The “vindication of all kooks” corollary to the principle of crank magnetism

A couple of years ago, fellow ScienceBlogger Mark Hoofnagle over at Denialism Blog coined a most excellent term to describe all manners of pseuodscience, quackery, and crankery. The term, “crank magnetism,” describes the tendency of cranks not to mind it when they see crankery in others. More specifically, it describes how cranks of one variety (for instance, HIV/AIDS denialists, will be attracted to another form of crankery (for instance, anti-vaccinationism or the 9/11 Truth movement) because, as Mark put it, cranks and pseudoscientists see themselves as iconoclasts, brave mavericks opposed to orthodoxy, be it scientific, historical, or other disciplines. Indeed, I’ve given several examples of this over the course of this blog, including Dr. Lorraine Day, who is very much into alternative medicine but also into Holocaust denial; Melanie Phillips, whose crank magnetism attracts both creationism and anti-vaccine beliefs; Sharyl Attkisson, who is into both anti-vaccine beliefs and various cancer pseudoscience; Bill Maher, who is into cancer quackery, vaccine denialism, and animal rights activism; Vox Day, who hits the crank trifecta of anti-vaccinationism, evolution denialism, and anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denialism); Nicholas Kollerstrom, who hit a different crank trifecta of Holocaust denial, astrology, and crop circles; and Mike Adams, whose crank magnetism encompasses virtually all forms of pseudoscience other than AGW denialism.

Speaking of AGW denialism, an old friend of ours has reminded me of crank magnetism in a big way. Yes, I’m talking about the creationist neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Egnor, whose penchant for logical fallacies, pseudoscience, and bad arguments seemingly knows no bounds. This time around, as P.Z. Myers and the Sensuous Curmudgeon have pointed out, Egnor is letting his crank magnetism cause creationism to collide with AGW denial over the recently leaked e-mails from emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, where a webmail server was recently hacked by AGW denialists. The result of this leak has been a crankgasm from the AGW set claiming that this is the “smoking gun” that the community of climate scientists has been in cahoots to suppress “dissenting” science because–gasp!–scientists tend not to be as guarded in discussing data and science with each other over e-mail as they are when speaking in public. I don’t want to rehash how ridiculous the overreaction of the usual suspects has been over this issue, given that folks who know a lot more about the issue have taken the time to explain it. For such explanations, head on over to Real Climate for context; Climate Progress; John Cook at Skeptical Science; James Hrynyshyn at The Island of Doubt; William Connelly at Stoat; Chris Mooney at The Intersection; and Joshua Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas. A careful reading of the issue shows that, the claims of AGW denialists notwithstanding, there’s just no “there” there. Of the various reactions, perhaps the most amusing is Brendan Demelle’s definitive proof that Isaac Newton was wrong based on “evidence” in his e-mails of insulting dissenting scientists, “conspiring” to avoid public scrutiny, and other nefarious activities.

No, what this incident led me to think of, particularly Dr. Egnor’s own crankgasm over the hacked CRU e-mails, in particular his “word of advice to the scientists,” is that the principle of crank magnetism has at least one corollary, and I think we’re seeing one at work here. The Sensuous Curmudgeon actually nailed it with what is an excellent name, specifically the “vindication of all kooks doctrine.” What is this doctrine? Basically, it’s the tendency of cranks to view anything that they perceive as “vindication” of another bunch of denialists to be similarly “vindication” of their own crank beliefs. Dr. Egnor demonstrates this in spades with his spittle-flecked attack on not just evolution but science itself:

…there will be an accounting for this fraud. People are very very angry, and while the skeptics whose darkest doubts have been vindicated don’t pull the levers of organized science (the frauds do that), there are some financial and political resources available to the skeptics who have been demanding integrity in science, and they understand now that this is war.

He makes it explicit here:

A cabal of leading scientists, politicians, and media concubines have conspired to lie about global warming. The reasons are obvious: power and money. The illusion of planetary crisis serves as vehicle for ’emergency measures to save the planet’, which are merely measures to empower and enrich an elite few. Al Gore, carbon-credit entrepreneur who puts his ‘mouth where his money is’, had it figured out a decade ago. The fraudulent scientists who suckle off the 7 billion dollars spent this year alone on the global warming scam (more than the U.S. spends annually on cancer research and AIDS research) are merely using science, rather than hedge funds, to enrich themselves…

I’m not sure that the scientific community can or will respond to this debacle in a courageous or ethical way. The ID-Darwinism debate clearly demonstrates that venality and shameless self-interest, as well as a toxic leftist-atheist ideology, runs very deep in the scientific community.

And here:

‘Consensus science’ isn’t science. ‘Consensus’ is an attribute of politics, not science. Science inherently involves utter transparency and rigorous and respectful open debate. Real scientists welcome scrutiny and critique; the hallmark of a good scientist is that a good scientist reserves his most rigorous scrutiny for his own work. Censorship, invocation of ‘consensus science’ to elide scrutiny, real or threatened use of judicial coercion, and professional destruction of skeptics- which are characteristic tactics of global warming alarmists and of Darwinists- are tactics used to circumvent the scientific process.

And there you have it, the “vindication of all kooks” corollary to the principle of crank magnetism. Because Dr. Egnor is anti-science to his very core (which is one reason why he hates “Darwinism”) and perceives himself as a brave maverick for bucking the “orthodoxy” of science, anything that he perceives as a black eye to science–any science–becomes to him vindication that he must be correct in questioning evolution too. After all, it’s “consensus science”! Not for brave mavericks like Dr. Egnor is anything that even has a whiff of “consensus” science about it! Not for him are those mountains of evidence supporting evolution! That’s all for those unimaginative sheeples! (Hmmm. I wonder if Dr. Egnor belongs to the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons or is a big Ayn Rand fan.) Admittedly, AGW is not quite as well settled as evolution, but the comparison is apt nonetheless, particularly given that most of the resistance to AGW is as motivated by ideology as the resistance to creationism is. Indeed, Dr. Egnor sees what he perceives as the “silence” of science bloggers (such as myself) over this issue as more evidence supporting his belief that “Darwinism” is as much a conspiracy and scam as he apparently perceives AGW to be. He sees conspiracies everywhere and imagines that the “conspiracy” he sees over AGW based on the hacked CRU e-mails is evidence that “Darwinism” is a similar “conspiracy.”

But Dr. Egnor is not alone among cranks in rejoicing over the leaked CRU e-mails and somehow thinking that they “vindicate” pseudoscience. Wesley J. Smith of the Discovery Institute makes the connection more explicit:

But in the end, the ideologues and censors can’t make dissenters go away. Popular belief in global warming is plummeting precisely because people see these tactics for the desperate impositions that they are. The public now knows that adult stem cells are making the most progress, and hence much of the ESCR controversy has faded. My DI colleague Stephen Myer’s book, Signature in the Cell, is in its fifth printing and was named one of the best science books of the year by the Times of London.

The most severe harm these scientism ideologues cause is to science itself. And to think these censors and bullies smugly presume that they’re walking in the footsteps of Galileo, when in fact, they are actually the new Inquisition.

Yes! No crank argument is truly complete without an invocation of the Galileo gambit, although the invocation of the logical fallacy of argumentum ad populum is a nice touch that many cranks like. Of course, the “vindication of all kooks” corollary to crank magnetism doesn’t just apply to evolution denialists intersecting with AGW denialists. For example, here is a commenter named Bob Moffit on Age of Autism:

I do not know if you are aware of the growing controversy over “global warming science” that is under heavy criticism for being based upon fraudulent data manipulation discovered through the uncovering of emails between some of the “most highly regarded, best-credentialed experts in the field of global warming”.

Apparently, preeminent “global warming” scientists desperate to declare the issue settled…resorted to tactics eerily similar to other “scientists” desperate to declare the issue of vaccines and autism closed. Such as, subjecting “scientists” who disagree with them to savage personal attacks, ridicule and scorn..in an effort to discredit and debunk any “science” that threatens their lucrative rewards for promoting the “global warming” agenda.

Yes, we will agree to disagree…but… please try to cast a critical eye on ALL data purported to be the ONLY TRUTH on ANY SCIENTIFIC SUBJECT.

As if these e-mails and files have anything at all to do with vaccine science. In fact, the only connection they have with vaccines is that some anti-vaccinationists perceive them as “proof” that climate scientists are hopelessly corrupt and censor “dissent.” By extension, they see it as vindication that, similarly, medical science must be behaving similarly. Indeed, the principle of “vindication of all kooks” is why anti-vaccine zealots and advocates of “alternative medicine” often latch on to any perceived change in medical science that they think they can exploit. One example of this comes from (where else?) Age of Autism, which used the recent UPSTF recommendations regarding mammography as evidence for “vindication” of their point of view with regard to informed consent for vaccines.

Not to be left out of the action, HIV/AIDS denialists are leaping on the CRU hacked e-mails as vindication for their pseudoscience as well. Here is an example from Henry Bauer:

“Hundreds of private e-mail messages and documents hacked from a computer server at a British university are causing a stir among global warming skeptics, who say they show that climate scientists conspired to overstate the case for a human influence on climate change” (New York Times, 20 November 2009; “Hacked e-mail is new fodder for climate dispute”, by Andrew C. Revkin).

Mutatis mutandis, the same story could be written about HIV/AIDS:

“The e-mail messages, attributed to prominent American and British climate HIV/AIDS researchers, include discussions of scientific data and whether it should be released, exchanges about how best to combat the arguments of skeptics, and casual comments — in some cases derisive — about specific people known for their skeptical views. . . . In one e-mail exchange, a scientist writes of using a statistical ‘trick’ (and a computer model) in a chart illustrating a recent sharp warming trend increase in HIV/AIDS. In another, a scientist refers to climate HIV/AIDS skeptics as “idiots.” . . .

Some of the correspondence portrays the scientists as feeling under siege by the skeptics’ camp and worried that any stray comment or data glitch could be turned against them. The evidence pointing to a growing human contribution to global warming HIV as cause of AIDS is so widely accepted that the hacked material is unlikely to erode the overall argument.

Yes, indeed. Because Bauer thinks that these released e-mails show that climate science has been “manipulated,” that must mean that his “skepticism” about HIV as the cause of AIDS must have scientific merit!

Even the one crank to rule them all (aside from the Time Cube guy), the über-crank extraordinaire, Mike Adams, couldn’t resist getting in on the action with a tirade of his own entitled ClimateGate scandal demonstrates intellectual protectionism of modern scientists. (I’m actually surprised that it took Adams nearly two weeks after the initial revelations to respond, but respond he did in his usual inimitable fashion:

If you think the ClimateGate emails are revealing, just imagine what kind of similar emails are flying around between Big Pharma scientists who routinely manipulate study data and commit scientific fraud in the name of medicine. Time and time again, we see revelations of manipulated clinical trials where data was intentionally distorted in order to make a dangerous, useless drug appear to be safe and effective.

What ClimateGate scientists and Big Pharma scientists have in common is that they have both abandoned the core principles of good science in their quest to be right. Rather than asking questions of nature and humbly listening to the answers provided by the data, these scientists have staked out a position and decided to defend that position at all costs — even if it requires hiding or distorting data!

That approach is entirely unscientific, of course. In my mind, it now puts much of the recent global warming science in the same category as Big Pharma’s research: Pure quackery.

And:

What’s truly sad about all this — both in the climate change community and the pharmaceutical community — is that real science has seemingly been replaced by pseudoscientific quackery. I’ve known for a long time that you can’t trust scientists who work for pharmaceutical companies because they tend to distort their findings to support their employer. Now learning that a similar approach to junk science was apparently pursued by climate change scientists is more than a little disconcerting. It makes me wonder: Are there any honest scientists left anywhere?

All kooks vindicated, indeed, and there are few, if any, kookier than Mike Adams and his embrace of everything quackery, be it colon cleanses, anti-vaccine nonsense, claims that chemotherapy can’t prolong survival in cancer, or whatever. No woo is too far out for Adams, and no quackery too outrageous for him to support. Since he now thinks climate scientists are corrupt, it only feeds into his view of medical scientists and tells him that he must be right!

Meanwhile, our favorite booster of pseudoscience, be it creationism, anti-vaccinationist nonsense, or accepting pseudoscience with regard to abortion and breast cancer, misogynistic wingnut Vox Day, stated the principle of vindication of all kooks far more explicitly than anyone else:

Atheists and evolutionists should keep this quote in mind the next time they wish to make an appeal to what an overwhelming majority of scientists believe:

The overwhelming majority of scientists believe the global warming is real and the result of human activity, but a vocal majority maintains that the science is not proven.

It’s not clear whether the journalist meant to write “minority” in referring to scientists or if he is referring to the majority of the non-scientific public, since either interpretation would be correct. Regardless, if anthropogenic global warming is subsequently proven to be real, then those who believe there is no God or believe in evolution by natural selection can quite reasonably argue that the opinion of the unscientific masses on the matter should be at least somewhat influenced by the opinion of the self-appointed scientific elite. If, however, it is subsquently proven to be false, any attempt to argue that the unscientific masses should pay any attention whatsoever to the latest way the winds of scientific consensus are blowing can and should be ridiculed.

It doesn’t get much more explicit than that. Vox thinks that the science behind evolution is linked inextricably with the science behind AGW. If one is invalidated, to him both are invalidated. I’ve written before about a favorite crank gambit, falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus (FIUFIO), which means “false in one thing, false in all things.” In reality, the “vindication of all kooks” gambit is nothing more than FIUFIO writ large and expanded beyond the science that individual cranks detest to include the entire scientific endeavor. In this case, the idea is that, if the climate scientists whose e-mail and files were leaked were indeed conspiring to hide “inconvenient” data or stifle “dissent,” then all scientists by extension are doing the same thing, and that means that “doubts” about evolution, whether HIV causes AIDS, or the safety and efficacy of vaccines are validated; if you’re a crank, that is. That’s why FIUFIO is favorite of creationists who see a bit of data that changes the way we think about evolution and concludes from it that all of evolution must be false; of Holocaust deniers who find an example of a Holocaust survivor telling false stories or being shown to have a faulty memory in some aspects of his experience during the war and using that to argue that the Holocaust is a “hoax”; or by various alternative medicine practitioners who see a formerly accepted treatment in the realm of scientific medicine be shown to be ineffective and try to use that to argue that all science-based medicine is ineffective.

Unfortunately, FIUFIO is a legal principle, not a scientific principle. It is primarily used (and makes sense) in the courtroom, not in science. That’s why lawyers are so aggressive at trying to impeach the credibility of a witness (and lawyers on the other side labor so hard to prevent that from happening). If a witness can be shown to have been mistaken or to have lied about one thing, then by the principle of FIUFIO, it is reasonable to question everything else in that witness’ testimony. In a criminal case such questions could easily be enough to cast “reasonable doubt” on the testimony, which is all that’s required for an acquittal. In contrast, FIUFIO doesn’t work at all in science. In most cases in science, being incorrect doesn’t mean the scientists were lying, and it is the totality of the evidence that must be weighed. Moreover, science is not a single witness that can be interrogated. Well-accepted scientific theories (like evolution, for example) are always supported by multiple converging lines of evidence from multiple different sources and even disciplines. If you impeach one source or piece of data, it does not automatically invalidate the rest of the supporting data. Moreover, when scientists find inconsistencies in the data supporting a hypothesis or theory, they do not reject the entire theory out of hand in this manner, as cranks do. Rather, they use such anomalous pieces of data or experimental results as a chance to improve our understanding of a phenomenon. They see if the theory can be modified to account for the observation. They make hypotheses about potential explanations of the anomalous observations and then test them experimentally. If they see if a new theory with better predictive power and utility than the old can be developed that takes account fo the new observations.

Let’s put it this way. Even if the fantasies of AGW denialists dreamed in their wettest dreams about these leaked e-mails were 100% true and AGW was found not to be valid science, it would say nothing–absolutely nothing–about whether or not evolution is valid as a theory, and vice-versa. Ditto AGW and HIV/AIDS denial or vaccines. If AGW were to fall, it would say absolutely nothing about the science behind HIV or the science showing that vaccines do not cause autism and that they are safe and effective. They are all independent scientific problems, and in the exceedingly unlikely event that the denialist cranks who rail against any of these areas of science were every somehow vindicated to the point where the scientific paradigm had to move in their direction, it would say nothing about the other areas of science. As the Sensuous Curmudgeon observed, even if AGW were revealed as a scam, it shouldn’t affect the rest of science and most assuredly would not lend credence to creationism, HIV/AIDS denialism, or anti-vaccine beliefs. We already know that “intelligent design” creationism is pseudoscience. Even if we were to find that AGW or any other science were pseudoscience, it would not lend any credence whatsoever to ID.

So why do denialists of all stripes cling to the “all kooks vindicated” corollary to the principle of crank magnetism. Let me finish by speculating on a possible reason. Above all else, cranks cling to beliefs that go against established science. They do this because they do not recognize bad science, either because they do not understand the scientific method and/or because ideology in the form of politics or religion interferes with their critical thinking. They thus come to view not just the science that refutes their crankery as the enemy, but rather all science. Thus, any black eye against science, be it in the form of leaked e-mails, problems with ghost writing, big pharma chicanery, or whatever, must be evidence that their distrust of science is justified. It becomes in their mind a vindication of their view that science is hopelessly corrupt or rigged against them and that they therefore must be on to something. Sadly for them, being on to something in science requires more than just misconduct, real, exaggerated, or imagined, in an area of science completely unrelated to theirs. It requires real data and experimental evidence of a quantity and quality sufficient to be in at least the same order of magnitude as the evidence supporting the current paradigm. Creationists are virtually guaranteed never to achieve this level of evidence, and neither are HIV/AIDS denialists or anti-vaccine kooks.

In the end, much like the principle of crank magnetism and how it results from an inability to recognize flaws in reasoning or bad science, the corollary of the “vindication of all kooks” if one kook appears to be vindicated derives from a profoundly anti-scientific world view in which the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and if my friend prospers so do I. The problem is that the enemy in this case is science itself.