Monthly Archives: February 2012

Denialism, Skepticism and Science

In the last few years, the concept of denialism has gained currency among science writers. It first came to my attention with Michael Specter’s book of the same title, and shortly thereafter, in the Hoofnagles’ blog on My concern is whether denialism is a useful and coherent concept. Should defenders of critical thinking and science add the fledgling term “denialism” to their vocabulary to help clarify talk about a particular class of unwelcome attitudes towards scientific progress and the scientific method? My judgment is negative on the question; we would do well to abandon the term “denialism,” just as we should abandon the use of any term that obscures valid distinctions while creating more confusion than it removes.

It pains me to come to this conclusion, because there… Continue reading

In Defense of Fireplaces – A Reply to Sam Harris

Sam Harris, in a recent blog post, relays a bit of research documenting the harmful effects of wood smoke. He then compares the unwillingness of wood-burning fireplace fans to accept the scientific evidence as tantamount to religious belief, and thinks that even libertarians should support a ban on the burning of wood in the home.

I think Harris is overreacting here. We are exposed to lots of harmful things: the nitrate preservatives in packaged meats, the salmonella bacteria in poultry, the radioactive radon gas in our homes; the list goes on. But none of these things is harmful in small enough quantities. We have good reason to be skeptical whether the occasional fire constitutes a public menace.


The body’s response to exposure to airborne particulates by inhalation (or… Continue reading

Argumentation Styles in Political Debate – Explaining Communication Failure

When was the last time you won a political argument, i.e., when you convinced someone to change their mind to your way of thinking? When was the last time someone changed your mind? If you’re like me, it’s been a long time. Why is the sort of belief accommodation that happens in other contexts rarely (by comparison) happens political discussions? Why should it be so hard to have productive conversation about politics? For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve been observing political debate on the Internet, on TV, and talk radio, with the goal of understanding why political conversations between people who disagree are unproductive or difficult, and I have come up with a theory that explains it.

The basic idea this this: people tend to debate… Continue reading