Prove it! The burden of proof in science vs pseudoscience disputes

IMG_9677Time to look back at one of my technical papers, this one published in 2013 with my friend and collaborator Maarten Boudry in the journal Philosophia, and entitled “Prove it! The burden of proof in science vs Pseudoscience disputes.” (As with all my technical papers, they can be downloaded from my DropBox, by going to this link.)

The starting point for the paper is that the concept of burden of proof is used in a wide range of discourses, from philosophy to law, science, skepticism, and even in everyday reasoning. Maarten and I, then, provide an analysis of the proper deployment of burden of proof, focusing in particular on skeptical discussions of pseudoscience and the paranormal, where burden of proof assignments are most poignant and relatively clear-cut. We argue that burden of proof is often misapplied or used as a mere rhetorical gambit, with little appreciation of the underlying principles. The paper elaborates on an important distinction between evidential and prudential varieties of burdens of proof, which is cashed out in terms of Bayesian probabilities and error management theory. Finally, we explore the relationship between burden of proof and several (alleged) informal logical fallacies. This allows us to get a firmer grip on the concept and its applications in different domains, and also to clear up some confusions with regard to when exactly some fallacies (ad hominem, ad ignorantiam, and petitio principii) may or may not occur.

To begin with, an important distinction needs to be made between prudential and evidential burden of proof (BoP). The prudential BoP is applicable when there are cost asymmetries in arriving at two judgments about whatever matter is under dispute, whereas the evidential burden of proof applies when there are no such cost asymmetries involved.

Consider, for instance, the question of the safety of food additives. If approached as a straightforward scientific question, then the relevant concept is that of evidential BoP: there is no “cost” associated with arriving at the right judgment, other than the symmetric cost in getting a chunk of reality wrong. But if we approach the issue of food additives from the standpoint of its potential consequences for public health, there is a differential cost in getting the wrong answer, so the idea of prudential BoP seems more appropriate.

The (controversial) precautionary principle, which is an application of the prudential burden of proof, states that — if a certain action or policy is suspected to be harmful — the burden falls on those who believe that a new policy or course of action is not harmful. The status quo is perceived as less costly than a potentially dangerous new policy or course of action. In more general terms, the prudential BoP can be applied in situations where the cost of a false positive is significantly different (greater or smaller) from the cost of a false negative.

Examples of prudential BoP where the cost associated with a false negative outweighs that of a false positive include smoke detection alarms, environmental hazards, cancer screening, etc. An example of the opposite case, where false positives are perceived as more costly, include the presumption of innocence in a court of law. This principle in American criminal law clearly skews things in favor of the defendant, but this is done because the risk of a false positive (convicting an innocent) is treated as much less acceptable than the risk of a false negative (exonerating a guilty party).

Of course, cases of prudential BoP always involve an evidential dimension as well, while the opposite is not the case. In prudential BoP, cost asymmetries have to be taken into account in addition to prior probabilities. For example, in discussions about cancer and cell phones, the initial plausibility of low-energy electromagnetic radiation being carcinogenic has to be taken into account in addition to cost asymmetries. If prior probabilities are ignored, the precautionary principle is misused and can have paralyzing effects on public policy. Conversely, one cannot just invoke a Bayesian perspective (as useful as it is) to settle issues where cost asymmetries are involved, since even when competing claims have equal priors, a prudential approach (but not an evidential one) could easily tip the balance in favor of one claim over the other.

There are a number of important discussions in science, pseudoscience, and even in straightforward philosophical argumentation, that can reasonably be approached either from an evidential or from a prudential perspective, depending on the interest of the parties involved. For instance, the force of the philosophical argument behind Pascal’s wager is supposed to be that the risk of a false negative (you don’t believe there is a god, but it turns out there is one) is much higher than that of a false positive (because of the threat of eternal damnation in Hell). By contrast, to take another philosophical example dealing with the import of paranormal or supernatural hypotheses: the risk (in terms of practical consequences) of falsely accepting the existence of Bertrand Russell’s tea pot orbiting the sun (false positive) seems to be the same as the risk of rejecting the tea pot when there really is one (false negative).

Maarten and I then discuss a number of sources of subjectivity in the judgment of were the burden of proof lies, as well as a distinction between “global” and “local” burden of proof, where the global BoP is fixed throughout a discussion, because it is related to what a discussant ultimately wishes to establish (or her opponents wishes to deny). Within that broad goal, however, a number of local burdens of proof may arise, which shift during the debate itself, as they pertain to smaller pieces of the overall puzzle.

We move on to consider how BoP should be assigned. In 1970, Brown characterized the request for meeting the burden by a given side in a debate as amounting to the claim that, prima facie, that side’s position is more initially plausible than the alternative(s). Brown’s framework does not involve the costs associated with different judgments, and can thus be seen as a characterization of evidential BoP. A major exponent of modern skepticism, Michael Shermer, describes the principle of (evidential) BoP as follows: “The person making the extraordinary claim has the burden of proving to the experts and to the community at large that his or her belief has more validity than the one almost everyone else accepts.” Psychologist Terence Hines, in another compendium on pseudoscience, agrees that the burden should fall on the claimant of the extraordinary, because “it is often impossible to disprove even a clearly ridiculous claim,” such as that Santa Claus exists.

We discuss a formal analysis of these ideas, carried out by Larry Laudan (details in the paper), but warn that such an analysis should not be cause for too much complacency on the part of the skeptic of pseudoscience, since it doesn’t license an automatic rejection of any claim of the paranormal or extranormal, except when the prior probability of the paranormal hypothesis is exactly zero (e.g., when it is logically incoherent). The reason why BoP rests on the believers is also often misconstrued in the skeptical community. The evidential BoP is not on “whoever makes the positive claim.”

First, it is very easy to turn any positive claim into a negative one, and vice versa, by simple application of basic logical rules. In general, affirming P is exactly the same as denying ~P. Any existential claim can be translated into a negative universal, and vice versa. Resorting to such moves would merely amount to sophistic word play rather than a substantive consideration of epistemic burden.

Second, there are cases in which the BoP rests on those who are putting forth what may most plausibly be construed as the “negative” claim, in the sense of denying the material existence of some X. For example, the burden of proof is no longer on historians to provide evidence of Zyklon B use in the nazi concentration camps, although, apart from logical sophistries, they are the ones making a “positive” claim. In this case, then, the BoP rests on those making the “negative” claim.

In most discussions of pseudoscience and the paranormal, admittedly, the believers in pseudoscientific notions are making positive claims, in the sense of affirming the existence of entities (spaceships, psi force, qi energy lines, auras) that are rejected by modern science, but this — per se — is not the reason why the BoP rests on them. Evidential BoP assignment always reflects substantial background knowledge and prior probabilities, and these assumptions of plausibility, we argue, should be based on the expert consensus on the matter.

Maarten and I go on explore the role of Occam’s razor in this debate and then tackle what we call the technical burden. Believers of the paranormal and supernatural have often tried to turn the tables on skeptics, finding various ways to shift the BoP back to the latter. In particular, rhetorical moves of the type “you can’t prove it wrong” are unfair requests that fail to appreciate the proper BoP procedure. In some cases, such requests can be straightforwardly fulfilled (e.g., it is very easy to prove that the co-authors of this paper, at this very moment, have far less than $1 M dollar in their pockets), but even then, the skeptic is doing the accuser a favor in taking on a BoP that does not really fall on him (we are under no obligation to empty our pockets after each such gratuitous insinuation).

Similarly, if ufologists claim that some crop circle was left by a space ship, the BoP is firmly on their side to come up with extraordinary evidence. If the skeptic chooses to take on their sophistic challenge to “prove that there was no spaceship” by way of providing direct or circumstantial evidence that that particular crop circle was in fact a human hoax, they are indulging the believers by taking on a BoP that, rationally speaking, does not pertain to them at all.

For most actual para/extranormal claims, however, the space of possibilities cannot be exhausted in a finite (and suitably short) time. For instance, to arrive at proof that there are no alien spaceships visiting earth — at any moment, not just in the case of a specific alleged incident — would require a type of temporally protracted exhaustive monitoring of the entire planet’s surface, something that it is so far beyond current technological possibility that the request can easily be dismissed as a simple debating trick.

This, however, leaves the skeptic with a dilemma. Although it may sometimes be rhetorically persuasive for her to take on a BoP that, strictly speaking, does not fall on her (for example, providing a natural explanation of a given UFO sighting), this may be perceived as an implicit acknowledgement that skeptics do carry the negative BoP for every single anomaly that believers come up with. The result is a mug’s game for skeptics: all believers have to do is throw around challenges for the skeptic, who will surely not be able to answer every single one of them. To refer again to the ufological literature, even ardent skeptics do admit that a small percentage (at most 10%, and likely significantly less than that) of alleged UFOs cannot be turned into IFOs (Identified Flying Objects), even after direct investigation of the available evidence.

There are at least three replies the skeptic has available here. To begin with, investigative resources are limited, especially when it comes to likely pseudoscientific claims, so it should not be surprising that on a certain number of occasions the researcher simply does not have sufficient means to carry out a positive identification of the allegedly unexplained phenomenon.

Second, even in the case of genuinely scientific questions one has to contend with limited epistemic access to the relevant phenomena, access that can be affected by the lack of sufficient empirical traces or by the intrinsic epistemic limits of human reason. Think of the long — and so far still largely unsuccessful — quest for an explanation for the origin of life, for instance.

Third, as Thomas Kuhn reminded us, even successful “normal” science constantly has to deal with a number of unsolved “puzzles,” and it is only when the puzzles become numerous and widespread that they genuinely begin to threaten the reigning paradigm, forcing scientists to seek alternative theoretical frameworks. Even if skeptics cannot provide a complete explanation for every single anomaly, what they often can do is to offer promissory notes for explanations, speculating about potential natural interpretations. Given that the BoP really falls on believers to come up with convincing evidence, this is all that can be expected from skeptics under these circumstances.

Intelligent Design proponents and assorted creationists, for instance, have often pointed to alleged instances of “irreducible complexity” in the living world: biological systems that are so intricate that they could not possibly have evolved. In dealing with such challenges, evolutionary biologists can suggest possible evolutionary pathways leading to a given complex biological structure. When they have done so, there is an extra BoP on ID advocates to rule out all of the proposed natural explanations. Contrary to what believers think, the BoP is not on skeptics to demonstrate which one of the natural explanations is the correct one. Given the overwhelming evidence for the power of natural selection to produce adaptive complexity, and the difficulty of garnering information about a distant evolutionary past, this kind of informed speculation is all that is needed to put ID arguments to rest (of course, evidence of specific mutations and selection processes further strengthens the case for evolution, but its fate no longer depends on it). The amount of anomalies (in casu, evolutionary puzzles) has simply not come even close to the Kuhnian threshold for a paradigm shift, though of course this says nothing about whether it might do so in the future.

At this point the paper changes direction somewhat, and Maarten and I provide a discussion of so-called informal logical fallacies. I strongly suggest interested people to check the paper for the details, but we basically argue that too often skeptics (and now, increasingly, believers) throw out the “you committed logical fallacy X” as if that were the end of all discussion. Sometimes an informal fallacy is not a fallacy at all, but actually a good heuristic, or a relevant piece of information.

Let’s say, for instance, that during court proceedings a lawyer for the defense points out that a hostile witness has a history of being unreliable and of lying, or perhaps has something to gain if the accused is convicted. The prosecution can’t just shout “ad hominem!” and be done with it, since information about the character and/or personal interests of the witness are, in fact, germane to the case, even though of course they don’t prove that the witness is lying on this particular occasion.

In conclusion, the word “skepticism” has, of course, a long and venerable history in philosophy. When it comes to disputes about allegedly pseudoscientific notions, though, the term may refer to one of two distinct attitudes: one corresponds to someone who knows that the para- or extra-normal claim is wrong and is out to prove it. Although this may in fact be the case in many actual instances, such a figure is not at all intellectually interesting. The second meaning is the Humean sense in which “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” If we are to be honest Humean skeptics, though, we need to set the bar for evidence of extraordinary claims at the right level, not as low as a gullible believer would wish it, but not as high as for the BoP to be impossible to meet.

Modern skeptics are fond of quoting Carl Sagan’s rendition of the Humean dictum mentioned above: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This is fine as far as it goes, but we clearly need criteria to credibly establish when a claim is indeed “extraordinary,” and what would count as commensurate evidence. Hume’s own famous argument against miracles is sometimes (uncharitably, we think) interpreted as amounting to a statement of the impossibility, not just very low likelihood, of miracles, and people who believe in ufological or paranormal phenomena echo that sentiment when they claim that skeptics will never be satisfied no matter how compelling the evidence is going to be.

However, Hume’s approach in Of Miracles can be reasonably reformulated in Bayesian terms, with the priors — and consequently the BoP — being set by the accepted background conditions pertinent to the dispute at hand. Seen from this perspective, all we need to avoid are the extremes of setting our priors to 0 (complete skepticism) or to 1 (complete belief), since no amount of data can possibly move us away from those limit cases. Indeed, there are some instances in the skeptical literature on pseudoscience where priors have significantly moved over time. For instance, while acupuncture is still criticized in terms of both the underlying theory and the exaggerated claims of its supporters, there may now be sufficient evidence of its limited efficacy that a skeptic needs to reconsider outright rejection. This is even more so for a variety of transcendental meditation techniques, where again one may reasonably reject the underlying metaphysics while agreeing that qua techniques they do work for a range of claimed effects.

If anything, it is harder to find prominent exponents of para- or extra-normal beliefs that have changed their mind in the face of skeptical arguments (though even those can be found, if one digs deep enough). Which brings us to the last point in this paper (which I haven’t discussed above): discussions of BoP in the context of science vs pseudoscience disputes are, of course, a type of Wittgenstenian language game that presupposes a minimum commonality of standards. People cannot agree on how to fairly allocate BoP unless they find themselves at the least in the same ballpark when it comes to the type of background knowledge that constraints the priors pertinent to the dispute at hand. And that is precisely the most common obstacle in debates between skeptics and believers: the former too often simply reject out of hand even the possibility of an anomalous phenomenon turning out to be real, while the latter are equally quick to label the entire scientific enterprise as “too reductionist” or narrow minded to be able to come to terms with novel phenomena. This sort of impasse depends on a widespread lack of appreciation for the sort of epistemic issues Maarten and I have described in this paper, but it also boils down at least in part to individual psychological attitudes, whereof a philosopher is better served not to speak.

35 thoughts on “Prove it! The burden of proof in science vs pseudoscience disputes

  1. brodix

    Which all revolves around the “hard problem.” Biology/sentience/consciousness.

    Can’t exactly deny it and can’t exactly explain it.


  2. Alan White


    What a great paper. When I browse through your list of papers, I wonder when you have time to do anything else. Impressive.

    I very much like the distinction between the prudential and evidential concepts of the BoP. But I have a question about the pragmatics of the way these play out in important controversies.

    As I understand it, the evidential BoP would only be the primary concern when value-contested costs of the issue allow opposing priors to be roughly equal. (I hope I said that right–please correct me if I’m off-track.)

    But I worry about how often such a circumstance occurs, particularly when controversies involve highly-charged emotional and value-laden opposing camps. For example, recent outbreaks of preventable diseases have been traced to parental skepticism about immunization that has a variety of root “reasons”–the primacy of parental authority, religious or historical suspicion of public health policies, etc. Supporters of immunization of course can cite lots of data about the safety and efficacy of the practice, etc. However, neither camp seems able to budge off its base value commitments.

    So–I worry that nearly all significant disagreements–immunization, evolution, theism, global-warming, public vs. private education, GMOs, etc. etc. are irrevocably prudential matters of BoP where the priors of opposing camps will never get close enough for the evidential BoP to really matter. That’s because clashing world-views and their associated values control these debates, and people very seldom shed one world-view for another. (I did–and it ain’t easy if for nothing that you you don’t just leave beliefs behind–you leave people behind, and many you care for.)

    Anyway thanks for the brain massage today!

    Liked by 6 people

  3. wtc48

    Alan: “So–I worry that nearly all significant disagreements–immunization, evolution, theism, global-warming, public vs. private education, GMOs, etc. etc. are irrevocably prudential matters of BoP where the priors of opposing camps will never get close enough for the evidential BoP to really matter.”

    I think you’ve nailed a very serious problem here, but I don’t know what anyone can do about it. As you say, clashing world-views control these debates. Control implies power, and world-view implies political attitude of some sort. We have become so saturated with politics as a means of explaining our environment that it has become almost part of our genome.


  4. alicehorning

    I don’t mean to make light of your discussion, which I found quite interesting. But it strikes me that what you are really talking about is doing serious and appropriate critical reading and critical thinking about whatever topic requires proof. Much more of this kind of reading and thinking is needed (see my blog, Critical Reading in Digital Times for some discussion of this issue), so I salute you. I will be creating a post in my blog pointing to this posting if I can figure out how to do so; I am new to the blogosphere. Thanks for an interesting discussion of what constitutes “proof.”
    Alice Horning

    Liked by 1 person

  5. SocraticGadfly

    Alan, having made that similar journey myself, I can attest to what you say on … to riff on Kuhn, the changing of mental paradigms that is at root. (Of course, if one goes from fundamentalist-type religious to Gnu-type atheist, the paradigm, below the surface, may not have changed that much.)


  6. davidlduffy

    This is a nice paper. There is a reddit discussion from last year including every possible response (one I like starts “1) There are leprechauns. 2) Some subset of these leprechauns are evil…”).

    One “traditional” approach to these kinds of questions is a full decision theoretical framework rather than a straight Bayesianism about knowledge [Some folks here might remember Herman Rubin]. This views any particular experiment or acquisition of a fact as one step in a process. In the scheme of practical reason, assigning utilities makes false positive and false negative rates immediately meaningful eg if follow-up of initial findings is cheap, then set sensitivity high; ditto practical relevance of the finding. It probably doesn’t help when A and B have irreconcilable strong priors.

    Quite aside from outcomes like global warming or preventable infectious diseases, if one thinks knowledge is (time, money, computationally or whatever) expensive, then one can assign utility to whether you want to further adjust your credences for particular hypotheses about the world, given that we think all (scientific) knowledge is potentially contingent. In practice, I think there are big chunks of scientific knowledge that are unlikely to be overturned, so I will spend zero mental capital on challenging them.


  7. brodix


    ” We have become so saturated with politics as a means of explaining our environment that it has become almost part of our genome.”

    Consider it the other way around. Our environment explaining our politics. We function like particles propelled by larger forces, which essentially consist of masses of such particles, coalescing, building up, breaking down, positive and negative feedback, etc. Consider our desires, from power to stability/peace, as thermal stages, from calm waters to waves propelling societies. All our actions are both action and reaction. It is environmental thermodynamics. Having evolved over the course of billions of years in a thermodynamic environment, the fact is that it is elemental to our reality.
    As people what we view as elemental is time, as in narrative and history, because we physically move along a path, which has a beginning and end. How does history, as in the past, fit into this thermal environment? As residual order, which if it isn’t breaking down, is becoming ever more compacted, structured and rigid, as thermal stages. Consider even the topic of this thread; Science is the most studied and processed aspects of our knowledge, yet today there seems to be an eye of the storm, or black hole at the center of science, with physics off into multiverses and multiworlds, rather than a hard and fast nugget of pure knowledge. Why? Could it be that various of our assumptions, from time as foundational to physical reality as quantified units, ignore some of the lessons shed in this race to reductionism? Could it be qualities, such as beauty and aesthetics, are as equally foundational to our reality as quantity? There are lots of questions and issues out there that might be being ignored in our personal and political desires and conceptual reductionism, such that our grasp of reality is another level of flat earthism.
    So where is this political maelstrom heading? Is there something to grasp within it, or do we need to be able to put it in context and see a broader picture? Necessarily it will crunch our sense of reality into some even harder material and shed much of what we view as the world in the process. Heat, energy, etc. are parts of the dynamic and if we consider what creates and results from them, we might better grasp this reality.


  8. brodix

    “As people what we view as elemental is time, as in narrative and history, because we physically move along a path, which has a beginning and end.”

    Though what is happening is expanding/contracting in the present, breathing in and out, as our minds and bodies consume and consolidate, with progress as a process of growing through processing energy and information, creating new and shedding old.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Massimo Post author


    Thanks for the kind words. And yes, you are right about the role of emotional commitments. But I would think that that sort of factor actually shouldn’t enter at all into Bayesian calculations, as it isn’t part of a rational assessment of the situation.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean people aren’t going to weigh their emotional / worldview commitments in the way you suggest. That is why I think Aristotle was right and we need to go back to embracing rhetoric, not just logic, as a necessary approach to changing people’s minds. Recall my recent essay on that issue:


  10. Carter Gillies

    I’ve been thinking about a somewhat different instance where the burden of proof is being considered. My world these days involves the arts, so it is painful to have the question raised about whether funding and public support for the arts is justified. This may or may not interest anyone here, but a different instance a number of my friends have been telling me about is the demand for proof that teaching philosophy is justified. From what I gather, many if not all philo departments are being treated skeptically by administrations. Demands for proof are being leveled. Budgets are in the balance, and so the question seems necessary: Is philosophy justified?

    I had a brief back and forth with Dan K, and he said he might get the chance to write something up for his blog. Maybe this is a tangent you can explore further as well, Massimo. I know you both talked a bit about it in your podcast on liberal arts education.

    The question for me is to what extent we can rely on the issue as an empirical problem. To the extent that there IS evidence, is that really the important thing? No matter what ‘benefits’ and ‘impacts’ we measure for our response, are these the things that really matter? Are they why we do philosophy? Or, as I like to put it, has anyone ever picked up a paintbrush in order to improve the economy? Because, doing art or doing philosophy does not seem to require justification on our part. We do it, and its value is not the means to some other end, necessarily.

    So being put on the spot to defend ourselves with ‘evidence’ quite possibly is beside the point. At the end of your podcast Dan asks this question: “Are we making such a heavy case for the instrumental value of these things that we’re really denying what’s really most important and best about them? And we’re not then taking on a fight that we need to be taking on which is that our society doesn’t value these things anymore. In other words, I think that maybe we are fighting the wrong fight in the wrong place on the wrong grounds.”

    Is philosophy justified? From the outside it seems like a question. From the inside it never was….. And so the idea of ‘evidence’ lives this strange existence. The question is empirical to some and yet it isn’t to others. ‘Proof’ comes out poorly as well. Only our obsession with instrumentality makes it a recurring demand.

    Dan asks one final question, one for which you (Massimo) and he apparently disagree. He asks, “You don’t think that one drives out the other? You don’t think that the obsession with instrumental values makes it harder to see intrinsic values?” My take is that instrumental values DO crowd out intrinsic ones. I have seen it in the arts leadership where the battle is now fought primarily on instrumental grounds, and some have explicitly stated that “The arts do not have intrinsic value.” (!!!!!!!!!) Those are arts leaders talking. They have bought into the idea that only ‘benefits’ or ‘impacts’ matter. Intrinsic value has been effectively crowded out of the conversation.

    So the question I would like to ask you is, “What burden of proof does philosophy bear?”

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Massimo Post author


    All good questions, though they seem a bit far afield from the topic of this post. In general, my answer to the question of the usefulness of philosophy is twofold: (i) to point people to empirical evidence that its study is related to “portable skills” like critical thinking, and that philosophy majors do, in fact, find wide and remunerative employment (see:; and (ii) that the point of a liberal arts education is not just to produce workers, but whole human beings, capable of political, social and emotional lives, and that philosophy, together with the other humanities, makes a sizable contribution to that goal.

    But no, there isn’t going to be a simple empirical answer to the question, and I agree with Dan that it would be misguided to look for one.

    That said, I’ve become weary of claims of “intrinsic” value. First, because too often I’ve seen them made as a thin veil to hide the real answer: “because it interests me.” Second, because I don’t think there is such thing as intrinsic value. Values are human creations, and they can, and should, be examined, defended and discarded in the light of reason. So “intrinsic value” can’t be the end of the discussion.


  12. Alan White

    Thanks Massimo. I’m very much on board with your previous posts about the relevance of rhetoric. When it comes to decision-making we model Captains Kirk and Picard much more closely than Spock or Data.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. brodix


    Wholistic worth is intrinsic, while distilled worth is instrumental. As in the value of a flower is intrinsic, while the value of the seed is instrumental.

    The problem for philosophy is the extent to which it has become a dried flower, pressed in a book.

    It’s seeds, on the other hand, are the rest of the fields of knowledge.


  14. brodix

    To extend that thought, the “philosophy of” fields try to put their various disciplines into larger context, as does general philosophy serve to give a broader, more rounded education, while the various specializations tend to mostly burrow ever further into the details. So the idea of instrumental “value” amounts to a form of mining and production, without really appreciating or understanding the resources from which this value is extracted.


  15. davidlduffy

    Hansson [2017] Science denial as a form of pseudoscience mentions a couple of interesting points, that are more sociological: that complementary medicine practitioners (as an example) are not interested in debating orthodox medicine, just as long as they are let alone in their own magisterium, and that science denialism was less dependent on (the authority of) particular founder figures than say anthroposophy or TM. Another less correct generalisation was a male preponderance in the denio-sphere – the more vocal Australian anti-vaxxers seem to be women though it may be true of climate, relativity, holocaust….


  16. ejwinner

    Let’s bring this down to the concrete.

    Donald Trump, who has yet to prove that he is capable of being president, has asserted that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. He has no evidence for this; but as Newt Gingrich once remarked, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, “its what people believe.” Trump also believes that the Paris Accord is the result of an international conspiracy to cripple the American economy. On the basis of this – for which there is no evidence, and considerable evidence to the contrary -, he has withdrawn the US from the Paris Accord, joining only one other nation that discounts it – the Syria of Assad. (I don’t Nicaragua, since they didn’t sign on because it wasn’t tough enough.) And as hear from his representatives and sycophants, there appear to be plenty of people who believe this too – although, to be critical, it is likely that they simply want out of the global community for their own economic or political purposes.

    We discuss matters of reasoning, belief, and justification in fairly abstract terms here, which is right and proper, since this a philosophy blog. But there are real world consequences, and it is a mistake to dismiss Trumpians for simply being stupid. Trump and his sycophants are profoundly ignorant, and his voters prefer Fox nonsense to real news. But thanks to the failed strategies of the Democratic Party, they’re in charge for the time being, and we have to live with them – and figure out different ways of addressing them than have been deployed in the past.


  17. Robin Herbert

    The problem is the people who are persuasive without being right. Climate change skepticism, anti-vaxxers, intelligent design and creationism all seem to be driven by such people.

    Liked by 3 people

  18. wtc48

    Robin: “The problem is the people who are persuasive without being right. Climate change skepticism, anti-vaxxers, intelligent design and creationism all seem to be driven by such people.”

    In these cases, presumably, the drivers would be more amenable to logical persuasion than those they drive. If not, the only explanation would be corruption (i.e. follow the money).


  19. wtc48

    Massimo: “That is why I think Aristotle was right and we need to go back to embracing rhetoric, not just logic, as a necessary approach to changing people’s minds. Recall my recent essay on that issue:”

    Thanks for that link, which I read last night (accompanied by Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”). It seemed to me that the techniques of rhetoric were akin to those of salesmanship at its best, which require establishing a rapport with the person one is trying to convince, and assumes your honest belief in your cause, and the benefits it has to offer your client.


  20. Massimo Post author


    Yes, in a sense it is like good salesmanship, assuming — as you say — that the salesman believes in the product he is selling, and for good reasons.


  21. Paul Braterman

    What if the salesman believes in his product, but for bad reasons; a global warming denier driven by free market ideology, or a literalist Christian rejecting evolution?


  22. Paul Braterman

    Is this just a matter, going back to the OP, of prior assessments of probability or cost being so wildly divergent that discussion is impossible? If so, as a very real problem, how should we proceed?


Comments are closed.