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.

Rightwing Paranoia Detached from Reality

Tea Party protesters believe the American public is paying more in taxes even though under Obama 95-98% of Americans paid less in taxes this year.

Gun rights activists protesting on park land say Obama is trying to restrict their gun rights even though it was Obama who signed a bill allowing guns to be carried in parks and on trains.

The Fall of Beck

As usual, Glenn Beck is in the news for causing outrage, but I there is a difference recently. Many people, including myself, have predicted that it is inevitable that Beck would go too far at some point, if not entirely go over the edge. For the time being, he is still managing to hold onto his sanity, but he has steadily been losing support.

Advertisers have been leaving Beck’s show for a while, but Beck retains his corporate support because the attention he brings still translates into profit for Fox News in general. Plus, as long as he is serving the political purposes of the powers that be within the conservative movement, it’s worth supporting a show that isn’t justifiable in terms of profit. More telling is that recent articles have pointed out that there is dissent within Fox News. Some people working there think Beck is problematic for Fox News and for serious journalism. Management there have Beck on a short leash and so putting him on air is a calcuated risk. Is it paying off?

Certainly, Fox News became wildy successful during Bush’s administration for obvious reasons. They might’ve been fine if they had just coasted on that success, but instead they’ve pushed the fear mongering and hate mongering which has worked for them so well. The problem is that the public is finally getting tired about this kind of media outrage and frenzied bipartisanship… and this is Beck’s personal formula of success. At some point, Fox News will have to cut Beck free or else increasingly lose profits. I think they’ll keep him around at least until the next presidential election. Beck is the GOP’s big cannon. Also, it would be dangerous for them to let him go because then they could no longer keep him controlled and keep him on message.

At the moment, the real force of criticism against Beck is coming from the American public. He is just now getting to that point of going too far. Two issues recently exemplify this.

First, Beck had a recent show where he criticized some of the bastions of mainstream American culture including Bruce Springstein. Beck has become so paranoid that he sees Commies and Nazis everywhere. Many people have shared his general fear of some nefarious problem within our culture, but he will lose support when he pulls his attention away from politicians. Everyone loves to bash politicians. Bashing the Boss is, however, unacceptable. Springstein was for a long time seen as the voice of the working class, the Rock n’ Roll representative of middle America. Beck is treading on thin ice.

Second, Beck had another recent show where he attacked the Christian tradition of social justice as un-Christian. That is a very bad move. Christians are Beck’s base and this gives an opportunity for Progressive Christians to get heard. Jim Wallis once had hope that Bush was being honest when he campaigned on bipartisanship, but of course was disappointed. The GOP has no place for Christians who aren’t fundamentalists. Beck played off of this culture war that Bush ramped up, but people can only take so much of the endless outrage. In recent years, the right has been losing battle after battle in the culture wars. There influence is still great, but the influence of religious left has been growing. Even fundamentalists Christians are starting to question the role of religion in politics and starting to question whether the ends justifies the means.

Beck doesn’t really matter in the big picture. I’m increasingly convinced that he is just a symptom of a deeper problem. The American public isn’t well informed about most issues and they’re easily swayed by hate and fear. As long as that is the case, ideologues such as Beck will pop up whenever our culture becomes gripped by paranoia. It happens in cycles (Strauss and Howe claim it happens in predictable cycles). There was Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s ranting against the same scapegoat/enemies that Beck rants against today. As the economy improves and the memory of 9/11 loses its edge, Beck will lose his popularity and he will just be another dark blotch on American history.

On a less serious note, the best defense against Beck’s brand of fear-mongering is humor and parody. Along with Fox News, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert also rose to prominence during Bush’s administration. Liberals in general have taken note and people like Beck have been rightfully mocked. A high quality example of this is a recent video (link below) that demonstrates the inanity of Beck’s message. Enjoy!