Rationally speaking, is a presentation of New York City skeptics dedicated to promoting critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. For more information, please visit us at NYC Skeptic's Doug. Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast where we explored the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Masimo, and with me, as always, is my co-host, Julia Gillard. Julia, what are we going to talk about today?
Today, we have a special guest with us in studio. Donald Prothro is professor of geology at Occidental College in L.A. and lecturer in geo biology at the California Institute of Technology. He's written and edited 28 books and over 250 scientific papers, including five top geology textbooks. And he's a major player in the skeptic movement. He is on the editorial board of Skeptic magazine and blogs regularly at Skeptic Blog.
Welcome, Donald. Welcome. Thank you.
This is our our second attempt to have you on the podcast. Our listeners may not be aware, but we were originally going to have Donald as a guest in August to talk about natural disasters and catastrophes.
And that visit was was prevented by the arrival in one week in New York by an earthquake and a hurricane.
So certainly if I were superstitious, I would be staying away from here. But this is a good reason to change the topic. So today he's going to talk with us about denialism.
So I was I was pleased to discover that a denier list didn't prevent you're here in New York.
Just lots of sand on the road today. So lots of standards. Yeah.
New York tries to keep it so real. So you arrived on the right day. There are Santo's wandering around the streets today. So, Don, what do you mean by the nihilism?
It's sort of a focus on denialism of science, especially. We have so many elements in the culture that will clearly cling to some kind of a pre-existing belief, whether it be a political belief or religious belief that flies in the face of what scientific consensus has now determined in some cases for many decades. And they do this for a long period of time in spite of it. And as far as the talk I'm going to get this afternoon, I will point out they basically denialism ends up having a very similar strategy to deal with with the accepted reality of science.
And I call it the Holocaust deniers playbook, because it's sort of very similar to another form of Nazism where people want to deny the Holocaust occurred, have very similar strategies of trying to to divert attention and prevent the consensus from being reached, even though very few of us have any doubt the Holocaust occurred.
And it's not only recorded by many, many survivors, but even the Nazis themselves kept records of it in very, very good records and a very good record.
So what are some of the strategies that you see in both camps? Well, the Holocaust and I sort of had a pioneering strategy, which was, you know, mostly create smoke screens and create diversions that keep you from paying attention to the central point.
And so, for example, when they when they when they attack conventional scholarship about the Holocaust in an attempt to deny it occurred or deny its size, they do things like pick at various, you know, authors discrepancy between one author or another or a small argument within the scholar field of scholarship and say, oh, well, there can't agree on something, therefore it's not real. And denying everything else exists just because of one or two people disagree, which if you're in the field of scholarship of any kind, you know, there's always debate among scholars, but they generally agree upon some fairly large principles.
There's a very large body of facts and the most common method that Holocaust deniers did very early on, creationists have done for a very long time, and now almost every denier does. It is, quote, mining, but they pull a quotation out of context from a conventional source and usually chop it out in such a way that out of context, it seems to say the opposite of what it is intended to say when you read it in context. And that, of course, is a deliberate attempt to obfuscate.
You know, they know full well what that quote means in context, and they're trying to fool people by chopping into such a way that the reader cannot really tell what that quote really meant. And they believe it to be opposite of what. Yes.
Any examples? Well, creationists are famous for taking quotes from everybody, Stephen Jay Gould and Ernst Meyer and all the major figures in evolutionary biology have all had themselves done to and I've been in, quote, mind once or twice.
Actually, I have I have an example about creationism and Stephen Gould. This is something that doing fish from these different research at least used to do and has done it several times, several people. And that was to present at some point in the debate a quote from Gould where if you read it as it was, it looked like Gould didn't believe in evolution. Right. Which, of course, couldn't be right. And sometimes, you know, one of the nice things about this was a number of years ago, but even at that time, there was already a fairly well-organized network of skeptics at that time, not using Facebook or Google Plus, but using simple email lists.
And so somebody sent out these these quotes and said, you know, can anybody find it? And sure enough, it was, in fact, a quote from one of Stephen books. But of course, it was truncated at a comma. And then after the comma went on to say, well, of course, nobody believes that sort of thing. Now, Gish was, in fact, confronted with this thing with the full quote. And his reaction, of course, he became very angry, but his reaction was, well, I can't quote the whole book.
Yeah, but you can have integrity part the part that's important. Well, it wasn't intelligently designed. Yes. Deliberately a deliberate mistake of whatever. I mean, they take drugs out of Darwin, which is very hard to do because Darwin often oppose, you know, a rhetorical question about, well, someone might say that this or this, this idea makes evolution seem impossible, but and then the entire follow up is lost so that it says it's this is his attempt to show the other position is presented as if it's his position.
There is a great satire of the, quote, mining practice a few years back, I think, by the creator of Dilbert. But he started out with a paragraph from some corporation talking about how great their new product was and then selectively pulled out phrases and words and even letters from words until the quote said, we killed Mother Teresa.
Well, yeah, that's that's not too far off in the way they do it. And you can only assume that either there's a very strong, you know, confirmation bias filter in the way they read something.
So they read something and only see what they want to see that would fit what they preconceive or youthfully the charitable.
That's charitable, assuming they're not big liars or the other possibility, which I think is more likely, is that they deliberately do this because they know most audiences will not make any effort to look at the quote.
But see that that actually is a good question. That has come up several times. When I was doing the bits, you know, I spent nine years in Tennessee and I was I was pretty active doing debates.
I came to visit you in Darwin DataCash, but I've done a few since. But especially at the time, you know, it was often the issue would come up. And so are these people actually lying through their teeth or are they deluded or what?
And honestly, sometimes it's hard to tell. Right? Because, of course, one of the things that was brought to my attention at the time, again, within the context of sort of young Earth creationists, is this famous quote from Martin Luther, apparently that said that Illi is not a lie if it is in the service of God. That's so that right there as well. You know, it is a lie to even be aware of it, but in fact it's good because it's saving people's souls.
And so so that's part of rationalization where I mean, at some level these people must know that there is something forced in the when they pick quotes in the most egregious times. But a lot of times, you know, we all do it. Confirmation bias is a standard cognitive bias of all human beings.
If you're looking for something specific and you have a very clear in mind what you need, you can be very, very capable of filtering out everything else, you know. And so you may miss the next paragraph. It's possible to be charitable and say, yes, they just don't read anything that doesn't make sense to them and only things that fit their preconceptions get past that filter.
Well, that's fine. It's still a dishonest way of doing things.
Again, the difference there between dishonesty or in fact, actual sort of I don't know about pathologically high degree of confirmation bias, but to be fair, so is it you know, the word denialism.
I'm going to try to play the devil's advocate for a minute. Yeah. So as you know, I'm putting together with my colleague Martin Baudry, a book and edited book for Chicago Press on the philosophy of pseudoscience. And you are, in fact, one of the contributors to that to that book.
Now, daddy of the book actually got started in response to a now classic paper published in nineteen eighty three, I believe, by Larry Liden, who is a prominent philosopher of science. And he argued that the demarkation problem that he's trying to figure out the difference between science and pseudo science is that and it's a useless exercise and it's something that philosophers should give up. And besides, let's drop the word pseudoscience because it only does emotive work. Right. So and of course, one can make the same argument about denialism, right?
I mean, the nihilism clearly makes it does it does make emotive work as loving, put it. What's your take on that?
I mean, I have my opinion about emotive versus not emotive work in philosophy, but what is your take?
Well, I mean, all I can do is go back to, you know, some simple, you know, empirical things about the world.
You know, we we obey the laws of gravity. We have lots of things about the world. We know that we've learned from science and science has explained successfully. And, you know, we have to sort of come to terms the fact whether or not we can easily define that distinction between what makes science and scientific method different from other things. Most people most of the time know what is involved in science, technology and what is not. And most people see that distinction without having too much, you know, in the way of things that tolomato it's you know, a lot of people are pseudoscience of it's dressed up to look like science.
That's still a problem. But nonetheless. There's that element where, you know, people recognize science as science. It reminds you that, quote, the Rick Santorum just said this week something, the effect that science shouldn't enter into politics at all because he's famous for defending all sorts of positions for the anti scientific from creationism due to global warming denialism to, you know, fighting stem cell research and all for religious reasons, naturally, because he's one of the most extreme right religious members of the GOP field right now.
And it was so ironic to hear someone actually spell it out that the Republican candidates don't want to believe in science.
That's that's my.
Chris Mooney has a new book about the Republican brain. Yes. Talking about how they cannot live with any science that doesn't fit their preconceived.
I mean, it's interesting that that, you know, if anything, one would want to say politics doesn't have to get into science versus politics.
Science, which, of course, it's you know, to be fair, it's next to impossible because, of course, scientists themselves have their own opinions about their own political body of political opinion.
But to actually argue that science should be kept out of my response to that when I was on a Facebook was, well, he better not go to any real doctors who can stick to faith healers and better stop using computers and automobiles and everything else the technology has brought us.
Yeah. So how did how did you get into writing about denialism? I mean, your most of your books have been about geology and paleontology and such.
Or so were you just inspired by this kind of nonsense, OK.
Yeah. I mean it started when I finished the evolution book that came out in 2007, and I got a lot of feedback from that. And just it made me realize as I saw this and I thought, you know, after An Inconvenient Truth, global warming issue was over and now people gradually learn to accept it.
We never have this problem of battling against the climate change deniers. And instead it's gotten worse. You know, the acceptance of global warming from the time of Gore's movie until now has dropped dramatically. And so it was clear that, you know, it doesn't it isn't easy for science and truth to win out just on its own merits, that it's all about PR, it's all about public perception. It's all about lots of political factors in this case, especially in this time and a day and time.
People are, you know, campaigning on fear and emotion and people are stressed because the recession is going on. You get a lot of people believing whatever politicians will tell them.
And in this case of science, any science that seems to threaten their their way of doing things or make things less that I like to believe them to be, they will just not want to believe them because they're afraid, because there's a recession going on and because things aren't getting better for a lot of people.
And so it plays on that entire political atmosphere and it's gotten worse in many other ways. So I started by doing the parallels between creationism and global warming denialism, which are striking all the way down the line. They have almost identical mirror image patterns of how they they handle data and how they publicize things and how they critique their arguments. They don't want to believe, but there are threads linking them to other kinds of deniers like the anti back. They do many of the same tactics down the line.
And there's very strange kinds of science denialism out there which are deadly. Most people not realize that there's a whole movement for the last 30 years. Now, people deny that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus, HIV virus. And in South Africa in the 90s, they had a government that had a health policy that refused to acknowledge AIDS has been caused by HIV and millions of South Africans are infected because they didn't know effort to to prevent it.
In fact, Michael Specter of the of The New Yorker wrote a book a couple of years ago called Denialism. And I found out about it because in The New Yorker, you published a couple of really interesting articles about the HIV AIDS connection. And in the as you were as you were saying, yeah, that is one of the best examples of pseudoscience and literally killing people, literally killing people.
Yes. They're doomed if they believe the sort of science I actually use in now regularly with my students, because the first I teach a class on critical thinking. And one of the first things that the students so begin to one is the usual alkan. But if people believe in astrology, what's the harm? And so I hit him with this one thing after another, vaccines.
And I have a chapter on astrology, this book to which some of my editors were so happy with. So why not?
Well, because it seems harmless to most people, but a remarkable number of people do stupid things just because the star supposedly tell them this. And of course, you know, that column still runs on the newspaper as well as all over the Web. So lots and lots of people believe somehow the stars can affect your life. It's been something I've been around since the days of the Babylonians and and of course, some of the older generation people listening here might remember that Ronald Reagan's wife, Nancy Reagan, actually made decisions about how the president operated based on the astrologer that they had consulted.
So literally the most powerful man in the world was in the play of an astrologer because things turned out very well.
Well, depends on who you talk to. Yes. I didn't get a good bit worse, I suppose, but.
Yes, but so so back to the idea of pseudoscience, because one of the things the. We've been struggling with in that edit book of which you have a chapter is is the definition, the very concept of pseudoscience, right.
So how do you define all that sort of stuff? So one of the things that several of the authors suggested, and I remember actually, if you were one of those are not sure I'm going to ask you that was that seems like pretty much everybody agreed. Every one of the contributors agreed that it is going to be the case, that we can come up with a clear, tight definition based on a certain number of what was necessary and jointly sufficient condition to define science and pseudoscience.
So those are concepts that just are not amenable to that kind of definition. But that doesn't mean that there is no difference between science and pseudo science. Right. So all of our authors agreed that the disagreement begins when. OK, so then what do you do? What you go next? And so what is your take on it?
Well, I just I mean, I'm not a strict polypary, and I know Popper is sort of fallen out of favor in philosophy science slightly. But, you know, testable hypotheses. And the idea that you should have testability and ability to to shoot the idea down is still seems to work in most of the real sciences as I could, as far as I can tell. I mean, there may be areas that are that are less amenable to it or less easy to work with, but that still works pretty well for most things.
And the thing that really strikes me about things that we classically believe is pseudoscientific, whether it be creationism or or astrology or whatever, is that they are classic examples of cases where when there's an inconvenient truth or a testable hypothesis that shows them to be wrong, that's when they go into various kinds of ad hoc rationalizations.
The issue that, as I see it, is that, yes, it's hard to strictly define pseudoscience and its distinction from science in a philosophical sense.
But when you are like I know it, when I see a type of definition from the Supreme Court famous statement.
So pseudoscience is like pornography. Yeah, that's right. I agree with you on that. But which Justice said that? But that was the original context. And because things that we classically always put in the category of suicides like creationism, like astrology and many other things that do that, the most striking characteristic of them, one of many striking characters, some would say that tells us that they're not playing by the rules of real science, is that they are unable to shift or acknowledge any, you know, of negatives or defeats or or things that might falsify their position.
And any time An Inconvenient Truth comes along that they don't like, rather than acknowledge it, they always use some kind of ad hoc rationalization or justification in some way.
And that is to me, that kind of, you know, completely the twisting and bending every fact you need in order to keep yourself exactly where you were at the beginning is something scientists are not supposed do now. I know. True, the scientists are human and scientists do make mistakes. And scientists have times have biases, especially cultural biases they may not be aware of that may lead them astray.
But the big difference between that and what you see in a typical pseudoscience is that they're corrected by the scientific community, by the process of peer review and all the rest. And it's pretty rare for something that doesn't hold up to the scrutiny of a lot of different people to make it very far past the scientific censor of peer review. And that's something you won't see in pseudosciences. Pseudo science is almost always self affirming and self-consistent, and they don't tolerate any kind of naysayer or person that isn't telling them what they want to hear.
I'd be curious to get your opinion about some of these borderline areas of science that Masimo and I have discussed in the past. Like so for example, string theory.
I mean, I'm not asking your opinion about 30 per say, but about the structural issue that anyone with enough expertise to say whether they think string theory is a legitimate science or whether it's just become sort of a self confirming thing that can't be falsified like anyone with the requisite years of study in string theory to comment on that is a string theorists.
Yeah. So, yeah, and I don't have anyone. Yeah, but nothing in physics that level.
I can only go on what other physicists have told me and those who understand it and, and it has that aspect of it where it has become almost entirely self-contained and it's built in its own structure and it really doesn't have an external reality against which most of it can be tested.
As I understand it, I've brought that up with string theorists and they've said that's not true. Oh, I don't I mean, obviously, I don't have the expertise to know who's right about this.
But it does seem like there's this problem that if you're only allowed to comment on the legitimate legitimacy of a field, if you're an expert in that field, then you get the self selection problem, right?
Yeah, but you remember that we actually have a guest early on in the show last year, Peter Lloyd, who was in fact an expert, as you know, he's a physicist who has been working on these issues. And and we also mentioned several times Lee Smolin, who is who wrote this book a couple of years ago, called The Trouble with Physics, as Moanin has worked within string theory. And his opinion is that, in fact, it is there is no current past nor foreseeable in the foreseeable future.
So, I mean, you this point is is legitimate, that is what happens when the committee of experts is so small and potentially so intellectually inbred that it's hard to tell who's watching the watchmen, basically. I mean, people say that about climate scientists, too.
Yeah, well, that's a little different, but. Yeah, yeah. No, I didn't.
I think that the point is they make the point being that even in small inbred communities, if they're large enough and are enough, people involve, eventually there will be people who are dissenters.
If there's a is some inconsistency that can show up. And the scientists by most most of them are fairly contrarian in nature.
And they often like to be the noisy exception.
They're definitely not you know, a community loves to agree like sheep with each other. Most of the time they're actually almost always somebody is a contrarian. And I would say that, you know, if if a field has enough history and it's got an external reality test against in the Contrarian's have not shown anything wrong with it, then it's then I would say there's probably pass muster that the peers that were qualified to comment are in that position.
And I think there's a big difference, though, between string theorists, which require huge amounts of very specialised expertise for an area that doesn't have any obvious ways of being seen by most of us versus the climate science community, which are dealing with empirical data that most of us can see on a daily basis.
Or if you're paying attention to what's going on in the world, you can see there's a lot of empirical data coming out of every kind that support their position. That's quite a bit different.
What does the climate science community is much larger than listening to. Oh yes. Community for tens of thousands of scientists, I count myself as one. I've written books on climate change, although it's not my primary, especially so.
But so back to again the Pseudo-Science thing. One of the things that I find convincing, however, is, you know, from the discussion we just had, one might think that other things, other areas that we normally don't consider pseudoscience also fall to sort of science. Let me give you an example. For instance, theology. Right? Right. One could say, well, theologians come up with explanations and reasoning all the time. And yet we don't I really don't think we want to say that theology is a pseudoscience.
And I think that the difference there is that a pseudoscience is an activity that pretends to be science, the poses as a science. So scientific creationism, for instance, is clearly a pseudoscience because in fact, it does use the trappings of science, the language of science. It tries to pass itself as scientifically valid. A theologian would never do that. So theologian at best is a pseudo philosopher, but not a scientist.
Yeah, yeah. That's a good science in my mind. Almost all of them have, you know, at least some of the some of the trappings of science. And they pretend to make predictions, as many of them, like astrology, pretend to make predictions or statements about the world. But the difference them in the way scientists do the same thing is that when you actually test those predictions, if they are falsified, they will not back off. They say they always go to the ad hoc rationalization to salvage whatever they already believe.
And most scientists I know, you know, there are lots of exceptional science to know if the evidence piles up and your favorite idea does not hold up. They they let go there somewhere emotionally attached ideas and can't do it.
By and large, scientists are fairly easily convinced if it's a very strong case against something. They've already believed it for a long time.
So, Don, I scanned one of the chapters. And in your denialism book that's I guess forthcoming. Yeah. Chapter for his book.
That's right. Oh, sorry. It was the chapter right from us. Right. And you had an interesting discussion in there about the kinds of scientists that tend to crop up in the denier lists. Camps. Yes, about that.
Yes. It's the kind of thing where this is yet another symptom of the list of symptoms I give, how how there's similarities in creationism and global warming nihilism primarily.
And in this case, what it is, is that when they're under attack or when they're trying to promote their cause, what they do is they do the silly game and say, oh, well, we got this many PhDs or we have this many legitimate scientists who agree with us and they give us these phony lists that sound like, you know, they're they're actually a mainstream group of scientists, or at least that they have scientific acceptance among the mainstream.
And of course, the irony of that is that they themselves may not realize this, but if you look closely at the list, there's examples of creationism all the time of them touting how many PhDs or they have a book of creationists who write about stuff and they're all supposedly have advanced degrees. We look closely at what their advanced degrees are in.
And class example, Duane Gish, he was a biochemist back in the late 50s, early 60s. No no qualifications to talk about any other field.
And Henry Morris, hydraulic engineering and and the culture as a whole does not realize that you don't have a Ph.D. in and of itself. Is it make you a genius in every field, in fact, usually makes you extremely narrow as a specialist. And no, really no real training in other fields.
It's the it's that you have to have a Ph.D. or a. Advanced degree of some kind in the right field and have expertise in terms of actual research experience to be qualified to talk about it. So sure, he has a Ph.D. I would trust them to identify any fossil. I don't think he could.
If he tried, I wouldn't trust him to fix a car or write a symphony either. He doesn't have the appropriate expertise. And so when you look at these lists of people deny evolution or lists of global warming, NEIERS it's always called from a subset of people who have no actual qualifications or formal training in the field.
And it always sounds oppressive. You know, a bunch of physics PhDs may be great, but they don't necessarily know much about evolution and certainly don't know that much about climate change.
And yet that's the largest body of these people on these lists. And then hang on, I'm finished. I thought they the fry. The frustrating thing about this is you lists look really impressive to the uninformed and political.
They're a political football. James Inhofe, Senator Obama has used them on the floor of the Senate to push the global warming denialism.
But the NCC did one of the best satires and put a put down to that whole thing. Somebody out there probably know there's a thing called Project Steve on their website and try to see, which would be I'm sorry, the National Center for Science Education NMCC dot org.
I believe you go there and pray to Steve to show how ridiculous these counting creationist PhD lists are. They have a list of just scientists who are accepting evolution, whose names are Steve, Steve and Stephanie or any cognate thereof.
Oh, well over twelve hundred or something like that right now. And that's one name that's like, well, you know, less than one tenth of a percent of the names, the English language. And so if you just scale it up right away there, that's more than all the creationists put together.
So you were talking in particular and this chapter about nuclear physicists being sort of overrepresented in.
Right. That's another threat. Yes. Yeah.
So you had an interesting explanation of why nuclear physics in particular.
It yeah, it has actually a historical background and from the Cold War. And there's a very good book out there I highly recommend to everybody just came out a year or so ago now called Merchants of Doubt. And it's by Naomi Oreskes, who's a philosopher and history of science at UC San Diego, and Erik Conway, who works at JPL.
I've met them both and came out about a year ago and it beautifully goes into and they did a tremendous amount of research and legwork, tracking down documents of all sorts of government sources and everything else of showing where this comes from and who these people are and where they're qualified.
And the turns out that it all roots back to right at the end of the Cold War, all end of phase of the Cold War. There are a series of scientists with mostly right wing political views, you know, strong anti-communist, almost Hamah, who were involved in nuclear physics because they were cold warriors. They actually built bombs or they worked on some program, those related to it. And then when the Cold War ended, even before it, they began to do things to to defend their world viewpoint and their their position.
So it's a friend sites and it's Robert Jastrow, a few others, just four or five individuals are at the base of every one of these little denial's groups. And while the Cold War was still going on, for example, they were very active fighting against Carl Sagan and the movement to reduce nuclear warheads, because this is the time when Reagan was trying to push his so-called Star Wars initiative.
And so they tried to push back when the Cold War ended. They don't have any communist boogeyman anymore to to fight against. So then they decided to transfer their energies in attentions to fighting anybody who who would restrain capitalism.
So they become very tightly linked with libertarian types of institutions at this point or anybody who would stop, you know, could tobacco companies doing whatever they please or polluter's doing it really please.
In other words, anybody should do anything as long as they don't restrain capitalism. So they then became the root source for a tremendous amount of all this denial's work, whether it be denying global warming or denying whatever. Even they had a tremendous influence on the group for that tried to fight against the ozone hole issue. And ironically, in spite of their efforts, the ozone hole issue was resolved and the companies that make chlorofluorocarbons were all capable of switching to alternatives.
The market had already shifted away from them. So we now have a global agreement on those things and we are actually gradually recovering our ozone layer. So it was actually scientifically resolved. In spite of that, these guys were always fighting against the what was going on in science.
One of the things that strikes me as interesting is how actually old these debates are. And I really mean old because so, for instance, as it turns out, the first discussion I can think of in the western canon of of pseudo science, although the term certainly wasn't used in that. Yeah. It's found in one of the Platoni dialogues.
Calmy this. That is all. Yes. Which Socrates actually inquires about the difference between quackery and medicine and has a similar parallel, right?
Yeah. Blacks are known to be frauds from the very beginning.
And the only and the Socrates concluded at the time was, look, the only people that can tell the difference are actual drug. You got to ask the experts and of course, now we know about matters of that time, there are none of them were doctors in any modern sense.
Now, if the term pseudoscience itself apparently actually traces back only to to 1843, it was a physiologist, Francois Hollande, who used it. And interestingly, it used it in the context of discussions, of criticisms of phrenology.
Oh, and so phrenology at the time could have made an interesting case for being actually a science.
Clearly, it's not you know, it's not very popular at that time. It was very popular. And and, you know, that seemed to be empirical evidence and that sort of stuff. But in fact, even as early as 1843, somebody said, no, no, no, this is actually pseudoscience. And he actually used the term pseudoscience and say, I assume. Right.
And so investigations, of course, of systematic investigations of pseudoscience also have a long history. Probably most of our listeners are familiar with the episode in seventeen eighty four, when King Louis, the 16th of France convened that special team that included Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier to investigate and eventually debunk mesmerism as another was hugely popular at that time.
So it's not going in one. No, no. Twenty four hundred years of history here.
That's right. No, I doubt that ever would either. I mean, it's in the nature of humans to believe whatever makes them feel better. I mean, I think that's the simplest truth behind it, that people, you know, in every culture have their own stories about the world and the stories about the world and to a greater or lesser standard of things that either helps them understand it or cope with it or feel better about the role in it, especially reducing the fear of the unknown.
And it's all that's driven mythology from the very beginning as well. And I doubt that ever will change because we humans are still humans. What differs, though, is that the stories about the world, the scientific community has produced, many of them produce testable consequences. Many of them produced the technology that we're using to make this broadcast right now. Unlike anything in the last four, four millennia, you know, there was no progress on electronics or physics or medicine until modern science came along.
And I you know, when someone says this, you know, ridiculous thing, we should keep science out of politics or should keep science from interfering with religion.
I say, OK, well, you can go back to faith healing.
You can go back to the way doctors were back in the 19th century when it was probably better not to have a doctor come because he probably would bleed you and probably pass germs to you rather than leave you alone. That's how homeopathy got started. The reason they were so successful early on is because it was actually more dangerous to see a doctor and not see your doctor.
And homeopathy did didn't do anything.
They didn't deal with open wounds or pass germs to patients so easily, and therefore they got to be the better survival rate. And that's when I started hurting. That's right. But of course, then modern medicine changed, only passed did.
So, Don, do you have any practical advice from your experience in talking to deny lists like if evidence doesn't change their mind, then what does?
Yeah, it varies on who your audience is.
I mean, there's always a car, people in the creationist movement, a car, people you the global warming movement, you know, have very strongly held beliefs.
So there'd be a libertarian route for the denialism, global warming or a religious route for the creationists.
And those people are, you know, virtually impossible reach because that that philosophical underpinning of it gives them the sense of meaning of life and sense of security and something that they don't want to surrender.
That's why it's impossible almost ever to root that out. So in my 2007 book that, you know, I specify cases we're doing and told demonstrably false information. And in that in that context, you know, I expected some response from the capitulations community.
In fact, they ignored it for the first two years. I realize they don't read anything other than what's already reaffirms their position.
But what was really heartening to me is I don't expect to reach those people ever. That's just not going to happen. What was really encouraged me, especially as I saw the sales that book kick off and I began to read the comments that put out there on the Amazon site, which is a really good barometer.
What the general readership is saying out there was it was really useful for people on the on the on the fence, on the borderline, you know, people who had heard something about evolution but were also religious background or people are confused about it and weren't sure what to think.
So they weren't sold on a pure creationist position, but they also weren't sure what they should think or not think about evolution.
And that audience was overwhelmingly positive. That was the kind of people I didn't expect.
But I realised there's a large percentage of Americans don't really have an opinion and thanks to our poor high school educations, don't know anything that really didn't know what was going on, what evolution was about and why creationism is wrong.
All the stuff I tried to lay out as simple a fashion without offending anybody other than the people who already don't want to hear it and apparently reached out on audience. And I think that same would be true of any of these cases. There's. Going to be the hardcore believers and only time and political and social change will probably diminish their numbers, but I doubt they'll disappear completely. Just I creationism's never manage from American politics ever since evolution came along.
But on the other hand, there's there are only a small percentage.
I mean, most people that Gallup keeps getting 40 percent of Americans are creationists, I don't think are hard core. I think they just don't know any better and they may not have heard anything.
And so I think there's a great undecided middle in America that you can reach if you give them persuasive arguments and are very direct about why the opponent is telling a false story.
What you're saying actually is is very consistent with a very recently published little handbook. It's called The Debunking Handbook by John Cooke and Steven Levitt asking. We've put a link on the website because I highly recommend it if it's only eight pages long. But it's very simple. Yeah, it's and it's based on essentially cognitive research, cognitive psychological research that tells you what works and what doesn't work. And one of the things, of course, that they do say is exactly what you just said, that is that you forget about convincing or approaching the true believers.
You just go from the middle. Another thing, however, that I thought was two interesting things that I thought these others point out is the research shows, first of all, that a lot of factual information actually has a deleterious effect. Right. I've read the idea that if you don't want to just bombard people with facts and fact, in fact, because apparently what the brain does, if you if you ask people immediately, right after they heard the facts, they may be able, in fact, to, you know, basically spit it back out.
But later on, if time passes, what they're left with is the fact that fact becomes a hazy, foggy kind of thing. And the myth that you wanted to debunk actually remains in some sense. You're actually doing the opposite of what you should be doing. The other thing that they that the others point out of the debunking handbook is that you don't want to actually actually mention, if if possible, the thing you are debunking. Oh, I read about that, because if you mention especially if you mentioned in the beginning, actually this has a reinforcing effect rather than debunking one.
I don't know exactly how that would be one way or another on that, because in my book, you know, it's deliberately one thing I deliver this year with my 2007 book, and I did somewhat with the book I'm working on now is you can't you can't can't read the, you know, the monster in the closet unmentioned.
And so most of the thing I was frustrated when I looked at other books on evolution that were out there, mostly written by biologists, was that not only creation not mentioned, but no attempt was made to even give them some kind of a little bit of tidbit of reason why we don't even bother to think about creationism in science.
And I thought, OK, there's definitely got to be a market for something that actually faces it head on, because it is such a huge issue in the culture.
And there's so many people have got in the middle of these debates and had things happen where they were, you know, suddenly faced with the two sides and didn't know what to make of it. And that's what I felt my book had a niche for and apparently did the way it sold. So, you know that, yes, it may be helpful to you, maybe better if you just present them your side in a very persuasive thing in many contexts.
But so many people are doing that and not making any progress.
Here's a time where they actually put the whole debate out and show them why the opponent's position is, is this and here's the answer to it and put it out there a long time.
Let me give you an example. So from the hymnbook, actually, they provide a schematic example, which applies to something we were discussing earlier, the climate change controversy. Right. So they have these nice little diagram where they they start out, they show you how to present more effectively your arguments.
And so they start out with the core fact is communicating the headline in this case, the example is 97 out of 100 climate climate experts agree humans are causing global warming. Right. And then they go on with a core fact being reinforced in opening paragraph and you flesh it out, then you give and this is apparently crucial.
Then you give an explicit warning to the reader that the myth is about to come up. Yes. And so the way they phrase is, you know, whenever movements that deny a scientific consensus have always done blah, blah, blah, then you actually state the myth.
The myth in this case being that the petition project that you were talking about earlier, where a bunch of thirty one thousand scientists agree on another story in that quite well.
And finally they conclude by using graphic where they actually show you that out of those thirty one, what does it mean to have 97 percent agreement? So they have these nice diagrams where there's a bunch of tiny little people, each representing a scientist, and then they have a circle around the only one that disagrees on this on this thing based on the idea that graphic, graphic information actually makes you stick with your thousand words in this case.
In that vein, probably every time that you refer back to the myth that of the petition. You probably want to use the word myth instead of saying the claim that or the idea that just to keep reinforcing in people's mind, well, that's sort of the structure my evolution book and my upcoming book is that I usually start with here's what the consensus is.
And then, you know, after I've framed it and explained it as clearly as I can, then I will go to the I don't usually start with the politician first. That's not something you don't want to do. So other than you start anecdotally, maybe with a politician making a stupid statement along the lines of just talking about just an illustration of where it is in the culture and then start with the science and then eventually come back to. I mean, these effects are subtle.
When I was doing research for nonsense and still I found, for instance, literature in psychological literature that shows that a very effective way of smearing a candidate is is to publish a disclaimer. Yes. Of a lie. Right.
So, you know, like dumb brother who is now running for vice president or whatever, not.
Yes, that's right. I have an affair.
Why did you stop beating your wife? Yes.
And the denial itself eventually gets gets sort of dropped out of people's memory. What remains is the association between the name and then, of course, in the literal sense, your ad did not, in fact, say something.
Exactly. So you are not up against the wall.
There are human beings are bizarre, are called by some people. I know the dark arts of psychology so dark says the way we were manipulated when many more ways than we really want admit.
Well, I mean, the whole idea of propaganda is is applied psychology in finding a way to get them working the way it was a little bit of rational filter, which they don't usually use much time anyway.
So on that optimistic note, we will wrap up this rationally speaking podcast and look forward to hearing your pick.
I would just like to let our listeners know that if you're interested in discussing this or any of our other rationally speaking topics. Further with me, Krasno, I encourage you to come see us live in all of our rational glory, because Mazama and I are both going to be at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, the fourth annual this coming April 21st and 22nd in New York, New York, Masimo and I will be taping a live episode of Rationally Speaking and as a nice extra bonus, in addition to the two of us, you've got a great lineup of fascinating speakers and panels and performances from people like James Randi Schostak, Joe Niccolò, the EU crew and many more go to NextG.
That's NBC Astorga and get your ticket now because we do expect to sell out.
Welcome back every episode and I pick a couple of our favorite books, movies, websites or whatever tickles our rational fancy. This time we ask our guest, Don Prothro, for his suggestion Don.
Yeah, that I thinking about possibilities here. And I have a weekly blog on Skeptic blog that appears every Wednesday morning. And so if you're interested in the kinds of things that I like to work on, whether it be scientific topics, evolution, climate change, frequently it's a philosophical topic. This week's blog is about John Lennon in the 60s. Is this is the anniversary or two days ago as the anniversary of his death here in New York City. So I try to post something.
It's a little more than just what I did with my last twenty four hours type of blog. And, you know, a lot of them are fairly interesting, philosophical or scientific topics. The one two weeks ago was about the famous story of the Nebraska man tooth, which is one the creation's beat to death all the time. And I just saw that specimen yesterday when I was in the American Museum. So I put a little story together about how that came to be and what who made the mistakes and then how creationism abused that.
So that's that's the kind of stuff I try to post every weekend and it's going just spy. In fact, I'm already post enough post to get through February at this point. So I get a lot of ideas. And I just started last March right after my book came out in the Sendai quake. And I wrote a bunch of things that people wanted to use, OK? And then asked me to be on the Skeptic blog post with Michael Shermer and Brian Dunning and Daniel WLOX, a number of different other contributors, Steve Novela and I figured Mike Prospector's a little different because I'm more of a natural scientist now, doctor like Avella is.
So I, I post on topics. They're mostly in the scientific and the natural sciences and it's been fun to watch the different responses for things. That's the most interesting about it. It has a very active comment string that picks up on almost every post. And all I have to do is mention anything that has to do with politics or, you know, anything close to impinging on libertarianism. And then there's a giant usually it's a snowballing string that goes away out of control.
It has no bearing to whatever I said. But the the the lefties versus the libertarians, you two go at each other for 50 or 100 comments, after which I noticed that, in fact, I developed that into a trick.
Any time that that the Russian speaking blogs sort of feels like it's not getting enough hits, then all I need to do is to bring that up.
Yes, because that's something Spike's probably the one big divide, the skeptical community. Is there a lot of libertarians, sort of the conservative side and then a lot of liberals. And so that always gets interest. And I don't usually attend that. But I discover by acts and every time I mention global warming, it always lapses into a battle of libertarian versus liberal view of how we face it. But I'm trying to talk about the science. So that's interesting where it gets complicated.
And as we said earlier, you better not get the science into the politics. You know, Santorum, of course. Yes.
I can't believe you have enough blog posts already written for February. That's the predominant idea.
And I have time to do it. I try to write it while it's hot and get it there because I just I was you know, I'm going to be very busy the next few months and I'm doing a lot of things at once. I just finishing a sabbatical right now. So I'm writing like a maniac right now. And so when I when I'm not writing on a book that I've got a couple of books I just finished and then I try to put post in there because I figured, OK, I'll be in the middle of teaching or I'll be in the middle of something else.
I won't have time and I won't have an idea. So if I got an idea, I you can upload them at any time. And so I keep up uploading them and putting dates on them in the future. And then what ends up happening is something will happen that particular week that I said, oh, I should comment on this, so then I'll bump one. There's not time sensitive to February or March because I want to comment on what just happened.
And so that's that's why I keep Julius's.
This is the way to do it.
So I'm waiting for your next six posts for rationally speaking, I like to have them by tomorrow night, if possible, please. Well, I have enough blog post written for last week.
So it was also because I've done a book and everything, a lot of the pieces of books I've written end up being nice. Little tidy stories. Fit is a blog post so well everyone.
I encourage everyone to check out Skeptic Blog for Don Post and and some other great posts by the fellow contributors to the blog, as well as his chapter in Massimo's book, which is going to be coming out soon. And a little farther down the line, Danzon book on denialism, covering many of the topics that we discussed today in the podcast.
Don, thank you so much for joining us today. It's great.
And as always, links to all of the websites and books and so on. That we've mentioned in this episode will be on our website, rationally speaking podcast. Dawg, this concludes another episode of rationally speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.
The rationally speaking podcast is presented by New York City skeptics for program notes, links, and to get involved in an online conversation about this and other episodes, please visit rationally speaking podcast Dog. This podcast is produced by Benny Pollack and recorded in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. Our theme, Truth by Todd Rundgren, is used by permission. Thank you for listening.