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FLICC: 5 Techniques of Science Denial

Donate One popular rubric for identifying the common techniques used by science deniers.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid Podcast #691
September 3, 2019
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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:

F: Fake experts
L: Logical fallacies
I: Impossible expectations
C: Cherry picking
C: Conspiracy theories

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.

  • Global warming deniers: Scientists brought forth to question human-caused global warming are almost never actual climatologists; they are almost always physicists or engineers of some kind. Nevertheless, they still wave their credentials — irrelevant though they may be.

  • GMO deniers: If you look at the leading voices in the movement against modern farming, they're almost never actual farmers or molecular biologists. They are often authors, philosophers, or professors in unrelated fields, and almost always aligned with the organic movement. But put on a white lab coat and hold up your degree, and you can persuade just about any layperson to get on board with your message.

  • Vaccine deniers: It's noteworthy that very few anti-vaccine activists are real doctors. Many of them call themselves doctors, but are often in unaccredited professions like chiropractic or naturopathy. But even when they do hold up one of the tiny percentages of doctors who are anti-vaccine, it's someone representing a fringe perspective, and very much the opposite of what all other legitimate doctors would say.

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.

  • Global warming deniers: A common red herring thrown out by climate deniers is that scientists can't even predict tomorrow's weather reliably, so how can we trust anything they say on climate? This is a red herring — an irrelevant distraction — because climate and weather don't have anything to do with one another. Think of climate as the amount of wealth you have in savings and investments, while weather is the amount of spare cash in your wallet right now.

  • GMO deniers: Ever since Monsanto became the face of GMO crops, the very name has been used as a weasel word to denigrate biotech. By conflating the technology with all the many imagined ethical and legal transgressions of the company, opponents were employing many fallacies: the red herring, the ad hominem, the non-sequitur, and what I like to call the Argumentum ad Monsantium.

  • Vaccine deniers: A slippery slope fallacy we often hear in regards to vaccines is the claim that if the government can mandate vaccines for your children, that will lead to total government control over everyone's body and we'll all be microchipped, etc. etc. etc.

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.

  • Global warming deniers: All one needs to do here is to show that we still have some days colder than they were last year. If we impose the expectation that if global warming were true, it would follow that every day would be warmer year over year. That's not how warming works, but it's easy to impose that impossible expectation in order to show that the claims of warming don't hold up.

  • GMO deniers: Can we say with absolute certainty that nobody will ever have an allergic reaction to GMO produce? Of course we can't predict that, even after tens of trillions of GMO meals served without a single health consequence. It's an impossible expectation.

  • Vaccine deniers: Are vaccines absolutely positively 100% safe? No, a tiny percentage of people have a negative reaction — so we should therefore throw them all out.

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.

  • Global warming deniers: It's very easy to use cherry picking to show that global temperatures are either falling or are constant. All one needs to do is single out one specific region over some specific time frame. You can easily see this being done in just about any global warming denying video on YouTube.

  • GMO deniers: When the National Academies of Sciences published a major 2016 report finding that GMO crops suffered less crop losses due to insects, opponents ignored that and cherry picked the fact that some insects had nevertheless evolved resistance to the crops. This falsely implied that GMO crops made the insect problem worse.

  • Vaccine deniers: It's easy to cherry pick the few cases of adverse vaccine reactions and point to them as if they represent a likely outcome of vaccination, falsely suggesting that vaccination is prohibitively dangerous.

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?

  • Global warming deniers: This is one of the most familiar conspiracy theories around today. It asserts that all the world's climate scientists are deliberately publishing false data, because that somehow keeps them on some elusive, mysterious gravy train of endless cash flowing from the renewable energy sector.

  • GMO deniers: A common claim is that GMO seed producers conspire to take control over the entire world's food supply, giving them ultimate power worldwide.

  • Vaccine deniers: Obviously, doctors and Big Pharma are all in cahoots to give out dangerous vaccines to keep everyone sick so they can make the most profit.

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.


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "FLICC: 5 Techniques of Science Denial." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 3 Sep 2019. Web. 15 Sep 2019. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4691>

 

References & Further Reading

CHOP. Logical Fallacies and Vaccines. Philadelphia: Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Vaccine Education Center, 2018. 1-4.

Cook, J. "Inoculating against science denial." Skeptical Science. John Cook, 27 Apr. 2015. Web. 28 Aug. 2019. <https://skepticalscience.com/inoculating-against-science-denial.html>

Cook, J. "Neutralizing misinformation through inoculation: Exposing misleading argumentation techniques reduces their influence." PLoS ONE. 5 May 2017, Volume 12, Number 5: e0175799.

Diethelm, P., McKee, M. "Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?" European Journal of Public Health. 20 Jan. 2009, Volume 19, Issue 1: 2-4.

Dunning, B. "Argumentum ad Monsantium." SkepticBlog. The Skeptics Society, 8 Nov. 2012. Web. 25 Aug. 2019. <https://www.skepticblog.org/2012/11/08/argumentum-ad-monsantium/>

Gould, F., et. al. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2018. 97-170.

Hoofnagle, M., Hoofnagle, C. "What Is Denialism." Denialism Blog. ScienceBlogs, 7 Jun. 2007. Web. 28 Aug. 2019. <https://web.archive.org/web/20070602173017/https://scienceblogs.com/denialism/about.php>

 

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