15 July, 2011

Just Asking Questions

Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the "body of fact" that exists in the mind of the.general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.
-Brown & Williamson internal memo, 1969.

In such cases teachers should not teach as true only one competing view, just the Republican or Democratic view of the New Deal in a history class, for example. Instead, teachers should describe competing views to students and explain the arguments for and against these views as made by their chief proponents. Educators call this “teaching the controversy.”

-Stephen Meyer, 'Teach the Controversy', 2002.

"We must not rush to judgment before all the facts are in. We need to ask more questions. We deserve more answers. And until we learn more, we should not commit America to any international document that handcuffs us either now or into the future."

-Frank Luntz's internal memo of the Republican Party, 1994.

One of the common themes throughout this humble volume is that denialism is the art of obfuscation. Unravelling the truth of a matter is, for denialists, something which holds little interest; that interest is instead firmly held by casting doubt upon well-established science. To that end the development of an alternative explanatory model for a set of phenomena is often scrupulously avoided, and traded for safety in vacuity. Often the very phenomena that is to be explained - the very data on which a theory is built - is dismissed entirely, as is the case in many forms of creationism and Holocaust denial.

Documents published by the International Red Cross and the Vatican do not harmonize with the extermination claims, and the very well informed wartime Pope, Pius XII, is often castigated for not speaking up against exterminations of Jews.

Partially on account of general wartime conditions and partially as a consequence of the German measures against the Jews (e.g. crowding into ghettos), a large number of Jews perished, but nothing near six million.

Published population statistics are quite meaningless, mainly because almost all of the Jews involved in the problem were East European (e.g. two or three million Polish Jews), but also because in the U.S.A. there has been no reliable count -- the census does not treat this and the concept "Jew" was not admitted into the official records when a very large number entered the U.S. after the war. To the extent that a significant number of Jews might seem to be missing from some region they occupied before the war, they can to the best of our knowledge be accounted for in terms of the massive and well known postwar movements of Jews to the U.S., Palestine and other lands, and also in terms of their simply remaining in the Soviet Union where the Germans had put them, according to the German documents.

The evidence for the extermination allegations depends crucially on trials, such as the Nuremberg trials, held before courts that were for political reasons constrained to accept the basic truth of such allegations. Thus to many relevant defendants it seemed that the only possible defense strategy was to deny not the exterminations but only their personal responsibility for them (e.g. Ernst Kaltenbrunner or Adolf Eichmann).

-Arthur Butz, 'The International 'Holocaust' Controversy', last accessed twenty seconds ago.

Suddenly and on no evidentiary basis nothing we know matters, the overwhelming weight of evidence is to be ignored, and a useful manner in which to pretend this is the case is to declare that an issue is not settled, is still controversial because of imaginary issues either long-settled or irrelevant. The tobacco industry - just about all of it - conducted a concerted effort comic in the extent of its evil which we even now look upon fondly, as something that could not possibly happen to us. Vast sums of money was poured into extensive, comprehensive and lavish lobbying, evidence uncovered by company scientists which demonstrated the harms of smoking was actively suppressed, scientists were bought and attempts were made for the extensive infiltration of scientists and science organisations across the globe; all of this to perpetuate the idea that the science demonstrating that tobacco was harmful was poorly conducted, inconclusive and insufficient to justify healthcare concerns by smokers or their families, legal proceedings or government regulations. Tobacco giants flatly denied that there was any evidence that smoking caused cancer, that no clinical trials showed it, that there was no biological mechanism, etc., and engaged in an enormous and unethical public relations campaign to ensure that it seemed there was a legitimate scientific controversy about the issue. They knew, of course, that the opposite was true, and accepted it themselves. This has become industry standard: the oil industry's extensive lobbying of Congress in light of climate change, for instance, and Exxon (among, of course, others) has rather infamously been slipping cash into the pockets of 'think tank' organisations which uniformly deny that global warming is caused by humans; it even has its own Council for Tobacco Research in the form of the NIPCC, and its own The Advancement of Sound Science Center in the form of The Advancement of Sound Science Center. The intent has been to successfully convince the public that there is a scientific controversy of the issue, when in reality 96-98% of actively publishing climatologists are in support of the fact that the current trend of global warming is human-driven. This itself isn't a terribly big issue in of itself, certainly not so much as evidence, which such think tanks uniformly happen to lack. The lack of evidence and poor argumentation tending towards a specific false case is, a more suspicious chap than myself may suggest, possibly explained by all of this money floating about.

Developing an overarching model of an alternative position forces one to build it from the evidence, from what we know; for denialists this is an obvious problem, as the evidence contradicts them in an alarmingly complete fashion. More importantly making a truth claim about the natural world makes the beliefs of the denier intelligible: if the theory is testable, it may be proven wrong; if it is untestable, it is unscientific. The appearance of doing science and the prestige this brings can be garnered through other, safer means than making a token attempt at it, and so science is of little use to a denier. It is therefore clearly more sensible to merely publicly 'ask questions', and then deny any responsibility for one's implications or stances when the event or happening in question is demonstrated to be innocuous or irrelevant. There is a weird impunity in this, where one error can be abandoned for another as needed.

The 9/11 denial movement is infamous for this, of course, and is the trope namer. There are long, weird, rambling conspiracy theories (mostly about Jews of course), but the motto of the 9/11 movement, which generally tends to regard those actually constructing hypotheses as kooks or disinformation agents, is rather inarguably best represented on the chests of these fine fellows:


Hence the popularity of the long lists of questions (see also the various documentaries, Loose Change's various incarnations, Question 9/11, 9/11 Mysteries, 9/11 Contradictions by David Griffin, etc., etc.) and supposed problems with the scientific explanation of the day or the comments of government officials, first responders etc.: even were they accurately or honestly presented, which they are invariably not, there is rarely any attempt to tie the myriad, mutually contradictory threads into a cohesive narrative, into an explanation of what actually happened. Rather, lists of events which are supposedly too coincidental or anomalous; of misquotations of traumatised eyewitnesses and the confusions of live reporting are presented in lieu of an argument; even then it is presented dishonestly, and the wider bulk of evidence, so crippling of their beliefs, so overwhelming, is ignored. The intention is not to find the truth but to cast doubt upon truths too uncomfortable to bear.

The collapses of the twin towers, for instance, are amongst the most studied in history, with a substantial number of peer reviewed structural engineering papers examining the various forces at play. There have been numerous investigations, both private and governmental, which will always, must always remain insufficient for the ever-expanding goalposts of denialists. With the release of the NEADS tapes we have an excellent understanding of the circumstances of the responsiveness on the day. And yet it is still a forum industry standard (tm) to prattle about the exercises being conducted by NORAD, and the claim that the twin towers were brought down through controlled demolition is still a common refrain.

To a greater extent this is because such movements tend to have social aspirations. The veneer of honesty in asking misleading questions is one facet of that. It is a policy of looking respectable enough that the more radical issue can be forced later, and welcoming enough to allow a broader base of people for the movement. If the nature of the movement is narrowed to attack a specific, perhaps unpopular scientific revelation, then opponents to that aspect of science-based understanding can join the crusade, rather than merely people who agree with the beliefs that drive and underpin the movement. This attitude would be ridiculous if the intention were to forward a scholarly argument; for denialists, it is sensible politics.

The modern creationist movement is also a stellar example of this. Avoiding the construction of an overarching explanatory hypothesis that can actually be tested is central to the movement's intentions: this is the 'big tent' strategy, which allows young earth creationists, old earth creationists, teleological evolutionists, etc. to form a single movement dedicated to attacking evolution as a natural process (along with its less popular facts). When Meyer magnanimously suggests that he was merely asking for the controversy to be taught, rather than ID, he did so neglecting to mention that they are one and the same: ID is composed of attacks on evolution, and to teach the false creationist attacks on evolution which the Discovery Institute has propagated is therefore to teach Intelligent Design. It must have slipped his mind.

Amongst the usual suspects of creationism's attacks on evolution, Behe's irreducible complexity, for instance, is merely the assertion that evolution fails to explain certain organs because they could not have gradually and evolutionarily developed (making it an argument from ignorance too, but we'll be here all day if I go through each of these wonderful fellows' problems). It, too, is ultimately not falsifiable: whereas each of the examples Behe cites in Darwin's Black Box (1996) etc. have well-evidenced antecedents, or are composed of systems which are elegantly reducible in ways Behe failed to imagine, the concept itself is unassailable: it is, of course, perfectly possible to suppose that one day we could stumble upon an organ which could not have evolved, and there is no way to disprove that potential. But untestable possibilities do not overturn well-established science, and the Discovery Institute was savvy (although evidently not savvy enough) in giving the impression of advancing a scientific hypothesis when it was, again, merely attacking evolution.

Lastly, it is because such hypotheses may be clearly unpalatable. Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005) exploded the Discovery Institute's hope to run Intelligent Design under the constitutional radar, and its central goal of forcing religion into science education failed. Attempts to construct a 9/11 hypothesis tend to be indigestible for the general public, or, for all of their technical arguments, sent back at the appetiser, causing people to dismiss them. When examined in detail the list of criminals taking part in the conspiracy becomes astronomical, and at no point is any evidence presented for any of it. To advance the acceptance of wider ideology, as in the Discovery Institute's Wedge Document or ridiculous numbers of conspiracy theorists have bizarrely acknowledged, it does better to lie low about just how zany the end of the rabbit hole really is.

The net effect of all this is to give a sense of a scientific controversy - that there are problems with an existing explanation, crippling problems, that mean we don't have to do anything about an issue. Science can be safely ignored because there are too many holes in it. Thus there is no need for our foreign, health or regulatory policy to account for a fact, thus education must avoid those uncomfortable truths, thus existing medical programmes must be discontinued, thus the way we treat our fellow man must be altered, thus you can't sue us, you can't prove we did anything wrong.