Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The social construction of ignorance: Manufacturing doubts

Are critics of nuclear power engaged in "Denialism? "

When nuclear critic Stephen Gloor accused nuclear supporter Rod Adams of "Nuclear Denialism" he included a list of six characteristics of denialism:
1. Allege that there's a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
2. Use fake experts to support your story. "Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility," says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
3. Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
4. Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
5. Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.
6. Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist "both sides" must be heard and cry censorship when "dissenting" arguments or experts are rejected.
I am not particularly fond of the term "denialism," which refers to a set of related but not entirely identical problems. The problems are real, and centers on the problem of truth, and in particular truth as it relates to science. Most of the cases of "denialism" involve denial of the consensus findings of scientists. in the case of holocaust denial, the denial is of the consensus of historians, not of scientists, but otherwise the phenomena seems closely related.

The word denial itself, draws on the context of the Freudian theory of psychological defenses, and has been popularized by both the 12-Step movement and the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross on grief. Denial is usually taken to be something that the psychic does to prevent the processing of information, but in his book "The Image" the philosopher Kenneth Boulding laid out an account of human processing of new information. New information that is likely to change thinking is not instantly processed. Indeed, Burke argued, if the new information conflicts with existing beliefs, it may be at first, simply ignored. Later the information may be acknowledged as an exception to one's world view, which is maintained. If the information continues to require attention, then one's world view may be altered to account for it. Finally, if the attempt to alter the world view fails, a new world view may replace it. Thus assimilating new information is a cognitive process, that may run through several stages. The term denial thus may obscure the fact that a person or group of people said to be in denial are in fact in an intermediate stage of processing new information.

My problem with the term "denialism" is that it does not distinguish between a confused, complex and often prolonged process of cognitive change through which people change the structure of their knowledge, and deliberate attempts to obstruct the processing of scientific or other rationally constructed information. Kenneth Boulding calls this information pollution. I much prefer the term information polluters, to denialists. I will however, forego for the moment an attempt to sort through the issues involved, and will use the term "denialism," despite my reservations..

"Denialism" is thew topic of increasing study, and the contributions of Dr. Mark Hoofnagle, a surgeon nd his brother Chris Jay Hoofnagle, a lawyer, are almost always noted in accounts of "Denialism "research. The Hoofnagle's are representative 21st knowledge workers, they blog.

And indeed Gloor's list of denialist characteristics is largely derived from the Hoofnagle blog. There is,, however, on discrepancy. The Hoffnagle's do not count Gloor's number 6 (manufacture of doubt) as a separate characteristic of denialists. Rather the manufacture of doubt is the goal of the denialists tactics.

My initial response to Stephen Gloor's list was to find it highly ironic, because Gloor himself, and his anti-nuclear associates can be accused of pursuing denialist tactics against nuclear power. I would like to pursue during several more posts the notion that opposition to nuclear power almost always involves information pollution that resembles what the Hoofnageles call denialism.

No comments:


Blog Archive

Some neat videos

Nuclear Advocacy Webring
Ring Owner: Nuclear is Our Future Site: Nuclear is Our Future
Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet
Get Your Free Web Ring
Dr. Joe Bonometti speaking on thorium/LFTR technology at Georgia Tech David LeBlanc on LFTR/MSR technology Robert Hargraves on AIM High