Skeptics, Denialists and Conspiracy Theorists

Many denialists call themselves “skeptics”. Many conspiracists call themselves “truthers”. However there’s very important differences with actual skeptics.

Skeptic cat is skeptical by aturkus

A conspiracy theorist is someone who has a theory and tries to find data to support it (lets call this “positive data”) while marginalizing and/or ignoring any data which falsifies it (“negative data”). When the evidence used to maintain a theory is falsified, a conspiracy theorist will either deny the evidence (see below) or move on to find new – and usually more and more arcane and obscure – evidence that supports it while retaining a positive belief in his theory based on faith until he finds it. A main characteristic of the conspiracy theorist is that the evidence which falsifies his theory will not make him reconsider the validity of his theory itself but rather make him strive to find new positive data instead.

Example is the 9/11 truther movement which sees various evidence of planned demolition of the twin towers (such as exploding windows, burning steel etc) but refuses to acknowledge the evidence of internal collapse and the information that explains burning steel and so on.

The same tactics are also used by Woo-Woo peddlers as well as the religious.

A denialist is someone who does not like a theory and is thus trying to find data which falsifies it. However he has a conspiracy theorist outlook on selecting them. I.e. In order to prove his falsification theories, he tries to find data to support them while ignoring those that refute them and constantly replaces negative data as previous ones are debunked.

Unlike a skeptic (see below) who considers various ways to falsify a theory as well, a denialist will refuse to acknowledge a theory when it withstands all falsifications. Whereas a skeptic will gladly accept a theory he (or the relevant expert consensus in the field) can’t prove wrong until such time as new evidence comes to light that falsifies it, a denialist will retain that the theory is wrong, no matter the evidence. As such, occasionally a denialist may run out of negative data but retain his denial on faith alone, while constantly trying to discover some shred of evidence, no matter how obscure, to grasp onto.

Example is the Anthropogenic Global Climate Change Denialist movement (that’s a mouthful) who’s been jumping from evidence to evidence to support their denial, while ignoring the mass of positive data for AGCC has accumulated and not considering the significance of all the falsification theories they used to espouse before they were debunked in turn.

A skeptic is someone who sees a theory that does not fit with the current collective knowledge of humankind (i.e. science) and look for ways prove such a theory wrong before accepting it. A theory will only be accepted when it cannot be falsified. However a theory that can bears no falsification (such as an afterlife) can be ignored when it has no corresponding positive data, as it is of no material consequence. For example,  “All humans are mortal” is unfalsifiable but also unimportant as is “Some humans are immortal”. Unless one can show who is immortal and why, the validity or not of such a theory is irrelevant as long as we can accept that by overwhelming evidence, all humans are mortal.

Similarly a proposition such as “afterlife exists” or “ghosts exist” are irrelevant to a skeptic unless positive data can be brought to light to show how those proposition might be true. Once such evidence is brought to light, a skeptic will try to falsify them in order to avoid deluding himself. Only if those theories survive falsification will they be accepted.

A skeptic also recognises that it’s impossible to be knowledgeable in all sectors of human knowledge and is content to defer to experts who have studied each scientific area. As long as there is a consensus of scientists in a given area, a skeptic who has neither the knowledge or the time to acquire it, is justified in relying on scientific consensus. However this is only an acceptable practice for skeptics who recognise their limitations, not a way of doing science. As such, a skeptical expert of a scientific area is within her rights to challenge a theory which has the consensus of her peers and attempt to falsify it when new evidence comes to light. In fact, I would say this is her duty.

In short, the primary difference between a skeptic and a conspiracy theorist is that the skeptic gives far more weight to the falsification of a theory rather than the evidence for it. The primary difference between a skeptic and a denialist is that the skeptic accepts a theory he or the scientific community cannot falsify which is also supported by positive data. The difference with both, is that a skeptic will be neutral towards a theory at the start, unlike starting positive to it like the Conspiracy theorist or negative to it like the Denialist based on some kind of gut feeling. A skeptic will become positive to a theory only when there is overwhelming evidence and/or consensus for it and negative to it when there is overwhelming falsification and/or no evidence for it.

On the other hand, the reason why so many denialists are also conspiracy theorists is because their methods complement each other. A conspiracy theorist would have a problem maintaining his theories if he did not consistently deny the evidence against them and a denialist would have a problem sustaining his denial if he did not avoid reconsidering his opposition when his evidence failed. As such, it’s easier for a denialists to be taken in by conspiracy theorists (think of those AGCC denialists who blame the scientific consensus to a global New World Order cabal) and conspiracy theorist or woo-woo peddlers are very likely to turn into denialists against theories which run counter to their conspiracy theories.

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(Right-)Libertarianism, Denial and lulz

A blogger make an empirical research on the subjects of right-libertarian blogs. The results were unsurprising.

Someone recently attempted a small study to check what the top topics of the top “Libertarian” ((Well, you know, right-libertarian really, which is only close to actual liberty in la-la land)) blogs are about and found some interesting conclusions, namely, that right-libertarians are in denial about economic externalities. This is not particularly surprising for anyone who has had the misfortune to discuss extensively with some of their more vulgar elements but it is interesting how a similar result can also be seen from a methodological research.

I like how the author has seen the general trend towards denial that one can notice in right-libertarians and consolidated it as denial against economic externalities.  That’s far more concise than my observation of their general denial against anything that might point out that capitalist free markets are not a particularly good solution. I personally find that it’s the flaw of starting from the explicit premise that the Free Markets Are Good which therefore compels one to ignore and eventually deny all evidence that might challenge this. It can easily lead to a faith-based belief that is severely unhealthy to critical thought. It’s only more ironic when one considers how proud right-libertarians are of their “Rationality”.

As one would expect the author noticed that the top subjects discussed in the top blogs are all of those one would expect from people already convinced that what’s good for business, is good for everyone. Denial of AGW (Because there’s no easy market-based solution so it’s far easier to support libertarianism when this uncomfortable harm doesn’t exist). Denial of Smoking harms (Same as before). Support for tax breaks for the rich (On the flawed assumption that either the rich invest more when they have more money or Randian-esque nonsense that the rich deserve their wealth because of their hard work.) Fortunately for the author, he didn’t get to see other crown favorites such as support for sweat-shop practices, Anti-Trade-Unionism, Pro-IP confusion, Anti-Minimum-wage, crypto-misogyny etc.I guess he can consider himself lucky.

Expectedly, the right-libertarian stormtroopers quickly descended to defend their ideology with the wrath of heavens It’s a pity the author didn’t take the time to respond to them (or was it because of his crappy commenting system?) to provide more lulz for onlookers like me.

I also found this kind of research interesting. Perhaps it’ll be worth doing the same in the Anarchosphere and see what kind of stuff we’re talking about. Of course there’s bound to be some confusion if one simply tries to look for the top 20 Anarchist blogs as they’re going to end up with some confused right-libertarians in the mix as well, skewing the result. Perhaps I’ll choose the top 20 blogs which I know are LibSoc. I’d be interesting to see what we’re talking about in general.

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Debate with a libertarian in denial

Stage Two

By Zeus’ golden rain! Can anyone explain to me why I recently seem to attract all the crusaders of capitalism? It seems like every other post I make I’m battling with Objectivists, libertarians, anarcho-capitalists and the like. Did someone stick a “Ask me about Communism!” sticker on my back when I wasn’t looking? Fuck, I don’t even enjoy talking about this stuff.

Stage Two
CC - Credit: NinaMyers

By Zeus’ golden rain! Can anyone explain to me why I recently seem to attract all the crusaders of capitalism? It seems like every other post I make I’m battling with Objectivists, libertarians, anarcho-capitalists and the like. Did someone stick a “Ask me about Communism!” sticker on my back when I wasn’t looking? Fuck, I don’t even enjoy talking about this stuff.

So recently I’ve been having a lively discussion with a member of the Atheist Nexus who contated me via email and initiated a discussion by innocuously asking me some basic questions on freedoms (such as if I support ban on smoking or drugs). The nature of the questions was somehow suspicious as I’ve been very clear generally on my support for personal freedoms in the fora but I decided to answer anyway.

As I expected, soon enough the questions turned to accusations of me not allowing the same freedom for economy that I allow to persons and that somehow makes me a hypocrite and a “moral facist” [1. The later description is just my way to describe the classic accusation all libertarians seem to make, with annoying frequency, of “pushing our morality upon them”] and things only started getting downhill from there…

The main gist of Oolon’s “I’m not a libertarian” Colluphid was that absolutely unregulated freedom is the best thing that can ev4r happen. All my arguments were either equivocated or handwaved away as irrelevant or inconsequential.

  • Positive Freedom? There’s no such thing. It’s “entitlement” and you’re stealing money to achieve it
  • Wage Slavery? It’s not that. You always have a choice to switch jobs and just because you’re unhappy with your work it does not mean that you’re entitled to something better.
  • Tragedy of the commons? It’s not really a problem and besides, Capitalism can deal with it…somehow.
  • Hard working people being impoverished? Impossible! They’re just lazy. Prove it to me otherwise!
  • Inequality? This will never change so we might as well look to ourselves.(why is this such a favorite response from capitalists?)

Generally the classic libertarian lollipop where the pertaining notion is that Free Market knows best and all concerns to the contrary are trivialized. I even had my example of one getting a work that exploits them because of desperation, compared to…taking out the garbage!

This is precisely the reason why I don’t enjoy these debates. Whenever I state my arguments, people seem to enjoy jumping on their high horse and calling me an authoritarian. I am accused of not understanding the “human nature” (which will of course, never-ever change) without them ever recognising that, without this “human nature” changing, their system is even worse.

For my part, I generally agree with Ebonmuse’s “Why I’m not a libertarian” series from which I often take many of the arguments whenever I’m faced with these discussions. I also have a few other arguments that Ebonmuse did not tackle, such as the possibility for monopolies to form in a libertarian environment (which another A|N member believes are only formed because of goverment intervention, as silly as that sounds).

In general this email debate covered all the bases: Poor people are lazy, I misunderstand economics, I am a moral fascist, capitalism is a natural as evolution etc.
It also touched on two issues I would like to tackle:

At some point in our discussion Oolon revealed his favorable future

There’s no two ways about it. Either we follow the majority’s economic “ideals” or we follow the minority’s. I don’t see why it should be the later.

False dichotomy. We can let the government set back, enforce basic laws and let society for itself. Nothing it stopping you from forming a commune and living a socialist lifestyle in my capitalist country however in a socialist country I can’t own and operate a private business

Why is forming a commune perfectly fine but if that commune becomes large enough to include the whole nation that is not fine? If a capitalist does not want to live in a commune he does not have to get in it, but if the majority of people in a country want to form a commune, they somehow can’t? What if that commune I form grows so much as to include all other citizens of the country? Wouldn’t that be the same thing?
Oolon, is not about allowing freedom, he is all about getting his own way. If somehow all other humans on the planet wanted to live in a grand planet-wide commune, then Oolon would feel that he is being oppressed.

That is, unfortunately, a classic sentiment I’ve seen libertarian express (which I’m just certain, Oolon isn’t). It should be either their way or nothing at all – and this is why I am always left with the impression that they’re just spoiled brats…

However Oolon has another conflict that he may have perhaps not noticed. He is supporting enironmental protections (and government checks on corporations to that end) and he’s also for Government protection. However I could very well use the same arguments he does, in order to argue against these concepts too:
Why should I pay for you protection Oolon? Why can’t I use my hard earned money to buy my own protection that would better serve me? Why should you be entitled to protection? Why do you want to curtail my freedom to build and use whatever I want? A coal plant will save me more money than a wind pylon.

Of course the obvious conflicts of supporting some socialistic policies (environmental and protection) because of the good consequences they will have, while on the other hand opposing others (like universal heathcare) is the classic schizophrenic nature of the right-libertarian beast. They subconsciously realize that common goals have a net benefit for everyone but are utterly incapable of seeing that it’s the same exact concept for the rest.

Unfortunately, once again, I find out that there is little point in having a conversation like these. Sooner or later we reach some fundamental difference in concepts and it then becomes a shouting match. And I have neither the time nor the inclination to participate.