“Debating” denialists

I happened to be listening to the Holocaust Denial On Trial podcast yesterday, specifically this episode which is a recording of a speech given by Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt about Holocaust denial and her experiences being sued for libel in Britain by arch Holocaust denier David Irving, who, much like the British Chiropractic Association taking advantage of the U.K.’s highly plaintiff-friendly libel laws to sue Simon Singh for libel now, took advantage of those same libel laws back in the late 1990s to sue Deborah Lipstadt. In the speech, she takes a position that I have argued on multiple occasions in this blog, stating plainly, “I do not debate deniers.”

OK, so far nothing remarkable about that. She also gave a number of reasons why she does not debate deniers that I completely agree with and that should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog. What is remarkable was a metaphor that Professor Lipstadt used regarding why she does not debate deniers. “Debating a denier,” she said, “is like trying to nail a blob of Jello to the wall.”

She’s right.

There are a number of compelling reasons why it is often pointless at best and counterprodcutive at worst to debate a denier, denialist, crank, or whatever you want to call it. For one thing, for a debate to be an intellectually useful exercise, there have to be two reasonable points of view being argued, points of view that have evidence to support them. The evidence doesn’t have to be of equal quantity and quality on each side, of course, but it should at least be somewhere in the same ball park–or on the same planet. This isn’t a rule that is limited to just Holocaust deniers, either. Vaccine denialists (a.k.a. anti-vaxers), evolution denialists (a.k.a. creationists), scientific medicine denialists (a.k.a. alt-med mavens), HIV/AIDS denialists, or 9/11 Truthers, they all fall into this category They all desperately crave respectability, too. As much as they disparage mainstream thought in the disciplines that they attack, be it medicine, vaccines, history, or current events, they desperately crave to be taken seriously by the relevant disciplines. Being seen in the same venue, on the same stage, or on the same media outlet as an apparent equal gives them just what they want.

And, damn, some of them are really good at being the Jello that you can’t nail to the wall.

Another point that Lipstad brought up about Holocaust deniers that can also be applied to denialists of all stripes is that she said at the outset of her trial that she did not want it to become a trial over whether the Holocaust happened. That it did is irrefutable , backed by mountains of evidence, as is the historical fact that it was a planned, intentional program of mass murder and genocide. Rather, with the help of World War II historian Richard Evans, the defense looked at David Irving’s methods, not his conclusions. They traced the assertions in his book back to his original sources. Evans’ report to the court is long, but well-written and worth reading, having formed the basis of his book Lying About Hitler, which was basically a memoir of the trial, along with a new version of his expert report. One passage in particular stands out:

It has already been shown in the preceding sections of this Report how Irving adopts a variety of procedures which conform to several of the techniques of falsification and manipulation laid out in Lipstadt’s list. He bends and wilfully mistranslates reliable sources; he deliberately suppresses evidence which runs counter to his argument; he skews evidence and misquotes by omitting vital parts of documents and by mistranslating other parts which he does cite; he takes accurate and reliable sources such as the Himmler phone log and shapes and bends it to suit his purposes by including speculation and pure invention which is in no way warranted by the documentary record; he misrepresents data by presenting unreliable sources as reliable when they serve his argument; he relies on books such as memoirs and diaries that directly contradict his argument, and interprets them in a way that runs counter to what the authors intended, falsely attributing to them conclusions which they did not reach.

Sound familiar? It should. These are exactly the same sorts of technique used by denialist cranks of all stripes. Holocaust deniers are unusual in that their denialism is rooted in anti-Semitism and bigotry, often with more than a dash of Hitler apologia and/or neo-Nazi sympathies, but they are not unusual in that their views are based on ideology, not evidence. I’ve pointed out before that I don’t like to use Holocaust deniers as an example because, although it’s completely valid to compare their methods of twisting history to, for example, anti-vaccine activists’ methods of twisting science, the taint of eliminationist anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust is so strong, that it makes it too easy for the anti-vaccinationist to retort, “Are you calling me a Nazi?” Even so, there is a commonality among cranks in the types of fallacious arguments and twisting of data that they engage in. Being a “denialist” is not a matter of what is being argued, but how it is being argued. It’s about bad reasoning, bad science, cherry picking data, and misrepresenting sources to support a preexisting agenda.

Which is why in a debate they are so damned hard to pin down. Like Jello.