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A contrarian, in science, is someone who holds a position contrary to the consensus position. For example, a cholesterol contrarian is someone who holds that high cholesterol is positively good for you. (Very low cholesterol can be a sign of malnutrition or other health problems.) Fluoridation contrarians hold that fluoridation of municipal water supplies causes dental and other health problems, contrary to the consensus view among scientists that fluoridation is an inexpensive and safe way to prevent many dental problems.

A denialist, in science, is someone who denies the consensus position is supported by the evidence. For example, climate change deniers reject the position of the majority of climate scientists that anthropogenic global warming is occurring. Contrarians and denialists often pose as skeptics, claiming they do not accept the consensus view in science because the position of the scientific community isn't absolutely certain and there may be evidence discovered in the future that will show the consensus view is wrong.

Contrarians demand endless analysis of issues to prevent any action from being taken. They are not interested in what is the most reasonable conclusion to draw given the evidence. Their goal is to cause paralysis by analysis. Contrarians often refer to their endless demands for more study and their claims that doubts still remain—no matter what the consensus—as "sound science," a bit of doublespeak that is the scientific equivalent of the filibuster.

Rather than demanding that we dig deeper in order to clarify issues, the contrarian simply wants to throw dust in people's eyes so they can't see what's really going on. The function of contrarians is to arouse fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) and promote the false notion that "sound science" is science where you can't find a contrary view. The contrarian philosophy is Orwellian doublespeak at its best: Some of the best science available is labeled "junk science" by contrarians simply because there are contrary views that may be held by a very small minority.

Scientists know that errors have occurred in science and that no scientific view is absolutely certain. The fact that it is reasonable in science to accept the viewpoint that the preponderance of the evidence supports does not mean, as Chris Mooney notes, that the

... scientific consensus is right in every instance. There are famous examples, in fact, of when it was proved wrong: Galileo comes to mind, as does a lowly patent clerk named Einstein. In the vast majority of modern cases, however, scientific consensus can be expected to hold up under scrutiny precisely because it was reached through a lengthy and rigorous process of professional skepticism and criticism.*

Denialists manufacture controversies to cast doubt on the consensus view of science. The model for manufacturing controversy was created by the Tobacco Lobby, which used a variety of tactics to make it appear that something not in dispute (that smoking causes lung cancer) was in dispute and controversial. The deniers of evolution at the Discovery Institute have tried to create the viewpoint that there is a controversy among scientists regarding whether evolution occurred. Holocaust deniers have tried to create doubt against the consensus view of historians regarding the systematic attempt to exterminate Jews and others by the Nazis during WWII. Similar campaigns to create doubt and controversy where there is none in the scientific community have been launched by HIV/AIDS deniers and Apollo moon landing deniers. Others have been working hard to deny the consensus view on the safety of vaccines. A group calling itself the "9/11 truthers" continues to deny that 9/11 was a conspiracy by Muslim fanatics. Other contrarian and denialist views can be found with regard to the safety of cell phones.

Rhetoric professor Leah Ceccarelli says that the creators of manufactroversies are "motivated by profit or extreme ideology to intentionally create public confusion about an issue that is not in dispute."* She adds that these disinformation artists often construct imagined conspiracy theories and spend large sums of money to market their deception, e.g., oil companies and climate change. The masters of disinformation are also fond of claiming that they are being 'persecuted for their daring to challenge sacred dogmas of science.'

The anti-vaccination manufactroversy poses a significant threat to public health. It has significantly affected the issue of vaccination to the point where many intelligent, educated people are not having their children vaccinated against diseases like measles. Dr. Harriet Hall writes that the anti-vaccination manufactroversy was

...created by junk science, dishonest researchers, professional misconduct, outright fraud, lies, misrepresentations, irresponsible reporting, unfortunate media publicity, poor judgment, celebrities who think they are wiser than the whole of medical science, and a few maverick doctors who ought to know better.

One reason it is easy to create confusion among the general public on scientific issues is that the average person is ignorant not only of specific and complex scientific issues,* but also of how science works. This is often also true of the average journalist. Ignorant journalists compound the problem by using ignorant celebrities as experts on scientific issues. For example, when Diane Sawyer of ABC news reported on a new study that found no effect on autism from special diets, she didn't interview any scientists. She interviewed Jenny McCarthy, one of the creators of the anti-vaccine manufactroversy. In the interview,  McCarthy said that scientists need to take anecdotes seriously. She said that she and other parents have used special diets and they know they work. Her profound ignorance of how science works — and that science uses randomized controlled trials to overcome just the bias that McCarthy exhibits —  was not challenged by Sawyer. Scientist Phil Plait commented:

First of all, scientists did take the anecdotes seriously. That’s why they investigated any possible links between GI disorders, diets, and autism. What they found was that there is no link.

Second, McCarthy confuses anecdotes with data. As I have said before, anecdotes are where you start an investigation, not where you finish one. That’s the difference between science (aka reality) and nonsense. You can convince yourself of all manners of silliness through personal experience.

According to Dr. Ceccarelli, another reason the public is easily duped by disinformation is that the manufacturers of controversy

...skillfully invoke values that are shared by the scientific community and the American public alike, like free speech, skeptical inquiry, and the revolutionary force of new ideas against a repressive orthodoxy.

Along with the "teach the controversy" strategy, the intelligent design folks use the free speech ploy and the academic freedom ploy.

See also anti-vaccination movement, climate change deniers, manufactroversy, nasty effect, and pseudosymmetry.

further reading

books and articles

Hoofnagle, Chris Jay. (2007). The Denialists' Deck of Cards: An Illustrated Taxonomy of Rhetoric Used to Frustrate Consumer Protection Efforts. SSRN.

Michaels, David. 2008. Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. Oxford University Press.

Mooney, Chris. (2005). The Republican War on Science. Basic Books.


"Blinded by Science: How ‘Balanced’ Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality," by Chris Mooney

"Beware 'Sound Science.' It's Doublespeak for Trouble," by Chris Mooney

"Junk Science and Environmental Policy: Obscuring Public Debate with Misleading Discourse," by Charles N. Herrick and Dale Jamieson.

Denialism Blog

Last updated 27-Oct-2015

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