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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Selective Skepticism

How can some people claim to be skeptics but support entirely unfounded theories? Ideology trumps science.

Ron Paul being told Cory is in his house.
Image via Wikipedia

Through my friendfeed channel I was surprised to find (an author of) the skeptic blog 2 days ago post an article promoting (right-)Libertarianism, of the Rothbardian type. That is, what the US Americans now call simply “libertarianism” ((For the rest of the article, whenever I mention “libertarianism” I will mean the right-side one for brevity) ((I then spend the last 2 days arguing with the Rothbardians in there. Take a look and laugh)).

This is becoming a trend recently it seems to me. From Penn & Teller to Bill Maher, many self proclaimed skepticists seem to also take a second role of promoting right-libertarianism. Similar to how this “libertarian” movement has taken over the freedom-promoting words of Anarchism, they seem to be eager to strongly associate skepticism with themselves.

It is also weirdly ironic that many (most?) of them also are eager to claim themselves as “Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) skeptics” or that the 9/11 truther movement is primarily of the Ron Paul libertarian school, or the Fed conspiracist theorists generally tend to also be Austrian-economic school anti-central-bank.

But in truth, there is a very particular common denominator in all of these skeptics. While they seem skeptical of all the usual stuff (ie anything contradicting science, or having very little empirical evidence) They also tend to be skeptical of whatever is not compatible with what neoclassical economics would suggest.

This explains why so  many of these skeptics are very eager to jump to evidence against AGW, or even if they accept it, they wish to downplay its severity significantly in order to suggest that it would be solvable through “free-market solutions”. The reason for this is that neoclassical economics suggests that the role of the state should be reduced to simply to protector of private property. As such, request for the state to implement environmental solution or to jump-start the private market, go totally against the edicts of “free market knows best” and trigger an automatic denial instinct for all the skeptics espousing them.

But why does this particular bias emerge? After all Anarchists don’t seem to have (at least from my experience) any such blinds. And similar applies to Social Democrats (“Liberals” in the US). The reason why this is of course is because libertarians have absolute faith in economics, a faith so powerful that the bias it created is enough to overwhelm even empirical science.

Libertarians of course will wish to defend this by claiming that Economics is a form of science, and as consistent skeptics, they have to side with that. But the sad truth is that Economics are not scientific. Quite the contrary actually, with its insistence on theories that are empirically disproven it is rather the opposite and resembles a religion. Unfortunately, unlike normal science which is actually empowered by skepticism (which prunes false theories), Economics’ flimsy basis makes them particularly vulnerable to it.

Now it is actually possible to have skeptic theists. It is inconsistent on their part, since they are quite capable of rational skepticism over most concepts but as soon as a topic reaches close to their religion of choice, all skepticism flies out of the window. As such, a Christian might be skeptical of ghosts, UFOs, Muslims miracles etc, but will quite happily accept some basic absurd articles, such as resurrections, existence of demons, afterlife etc. This may in turn spill over to other matters that although generally rational, might skew their perspective. So for example they may be extremely “skeptical” of evolutionary theory or abiogenesis etc. This is selective skepticism at work.

And this is unsurprisingly very similar to the libertarian brand of skepticism. A skepticism that avoids looking at a whole school of thought (economics) with the same critical eye that it directs to theism and woo-woo and rather acts like apologist to various wrong practices, even in the face of scientific evidence.

Atheist Nexus Brouhaha

A Place of Peace?In the last few days it seems that there has been some commotion on the subject of the A|N in the Atheosphere. I’ve been keeping myself busy with other things and haven’t been very active in the Nexus and thus I missed the actual conversation.

What happened in short is that after the donation request, some people raised concerns regarding where the money is going, why so much is needed and other assorted questions. It seems that there is a general feeling of distrust and skepticism on this issue which I think culminated with the recent posting from the Atheist Blogger.
Adrian has since changed his opinion on this after private correspondence he had with Brother Richard but I think the whole event was for the best.

You see, I am a big supporter of transparency and furthermore I am a skeptic. It goes against my nature to simply accept someone’s word that “it’s for a good cause”. Indeed I am diametrically opposed to the following statement from the donation page:

Quite a few members have chastised me for posting the below budget. Many feel that I am being way to open and only making it easier for people to make me a target for their scorn.

If anything, I feel that there was not enough information provided in the donation page which is what led to people to question the amount of money requested. If the A|N were to not just request this amount of money, but also keeps thins secret I wouldn’t have bothered donating. Indeed I avoided donating anything before I got a breakdown of the donation amount and even then I did it conservatively as many sums were suspicious.

I can truthfully say that the only reason I donated in the first place is because I’ve already invested some time and effort to the A|N and I’ve grown to trust Richard from private conversations. However this is certainly not true for all, and Richard cannot really have one-on-one chats with every member of the Nexus in order to build up the same level of trust, and this is where transparency comes into play.

All examples of the Rational Responders or the FFRF making a lot of money and keeping things secret mean absolutely nothing to me, for I have not donated to them either. However I do believe that people who donate to those causes do so because of the level of trust and goodwill the people in charge have built up. The A|N OTOH is very new in all this and there is basically very little reason for people to donate – until that trust and goodwill has had time to grow.

For each vocal person like Adrian Hayter, who comes out and declares the reasons why he is leaving or not donating, you can be certain that there will be 100 silent ones who have the exact same concerns. I had many of the exact same questions with regards to the donation breakdown but instead of driving me to write about it, I decided to wait and see.

For this reason, the A|N team should be actually glad that someone voiced these concerns. By having someone challenge the donation drive and ask for questions, we (the silent majority) have now a much more clear idea of what is going on and can decide either way. Indeed having such a “detractor” admit publicly that he was wrong, is a good thing in the long run. It is in A|N’s best interest to encourage skepticism, not hide it.

I think Vjack put it best:

Frankly, those who seem determined to stick their heads in the sand bother me more than those asking tough questions. I am an atheist, but I was a skeptic first. To see dissent and skepticism discouraged in a community of atheists is surprising. The investigation was the right thing to do, and people should keep asking questions until they have been answered to everyone’s satisfaction.

Do not put your head in the sand and do not expect freethinkers to follow the religious motif of giving 10% of their income unquestionably. Yes, the respect to authority and the blind trust for “benevolent dictators” give the religious front much power and influence, but it is also part of their weakness.

You will never get the same behaviour from people like me, but make an effort to earn maintain our trust and 10% might start looking too little.