The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, May 7, 2010

Fighting Against Delusion

Here's one of the things that frequently bothers me.

When you are attempting to stick up for the evidence-based position, when you are fighting for reality, you are fighting an up-hill battle, and one that you are always in danger of losing. There is one, very simple, reason for this - you are the only one who is constrained by facts. Everyone else can just lie and make shit up, they can whip of hysteria, and they can push every emotional button that there is. They can be hypocritical and know that their supporters and/or followers are unlikely to call them on it. They can make false assertions and know that nobody will check up on it.

You, on the other hand, have to stick with the facts, because without them you have no credibility. While you are the one who is in touch with reality, it's difficult to push through the juggernaut o' propaganda that you are facing off against because you are not allowed access to all of the tools that the other side is.

Case in point, take the issue of evolution vs. creationism. If you are on the side of the science, you are saddled with the responsibility of explaining very complex and seemingly counter-intuitive scientific facts. the creationists, on the other hand, can make false claims about the evidence ("There are no transitional fossils" - umm, look here for an answer to that one), call on delusional beliefs ("Darwin learned evolution from Satan himself!" - yes, I have met people who believe this), and stir up baseless fears ("people want evolution taught in schools in order to damn your children to Hell!" - yes, I have met a lot of people who honestly believe this). The deniers of reality have at their disposal a wide range of rhetorical, social, and emotional tools that we don't and that we can't have if we wish to maintain any credibility.

A related group, those who claim that the United states was founded as "a Christian Nation" in direct contradiction to, well, every scrap of evidence available likewise do the same. They tell lies and misconstrue truths about American history. they create false claims about "liberal elites controlling the academy" supposedly trying to brain-wash the youth. Every case where a Christian group is not able to impose it's will on non-Christians gets warped into the Christians being persecuted, when it's really the other way around (look at any of the various fights over gay marriage). Enemies are invented, lies are told, and literally psychotic - that is, broken from reality - claims are made ranging from phantasmagorical "homosexual recruiters" coming after your children, to plans to merge the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, to the ACLU attempting to ban Christianity, to concentration camps being built to "kill of true patriots" when the "socialist takeover happens", etc. etc. etc.

And all of this gets tied together into a single narrative of "Satan and his wiles vs. God: WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?" that discourages people actually stopping to think things through and realize just how absurd these claims are.

For another example, look at the anti-vaccine movement. There have been many, many studies looking for any connection between childhood vaccines and autism, as well as other health problems allegedly linked to the vaccines. While there have been a small number of well-documented cases of extremely bad side-effects linked with vaccines that are now no longer in use, the standard childhood vaccines as of 2010 have been shown pretty much conclusively to not be linked with the various horrible things that that anti-vaccine people claim (or, in a few cases, the risk of a particularly bad side-effect is lower than the risk of death should someone be infected by one of the diseases being vaccinated against). So, what do the anti-vaccine people do?

Well, just like the creationists, they lie (claiming non-existent evidence linking vaccines to various health problems, lying about the ingredients of vaccines, etc.), they misconstrue information (claiming that vaccines contains "toxins" which are, actually, quite safe in the levels in vaccines - some, such as formaldehyde, even being naturally produced by human metabolism in much higher levels than is present in the vaccine), and they press every emotional button that they can think of: claims that corporations are poisoning children to make money being the most common but also including claims of weird government conspiracies, scientists doing unethical experiments, etc. also pop up every now and again. And all of this is tied together in a compelling but false narrative of "evil pharma companies vs. good natural healers: WHO'S SIDE ARE YOU ON?"* which also pushes people to pick a side and not think too carefully about it.

Of course, due to a quirk of human psychology, the people who have taken the anti-reality route, regardless of what issues or sides they favor, will tend to buy the narratives of their community as a shield. So, people who point out that the U.S. Constitution does not, in fact, create a "christian nation" will be labeled "liberal secular humanists in league with Satan", people who point out that vaccines are in fact one of the great medical advancements of the last 200 years will be labelled as either shills or dupes of "big Pharma". And the true believers will cobble together bits and pieces of information, both false and real, as evidence for their position, making connections where none exist in order to keep the house of cards standing.

These are just three examples, but there are many others: Holocaust denial, 9/11 conspiracy claims, "birthers", claims of an ancient matriarchal goddess culture, HIV-deniers, etc. etc. etc. What they all have in common is that they attack truth with outright deception (including both outright lies and a misleading and deceptive acceptance of only select real facts), attempts to push emotional buttons to get potential followers to shut off their critical faculties, and a narrative in which you are either one of the enlightened/knowledgeable/moral/what-have-you, or you are corrupt or a dupe to some big bad evil force. Truth, unfortunately, often doesn't come out in the end, the forces of nonsense often have a more exciting story.

And anyone who wants to introduce reality will face an up-hill battle against zealotry built upon dishonest tactics that we can not use.

It makes me very nervous for our future as a species.

*The irony to this is that the large pharmaceuticals companies have been guilty of some horrible things, but with most of the criticism of these companies coming from the anti-vaxxers and similar groups, it makes all of the critics, including legitimate ones, look like wing-nuts. So, with all of the false rhetoric, the anti-vaccination lobby is actually strengthening the position of the companies that they claim to be opposing by effectively drowning out the legitimate criticisms.


Shawn said...

What's crazy to me about anti-vaxxers is that they tend to be otherwise extremely well-educated and intelligent people. At least the ones I've come into contact with in Seattle.

That is, until you start talking about vaccinations. It's like being transported instantly to Crazytown, population 1.

I mean, all you have to do is read the descriptions of the diseases that you're vaccinating against and it becomes kind of a no brainer. I mean, even if vaccination had a small chance of being dangerous, that's nothing compared to measles, mumps, rubella, polio, hepatitist... the list goes on...

Anthroslug said...

One of the things that I often think of when I talk to the anti-vaccination folks that I meet is something that I once heard a magician say: smart and/or educated people are the easiest to fool because they are typically so convinced of their inability to be tricked that they will often ignore evidence that proves that they have been.