The Philosophy Of Nay-Sayers

A reader points us to Massimo Pigliucci’s fascinating recap of an academic conference on denialism, or “the willful disregard of factual evidence by ideologically motivated groups or individuals.” One noteworthy takeaway:

Denialists have learned to use the vocabulary of critical thinking against their opponents. To begin with, of course, they think of themselves as “skeptics,” thus attempting to appropriate a word with a venerable philosophical pedigree and which is supposed to indicate a cautiously rational approach to a given problem. As David Hume put it, a wise person (i.e., a proper skeptic) will proportion her beliefs to the evidence. But there is nothing of the Humean attitude in people who are “skeptical” of evolution, climate change, vaccines, and so forth.

Denialists have even begun to appropriate the technical language of informal logic: when told that a majority of climate scientists agree that the planet is warming up, they are all too happy to yell “argument from authority!” When they are told that they should distrust statements coming from the oil industry and from “think tanks” in their pockets they retort “genetic fallacy!” And so on. Never mind that informal fallacies are such only against certain background information, and that it is eminently sensible and rational to trust certain authorities (at the least provisionally), as well as to be suspicious of large organizations with deep pockets and an obvious degree of self-interest.