Denialism and Pseudoscepticism

Denialists with their head in the sand

Among the sceptic community, we frequently see folks flexing what is known as denialist behaviour. Denialists are technically a subset of Pseudosceptics, but what do both those terms mean?

Contents

Denialism

Denialism is an essentially irrational action that withholds the validation of a historical experience or event, when a person refuses to accept an empirically verifiable reality.

In the sciences, denialism is the rejection of basic facts and concepts that are undisputed, well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a subject, in favour of radical and controversial ideas.

The motivations and causes of denialism include religion and self-interest (economic, political, financial) and defence mechanisms meant to protect the psyche of the denialist against mentally disturbing facts and ideas.

Denialism [1]

We commonly see these behaviours demonstrated by YEC’s. They ignore the evidence presented for the age of the earth, evolution, order of creation in favour of their interpretation of a holy book.

Of course, I am not talking about the obvious denialists. I am talking those that work under the banner of a sceptic. The pseudo-sceptics if you will.

Pseudo-scepticism

Pseudoskepticism (or pseudoscepticism) is a philosophical or scientific position which appears to be that of skepticism or scientific skepticism but which in reality fails to be so.

Pseudoskepticism [2]

We discussed at length the key behaviours of a good sceptic in our episode of Fresh AiR – Scepticism.

In short, the key behaviours of a good sceptic consist of:

  • Debate – internal,  external and counter debate
  • Research
  • Awareness – especially of bias (both of the sources you read and your own personal biases)
  • Humility/Acceptance – you won’t always be right
  • Question Everything – having doubts without sufficient reason to believe something and therefore withholding judgment is perfectly acceptable. Don’t accept any claim from someone just because it is Dawkins or Tyson

Unfortunately, many folks who identify as a sceptic seem to focus on one aspect. The doubt portion of question everything.

We plan at some point to discuss denialism and pseudo-scepticism in a future season of Fresh AiR, but I’ll cover things briefly here

Key Behaviours of a Pseudosceptic

  • Believe they are Rational – They believe they are rational people, therefore they cannot be irrational and anyone who disagrees with them is irrational.
  • Confirmation Bias – They act on confirmation bias, only their source is correct. Only folks that agree with them are correct.
  • Denialism – At any point; they deny [nearly] anything you say to be correct unless you are agreeing with them.
  • Self Contradictory – They don’t realise they contradict themselves with their arguments, this is just because they are looking to deny what you are saying every step of the way.
  • Fallacies – they act on fallacies, largely ones like; an appeal to authority, poisoning the well, guilt by association, genetic fallacy, strawman.
  • Inflated Ego/Arrogance – Super smart meta-cognitive rational sceptics! They Know better!
  • Resistant to questioning – Whilst they are more than happy to critique you they will likely be resistant to anything you come back at them with. Likely just tell you to “look into it more” whilst ignoring your questions, sources, etc.
  • Insignificant details – They focus on insignificant details, like a grammatical mistake, as to why you are wrong. – this could actually come under the fallacies section, e.g. poisoning the well, but felt it deserved its own section, as covers a wider spectrum.

Example of a Pseudosceptic

The other day I posted a link to CMT5 – I Don’t believe. I was looking for feedback, largely on how folks use “I don’t believe” descriptively and some “sceptics” claim not to have any beliefs.

He decided instead to focus on my definitions of Rational/Irrational/Arational beliefs mostly focused on arational beliefs, but with erroneous definitions.

Rational: logical reasoning, no evidence against the belief.
“I believe the bridge will not collapse as I go over it.”

Irrational: an illogical belief e.g. holding a belief even after given evidence against said belief, or not using any logical reasoning.
“my friend said”, “The earth is 6000 years old even though all the evidence points to it being much older.”

Arational: no reasoning required. Not holding an attitude towards a proposition. A sensory state.
“I believe I like the taste of chocolate”

CMT5 – I Don’t Believe
Davidian (2019)

You can google the actual definitions, or reference some philosophical materials on the matter, my one-liners were a simplification to provide a clear and concise definition.

He posted this video: https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/wi-phi/wiphi-value-theory/wiphi-ethics/v/problem-of-evil

His argument that arational belief is a belief without evidence.
He went on to say anything reasons, even using logical fallacies, was rational, it was only if it was against the evidence that made it irrational.

The conversation had a lot of to and fro, with him not listening or accepting anything I said – I’ll give you a break down of his behaviours (The denialism happened every step of the way and we’ve already seen one with the insignificant detail portion, as arational did not really relate to the article, but needed to be included as the 3 states of belief.)

The Pseudosceptics behaviours in debate

  1. He asserted the video states arational = belief without evidence… Except it doesn’t, it’s talking specifically about arational theism that isn’t a widely accepted thing and it mentions the emotion behind it making it arational.
    It is not simply “belief without evidence” – it is talking about a feeling.
    When this was pointed out… it was ignored.
    Resistance to questioning
  2. He thought this video contradicted me talking about arational beliefs
    However it doesn’t contradict the standard definitions of arational beliefs – when I have asked him what makes you think it does, multiple times, he didn’t answer.
    Resistance to questioning
  3. He stated He didn’t accept my definitions based on Stanford university being “religious”
    A fallacy – guilt by association/poisoning the well/genetic fallacy
  4. Similarly to the above, his video was “from MIT” and not “affiliated with a religious university
    Confirmation Bias
  5. He stated that in the thread I linked to SEP about beliefs.
    I didn’t even mention the Stamford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it was on a post weeks ago and it was an article by an atheist philosopher (Draper)
    Straw man, Guilt by association.
  6. He was presented a number of different sources that describe arational beliefs/actions from philosophical literature but did not provide anything to refute them.
    Confirmation bias
  7. He provided a link to a scientific study which basically said that in an MRI machine we can see the parts of the brain used for things like taste and it showed a level of reasoning.
    I’ve pointed out by that reasoning nothing can be arational as it all gets processed by the mind.
    But rationality is reasoning using logic and probability theory… This is a conscious process, so anything sensory, like the knee jerk reaction of someone stepping on your toe, is arational.
    He repeatedly refused to answer this just saying “look into it more”
    Ego/arrogance, resistance to questioning.
  8. He used the fact someone liked one of his posts as evidence he was correct.
    Confirmation Bias
  9. Said the grammar in the article made it illegible.
    Being dyslexic I am prone to SPG errors, which is why I get the other authors and editors to check my work before publishing. Some things get missed, but he is the only one who ever makes a claim such as it is “illegible”.
    Insignificant Details (this particular one is poisoning the well)
  10. He stated things are only irrational if they are against the evidence and that any reasoning, even logical fallacies, made the belief rational.
    Acting rationally is reasoning according to the rules of logic and probability theory, if you want to call yourself rational then you have to reason using the rules of logic. Logical fallacies are errors in logic, therefore you are being illogical, thus irrational.
    The is a conflation going on here between having a reason and being reasoned.
    This is also a sort of contradiction because, on the one hand, he is saying having a reason makes it rational, and then certain reasons, like faith, make it arational.
  11. One of his arguments is that beliefs and theism aren’t mental states, hence arational means based on faith.
    But there is still a reason for the faith, it’s just that the faith is based on a reason that is arational. Also, there is such a thing as ‘reasoned faith’ (rational theism), so does that make rational theism arational theism, because rational theism is also based on faith?
    I mean he is contradicting himself here. First things processed by the mind are reasoned, but now all faith is arational??
  12. I suggested that arational theism is hard to maintain and not widely used.
    It is not a well-known term, and most people do more than just “feel god is there” – they are questioned and then often think about it and try to justify their belief.
    However if they maintain “I just feel God is there” then that does qualify as an arational reason.
  13. He basically poisoned the well against everything I said because I have referenced papers from SEP in the past due to a religious affiliation the university has.
    The irony here, especially with his repetitious “look into it more” it was apparent that he had not actually looked into it more than his video.
    Alvin Plantinga, a Christian Philosopher, was a big part of the whole initial “arational theism” because he didn’t like his belief being called irrational. https://www.iep.utm.edu/ref-epis/

“According to the classical foundationalist, the only beliefs that are properly basic fall into to one of the three following categories:
evident to the senses,
incorrigible, or
self-evident.”

Platinga claims that God is “self-evident” so therefore you do not need reasons to have faith…

“On Plantinga’s reformed account then, belief in God can now be added to the list of properly basic beliefs:
I see a tree (known perceptually),
I am in pain (known introspectively),
I had breakfast this morning (known through memory),
and God exists (known through the sensus divinitatis).

This belief can be taken as properly basic if the agent’s belief has sufficient warrant.”

“Sensus divinitatis (“sense of divinity”), also referred to as sensus deitatis (“sense of deity”) or semen religionis (“seed of religion”), is a term first used by French Protestant reformer John Calvin to describe a hypothetical human sense. Instead of knowledge of the environment (as with, for example, smell or sight), the sensus divinitatis is alleged to give humans a knowledge of God.[1] ”

https://www.iep.utm.edu/ref-epis/
(accessed 2019-10-6)

Through the entire conversation, he was unable to provide anything credible as to why he felt my definitions were wrong, and would not answer my questions and rebuttals.

It was not that I could not handle criticism, in fact, I have changed and improved my articles many times based on; the feedback I have got from others, or new evidence that has come to light. It was that he was throwing out things that he could not back up. It seems like he didn’t even fully understand what he was saying.

He misunderstood his video, ignored all the philosophical definitions, and basically seem to be stuck in a sunk cost fallacy projecting his own inability to reason on to me.

If one cannot elaborate on and justify one’s criticism, then it is not constructive and shows one does not have enough understanding of the topics one is addressing.

The Rejection of Philosophy within the Atheist/Sceptic Community

There seems to be a strong rejection of philosophy within the atheists community. I had an interest in philosophy from a young age, and when I finally got a chance to study it at A-Level, I dropped out because it was pretty much an entire year of arguments from folks like Anselm about the existence of God. I debated the teacher, poked all the holes, and he said I was right in all of them, but unfortunately that is what the course was.

I didn’t really study it after that, even though I engaged in a number of philosophical debates and discussed philosophical concepts, I did it from a more scientific angle.

Move on to 20 years later and I’ve started looking into it again. There are many things I got wrong, or at least didn’t get quite right with these concepts. Some of it is just definitions or the way to look at things. I lot of it was the mistake many of us atheists make, by parroting information from other atheists we respect. There are many things we take for granted instead of thinking about these concepts and processing them using the rules of logic.

Perhaps it is more to do with the prevalence of misused logic within the community. You could argue this is a form of dogmatism.

Why should we use the rules of logic?
Davidian (2019)

The Resistance to Change

I was talking with Trolley Dave about this resistance to philosophy. There were things I had not heard of till conversations with him lead me to look into things more. I hadn’t even heard of “normative” and “descriptive” before.

Yeah, the only people I know that actually really know about it are those that have looked into philosophy at some level. With there being such an anti-philosophy stance in the atheist community, most people don’t learn about it. If there wasn’t such an anti-philosophy stance in the sceptic/atheist community then there probably wouldn’t be the resistance there is. It’s a strange community when you think about it. The two labels they use come from philosophy, and are philosophical stances, but they are very anti-philosophy. lol

Trolley Dave (2019)

I sort of understand why.. I mean, science/maths.. give direct and correct (or at least probable) answers..

Philosophy… Yes, there are right and wrong answers… But some topics you could spend your entire life mulling over and get nowhere…

Philosophy is also more interesting in some ways. Realistically, philosophy is the foundation of science anyway… Perhaps even the wisdom of it.

But it seems that sceptics/atheists see science as far beyond/removed from Philosophy… In the way that some might say they don’t believe anything they know things. Like belief is a dirty word, Philosophy seems to be too

Science is definitely a better way of getting answers about the natural world… How does x work… but philosophy deals with things that are arguably more important, like morality.

Both are needed and important – I don’t think anyone should ignore either.

I’m not sure if I had to choose one which I would say overall any-more… The way the world is going I think everyone needs a dose of ethics…

Yeah, I think that pretty much hits the nail on the head. I think it also links back to many atheists desire to prove themselves rational and logical, and smart. With science they can repeat things and give definitive answers, and sort of say ‘look how smart I am’. With philosophy it’s far more complicated, and it all rests on how well you can argue your case. Most atheists aren’t particularly good at arguing, so are probably put off that idea. Science is definitely a better way of getting answers about the natural world, I’ve not met any philosophers that would disagree with that. But like you say, there are other things that philosophy deals with, and they’re things that while people like Sam Harris and other atheists claim science can deal with, like ethics, it really can’t. And totally agree that the world needs a dose of ethics! Philosophy should be taught in schools in the same way science is.

Tolley Dave (2019)

Pseudointellectuals

Many atheists and sceptics see themselves as intellectuals. Unfortunately due to studies that show in general; atheists tend to be more intelligent, moral, and hold a more rational position, we have atheists that believe simply by being atheists they are more moral, rational, and intelligent.

The irony is that particular belief is, in itself, irrational. We atheists constantly say “atheism is only an answer to one topic, the existence of God” and then get dogmatic about how we are more intelligent and more rational. Well, which is it, guys?

An Example of a Pseudointellectual

I, at least these days, try to avoid a name and shame. Much like I avoided telling you the name of the denialist above, although if you are part of the AiR facebook group you may have seen it unfold.

In this case, I am not going to be so nice. There is a lacktheist who has decided to spend time “debunking” and providing “rebuttals” to a various number of my posts on his blog.

He started with my article on atheism, in which I explained the evolution of this polysemous term and how different definitions have different implications, stating which option I preferred, providing reasons and asking people what they thought and basically just did the dance of only agreeing with the parts of the article that agreed with the modern definition.

He then went after ‘CMT 5 – I don’t believe‘, attacking the logic and stating that normal people don’t know the difference between descriptive and normative, and the descriptive use is clearer than the normative use, to which I linked him to ‘Why Should we Use the Rules of Logic?‘ and both Trolley Dave and I had a conversation with him, explaining how logic worked. It was clear he had no real understanding of formal logic, and was completely resistant to the idea he should look into it, perhaps buy a book.

It was clear he had suddenly googled some basic information as we were trying to explain things to him, but still wasn’t fully getting it. It was clear the standard pigeon chess meme we atheists first used on theists also applied to him.

In fact, sometimes he sees me posting and says things like “I’ve already shown you how your logic is flawed” to which I have replied, “no you have only shown that you are the pseudointellectual you claim to be”

To that end, yes, the guy describes himself as a pseudointellectual and wears it as a badge proudly.

The irony being he has indeed shown himself to be a pseudointellectual simply by thinking it is a good thing, and definitely demonstrated the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Using the excuse that (and I am paraphrasing) “people don’t know much about philosophy or formal logic” as to why it shouldn’t apply is not a particularly great defence.

He uses disbelief descriptively, skipping over the logic and actually means unbelief and his entire justification for disagreeing with me, my use of logic, and the philosophy behind these various philosophical concepts seems to be, “Most people, including me, haven’t studied philosophy”.

The humorous thing here being how an atheist will slam down a theist for using unscientific terms and definitions when discussing things like evolution, yet when discussing philosophical concepts like “belief” and “atheism” the philosophy is thrown out the window.

The Great Debate Community – Steve McRae vs The Duke

After the conversations with him, we actually found a debate he was having with Steve McRae on atheism and agnosticism.

Steve McRae vs The Duke

At the start he [Duke] seems to be very genuine, calm, and like he is willing to learn.

Regardless of what you might think of Steve*, or the drama that seems to follow on twitter, he is a very knowledgeable guy. His knowledge of philosophy, logic, and various definitions is awesome.

Summary of the Video

He calmly explains the different definitions and why the most widely accepted definition of atheism/agnosticism is the most logical to use, regardless of how it might be used colloquially.

Duke goes on to basically that how it is used in philosophy is wrong, every single piece of philosophy. Because of that, Duke says Steve an atheist.

Anyway, long story short, Steve explains how logic works, belief vs disbelief etc. He explains what a belief is and how affirming something to be true is the same as believing something is true. Duke spends his time disagreeing with all the definitions, how logic works and seems to get progressively more confused and irate.

I personally found the video progressively more irritating to watch due to Duke not accepting any academic source and saying only his colloquial source is correct and that everyone should use his particular definitions.

*I mention the drama that follows Steve. I honestly don’t have enough information to make a full judgement on what happened, but it looks like he got ripped off by an ex-colleague and people are constantly trying to run his name through the mud. These folks are backed by a lot of people in the atheist community, and the fact Steve uses the philosophical definitions and explains why the lacktheist position doesn’t follow logic and how agnostic should be used, he pisses a lot of the dogmatic atheists off. Compared to most, he has a lot of knowledge on philosophy and even if you believe all the negative things said about him, that shouldn’t poison the well and ignore what he says on these topics. To that point, he won his case against his ex-colleague, so take from that what you will.

Summary

Many who claim to be rational, logical, sceptical, intellectual are all of the pseudo variety.

The internet use of atheist actually fits the classical agnostic position.

Many who claim to be open to evidence and reason, simply are not. Their tribe tell them x, and simply can’t accept other answers.

References

  1. Denialism
  2. Pseudo-scepticism
  3. https://www.iep.utm.edu/ref-epis/
  4. Dunning Kruger
  5. Steve McRae vs The Duke

Related Articles

  1. Cognitive Bias
  2. Confirmation Bias
  3. Atheism, Theism, Agnosticism
  4. Atheism and Atheists
  5. I don’t Believe
  6. Scepticism
  7. Belief, Truth, Knowledge
  8. Belief, Faith, Evidence
  9. Why should we use the rules of logic?

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