Oh, How Predictable
The Arc of Embracing Quackery Takes a Now Familiar Road.
It's boring. And I'm over it.
“I’ve looked at the data myself.” Oh, well then enthral us with your acumen, random philosophy student. That clip is so painful to watch. There he is, the very epitome of the self-importance and entitlement of contrarian thinkers, flicking through his notes as if he was a peer to a professor with a distinguished career studying human immunity and infection, including over 300 peer-reviewed published papers in the field.
It takes a particular level of hubris and arrogance to assume that “I've looked at the data myself” is in any way equivalent to a lifetime of domain-specific knowledge and expertise. But then again, that is the whole point. It is one of the most pervasive assumptions in Quackery, thrived on by proponents and followers, that the tRuTh can only be determined by self-styled mavericks outside of “the system”. The experts are the ones unable to truly “see” that which the combination of superficial knowledge and unbridled confidence can only see.
In my online travails, I've noticed a particular arc of argument that the disciples of Quackery seem to travel on. This applies equally to someone who has bought into one of the nutrition conspiracy theory narratives as it does to someone who has embraced Covid Contrarianism. Often, these both go hand-in-hand. Covid revealed the low-carb movement to be the conspiracy theory group that it is, and most of its prominent anti-statin, heart disease revisionist, Cholesterol Denialists are now, oh how predictable, Covid Contrarians and anti-vaxxers.
Walk this road with me now. It always starts with a veneer of legitimacy...
“Just Asking Questions”
The arc of embracing Quackery appears to have a dominant hobby: JAQing off. The “Just Asking Questions” fallacy is a devious rhetorical device that frames statements of belief as a question. This is generally the departure point for what always promises, predictably, to be a mind-numbing exchange.
It is devious because it can appear, certainly at first, that the interlocutor is acting in good faith, genuinely asking a question, which is completely valid. Anyone with any sort of public engagement regarding science would be more than happy with questions, if they are in fact genuine, coming from a place of epistemic humility and intellectual honesty.
Except, of course, they are not asking questions. They are JAQing off. They are stating a preconceived conclusion that will prove to be impervious to persuasion otherwise by way of reason or data.
“Can we really say the vaccines are effective?”
Translation: Bro has done his resurch, does not think the vaccines have efficacy.
“Can we really say LDL is causal? What about inflammation?”
Translation: Bro is throwing paint against a wall to see what sticks.
How can you tell? Typically it starts to unravel when they move further up the road from their initial JAQ-off, based on how they frame the burden of proof, and how amenable they are to science-based answers to those questions.
Reversing the Burden of Proof
The burden of proof in any discourse is always on the person making the claim. The problem when people start JAQing off in front of you is that, naturally, you want to get them to stop, so you may be lulled into thinking it is on you to provide evidence to the contrary of whatever statement has been discharged from the JAQ-off.
It isn't. Hold the line. Let's take the vaccine example, above: “Can we really say the vaccines are effective?”
It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you have to be the one to provide supporting evidence of their efficacy. But if you can see that they're JAQing off in front of you, hold the line with the burden of proof, because they have not asked a legitimate question: they have stated their preconceived conclusion on the topic.
What they've really said is, “I don't think vaccines are effective.” The burden of proof is on them to provide supporting evidence. This inevitably leads to the next stop on this painful road.
Defaulting to Bullshit Epistemic Standards
Whether you fall into the trap and take the lead on providing evidence, or recognise the JAQ-off when you see it, either way you are about to arrive at the next stop on the road. At this stop, you will see a chessboard. Your interlocutor will have now stopped JAQing off and will appear as a pigeon. They will invite you to play chess.
Do not sit down. Should you agree to this game of chess with a pigeon, you will sit and move the pieces according to the rules of chess. From an evidence-based perspective, this will of course take the form of referring to peer-reviewed scientific literature, and also commonly attempting to point out fallacies and errors of reasoning.
But it is not Beth Harmon across the table from you, however much you want it to be in that moment. It is a pigeon. And they are on the chessboard, strutting all over it, knocking over pieces, shitting all over the board. Extending our analogy to evidence, they're throwing some random single study that supports their preconceived conclusion, even if that study is an outlier and wholly unrepresentative of the totality of available evidence. They're flinging in a YouTube video of some contrarian doctor's lecture to a crowd of contrarian Pavlovian dogs. They're pointing to some editorial, random report, or contrarian opinion piece and expecting it to be treated with the same veracity as a well-conducted randomised controlled intervention or synthesis of evidence.
You try to make sense of it, but at the end, the pigeon proudly flies off assuming that their position still stands, that the information they have provided is at least sufficient to maintain their worldview over any amount of refuting evidence.
The issue here is that their epistemic standards are bullshit. They are not concerned with scientific rigour, evidential quality, or the integrity of the scientific method. They have a belief, a preconceived conclusion, and they are only concerned with constructing a belief-based scaffolding to uphold that worldview.
For them, any scrap of information that upholds their worldview counts as “evidence”. Yet, they will hold you to a standard of evidence that simply doesn't exist: 100% certainty. This provides a justification for them to claim that their arguments have never been refuted, or adequately addressed. It provides a justification to dismiss entire accumulated bodies of evidence as inconsistent with the belief-based scaffolding.
This bullshit facade fits nicely with their self-constructed narrative as an “independent thinkur”, because they can tell themselves they are, in fact, engaging in scientific discourse. A quote from Dr. David Robert Grimes' The Irrational Ape more accurately describes the cognitive constructs of such “independent thinkurs”:
“Yet they can only thrive by suppressing reason; unsurprisingly, conspiratorial ideation is associated with low levels of analytic thought. Evidence to date suggests that acceptance of such beliefs is strongly associated with a frugal, intuitive information processing - a tendency to go with rapid 'instinct'.”
What subjectively feels 'truthy' to them; a far cry from analytical, process oriented scientific thinking.
Our next stop is a common claim the pigeon will make to justify the state of the chessboard after it has marched, kicked, and defecated its way around the board.
Claim “They Are Being Silenced!”
Ah yes, of course They are. For those of you wondering, ‘They’ in this context is not Sam Smith, but any contrarian that can be found, be they a Quack doctor, scientist, or, overrepresented in the Cholesterol Denialist community, engineer.
There is something particularly amusing about the claims of suppressed tRuTh, that certain voices are being silenced, in an age where the defining characteristic of disinformation dissemination is the fact that every single village idiot has a platform, courtesy of BigTech.
The palpable irony here is that no one is being silenced. Every idiot, every contrarian, every conspiracy theorist, every Quack, has a voice and a platform, somewhere on the Internet.
This is not to downplay the troubling potential the free speech debate has to go awry, with a censorious and vindictive culture on the Left offset against a conspiratorial and persecuted culture on the Right. But we need some measure on assessing the state of the playing field here, and the reality is that the field allows anyone to play, Left and Right, fringe and extreme.
What disciples of disinformation are in fact saying with the “They're Being Silenced” claim is simply that their belief is not accepted as the reality of the situation. And they are unhappy about it. Because obviously their ideas are so robust that the only reason they could not be accepted is if “The System” is ‘silencing’ and ‘suppressing’ dissenting voices, right? Nothing to do with how divorced from the evidence they are, or with the sheer absurdity of the ideas. Nope, none at all.
The Great Barrington Declaration serves as a good example of the latter. 2yrs into the pandemic, we still have Right-wing Covid Contrarians pointing to it as if it was settled science or actually contained some data-based argument worthy of measured consideration. Except, it didn’t. It was nothing more than an opinion piece, one that became more and more incorrect as the pandemic panned out. It wasn’t ‘suppressed’ or ‘silenced’, it just wasn’t taken seriously by others in the respective fields concerned because it’s contents were speculative, reckless, and didn’t fully think through the ramifications of the suggestions. Yet it is still referred to, highlighting the lack of intellectual rigour and honesty by those referring to it as some high watermark of science during Covid.
At this point it is common for frustration to boil over. We are only human, after all. This is where a surprising next stop on the road may await.
“Why Can't You Be Nice?”
I have to say, this is a stop on the road that I particularly struggle with. Quacks and pseudoscientific movements attack anything, anyone, and everything, that doesn't accord with their worldview. From individuals to institutions, nothing is out of bounds to their ideological crusade, from attempting to destroy an individual's career to attacking the credibility of institutions and science itself.
And yet, as soon as anyone who advocates for science as much as utters a salty comment or takes a sardonic tone, the peddlers of Quackery will cry foul: “why can't you be nice/kind/understanding?”
There is something so pathetic about the “facts-don't-care-about-your-feelings” crowd, who love throwing the term “snowflake” around in any other context, suddenly crying foul of some unwritten rules of engagement.
This may often be framed as a “how dare you look down on me!” The Right-leaning sense of belittlement of persecution typical of Covid Contrarianism, the intellectual pity party that acts as the last resort when the facts don't stack up in their favour.
I know that we should always maintain the high ground, to not stoop to conquer, that if we make people feel stupid they'll stop listening. That if the pigeon is marching around the chessboard shitting and knocking over pieces, we should sit there and continue to move our pieces according to the rules of chess. I struggle with this asymmetry.
With this asymmetric warfare a hopeless cause, there is one final stop on the road.
Restate Original Tenets
Recall that one way you can tell whether someone is JAQing off in front of you is how amenable they are to evidence that contradicts their original statement/question. The final stop on this soul-sucking road is where your interlocutor, the sommelier of sophistry, just doubles down on the original preconceived belief.
Because they can. Because at this point in the road, they've thrown the burden of proof at you, and demanded a standard of proof which doesn't exist from you, meaning you can never actually discharge that burden of proof. You've engaged in a game of chess with a pigeon and the chessboard is a mess. The main explanation offered for the state of the chessboard is not the obvious - that it is scattered with chess pieces and pigeon shit - but that this mess is in fact a coherent and robust argument being suppressed by forces who want to silence the tRuThsEeKeRs.
The final step is where the original JAQ-off is discharged into your DMs. Call it the “Quack Climax”, where they drop the pretence that they were asking a question and restate those questions, i.e., those beliefs, as the preconceived conclusions that they were all along.
It's just cringe. You've patiently walked through both logical fallacies and peer-reviewed evidence with someone, only for them to still just restate their initial positions. Over and over. Haven't heard a thing. The unthinking independent thinkurs, arriving at their own door.
"Vaccines are not effective."
"LDL is not causal."
And there it is. I imagine this stop on the road must feel good for them, the sense of release where they've now convinced themselves they are even more right than when they started.
Don’t Walk This Road
No one can say "can we not ask the question?", if they are simultaneously unwilling to accept an answer that doesn't accord with their worldview.
To do otherwise is to confirm that they were never asking questions, just stating faith-based premises that they have sanctified as impervious to dismantling.
This age is truly a Crisis of Reason.