Introduction: You’re Not A Sucker, You’re a Human

People on the Left think people on the Right are dupes and denialists. People on the Right think it’s the Left that are dupes and denialists. As the well-known meme goes, “Why not both?”. Every ideology has its sacred cows.

Here’s the dealy-yo: No one can be an expert in all areas and so we are forced to defer to others. But to whom do we defer? To the experts, of course. And here is where politics and ideology start to mess things up.

We live in a world where ideology is in the driver’s seat and so for most of us, “expert” ends up meaning “whoever I perceive as being an authority.”

This is the first challenge. We only count as knowledge claims that come from people whom we trust. Liberals/Democrats don’t trust Conservative sources, even if they’re genuine experts. And the Right doesn’t trust Liberal sources even if they’re genuine experts. And so, we have our current situation. Experts that hold views outside of what conforms with our own political ideology can’t provide what we consider knowledge because they are, to us, untrustworthy people. We don’t listen to them no matter their credentials. Instead, we end up deferring to other experts, not because of their objective credentials, but because their ideological affiliation or their findings cohere with our ideology.

A second important consideration is that widespread science denialism is not primarily caused by individual failures of reasoning. It’s a product of epistemically siloed communities influenced and manipulated by extremely motivated and well-funded ideological organizations and media ecosystems. It follows that changing a mind is not a matter of changing a single belief but rather involves a comprehensive re-evaluation of all those beliefs that are tied to it—including, and especially, beliefs about who are trustworthy sources of knowledge. From the point of view of the ethics of discourse, this should motivate us to be patient with each other. No one is going to change their world-view in a single conversation.

Where am I going with all this? Statistically, for the reasons above, most people have non-culpably fallen prey to at least one anti-science propaganda/disinformation campaign. Even if they suspect this, most people who would rather preserve their ideology and group mythology instead of admitting they’ve been taken advantage of. This is actually a normal human response. Despite this, I want to believe that many people would like to escape the chains of false belief and peer through the fog of ideology and propaganda at the shining truth.

There is a growing literature on how to change people’s minds when it comes to deeply entrenched false views on science. To be frank, most of the research has been fairly dismal in its conclusions. But one small glimmer of hope has started to emerge from this literature. If you teach people the patterns and strategies by which they are being deceived, then they are eventually able to recognize those same patterns as they apply to their sacred cows.

And that is one of the reasons for this website; to systematically categorize and demonstrate through case studies the most prominent anti-science propaganda strategies. The hope is that people will at first easily see how these strategies are being applied to the science denialisms that “the other guys” fall for. But as they become familiar with these strategies, they will see that those exact same strategies are supporting some of their own sacred cows.

The other main purpose of this website is to offer a set of resources for critical thinking instructors. Since I will be compiling real life examples along with the explanations for each, instructors can bring these examples into the classroom (but without my accompanying explanation) and have students figure out what devices are being used. Later, they can look at the explanations. I’ll post more on teaching strategies later but as a general starting point I strongly recommend in-class group work for these assignments.

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