Pseudoscience, quackery, crankery, and the ad hominem

Over the weekend, it appears that a post of mine, in which I included a link to a video of comic Tim Slagle doing the comedy routine that, in my never-ending effort to live up to the stereotype of the humorless skeptic that the credulous like so much, I castigated for its misrepresentations of science in the pursuit of a punchline, has been invaded by a number of “skeptics” of anthropogenic global warming. Indeed, it makes me wonder if someone e-mailed the link to my post to a Libertarian mailing list or something, given that, as of this writing, no one that I can detect has linked to the post. How else to explain the appearance of Donna Mancini, Libertarian Candidate for the 3rd District of the U.S. Congress, comedian Lou Angelwolf (whose MySpace page is here), comedian Bengt Washburn (webpage here), and even Teri O’Brien, a radio host on Chicago AM station WLS 890?

This influx struck me as highly unlikely to be a coincidence, given that none of these people, to my knowledge, even knew of the existence of my blog, much less have ever commented here before, but it got me to thinking. Their comments seemed to involve one of two things, both of which echoed the main gist of Tim’s routine, either that Al Gore is a hypocrite or, as one so devastatingly put it, a “fat, bloated idiot” (and therefore the science behind AGW must be wrong) or that it’s all a conspiracy on the part of liberals, scientists, the government, etc. (and therefore the science behind AGW must be wrong). Couple that with Tim Slagle’s routine, in which apparently the reason climate scientists are sounding the warning about greenhouse gases is not because they are alarmed by AGW to the point of advocating various urgent means of decreasing the their production, but rather because they’re either frustrated geeks getting revenge for indignities suffered on the dodgeball court or have a lust for power. So struck was I by the sameness of the comments that I thought back to other encounters and realized one common characteristic among defenders of pseudoscience or crank ideas. Although by no means the only common characteristic, it I’ve noticed over the years that people prone to using crank arguments or to defend pseudoscience put an inordinate amount of emphasis on the person holding views at odds with theirs, particularly their motivation.

Of course, it’s not just AGW “skeptics” who like to use seemingly crank-like arguments that seem to be more obsessed with the personality and in particular the motivations of consensus scientists. It seems to be a general characteristic of almost any crank. Indeed, an example came up just yesterday, in fact, in my discussion of a dubious story about a 17-year-old adolescent with melanoma whose mother supposedly “cured” him with “natural” methods. Get a load of the ad hominem attacks and rants about motivation rather than science on the Department of Children’s Services personnel who apparently tried to prevent the mother from treating her son with quackery in both the post and the comments:

  • Orthodox medicine is unwilling to admit it does not know everything, and it hates competition.
  • In further investigation, Child Protective Social Services is a misnamed government agency whose employees get paid bonuses every time they take children away from their parents.
  • This country is no longer about freedom and human rights. It is controlled by corporations who put profit above everything else, including human life.
  • If you get a chance, Watch “Big Bucks Big Pharma” * Marketing Disease & Pushing Drugs. A multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry exposed of the insidious ways that illness is used, manipulated and created, for capital gain.

Yes, if the story in that post was even true, the doctors and social workers trying to assure that a minor gets adequate medical treatment are motivated not by knowledge of medicine, but rather by greed and a hatred of competition. It never even occurs to the person writing this, a blogger going by the ‘nym Angry Scientist, that the motives of the opposition might be anything other than evil. This attitude is widespread among supporters of “alternative medicine,” and here’s a real beauty that emphasizes this point:

When studying the actions of the FDA, the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society and the behavior of doctors, medical journals and drug companies, the phrase “evil empire” quickly comes to mind. Modern medicine is a medical racket, a drug monopoly and disease treatment scam that has been foisted upon the people of western nations (America, Canada, United Kingdom, etc.) in order to maximize corporate profits.

And the FDA has become the Darth Vader of the empire, using the power of the dark side to inflict pain and destruction upon its enemies in its quest to become the dominate power center of all things related to health.

Yes, advocates of evidence-based medicine are Darth Vader, bent on subjugating the brave iconoclast! You find nary a description of any evidence to support the antiscientific positions supported, but you do find a whole lot of attacks on physicians and scientists supporting the consensus position as corrupt, venal, arrogant, or close-minded.

The same pattern holds true for “intelligent design” creationists, who like to label “Darwinists” as “antireligious” or “atheistic” (which, apparently, if you believe some creationists appears to be the only reason why biologists consider evolution to be a valid theory) so much that it’s become a joke:

Under a new anti-religious dogmatism, scientists and educators are not allowed to even think thoughts that involve an intelligent creator. Do you realize that some of the leading lights of “anti-intelligent design” would not allow a scientist who merely believed in the possibility of an intelligent designer/creator to work for him.

Of course, this is only the beginning. If you believe creationists, supporters of evolution are “arrogant,” hypocrites, or even Frankenstein or the source of Naziism.

And so it goes. HIV/AIDS denialists accuse scientists of being in the thrall of big pharma and wanting to pump people full of drugs for fun and profit; 9/11 Truthers imagine some vast conspiracy, where anyone who refutes their nonsense either wanted 9/11 to happen or is a craven shill of people who wanted 9/11 to happen and actually made it happen. All of this brings us back full circle to some of the AGW “skeptics” who recently invaded my blog. Here’s a sampling of their comments:

  • No I believe he’s [Al Gore] in it for his own self pompous needs. After all – he did invent the internet….But how is flying around in his own private jet and running up $3000/mo electricity bills in his mansion helping?
  • Attacking comedians while – at the same time – covering for Gore’s obvious hypocrisy? It boggles the mind, how you’ll twist yourselves into pretzels, ethics be damned.
  • Al Gore is an bloated idiot. I think we all know that. Tim Slagle is hilarious, and liberals need to get over it.
  • Algore, who continues in spite of his primitivist blatherings, to enjoy a lavish lifestyle even while criticizing the poor and middle class for striving to better themselves. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that he wishes to be a baron of a herd of raggedy feudal serfs.
  • Al Gore, flying around in his private jets and living in a huge house, is just another phony liberal hypocrite, no different from the late Jim Bakker or some creepy tv evangelist working a scam.
  • The Gospel according to Algore gets more and more complex, both by His worshipers ad libbing elaborations ‘pon His pronouncements and by quasiscientists, fat from their government research grants (given with the expectation of certain results).

This intense concentration on the person of a prominent booster of the scientific consensus, rather than on the facts and evidence, reminds me of the way antivaccinationists demonize, for example, Paul Offit. Of course, they accuse him of being in the pocket of big pharma, rather than of hypocrisy, but the opprobrium directed at him is ratcheted up to 11, as it is for Al Gore. Fortunately for Offit, he is not nearly as famous as Al Gore; aside from a relatively small group of antivaccinationists, few know who he is.

Tim Slagle, although he claims to really, really like science feeds into this entire meme, whether he realizes it or not (or whether it would ever be possible to get him to admit it or not) by expanding on his previous characterization of scientists who support the scientific consensus as vengeful geeks. Now, in his latest “defense” of the dodgeball routine, he even asserts that their frustrations lead them to become–gasp!Socialists:

I chronicle the dramatic descent of a smart young boy into the perdition of Socialism. I speculate that there is envy and a desire to control within the hearts of some scientists. Not all scientists, just enough to give my argument some weight. I have met many highly educated people who believe a persons wealth should be in proportion to his education. They claim there’s something wrong with this country, when a guy like Bill Gates could drop out of college and become the world’s wealthiest man. These are the people to whom this bit is dedicated.

Often people without money or power, resent those who have it. Socialism attracts people wrought with envy and impotence. And just like alcoholics often find themselves working in a bar, Socialists often find cover within the environmental movement. The regulations and confiscatory taxation often proposed as environmental solutions, are virtually indistinguishable from Socialism.

Yes, indeed. Not only are “some” scientists vengeful geeks, lusting for power, or unfeeling bureaucrats, but those tendencies all apparently lead “enough to give his argument weight” to Socialism. Of course, Tim doesn’t seem able to name a single scientist whose humiliation on the dodgeball court of youth, metaphorical or real, led him or her to become his caricature of the out-of control Socialist wanting to impose a Green utopia on an unwilling world, but that’s not the real point. The point is to mock the people behind the science, failing to be able to launch a credible attack on the science itself. In Tim’s case, the excuse is, of course, that it’s all a joke or that it’s “observational” about the human nature of scientists. Indeed, one reason these attacks are so ubiquitous is that defenders of dubious ideas actually believe them to be the truth, and occasionally there may even be a grain of truth there. It’s just that it’s usually exaggerated beyond recognition. Moreover, it doesn’t seem to occur to them that such attacks are, for the most part irrelevant. For example, even if Al Gore were both a bloated idiot and a hypocrite (or even a person who liked to torture puppies), it would be utterly irrelevant to the question of whether the science behind AGW is correct or not. A scientific theory does not depend upon the personality of its originator or popularizer; it depends upon how well it fits current evidence.

Several months ago, an HIV/AIDS denialist tried to sweet talk me into a “debate” with Christine Maggiore, a prominent HIV/AIDS denialist whose beliefs led to the tragic death of her daughter. Although on the surface, that rather strange incident doesn’t seem to be of a piece with all the ad hominem attacks and the concentration on personality and motivation over evidence, it does fit in. The reason is that it, too, demonstrates the how obsessed defenders of bad science or pseudoscience tend to be about the identities and qualifications of the opposition. Because there is no legitimate scientific rationale for their position, their fallback is to attack the person. It’s also why, for example, ID creationists like to broadly label defenders of evolution as “atheists” or anti-religious; antivaccinationists like to paint Paul Offit as the Devil Incarnate; alternative medicine mavens like to paint Child Protective Services as ideologues who even get paid bonuses for taking children away from their parents; and, yes, it’s the reason why AGW “skeptics” focus their ire like a laser beam on Al Gore, the most prominent spokesman for action on AGW. They can’t discredit the science; so they discredit the person associated with the science, whether that person is a scientist or not. This tendency is so strong that creationists pointedly refer to “Darwinism” rather than what biologists call it (the theory of evolution) and some AGW “skeptics” will even sneeringly dismiss AGW science as “Algorian Scripture,” even though Al Gore had nothing to do with formulating it or testing it. LIkely, this is based on the same desire to equate hated science with a person who can be torn down that drives campaigns to demonize scientists, be they originators or defenders of a hated hypothesis or theory.

Does this mean that we skeptics are pure as the driven snow on this issue? Of course not. We’re human too. Sometimes frustration with correcting the same canards and fallacies again and again or even just the sheer seductiveness of the pithy retort can lead even the most rational skeptic to flirt with insults, and I don’t pretend to be immune to this temptation all the time. However, in my experience in battling quackery and pseudoscience on Usenet for a decade and for nearly three years on my blog, the first inclination of true skeptics tends not to be to attack the person spouting pseudoscience. Rather, it is, after making sure that what is coming under attack really is pseudoscientific, to attack the pseudoscience itself on the basis of science, logic, and evidence. Certainly that’s what I try to do, although even I would admit that I don’t always succeed in that ideal. (When it comes to Holocaust deniers, I don’t even try, mainly because of the odious anti-Semitic views and Nazi apologia that almost invariably accompany Holocaust denial.) In response, wounded defenders of pseudoscience often confuse such strong criticism of their views with ad hominem attacks against them personally. The two are not the same thing, but it is an easy tactic to equate them.

So what’s a skeptic to do? Obviously, attack what the crank says, not the crank. If a defender of pseudoscience says something that is clearly idiotic, it’s perfectly OK to characterize it as such, as long as one can show why the statement is idiotic. Criticize pseudoscientific statements as much as possible, not the person. If the person keeps saying things that are demonstrably incorrect, over time he’ll attract the appropriate label on himself.