Oct 12 2015

Ideology In Search of a Justification

One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is that it works backwards – typically those engaging in pseudoscience begin with a conclusion and then work backwards to fill in the evidence and logic. People are generally very good at this type of process, which is often referred to as rationalization.

There are several specific components to the pseudoscientific process. In order to find positive evidence for the desired conclusion, the rationalizer will cherry pick evidence. This allows them to quote studies and scientists to make it seem like their conclusions are based on science.

In order to refute any evidence against their conclusion, they will simply find fault with any inconvenient evidence. Here I find a range of sophistication. At the complex end of the spectrum, usually those with some science background, specific weaknesses of studies can be pointed out. No study is perfect, so if you want to find fault with a study you can. It is always necessary to put any criticisms into context – are these fatal flaws, or minor quibbles. This requires judgement, and it is precisely judgement that is skewed in the pseudoscientific process.

At the less sophisticated end of the spectrum there is simple denial of the inconvenient evidence. Often this is accomplished through a knee-jerk ad hominem argument – that study was funded by a corporation with vested interests, or by the government, or insurance companies, or by academics searching for funding. No matter what the source of the study is, that source can be impeached by inventing a conflict of interest. ¬†That scientist has “ties” to industry, no matter how wispy and inconsequential those ties are. There are people and organizations with real conflicts of interest, and so once again judgement is required, judgement that can be skewed to render service to the desired conclusion.

In the extreme the dismissal of inconvenient evidence turns into a conspiracy theory. The evidence is not just biased or tainted by conflicts, there is an active and coordinated conspiracy to manufacture the unwanted conclusion. The conspiracy theory gives the pseudoscientist unlimited rhetorical power to alter reality as their ideology demands.

An extension of the conflict/conspiracy is what we call, “playing the shill card.” While engaging in debate about a topic, when someone cites evidence or logic that conflicts with the desired conclusion, they are clearly minions of the conspiracy or vested interest- they are shills. Their arguments (and the evidence they cite) can then be comfortably ignored.

When these processes are used to systematically deny an established scientific conclusion, then we call that denialism, which is a collection of mental strategies that tend to cluster together. I discussed them recently here. 

All of this should be very familiar to any skeptic engaging in social media (or even with friends, family, and colleagues). The same process is at work, however, with any ideology, not just with skeptical issues. As I always feel obliged to point out, we all do this some of the time. This is how humans behave, not just other people. The most important lesson to derive from this article, therefore, is how to be more vigilant in detecting such behavior in yourself.

We tend to arrive at conclusions for emotional and subconscious reasons, and then engage in rationalization to defend those conclusions. This process depends heavily on the degree of emotional investment. For claims that are not important to us emotionally, we happily update our conclusions based on logic, evidence, and valid arguments. For those conclusions that are at the core of our ideology, religion, or world-view, we will go through mental gymnastics to maintain them.

In addition to the processes above, another strategy for maintaining an ideological position is to constantly shift justifications. This way you can be like flowing water, evading any refutation of any argument used to justify the ideology.

We find a similar process at work with many alternative medicine modalities – they are often treatments in search of an indication. What is acupuncture good for? Everything and anything, if you believe proponents. They have yet to demonstrate it actually works for anything, but they continue to search for an indication, in areas as diverse as in vitro fertilization to hypertension and depression.

Again we see the process is flowing backwards. When searching for effective treatments medical scientists will begin at times with anecdotal evidence for efficacy, and then perform scientific studies to see if the anecdotes hold up. Or (ideally) treatments will be designed based upon our basic science understanding of the mechanisms of disease or symptoms. With pseudomedicine, however, the treatment comes first, and then all efforts are made to demonstrate that the treatment works for something – anything. Anything that happens during the treatment becomes a mechanism, regardless of whether or not it can be actually tied to the desired outcome. Evidence for lack of efficacy is dismissed, no matter how solid, and evidence for efficacy is embraced, no matter how tenuous or flawed.

Ideologies work the same way. If, for example, an economic conservative believes that the idea that industry is adversely affecting the Earth’s climate by releasing large amounts of previously sequestered carbon into the atmosphere is being used to justify an economically liberal agenda, they are likely to oppose the science (rather than what they perceive as the liberal exploitation).

They are not starting with the evidence and then deriving their conclusion, they are starting with their conclusion and searching for evidence. For this strategy being flexible is an advantage. So on one occasion they will argue that the Earth is not warming, or the warming has paused. If you destroy that argument with evidence, then they will flow over to another – well, the Earth is warming but not by human activity. They can also slide over to the argument that we don’t know the consequences will be bad, or that there is nothing we can do about it anyway. They will then circle back opportunistically to the claim that the Earth is not warming, whenever they have some cherry picked evidence to latch onto. And the cycle repeats.

I find the same behavior with the pro-organic ideology. At times organic proponents will argue that there is no yield advantage to conventional farming, and even that organic farming does (or can) have superior yields. When that argument is destroyed, as it was recently by a very thorough review by the USDA, then the justification for organic farming was never about yield, but about food quality. When the food quality argument is refuted by 50 years of scientific study, then the justification was never about food quality, but about environmental sustainability. When that argument is refuted, then it’s about corporate control of our food production. When you point out that organic farming is just as much big industry as conventional farming, then we’re back to one of the other arguments.

I have done this dance with deniers and pseudoscientists of every stripe. One interesting wrinkle is that they will often turn their pseudoscientific process into a rhetorical weapon, accusing you of making a strawman argument because you are not addressing the “real” reason for their position.


It takes a great deal of work to constantly police yourself for the many processes that tend to bias your beliefs into ideological or emotionally convenient directions. The shifting justifications phenomenon is one more to look out for. If you find yourself grasping at various justifications for a particular position, then ask yourself – what came first?

Do you hold the position for ideological reasons, and then cast about for anything to justify the position, or did you come to a particular position because of logic and evidence? When one justification is refuted, does that modify your position, or do you just slide over to another justification? Do you acknowledge the points on the other side, or just pretend that the issue was never about those points?

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