the compelling critiques of nuclear power that seem to be common knowledge to a number of the regular commenters here.

  19. Nevil Kingston-Brown
    March 3rd, 2015 at 12:50 | #19

    Maurice Newman today serves up an object lesson in cognitive closure, claiming in the Fauxstralian that “low interest rates are holding back growth”.

  20. John Chapman
    March 3rd, 2015 at 15:56 | #20

    Now Nevil – this is not the comedy channel.

  21. Megan
    March 3rd, 2015 at 18:55 | #21

    AFP reports from Pakistan:

    Deputy commissioner Riaz Khan Mehsud said 471 parents were detained as part of a fresh immunisation drive in Peshawar, the main town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

    “There is no mercy, we have decided to deal with the refusal cases with iron hands. Anyone who refuses (the vaccine) will be sent to jail,” Mr Mehsud said.

    He said authorities had also issued 1,000 blank arrest warrants so parents refusing to vaccinate their children could be dealt with swiftly.

    Senior official Muhammad Mumtaz confirmed the detainees would “be freed only after a written assurance and providing two guarantors” to ensure their children got the drops.

    Taliban militants claim the polio vaccination drive is a front for espionage or a conspiracy to sterilise Muslims.

    They stepped up their attacks after a Pakistani doctor was recruited by the CIA to set up a hepatitis immunisation drive as part of efforts to track down Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden.

    If the CIA hadn’t lied about vaccination and used it as a front for a covert execution plot, and if the CIA wasn’t regularly killing thousands of people in the region, then perhaps the citizens wouldn’t be so untrusting of the motives of their rulers.

    I’ve always believed that earning the peoples’ trust would be far more effective than resorting to force – if some chosen action is genuinely for the collective good.

  22. March 3rd, 2015 at 19:47 | #22

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  23. Megan
    March 3rd, 2015 at 21:05 | #23


    I’d reply with a link to something interesting….but when I try that I get sent to eternal moderation.

    Any tips on how to get around the ridiculous “anti-spam” software that does that to real comments?

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