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The ad hominem meme of a denier

PsychologyPosted by David McDonagh Tue, October 14, 2014 16:38:22

The fact that humans are always free to deny any fact or collection of facts, but not even one person is, ever, free to believe whatever they like.


This article is basically a reply to the blogger Mark Hoofnagle on deniers that is at the end of the link above. It is an attempt to dismiss those he disagrees with without giving whatever they say any proper consideration. He seems to have it in for propagandists, as so many people do, but especially those he calls deniers. But this concept is an excuse not to debate with those he wants to dismiss.

We can say what we like but never quite believe as we like. Belief is not a human action but rather it is an ephemeral state of mind. Belief is only of the live mind, so it is not like knowledge in that respect. We may know something that we cannot immediately recall but that we might recall in about an hour, or maybe even a day later, but belief is what we think is the case just now, at the present moment, and it involves a fresh take, or a fresh judgment, on the world. Thus all belief is a slight test of what there is out there.

There is not ever any stable belief i.e. there is nothing even remotely like Popper thought was faith. Popper was utterly deluded on that rather stupid idea of mental stability. What allows people to reproduce contents similar to their past beliefs in their current beliefs, now, is the common external world itself moreso than the dendrites in our brains, though the latter have some input too. The air we breathe in is similar in content to earlier air we used, owing to what is external too, but there is more input of our assumptions into any belief than there is in the air we breathe in.

However, no actual belief can last longer that a fresh in-take of air. As we use air to refresh the blood so we, similarly, use belief, mainly in current action, or activity, that needs to be re-checked by our senses to check how we are managing with anything that we attempt to do, but any ephemeral belief-take will also spill over into theoretical abstract things too. Belief is to do with activity but many things we believe, most of which we suppose is on the horizon whenever that is in view, for example, might never be acted on by ourselves. However, any belief is going to be mainly used up in doing whatever we do e.g. we need to refresh it, by use of our senses, just to see whatever we are doing at any one time. Anyone blind person will be clearly handicapped in that respect, in all they do, for they will not be able to check whatever they want to do by the use of their eyes.

Some authors that Mark Hoofnagle is concerned with have written books denying the link between HIV and AIDS but I have not read any such book.

Karl Popper was right to hold that mere belief was not really germane to science, though he did, unwittingly, allow it in when he went on about honesty in science, which he associated with rationality.

Popper might also have noticed that belief is an excellent heuristic. Also, he might have noted that conjectures, also are not automatically right, no more than are our automatic beliefs, which also have the logical status of mere assumptions, so both equally risk error. However, the rule of assumptions in logic is that any assumption will allow us to make a beginning. Mistakes in the logic can only arise later. But the assumption might well be false, of course. Logic is about validity rather than directly about the truth.

However, Popper was roughly right to try to keep belief largely out of science; that science was to do with the objective account [that he called world three, or W3, which is objective] rather than only of what we have in mind [that he called world two, or W2, which is subjective]. Popper was right to attempt to shun subjectivity. He was also right that belief in pseudoscience is not germane to science either. Any conjecture will do to begin from. Science is ideally open to one and all. It tends to ignore the Irishman who says: “If I were you then I would not start from here!” We can start from almost anywhere. It hardly matters where we are coming from.

However, like DRS, I am very keen on belief. I think most people tend to conflate beliefs and values. The English language conflates those two aspects of the mind. In the philosophy of religion, the difference is made in a common distinction between “believe in” [i.e. value] and “believe that” [i.e. think is the case]. Beliefs are only just what seem to be the facts to the believer at any one time.

It is our values that mainly motivate us. We act mainly on our values but belief serves the passions but yet it is not quite the slave of them, as Hume said, for our beliefs have no fear of our values and what we believe never flatters us.

However, I think Hume was basically right.

Oddly, David Hume was the one author that Marx was not very hostile to, and that is what led me to read Hume in 1968. I found him roughly right then, as I still do now, but his terminology seemed exceedingly inept, especially as Locke, Berkeley and Hume himself mainly had only a verbal difference in their revision of what Thomas Hobbes said in his 1651 book. The terminology still does look to be very inept. In particular, what Hume calls irrational looks most rational to me, including all our automatic beliefs. The daft dogma that rationality requires choice, that Hume seemed to have adopted, seems to obfuscate reality for anyone at all who adopts it.

My prelude above is to the consideration of what Mark Hoofnagle says on the quite false meme of denialism, false as it holds that humans can decide whatever they believe when no animal, let alone no human, ever can. Belief is a reality principle in animals, as it is practical feedback from the world as to whether the animal is safe, or not, as well as being a practical need for whatever the animal wants to do. Belief cannot flatter, nor can it be controlled. Natural selection would have soon seen off whimsical choice in belief. It would have crowded out the need we have to see what we are doing, as well as if we are out of likely danger from predators at any one time. A reality principle, such as belief, will be a prerequisite of any animal activity.

But backward psychology seeks to serve what Francis Bacon called false idols [i.e. pigheaded memes, like denialism, that seems to satisfy the holders as an end rather than enlightening them about reality; they are basically expletives that refer to nothing real: constituted blanks] rather than looking at how humans actually are. Brain science is very similar.

Popper held that science was about testing. This looks, on the face of it, the opposite of trust, but Mark Hoofnagle is moaning that those he calls deniers lack trust. But what has trust got to do with it? We need to test theories rather than to trust people in science. It does not really matter much if ever we lack trust. We test ideas as if we do not trust them at all.

We are told that conspiracy theories are down to a lack of trust on the part of the people who adopt them; that such people also suspect a plot on the part of the authorities against the public.

That there may be such plots would not surprise me but I would not normally expect them to be effective. I do not doubt that corruption is fairly common, but presumably most organisations check for it. So most corruption fails to have much special or particular impact, though it will be a factor in the normal costs of firms, I suppose.

The idea that conspiracy theorists are paranoid looks not only false but also quite inept. I have spoken to many such propagandists since 1968 and I have never seen a sign that any of them were even slightly paranoid. That latter is a very personal disposition but conspiracy propagandists seem to adopt an external paradigm that is not at all related to the type of person they happen to be but rather to the world as their theoretical account would have it.

Ideally, any such conspiracy theories would boost science but in fact it seems that not many conspiracy theorists follow up the theory as much as one might expect them to do. Nor do those people they talk to seem to study science, or history, or whatever, as a result. In that, the conspiracy are propagandists not like the normal religious or political propagandists, who more often do seem follow up their ideas in reading books on the topics in question a bit more, even if those people they speak to still do not usually bother.

But paranoids do not think to ever be fair to their imagined enemies at all but rather feel as sure and as fearful of them as a normal person would be of an escaped tiger from the local zoo.

This analogy of conspiracy theorists to actual paranoids by Mark Hoofnagle looks completely inept to me. He seems to want to abuse the propagandists rather than to try to explain them with this analogy.

I ought to confess that I am a propagandist myself. I never did feel they were abnormal, no more than those who like going fishing or who indulge in any other intellectual interest or hobby; though I suppose that most propagandists would feel what they do is way more important than just a hobby. I became one in 1968 but I guess I did like them way before then. In 1962 I discovered that I not only did not believe in the Catholic creed of my parents, and the adults in general during my first ten years, but also that I never had believed it. I was just confused on belief in my early years. To say I believed in the Catholic creed seemed to be the correct answer when questioned but I never checked my actual beliefs prior to giving that supposedly correct answer. I have ever since tended to think since that most, if not all, of the nominally religious no more believed it than I ever did.

However, I never did like the creed very much in my early years and most of my peers, from 1962 onwards, seemed to value the creed more than I ever did. But not one became a propagandist for it, as far as I know. I immediately became a minor propagandist against it but I was keener on athletics than on propaganda up till 1968. All athletics are enthusiasts, or fanatics. I transferred my enthusiasm for exercise to reading in 1968.

Whenever Bertrand Russell runs down fanatics, as he repeatedly does in many of his books, I always tend to think that the author himself was also something of a fanatic. Surely they are only dangerous if they aim to do dangerous things. Most athletes are harmless despite being quite fanatical, for example. Most murderers do not seem to be fanatical but they do seem to be out to be harmful anyway.

Paranoids do tend to think they are way more important to other people than a normal person would do, especially to their imagined enemies, but they do not, particularly, claim special knowledge any more than most people do. Mark Hoofnagle seems to simply err there, in claiming that they do. We all do assume we know some things that others do not, and much of what we say to others is exactly to share some of this information with them, but Mark Hoofnagle attempts to say this is a paranoiac trait, and to then smear the conspiracy theorists/ propagandists with being paranoid. David Shpairo is cited as holding similar ideas, but there is no safety in numbers whenever one simply gets it wrong.

No one at all can willingly, or deliberately, overlook facts. No paranoid, even remotely, attempts to do that, even though they feel, quite strongly, that those individuals who they have supposed to be their enemies truly are their enemies. Paranoids do not, usually, think that everyone is out to get them. Nor do they often show disrespect for the authorities. If anything, they are unusually trusting, the very opposite of what our blogger, here, wants to say about the propagandists who are called deniers. Mark Hoofnagle writes as if he does not know much about paranoids.

Some propagandists might lie about theoretical issues but, as it is so clearly futile, my guess is that very few, if any, do, but, anyway, no one ever believes their own lies. Self-delusion is as unrealistic as the pet meme of denialism is, and for the same basic reason viz. we cannot choose whatever we think is the case.

We do make assumptions to make out whatever there is out there in the world but that is not quite the same as deliberately manipulating the opinion that we happen to have of the world. Mark Hoofnagle gives an unrealistic spin to the reality of how people are when he writes:

“Denialists exhibit suspicious thinking when they manipulate objective reality to fit within their beliefs. It is true that all people are prone to fit the world into their sense of reality, but the suspicious person distorts reality and does so with an uncommon rigidity.”

No one has rigid beliefs. No one wilfully forms beliefs. Instead, the actual beliefs that all people have change quite automatically as they look at the world. Our five senses revises, and re-creates, our beliefs by the moment, as about as often as we inhale and exhale air. We use our beliefs to do whatever we decide to set out to do and we need to revise them to do almost anything that we do, whilst we do it, be it to go for a walk or to make a cup of tea or whatever.

Our belief-take is revised by the second and this is a sort of weak test on any earlier belief. The animal belief system is a bit like Popper’s philosophy of science, like making assumptions and then testing with a fresh panoramic assumption-take after some activity; or conjectures and attempted refutations, or trial and error.

What Mark Hoofnagle finds compelling in what David Shpairo says does not look one whit realistic to me. But as I have seen others, like Joseph Agassi, on self-deception, another myth, as both memes say equally silly and unrealistic things, so both do seem to reflect some popular theories about human irrationality [W3 memes] rather than the anything real about the human mind [W2].

Mark Hoofnagle then says a few things in favour of tolerance that I can agree with. He says the deniers are not liars in the way that they are often said to be. They are not evil plotters; that they err rather than they deliberately lie.

But then he says they are not worth arguing with! Why not? Because they are trapped in their own denialism! How can that happen? We do not seem to be told. But we can guess that he is not going to be adequate on most of this fallacy of his sheer ad hominem fallacy dismissal of the supposed deniers. The whole idea seems to be to attempt to dodge reasoning on Mark Hoofnagle’s part. Why does he prefer it to just dealing with the so-called deniers openly in debate?

I think I have said enough above to expect the theory of deniers to be false, if ever we were told. But most of the rest of what is written by Mark Hoofnagle on probability seems to have little, if any, bearing on this topic of supposed deniers.

Mark Hoofnagle repeats that deniers are of a certain personality type. But the conspiracy theorists, who he says they are very similar to the deniers, do not seem to be of any particular personality type. Nor do the religious and political groups I have looked at since 1968, from within the organisations that I joined and also from without with the many various rival groups to the ones that I joined. The various propaganda organisations seem to attract all sorts of persons; both within their branches [usually based on locality] and as to biases between branches. Some members within a branch are more extraverted, say, than others, and some branches are extraverted than others too, and in personality types all paradigms seem to attract all the various psychological types that we can find in the wider society.

I have also joined some non-ideological educational bodies, from about 1975 onwards, and they too seem to be no different from the ideological groups just because there is no overall ideology. I have yet to meet a single person in such groups that regard themselves, personally, as especially wrongly treated by others or by society as a whole as Mark Hoofnagle imagines the deniers do. They just never seem to talk about such things. With the ideological groups, the ideology has always been held as being quite impersonal.

Christian groups have been creationists, of course. Mark Hoofnagle says those do have a different style, as he says do the Global Warming deniers. It is ideology rather than personality that distorts their outlook with them, he says. He seems to be, as Thomas Kuhn was, proud to find excuses not to argue with people; thankfully Kuhn was often willing to break this bigoted principle.

I suppose this anti-debate meme, of which the meme of denial is one amongst many excuses for, is the main reason why human progress is slowed down. I do not like any protectionism in any case, but rather I prefer free trade but this anti-debate outlook of Polanyi/Kuhn and it is about the acme of protectionism. It holds progress back.

However, free speech should be free. We should not follow up recommendations if ever we do not want to do so. We have no duty to look into all issues that a propagandist feels to be important. The propagandist can be content with those who do want to follow up whatever he recommends. If he does his job well, there should be enough of them on any progressive issue.

Mark Hoofnagle feels it is wise not to argue with a propagandist, any of which he seems to feel is going to be a crank-pot in any case. He says: “To argue with a Dale would only make you look like the fool” where a Dale is just some fanatical propagandist, or an enthusiast, as they might have said in the eighteenth century. But if any such Dale makes us look silly then maybe that is because he does know a bit more than we do on his pet topic.

As Popper said, we should learn from rather than to fear our errors. We are all fools anyway. A fool, I presume, is someone who ought to know better than he actually does. Well, we are all always like that anyway. We all remain ignorant to some extent. We all should know at least a bit more than we do. What merit is there in hiding that fact? Mark Hoofnagle does not show any merit in his keenness to cover up the fact that he can often look silly. That is the sort of thing that we all need to tolerate, in ourselves and in others too. But this denier meme is intolerant rather than tolerant of others.

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