Straw men and projection: Tools of quacks and conspiracy theorists to deflect critical thinking

As hard as it is for me to believe sometimes, I’ve been at this blogging biz a long time–well over six years now. However, I’ve been engaged, in one form or another, in combatting pseudoscience, pseudohistory, and crankery online since the late 1990s. Although I try hard not to fall into the same cognitive traps that a certain pediatrician to the stars does, namely considering my own anecdotal experience to be superior to controlled studies, that is not to say that personal experience is without value. At least, that’s what I was thinking when I came across Steve Novella’s post A failure to engage yesterday. The reason is that it echoed something I’ve noticed over the years, namely a trait that appears to be shared by virtually every crank with whom I’ve ever locked horns. That trait is the tendency to assiduously avoid addressing what the actual argument is, the preference instead being to attack a straw man version of what the skeptical argument against the crank position, whatever the position, is.

Steve uses as an example a public debate being held about traditional Chinese medicine in San Francisco on June 11. Basically, it’s a three round debate, with half the debaters moving on to the next round until the final question to be debated. The first four prompts being debated are:

  • Resolved: Contemporary Chinese medicine as currently defined by the People’s Republic of China is superior to all other international variations of Chinese medicine.
  • Resolved: Acupuncture as a medical intervention technique should be disallowed because its mechanism of action cannot be scientifically proven.
  • Resolved: The replacement of traditional Chinese medical vocabulary (that describes diseases, pathologies and treatments) by modern scientific medical vocabulary is an important development and should be encouraged as the standard.
  • Resolved: Chinese medicine is a fad in the US, and its viability as an independent medical intervention does not have a dynamic future.


Notice number two, which, as Steve notes, is one of the aforementioned massive straw men. It’s more than a massive straw man; it’s a Burning Man size straw man set ablaze with the napalm of burning stupid. We who advocate science-based medicine do not “disallow” unscientific medicine simply because it postulates a mechanism of action that can’t be demonstrated or quantified by science; we reject such modalities because there is no evidence that they work and, in some cases (such as homeopathy) massive quantities of very well-established, well-supported science conclude that they cannot work. There are lots of medications whose mechanisms of action are not well understood; some are even poorly understood or not understood at all. Yet we know they work because clinical trials demonstrate to us that they work. Mechanisms can be worked out later; more importantly, we know that, whatever mechanisms by which such drugs work, they do not involve magical mystical mechanisms outside the realm of science or sympathetic magic, which is in essence what homeopathy is.

Number three is also interesting because it emphasizes the importance of language. Another frequent claim by woo-meisters is that the language of science is not their language, in essence appeals to other ways of knowing. Just as when Dr. Oz told Steve that “Western” science doesn’t have the methods to “correctly” study acupuncture. I’m sorry, but science is science, and there is nothing special about acupuncture, homeopathy, or any other “alternative” medicine modality that precludes its study using the methods of science.

There is one aspect of trying to engage with woo-meisters of all stripes, be they CAM advocates, anti-vaccine loons, creationists, or whatever that Steve didn’t get into, probably because the article about which he was commenting didn’t provide him the opportunity. Last week, however, everybody’s favorite all-purpose medical crank, the man for whom there is no quackery that is too quacky and no level of vitriol that is too vitriolic, provided me with just the excuse I needed to point out another frustrating aspect of arguing with pseudoscientists. I’m referring, of course, to their tendency to project their own shortcomings onto skeptics, as Mike Adams did last week in a hilariously un-self-aware post entitled The gullible mind explained. Let’s just put it this way. Adams again tops himself. So outrageously off base was this post that I had thought of just posting a link and, in a fit of pure blogging laziness, letting you, my readers, deconstruct it.

But then hubris kicked in. Could Orac do that? Nahhhhh. Particularly not after reading the opening passage:

In light of the string of the blatant falsehoods being announced by the U.S. government these days (FDA, DHS, White House, etc.) it’s interesting that so many people still believe whatever they are told by “official” sources. It brings up the question of the functioning of their brains: How could a person swallow official information so gullibly and so completely without even asking commonsense questions about the reliability or factual basis of that information?

These people, it turns out, are operating from what I called The Gullible Mind. It is a psychological processing malfunction that filters out information based on its source rather than its integrity. People who operate from The Gullible Mind tend to have misplaced trust in governments, institutions, mainstream news networks, doctors, scientists or anyone who wears the garb of apparent authority.

When I read this, I tittered a little bit and stifled it. It didn’t work. A chuckle gurgled up from deep within me, then a guffaw, and then uproarious laughter so strong that I could hardly breathe. Truly, this was one of the funniest things I’ve read in many a moon. Mike Adams, the man for whom no quackery is too pseudoscientific, no conspiracy theory too implausible or insane, no nonsense too illogical, actually claims that skeptics are “gullible”? Projection this massive should be reserved for 3D movies in IMAX theaters.

I kid you not. The core of Adams’ argument is that scientists, skeptics, and just people with a modicum of critical thinking skills won’t accept the nonsense he is laying down not because they are skeptical but rather because they are so gullible that they believe anything someone in authority tells them. That authority can be the government, scientists, doctors, or any other person or group whom society elevates to positions of trust and authority. The reason is not trust but because, according to Mike Adams, they have…The Gullible Mind. (Cue the ominous-sounding drums.)

And what does the Gullible Mind mean? Apparently, according to Adams, it means that you and I and anyone else with a modicum of critical thinking abilities have a pathological need to believe whatever anyone in authority tells us. Particularly hilarious is this straw man that Adams attacks:

But how does this work inside their heads? It’s an interesting process. Gullible Mind people do believe it is possible for a government (or institution) to lie; but they believe that governments, institutions and doctors choose NOT to lie even when it would serve their own self interests to do so.

Follow this carefully, because this is the fascinating part. These Gullible Mind people effectively believe that even though a government official could lie about something, they would never actually do so. And why wouldn’t they? Because, ultimately, the Gullible Mind crowd believes that governments, institutions and mainstream media outlets operate from a sort of honor code. So even if it were in the interests of our own government to lie to us, it would never happen because that would violate this imaginary honor code.

And:

This is how The Gullible Mind person believes that network news always reports the truth. The news networks have a sense of “honor,” they believe, and this sense of honor requires them to always report the truth and never manipulate the news for any nefarious purposes. So news networks never “shape” the news and they only report what is factually true without any consideration whatsoever of politics or advertiser profits.

This is a huge, slimy, stinky truckload of fetid dingos’ kidneys, of course. Do you know anyone who thinks that the government never lies? Or that the news never spins the news or slants its reporting? Me, neither. It’s a straw man based on Adams’ concept of what skeptics must be like. Because they don’t agree with Adams, it can’t be because he’s so laughably, ridiculously wrong. Oh, no. It must be because they are so incredibly gullible that they can’t see all the conspiracies around them that Adams can see!

But that’s not all. Here’s the most unintentionally spot-on description of Adams himself and people who think like him. Too bad it’s coming from Adams projecting like a an anti-aircraft spotlight trying to illuminate the bombers of reason so that Adams’ ack-ack of stupid can shoot them down:

Interestingly, the Gullible Mind is also inwardly gullible because it does not recognize its own gullibility. Instead, it believes it is operating as a Rational Mind. This false Rational Mind believes it functions as a critical filter of incoming information, but even this is self deception. In truth, this false Rational Mind is on “auto filter” so that it filters out any information that conflicts with the information it is receiving from official sources.

A better description of Adams himself I can’t think of, which leads him to yet another unintentionally hilarious assertions. After trying to use a fantastical example of the government telling its people that the Easter Bunny killed Osama bin Laden and how The Gullible Mind would accept that, Adams opines:

At this point, their rational mind is completely shut off on the topic. No accumulation of facts can, at that point, rattle their “reality.” For example, a person who believes the government’s story of 9/11 has already embraced the Easter Bunny version of terrorists flying airplanes into the World Trade Center towers. So how did this act cause the WTC 7 building to collapse in a demolition-style free-fall a few hours later, when WTC 7 was never struck by airplanes? How can a steel and concrete building suddenly and magically collapse in perfect structural synchronicity merely from being on fire?

The answers don’t matter to The Gullible Mind, you see. There is no room for facts inside their heads, because all the space has been taken up with what is essentially a cult-like belief in institutions of authority.

Even my super-duper heavy duty, ultra-reinforced irony meter couldn’t withstand reading the two paragraphs above. Imagine, Adams accusing someone of having a Gullible Mind, using as his rationale the fact that that person rejects one of the silliest, most heavily refuted conspiracy theories in the world, namely the 9/11 “Truth” movement that claims that 9/11 was an “inside job.” Adams even appears to be buying into the “no plane” conspiracy theory that states that no actual jetliners ever actually hit the World Trade Center towers. He even lists as other examples of “gullible mind” beliefs these:

There’s no such thing as a cure for cancer – The ultimate pessimists, the Gullible Mind crowd believes cancer has never been cured! And if a cancer cure did exist, we would know about it by now, right? (Because our scientists already know everything that’s worth knowing, you see…)

Actually, this isn’t true. Cancer can be cured. Well, not exactly. Specific cancers can be cured with various combinations of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Breast cancer, for instance. Testicular cancer can even be cured when it’s advanced. And you know what does it? Science. Not quackery. Not magic. Not belief in various mystical forces. Science.

After a long tirade that purports to tell you–yes, you!– to “awaken” and stop being a gullible mind. You can read it for yourself if you want to torture yourself, but to boil it down it involves asking a lot of “questions” about everything, namely questions along the lines of “Why did Obama suddenly announce the death of Bin Laden in the middle of his ‘birther’ crisis?” Indeed, these questions made me wonder if there is any conspiracy theory that Adams doesn’t subscribe to. 9/11 Truth? Adams is into it. Birtherism? Yep. All manner of medical conspiracy theories. Them too. Adams even links to a list of conspiracy theories that have allegedly turned out to be true, one of which links Jared Lee Loughner to MK Ultra and the claim that the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan was a conspiracy. Of course, one of the listed conspiracy theories was the Manhattan Project, which did indeed involve a conspiracy by the government to keep a secret weapons program–oh, you know–secret. It was also revealed after the war was over.

You get the logic, though, don’t you? Just because conspiracies like the Manhattan Project, Iran-Contra, and Watergate were real, 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, and many other varieties of loony conspiracy theories must be real, too!

And, according to Adams, these are examples of “awakened” people:

  • Alex Jones
  • Jeff Rense
  • Charlotte Gerson
  • Jonathan Landsman
  • David Icke
  • Jesse Ventura
  • Gerald Celente
  • Ron Paul
  • Robert Scott Bell
  • Dr. Andrew Wakefield
  • Suzanne Somers
  • Dr. James Forsythe
  • George Noorey

David Icke? The guy who thinks that shape-shifting reptilians are ruling the world? Alex Jones? The guy who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like, even when it conflicts with other conspiracy theories he believes? Andrew Wakefield? Suzanne Somers? Charlotte Gerson?

Apparently, “awakened” does not mean what we commonly think it to mean.

I sometimes wonder if all these straw men and this projection convince anyone other than believers, or whether they serve any purpose other than to overcome the self-doubt of those who use arguments like this. Adams uses an extreme version of the sorts of fallacious straw men arguments and techniques of projection, but less obviously nutty versions are used all the time by cranks. Regardless of why believers in pseudoscience use arguments like this, they represent a profound roadblock to engaging with supporters of pseudoscience and educating them in critical thinking.