Infinite Recursion and Avoiding Debate

The increasing popularity of vilifying one's intellectual opponents as evil in order to avoid debating them (after all, why bother debating people who are, well, evil) will not be a new concept to readers here.

To see how the frontiers of this tactic are being pushed, one can best look at the climate debate.  I want to link a spectacular example, but let me give some background:

About a year ago, a professor of cognitive science wrote a paper (Lewandowsky 2012) that tried to correlate being a climate skeptic with holding any number of other conspiracy theories (e.g. moon landings were faked).  You can read the whole sad story, but in essence the survey used small sample sizes of people who may not actually have been skeptics (the survey was not actually advertised at any skeptic web sites) and compounded its own problems with bad math.  In fact, the study has not actually been formally published to this day.

Anyway, a lot of folks criticized the paper.  So what did the author do?  Amend the paper to fix the errors?  Defend his methodology?  No, he wrote a second paper that used the critiques of his first paper (often selectively edited by himself) as further evidence of "conspiracist ideation."  Seriously.  The fact that critiques exist of his paper proves the paper!  And then, for double extra recursion points, when the author published the paper online, he front-loaded the first five comments with friends who accused all subsequent commenters criticizing the second paper as conspiracists who are merely proving the point of the second paper.

All of it here.  (and hilariously, this -- Lewandowsky calls totally reasonable comment by mainstream climate scientist "conspiracist".)

Seriously, this is the group calling me "anti-science"!  And no matter how much of a nutter this guy is, he got tons of mainstream ink for his initial "study."   In our post-modernist world, the media uncritically laps this stuff up as real science because the results fit their narrative.


  1. Krishnan K Chittur:

    The climate warriors are indeed getting desperate. I recall someone sending me a story about the Marcott Hockey Stick paper in Science - I responded with links from Anthony Watt's blog that had linked to other blogs - and the response I got was a snarky comment "I get my facts from FoxNews" - (the person did not even bother to see the source because my response contradicted the story - I am waiting for the Science article to be pulled - and then will send that off - I am sure I will get another snarky response) The left today is indeed anti science, anti growth, anti improving people's lives, anti energy generation - anti - life (to use an Ayn Randian term) ...

  2. Sean:

    I think you are too concerned about Lewinski. The mud he's slinging is getting all himself.

  3. Stan:

    At least they're pretentious enough to use math, however bad. Social science however often doesn't bother with its theories. It's so difficult for them they've attempted to justify their lack of hard science with a new philosophy: antipositivism--the idea that social science is not and cannot be subject to empricism. Read through any modern sociology textbook and you will be hard-pressed to find any math.

  4. nnu-16121:

    The mud is getting on himself, but also his co-authors Cook, Oberauer, and Marriott, the whole journal empire of "Frontiers in", the editor of the article Viren Swami of the University of Westminster, UK; and the other reviewer Elaine McKewon, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia

    None will have their reputation enhanced, that is for sure.

  5. nnu-16121:

    I see from other blogs reporting this that the list of referees has had several iterations since publication. That certainly doesn't enhance the reputation of the journal involved!

  6. Che is dead:

    "The increasing popularity of vilifying one's intellectual opponents as evil in order to avoid debating them ... will not be a new concept to readers here."

    No, it will not. It is a tactic that you employ everytime you write about immigration.

  7. Ted Rado:

    Being insulted rather than engaged in lively, factual, and honest debate is par for the course. This is standard practise for those who have a poor case. If one has a good case, then laying out the facts is amply sufficient to make one's point.
    Another tactic is to quote some paper, particularly if it is a long paper with lots of computer output. I guess that the hope is that one's opponent will be overwhelmed by sheer volume. I have long ago concluded that the old say "don't believe anything you hear and only half of what you see" is particularly apt in this computer age. Many regard the written word as holy writ and computer outputs a message from heaven. Everyone should get into the habit of doing some original calcs and studies, not just quoting what they have read. The latter is more likely nonsense put out by someone trying to make their case rather than doing sound work.

  8. Scottonian:

    A variaion of poisoning the well: since climate skeptics question global warming....ooops, I mean climate change, the very questioning of the aforementioned make them wrong in the first place. Let us just abandon reason and argument all together and just go with what feels good; that way we can all be lead around by our noses for our entire lives.

  9. kriskrohan:

    post. It’s good to know some quality blogs still exist now that have useful
    information. Thanks for sharing buddy.

  10. Garrett Gabriel:

    So, according to Lewadowsky, if most people believe something, it's true. Who knew that a rigorous and critical epistemological foundation requires little more than a show of hands?!

    It's actually easier to debunk something when people are intentionally misrepresenting lies as truth. Uncover evidence of that they know they're lying and you can blow the lid off the whole thing. But when people sincerely believe something that is false (or lacking sufficient proof to legitimately be considered true), you're in for a difficult slog.

    I'm reminded once again of Richard Feynman's 1974 Cal Tech commencement address on "cargo cult science."

  11. Joe:

    The guy that did the history of taxes video you posted a few weeks back also did a video on free speech. I think it is very appropriate for this post.

  12. Me too:

    could you give us some examples?