Sunday, December 13, 2009

Zombie Arguments

I was recently debating with a friend, whether politicians, pundits and the like who make irresponsible, inaccurate, false or fraudulent claims about various issues are mendacious or stupid. They say, "don't attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity", and that's the position my friend took - that no matter how absurd the argument, most of their advocates were either too stupid (or insufficiently intelligent while blinded by their own narcissism) to know that they were spouting nonsense. I don't disagree that it can happen, but I am skeptical that people who are clearly reading from the party memo, or where they offer a succession of discredited argument as each is refuted, aren't being deliberately dishonest.

I stumbled across a decent explanation of that phenomenon:
But the key to all of this is the recurring mischief of criticisms mounted against climate change. I am very happy to affirm that I am not a giant expert on climate change: I know a bit, and I know that there's not yet been a giant global conspiracy involving almost every scientist in the world (although I'd welcome examples).

More than all that, I can spot the same rhetorical themes re-emerging in climate change foolishness that you see in aids denialism, homeopathy, and anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists.

Among all these, reigning supreme, is the "zombie argument": arguments which survive to be raised again, for eternity, no matter how many times they are shot down. "Homeopathy worked for me," and the rest.

Zombie arguments survive, immortal and resistant to all refutation, because they do not live or die by the normal standards of mortal arguments. There's a huge list of them at, with refutations. There are huge lists of them everywhere. It makes no difference.

"CO2 isn't an important greenhouse gas", "Global warming is down to the sun", "what about the cooling in the 1940s?" says your party bore. "Well," you reply, "since the last time you raised this, I checked, and there were loads of sulphites in the air in the 1940s to block out the sun, made from the slightly different kind of industrial pollution we had then, and the odd volcano, so that's been answered already, ages ago."

And they knew that. And you know they knew you could find out, but they went ahead anyway and wasted your time, and worse than that, you both know they're going to do it again, to some other poor sap. And that is rude.
Think, for example, of the tobacco executives who for decades flat-out lied about the dangers of cigarettes.

Update: Thoughts along a similar line from Paul Krugman:
When I first began writing for The Times, I was naïve about many things. But my biggest misconception was this: I actually believed that influential people could be moved by evidence, that they would change their views if events completely refuted their beliefs.
As Krugman notes, it rarely happens. Krugman's a bit cynical about their motivation:
In part, the prevalence of this narrative reflects the principle enunciated by Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

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