Paranoid Denialism, a Strange Brew

I was interacting with some people who don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming (AGW). They are typical specimens. I know I’m wasting my time with them, but I can’t help being fascinated by such strange thinking patterns. When I confront the strange, my response is to analyze.

There are numerous problems with the anti-scientific denialist worldview:

1) In the end, it is an empty rationalization.

The structure of the rationalization is not unique to any particular argument and so could be used to defend any belief system equally as well or rather equally as badly. There either is no substance or what little substance included is inconsequential.

2) It presents no falsifiable hypotheses and won’t accept anyone treating their hypothesis as falsifiable.

Their argument can’t be disproven; then again neither can it be proven. The scientific process with peer review is dismissed out of hand and so no objective standard remains. The argument denies the very evidence that disproves it, but it doesn’t disprove the evidence on a case by case analysis. All peer reviewed research is treated as suspect, unless it fits into the preconceived conclusions.

It is standard confirmation bias, sometimes combined with the smart idiot effect as some of these denialists can spout off a lot of carefully selected factoids. It takes a certain kind of intelligence to defend such a difficult position, especially those who dedicate their lives to it. This is similar to how some apologists can be immensely well educated, sometimes even being academics in biblical studies.

3) The denialist’s worldview forms a self-enclosed and self-reinforcing reality tunnel.

The denialist becomes isolated from any new information being able to challenge what he thinks he already knows. It forms a groupthink where denialists help support eachother’s delusions, giving the appearance of credence by closing the ranks. The denialist groupthink is further assisted by particular well funded organizations and think tanks that hire the ‘experts’ to produce the ‘data’ and arguments to create a semblance of coherence.

4) The essence of the argument is a conspiracy theory.

It’s a paranoid worldview where no one can be trusted, unless they affirm the exact same beliefs. This paranoia plays into their entrapment in a reality tunnel of their own construction. The conspiracy theory, however, only makes sense within the belief system itself. If the person was able to see outside their paranoia, they probably wouldn’t be so paranoid and so the conspiracy theory would no longer be compelling.

The conspiracy theory necessitates a conspiracy larger than anything before in history. The conspiracy would have to include every government in the world and every government agency, every scientific institution both publicly and privately funded, nearly all the scientists in the world, and most of the mainstream media. This would be a conspiracy with millions of participants all colluding together in a massive cooperative effort and doing so almost completely hidden from the view of the public. Considering the vast majority of climatologists and other scientists support AGW, this would include at least hundreds of thousands of scientists alone, many of whom work in the private sector.

Interestingly, research has shown that paranoia is an aspect of a Dark Triad which includes three personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. In the research, perceiving Machiavellianism in others (paranoia and conspiracy theorizing) positively and strongly correlates with admitting to a willingness to act with Machiavellian intentions if given the opportunity. To put it simply, such a person is paranoid because they believe other people are just like them, that other people are equally as untrustworthy and immoral/amoral.

By the way, paranoia shows no correlation with low IQ and so it isn’t an issue of intelligence. Some conspiracy theories are so intricate and complex as to be creations of a genius mind. Conspiracy theorizing is pattern-seeking on steroids.

5) Denialists are holding a double standard.

First, they have a double standard for the assessment and acceptance of evidence. The evidence they accept supports their beliefs and they only accept evidence according to their beliefs. But they wouldn’t accept this being used by others who hold views opposing their own. For example, one of the denialists I was interacting with told me to present a peer reviewed paper proving some particular issue, but simultaneously he was denying the validity of the entire peer review process.

Second, they have a double standard of the rationalization behind what evidence is accepted or excluded. One of the criticisms that denialists often make is that they believe AGW supporters are rationalizing according to a self-enclosed reality tunnel and according to a conspiracy theory about big energy. So, they refuse to allow what they perceive in others what they do themselves. This is, of course, projection for on some level most denialists probably realize their position is weak.

The double standard can be demonstrated by returning to the facet of their rationalization not being unique. The denialist’s arguments could be just as easily turned against them.

Once freed from the constraints of objective evidence and standards, almost any argument could be put forth that couldn’t be disproven (or proven). Also, once we enter the convoluted territory of conspiracy theory, Occam’s Razor can be dismissed as well and we can go to any length to seek a coherent worldview. Many have pointed out that the conspiracy theorist can end up with a worldview that is more coherent than any scientific theory for the conspiracy theorist feels no desire to include conflicting data and interpretations.

I hold out some hope that denialists can be reached, that some of them aren’t beyond all redemption.

That does seem to be the case. Not all denialists are overtly anti-scientific. A few simply are being overly cautious in vetting the consensus of the scientific community, but this doesn’t mean they dismiss it out of hand. In recent years, I’ve heard of several cases of scientists who held strong skepticism toward AGW and were publicly vocal in their skepticism, and yet over time the evidence finally convinced them.

I don’t criticize to make myself feel better. It certainly doesn’t make me feel better to think about the weaknesses and failures of the human mind. I like to think that there is value in trying to understand what makes people tick.

2 thoughts on “Paranoid Denialism, a Strange Brew

  1. I think you get the very nub of the issue here: evidence. And it’s an interesting point of view when assessing conspiracy theories. It’s what separates the serious enquirer from the tin-foil hat wearing maniac. The ability to recognise evidence that is capable of being falsified.

    I’m interested in lots of conspiracy theories – I even entertain a few as being plausible – but I try to concentrate on what we can prove as opposed to the extraordinary amount of speculation that passes for ‘fact’ these days on the internet.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the internet itself is a perfect paranoid schizophrenic generator: as it needn’t be anchored in reality whatsoever, and how would you know what was real and what wasn’t (after browsing youtube for 3 days with little sleep and too much coffee)? Establishing fact/truth takes an investment of time and effort – sometimes money too – whether it’s traditional journalism or the scientific method. In the past you had to spend a bit of money to publish, either in print, or in a science journal. Now, all you need is a Youtube channel – or a WordPress blog – and you’re away!

  2. Yep, it comes down to evidence.

    Like you, I have more than a passing familiarity with conspiracy theories. I’ve been listening to Coast to Coast AM since the 90s. I have no doubt that the world is full of conspiracie, but most of them are probably not as strange and interesting as the fantasies of the paranoiac.

    A perfect paranoid schizophrenic generator. That is a great way to put it. I could imagine the fun Philip K. Dick would have had wth speculating about the internet.

    I’ve come to understand how frail and feeble human rationality can be. We take the human mind for granted. And we take the amazing feats of science for granted. In order to achieve functional rationality, an immense investment has to be made by the individual and by society. We aren’t born in a state of full rationality. There is a lot that goes into making the potential for rationality into manifest behavior.

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