Friday, March 5, 2010

Universal Traits of Denialists

There's a great post up by VorJack at Unreasonable Faith about a Flat Earth bet in 1870 England. The parallels with modern skepticism are uncanny. This particular contest involved one Wallace, evolutionary fame, who (ingeniously) proved the Earth was round, and won the Flat Earthers' money. For his efforts he and his family started getting letters from the Flat Earthers' chief lunatic like the following, addressed to Wallace's wife: "Madam – If your infernal thief of a husband is bought home some day on a hurdle, with every bone in his head smashed to a pulp, you will know the reason. Do you tell him from me he is a lying infernal thief, and as sure as his name is Wallace he never dies in his bed." Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a gentle soul, this particular Flat Earther had trouble staying out of jail.

The first question this raises: why aren't we still doing these bets? Bets are fun and informative about people's real beliefs. Of course there's Randi's bet, but why aren't we doing it for evolution, and proactively pursuing individual public creationist figures? Two options, guys. Bluntly: tell us what observation you think would support evolution and let's put some real stakes on it, or, back off because you're a big pussy and you don't actually believe any of it. Put up or shut up. (In these situations, denialists invariably take the "pussy" option, and sometimes lie to cover it up; in this, modern denialists are smarter than the aforementioned vanquished Flat Earther.)

Second, and I imagine this is what piqued VorJack's interest, the parallels to the modern era are uncanny. I'm sure everyone reading this thought of Kent Hovind. One issue VorJack points out is that Wallace lost credibility as a result of entering this wager with a lunatic, echoing Dawkins' statement that he doesn't take up creationist debates because they would look better on the creationists' resumes than on his. So we skeptics have evolved too. But that doesn't mean to leave the loonies alone - not at all. There's no need to debate - just bet. The beauty of it is, there's no need for the bet offers to come from recognized scientists doing it. How would it look if Casey Luskin lost a bet to an undergraduate? Or a high school junior? Awesome, that's how.

The take-home here is really that denialists, delusion-peddlers and conspiracy theorists of all stripes have in common a strange tendency of not being able to keep their conduct on the right side of the law, let alone decency. And pointing out the similarities between (superficially) disparate denialisms is a very useful maneuver in debates.

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