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Denialism and pseudo-science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/03/31

Nowadays, questioning whether HIV causes AIDS, or whether carbon dioxide causes global warming, is often deplored and attacked as “denialism” or pseudo-science. Yet questioning those theories is perfectly good, normal science.

Science is many things, including a human activity, an institution, an authority, but most centrally science means knowledge and understanding. Pseudo-science correspondingly means false claims dressed up as though they were reliable, genuine science. Denialism means refusing to believe what is unquestionably known to be true.

Knowledge means facts; understanding means theories or interpretations; and an essential adjunct to both is methodology, the means by which facts can be gathered.

There is an important connection not only between methods and facts but also between facts and theories: Un-interpreted facts carry no meaning. They are made meaningful only when connected to a conceptual framework, which is inevitably subjective. That is typically illustrated by diagrams where the facts consist of black and white lines and areas whose meaning depends on interpretations by the viewer. Different observers offer different interpretations.

The meanings of these facts — black-and-white lines and areas — are supplied by the viewer:
A young lady with extravagant hair treatment facing left — OR an old crone looking downwards;
A duck facing left OR a rabbit facing right;
Twin black profiles looking at one another OR a white vase.

In science, researchers often differ over the interpretation of the evidence: the facts are not disputed but different theories are offered to explain them.

At any rate, in considering what science can tell us we need to consider the three facets of science: facts, methods, and theories [1]. Normal scientific activity is guided by established theories and applies established methods to enlarge the range of factual knowledge.
Every now and again, something unconventional and unforeseen turns up in one of those three facets of science. It might be a new interpretation of existing facts, as in the theory of relativity; or it may be the application of a novel method as in radio-astronomy; or it may be the observation of previously unsuspected happenings, facts, for instance that atoms are not eternally stable and sometimes decompose spontaneously. When something of that sort happens, it is often referred to later as having been a scientific revolution, overturning what had been taken for granted in one facet of science while remaining content with what has been taken for granted in the other two facets.
The progress of science can be viewed as revolutions in facts, or in method followed by the gaining of possibly revolutionary facts, followed eventually by minor or major revisions of theory. Over a sufficiently long time — say, the several centuries of modern (post-17th-century) science — the impression by hindsight is of continual accumulation of facts and improvement of methods; the periodic changes in theoretical perspective are all that tends to be remembered by other than specialist historians of science.

(from “Why minority views should be listened to”)

The history of science also records episodes in which researchers proposed something novel simultaneously in two facets of science, for example when Gregor Mendel applied simple arithmetic to observations of plant breeding, an unprecedented methodology in biology that thereby uncovered entirely new facts. Another example might be the suggestion by Alfred Wegener in the early decades of the 20th century that the Earth’s continents must have moved, since the flora and fauna and geological formations are so alike on continents that are now far apart; making comparisons across oceans was an entirely novel methodology, and there was no theory to accommodate the possibility of continents moving. Episodes of that sort, where two of the three facets of science are unorthodox, have been labeled “premature science” by Gunther Stent [2]; the scientific community did not accept these suggestions for periods of several decades, until something more conventional showed that those unorthodox proposals had been sound.

When claims are made that do not fit with established theory or established methods or established facts, then those claims are typically dismissed out of hand and labeled pseudo-science. For example, claims of the existence of Loch Ness “monsters” involve unorthodox facts obtained by methods that are unorthodox in biology, namely eyewitness accounts, sonar echoes, photographs, and films, instead of the established way of certifying the existence of a species through the examination of an actual specimen; and the theory of evolution and the accepted fossil record have no place for the sort of creature that eyewitnesses describe.

In recent years it has it has been quite common see dissent from established scientific theories referred to as “denialism”. The connotation of that term “denialism” is not only that something is wrong but that it is reprehensibly wrong, that those who question the established view should know better, that it would be damaging to pay attention to them; moreover that denying (for example) that HIV causes AIDS is as morally distasteful as denying the fact of the Holocaust in which millions of Jews, Gypsies, and others were killed.

As Google N-grams for “denialism” indicate, until the last couple of decades, “denialism” meant to deny historical facts of genocide or something like it:

In the 1930s, “denialism” was applied to the refusal to acknowledge the millions of deaths in the Soviet Union caused by enforcement of collectivized agriculture and associated political purges, for example the 1932-33 Ukraine famine [3]. Holocaust denial was prominent for a while around 1970 but then faded away from mention in books until it re-appeared in the late 1980s [4]. But soon “denialism” directed at questioning of HIV/AIDS theory and the theory of carbon-dioxide-induced global warming swamped all other applications of the term:

This recent usage of “denialism” is consciously and specifically intended to arouse the moral outrage associated with denial of genocides, as admitted (for example) by the South African jurist Edwin Cameron [5]. But those genocides are facts, proved beyond doubt by the records of deaths as well as remains and various artefacts at concentration camps. By contrast, so-called “AIDS denialism” and so-called “climate-change denialism” or “global warming denialism” are the questioning or disputing of theories, not facts.

That questioning, moreover, is perfectly consonant with normal science:
⇒⇒   On the matter of whether HIV causes AIDS, dissidents do not question anything about established methods of virology, and they do not claim that HIV tests do not measure proteins, antibodies, and bits of genetic material; they merely assert that the results of HIV tests do not fit the theory that HIV is an infectious agent, and they assert that the methods used in HIV AIDS research are not sound methods for studying viruses since they have not been verified against experiments with authentic pure HIV virions derived directly from HIV+ individuals or from AIDS patients (The Case against HIV).
⇒⇒   On the matter of whether the liberation of carbon dioxide and by the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of global warming and climate change (AGW, Anthropogenic Global Warming and climate change [ACC]), those who question that theory do not question the facts about amounts of carbon dioxide present over time and they do not question the changes that have taken place in temperatures; they merely point out that the known and accepted facts show that there have been periods of time during which carbon-dioxide levels were very high while temperatures were very low, and that during several periods when carbon-dioxide levels were increasing the Earth’s temperature was not increasing or perhaps even cooling [6]. Furthermore, those who question AGW point out that the prime evidence offered for the theory is no evidence at all, merely the outputs of computer models that are supposed to take into account all the important variables — even as it is obvious that they do not do that, since those computer models do not provide an accurate record of the actual temperature changes that have been observed over many centuries.

Denialism means to deny something that is unquestionably true, but theories, interpretations, can never be known to be unquestionably true. Labeling as denialists those who question whether HIV causes AIDS, or those who question whether human-caused generation of carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change, is an attempt to finesse having to properly demonstrate the validity of those theories. Another attempt at such evasion is the oft-heard assertion that there is an “overwhelming consensus” on those matters. As Michael Crichton put it:
the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. . . . Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way [7].

When the assertion of consensus does not suffice, then the ad hominem tactic of crying “denialism” is invoked: the last refuge of intellectual scoundrels who cannot prove their case by evidence and logic.

[1]    I first suggested this in “Velikovsky and the Loch Ness Monster: Attempts at demarcation in two controversies”, in a symposium on “The Demarcation between Science and Pseudo-Science” (ed. Rachel Laudan), published as Working Papers of the Center for the Study of Science in Society (VPI&SU), 2 (#1, April 1983) 87-106. The idea was developed further in The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery (University of Illinois Press, 1986/88; reprint, Wipf & Stock, 2012; pp. 152-3); see also Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies (University of Illinois Press, 2001); Science Is Not What You Think (McFarland, 2017)
[2]    Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery”, Scientific American, December 1972, pp. 84–93
[3]    Described as the Holodomor
[4]    Holocaust Denial Timeline
[5]    Edwin Cameron, Witness to AIDS, I. B. Tauris, 2005; see book review in Journal of Scientific Exploration, 20 (2006) 436-444
[6]    Climate-change facts: Temperature is not determined by carbon dioxide
[7]    Michael Crichton,  “Aliens cause global warming”, Caltech Michelin Lecture, 17 January 2003


Posted in consensus, denialism, global warming, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientific literacy, scientism, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

“Denialism” — Who are the “denialists”?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2013/02/16

“Denialism” is a recently invented, highly disdained condition. The inventors and deployers of the term intend it as a fatal blow to anyone who does not accept a mainstream consensus.
But there have always been minority views, unorthodox opinions, heterodox beliefs, and history teaches that some of them outlasted and eventually superseded the mainstream consensus.
In science, at times a difference of opinion has persisted unresolved for quite a long time. What’s new is not that a significant number of competent experts disagree with a mainstream consensus: What’s new — in modern science — is that mainstream institutions and their representatives seek to discredit their colleagues who interpret the evidence in a different fashion. What’s new in modern science is that differing opinions are labeled heretical and that their proponents are excommunicated, even when those proponents comprise a sizable number of well qualified experts.

Iconoclastic novelty has traditionally been resisted by mainstream science (1-3). Even well-established, senior scientists who make startling claims have tended to be ignored or ostracized (4).

On the other hand, occasionally a medical or scientific specialty seizes on some new claim that quickly becomes a fad. In recent times some of those have become bandwagons: fluorocarbons as destroyers of the ozone layer, for example, or carbon dioxide emissions as cause of global warming, or a retrovirus as cause of AIDS. Here the traditional roles of conservative and iconoclast have been reversed: The mainstream consensus upholds the iconoclastic novelty virtually from the outset while a minority of specialists denies that the evidence has established the new claim beyond a reasonable doubt.

The history of science teaches quite unequivocally that no new claim should be accepted without further ado. Only time can tell whether a new claim is sound; and time can tell that only if researchers repeatedly and persistently test the claim by trying to disconfirm or to confirm the early observations, and by trying to build on them.

The history of HIV/AIDS theory and of the theory of human-caused global warming (AGW, for anthropogenic global warming) demonstrates that in these cases the mainstream misguidedly jumped to acceptance well before conclusive support for the theories was at hand. With AGW, the claim rests entirely on computer models that neglect such important variables as those associated with historical cycles of temperature (5). With HIV/AIDS, the claim is  not supported by epidemiologic data, some of which was available quite early in the AIDS era (6).

These instances also demonstrate that early wholehearted acceptance by influential mainstream organizations can stymie subsequent reconsideration even as the evidence against the theories mounts. A mainstream consensus has enormous inertia; it maintains itself through control of the institutions that fund research and publish findings.

The volte-face in the traditional conservatism of science seen with HIV/AIDS and AGW has been accompanied by an unprecedented ostracizing and persecution of sizable numbers of well established and formerly respected specialists who attempted to play the traditional role of skeptical scrutinizing of new claims. The persecution has consisted of such things as refusal of research funding, exclusion from professional conferences, and extraordinary measures to prevent publication (5).

In the past, there have been cases where once well-established scientists were banished beyond the pale when they made unacceptable claims (4). But it is unprecedented that whole swaths of mainstream practitioners, including highly accomplished individuals, are effectively excommunicated from their profession, are held up to derision and ridicule in the media, and are even branded “denialists” in specific comparison to those who deny the occurrence or nature of the Nazi Holocaust with its mass killings of millions of Jews, gypsies, and other political or social undesirables.

It seems a little remarkable that no influential or popular media have pointed out the high qualifications of significant numbers of those who have been called denialists. Here is a brief survey.

HIV/AIDS “denialists”

The most well known HIV/AIDS denialist is Peter Duesberg, who before his apostasy over HIV and AIDS had been generally recognized as one of the world’s leading cancer researchers and retrovirologists. Other highly qualified critics of HIV/AIDS theory include  Kary Mullis (Nobel Prize), Robert Root-Bernstein (MacArthur “Genius” Awardee), Gordon Stewart (professor at the University of Glasgow and epidemiology consultant to the World Health Organization) and others as well (7).

In an open letter to the scientific community in 1991, more than 30 people asked that the HIV/AIDS hypothesis be re-examined; the signatories included Mullis, Root-Bernstein and Stewart and other well-established biologists in pertinent specialties (e.g. Gordon J. Edlin, Beverly Griffith, Harry Rubin, Richard C. Strohman, Charles A. Thomas, Jr.) as well as MDs and other scientists and science writers. Within 2 years more than 350 others had added their signatures (8): biological scientists, doctors, science writers, and a number of individuals with first- or second-hand experience of AIDS.

Some of those individuals are among those who have written articles and books explaining why HIV/AIDS theory has not been established. Much of this material comes from individuals who have no personal axe to grind and who stood to gain nothing in personal preferment by criticizing the mainstream dogma, indeed some of these people paid heavy professional prices for their apostasy. Among these are science writers who began by researching stories about AIDS but found to their astonishment that the facts on the ground do not support HIV/AIDS theory; see for example the books by Jad Adams, Ellinor Burkett, Neville Hodgkinson, Jon Rappoport, Joan Shenton, Bruce Nussbaum, and also sociologist Steven Epstein (9).

A very useful source for “denialist” works up to 1993 is Ian Young, The Aids Dissidents: An Annotated Bibliography (Scarecrow, 1993).

Useful “denialist” books not among those listed at include:
Harvey Bialy, Oncogenes, Aneuploidy, and AIDS
(dist. North Atlantic Books, 2004)
Richard & Rosalind Chirimuuta, AIDS, Africa and Racism
(London: Free Association Books, 1989)
John Crewdson, Science Fictions (Little, Brown, 2002)
Rebecca Culshaw, Science Sold Out (North Atlantic Books, 2007)
Celia Farber, Serious Adverse Events (Melville House, 2006)
Etienne de Harven & Jean-Claude Roussez,
Ten Lies about AIDS        (Trafford, 2008)
F. I. D. Konotey-Ahulu, What is AIDS? (Tetteh-A’Domeno, 1989)
Evan C. Lambrou, AIDS: Scare or Scam? (Vantage, 1994)
Christine Maggiore, What if everything you knew about AIDS was wrong?
(American Foundation for AIDS Alternatives, 1996)
Maria Papagiannidou-St Pierre, Goodbye AIDS! Did it ever exist?
(Impact Investigative Media, 2009)
Gary Null with James Feast, AIDS: A Second Opinion (Seven Stories, 2002)

In 2012 the Opposing Viewpointsâ Series published a volume on AIDS (ed. Roman Espejo, Greenhaven Press) that juxtaposes pro and con arguments, for instance over whether HIV causes AIDS and whether antiretroviral drugs prolong life.

1.    Bernard Barber, Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery,
Science, 134 (1961) 596-602
2.    Gunther Stent, Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery,
Scientific American, December 1972, 84-93
3.    Ernest B. Hook (ed).,
Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect,
University of California Press, 2002
4.    Chapter 9, “Luck, or the lack of it”, in
Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science, Paraview Press 2001;
ISBN-13: 978-1931044288
5.    Dogmatism  in Science and Medicine:
How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth
McFarland 2012
6.    The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland 2007
7.    See “Whistleblowers” at the virusmyth website;
8.    “The Group
9.    See “Find” and  “Bookshelf

AGW “denialists”

Wikipedia is unusually reliable in listing, in several categories, scientists who disagree with the view that human-caused emission of carbon dioxide is significantly adding to global warming.

Those who question the accuracy of mainstream projections include such competent, indeed eminent people in relevant disciplines as
Freeman Dyson, Fellow of the Royal Society, professor emeritus at Princeton Institute for Advanced Study
Richard Lindzen, member of the National Academy of Sciences, Alfred P. Sloan professor of atmospheric science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Nils-Axel Mörner, former head of the Paleogeophysics and Geodynamics department at Stockholm University and former chairman of the INQUA Commission on Sea Level Changes and Coastal Evolution
Garth Paltridge, former chief research scientist at CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research (Australia) and former director of the Institute of the Antarctic Cooperative Research Centre
Philip Stott, professor emeritus of biogeography, University of London
Hendrik Tennekes, former director of research, Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute

Those who hold that global warming is owing to natural processes include
Sallie Baliunas, astronomer, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Ian Clark, hydrogeologist, professor, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Ottawa
William Kininmonth, meteorologist, former Australian delegate to Commission for Climatology, World Meteorological Organization
Tim Patterson, paleoclimatologist, professor of geology, Carleton University (Canada)
Ian Plimer, professor emeritus of Mining Geology, University of Adelaide
Fred Singer, professor emeritus of environmental sciences, University of Virginia; professor emeritus, George Mason University; founding dean, School of Environmental and Planetary Sciences, University of Miami; founder, National Weather Bureau’s Satellite Service Center
Willie Soon, astrophysicist, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Wikipedia lists another dozen people in this category, and a dozen who either regard the cause of global warming as unknown or that it will in any case have no dire consequences.

One of the most eminent AGW “denialists” was Frederick Seitz, at one time president of Rockefeller University, former president of the National Academy of Sciences, awarded a National Medal of Science. He endorsed the Oregon Petition against accepting AGW, a petition signed by more than 30,000 people who hold some credential in science, including >7000 with PhDs and nearly 4000 with degrees in atmospheric or environmental science.

The Leipzig Declaration asserted that there is no scientific consensus over the cause of global warming. It was signed by several scores of atmospheric scientists and meteorologists, including people with impressive credentials, for instance the eminent astrophysicist Thomas Gold and William Nierenberg, former Chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmospheres and of the National Research Council’s Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee as well as Director Emeritus of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

Among the many books written by well qualified and well established AGW “denialists”, a reader new to the controversy might begin with one of these:
Robert M. Carter, Climate: The Counter-Consensus —
A Palaeoclimatologist Speaks
(Stacey International, 2010)
Michael Crichton, State of Fear
a novel with citations of scientific works (HarperCollins, 2005)
Craig Idso & S. Fred Singer, Climate Change Reconsidered:
The Report of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change
(Heartland Institute, 2009)
Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science
(Taylor Trade Publishing, 2009)
S. Fred Singer & Dennis T. Avery, Unstoppable Global Warming:
Every 1,500 Years
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2007)
S. Fred Singer, Nature, Not Human Activity, Rules the Climate
(Heartland Institute, 2008;
available free at
Roy W Spencer, The Great Global Warming Blunder:
How Mother Nature Fooled the World’s Top Climate Scientists
(Encounter Books, 2012)

Shorter pieces well worth reading include
Michael Crichton, Aliens cause global warming
(Caltech Michelin Lecture, 2003)
Andrew Montford, Nullius in Verba (On the word of no one) —
The Royal Society and Climate Change

(Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 6, 2012;
ISBN: 978-0-9566875-6-2)
Maurice Newman (former chairman, Australian Broadcasting Commission),
A dangerous method: Global warming dogma has damaged science itself
(Spectator [Australia], 24 March 2012, p. ix)

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