FLICC: 5 Techniques of Science Denial
For nearly any field of scientific study you can think of, there is some group somewhere who argues against that field's findings. It's a phenomenon we call science denial. Whether it's fossil fuel proponents arguing against climate science or HIV deniers claiming the virus doesn't cause AIDS, science denial surrounds us and promotes the spread of misinformation that can even be deadly. Science communicators have to mount increasing defenses against such denial, and in order to best do so, it's important to understand what form that denial takes. Today we're going to study one popular rubric for characterizing denial, called FLICC.
Science denial, in a broad sense, is exactly what it sounds like. It is the denial of a scientific finding, argued in such a way as to persuade fence-sitters or the ignorant general public toward a perspective that disagrees with any given science finding. If you're a tobacco company and want to persuade people that cigarettes are perfectly healthy, the techniques of science denial laid out in FLICC are what you're probably going to use in your messaging. In fact these same techniques are employed by the vast majority of science denialists, and once you recognize them, you'll have one more tool for telling real science from pseudoscience.
The acronym FLICC comes from John Cook in 2014 (and tested in a 2017 PLoS ONE article), but the five techniques were put forward earlier by Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee in a 2009 paper in the European Journal of Public Health, based in turn upon a sort of codification of denial by the brothers Mark and Chris Hoofnagle in a ScienceBlogs article as early as 2007. You'll find links to all of these papers in the References section below. FLICC stands for:
We see the FLICC techniques all the time. In this episode, we're going to take three common versions of science denial and use each of the five FLICC techniques for each. These three denied sciences are global warming, genetically modified crops, and vaccines. Let's begin with the first of our five techniques:
F: Fake Experts
The first thing out of the mouths of science deniers is that some "legitimate scientist" supports their claim. A familiar example is the "Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth", an online group of more than 3,000 people who believe 9/11 was an inside job. However, perusing the list, it's clear that the number who actually have relevant expertise can be counted on your fingers. The rest consist of anyone who signs their petition. No credentials at all are required. Yet this group misrepresents themselves to the public as more than 3,000 experts who are all satisfied that, from an engineering perspective, there is no way the twin towers could have been brought down by the airliner crashes, and that they must therefore have been controlled demolitions. Fake experts are everywhere, and they are almost always people who present themselves as such, but who actually have no experience in the relevant field.
Often, the denialists' fake experts go hand-in-hand with attacks against actual experts, who are often claimed to be paid shills.
L: Logical Fallacies
These are the favorite tool of the pseudoscientist, but they are also employed by nearly everyone through all walks of life. Logical fallacies include ad hominem attacks, strawman arguments, slippery slope fallacies, red herrings, false dichotomies, in fact hundreds of such logically invalid ways to make a point. Logical fallacies appeal to your brain's native tendency to think anecdotally rather than logically. Thus, many arguments that are logically fallacious can still be compelling. The science denier needs to depend on this, because he has no persuasive science on his side; unlike the true scientist who follows the evidence, and thus has no need to make logically invalid arguments.
I: Impossible Expectations
Another science denier's stratagem is to hold the existing science to an impossible standard, with the implication that if it can't meet that standard, it is therefore wholly invalid and should be discarded entirely in favor of the denier's preferred facts. A fireman's clothing is not 100% fireproof in every imaginable condition, therefore it's useless, and this T-shirt sprinkled with essential oils is thus the better option. No science finding is 100% proven, and that is in fact the strength of the scientific method. Every finding remains open to new information and improvement, and thus it's always getting better and stronger. The science process, by definition, is never complete; therefore there is no impossible standard that it can meet. One must be careful to keep expectations reasonable and rational, not impossible.
C: Cherry picking
This is the process of selecting only that data which supports your preferred finding, and ignoring any data that does not. For example, a proponent of alternate cosmologies might well discuss only the conclusions of an odd crackpot or two from history, and completely dismiss the far larger amount of work supporting the standard model of the universe. To an innocent audience, it may then appear that there is no data save that which came from the crackpot. Cherry picked findings always exclude contradictory information; while good science findings strive to include as much contradicting information as they can, as efforts to disprove a hypothesis are a key part of the scientific method.
C: Conspiracy Theories
Generally speaking, the moment you hear a conspiracy theory proposed, you can be assured you're listening to a science denier. "Who would ever disagree with this, unless they're being paid to?" Science deniers commonly use words with religious overtones, like dogma or orthodoxy, to describe findings they don't like. "Science will stand for no challenges to the official dogma," they will claim, as if research scientists are employed to learn nothing and are paid only to uphold the traditional canon upon which their closed, old-boy's-network is rooted. They are conspiring — so the claim goes — to suppress the newcomer's findings, as it would threaten their grant funding. Because, you know, grantors fund grants in the hope of learning nothing, and will keep writing checks so long as the same old traditional dogma is the only thing given to them in return. Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?
So that's FLICC, applied to three popular contentious pseudosciences. There was probably nothing in this episode that was terribly revolutionary for experienced Skeptoid listeners, and it's certainly no surprise that science denial generally relies on the same techniques no matter what kind of science is being denied. And now that we know what to look for, we can react more readily when we perceive we're being FLICC'ed off by a science denier.
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