Thursday, August 23, 2007

How to sell a pseudoscience

Brian O'Connor has sent me the following fascinating essay by Anthony Pratkanis:
How to sell a pseudoscience
While he mainly talks about paranormal phenomena - aliens and magic cures for diseases, among others - you will see that the conclusions are way more general. Holy cow: why do these people believe all these things and what do the pseudoinventors need to make it work? They need to create:

  • a phantom, an unavailable goal that looks possible
  • make their subjects committed which changes their mode of thinking and make their commitment gradually increase
  • manufacture a guru or a source of sincerity and credibility, invent new degrees and hierarchy in which the "top" cannot be questioned; elect their prophets (what's up, Al?) and seers (and what about you, Lee?)
  • establish a meaningless association of people that makes its members feel that they are relatives
  • this association should be equipped with rituals and symbols, jargon and beliefs, shared goals, shared feelings, secret information (about UFOs etc.), and enemies
  • transform your customers into salespersons; each of them will be motivated to convince himself when he tries to sell it to others
  • construct catchy images that are influential mainly for emotional, not rational reasons
  • use pre-persuasion: invent generally accepted or acceptable values that your pseudoscience defends and its opponents refuse; differentiate your pseudoscience from other similar pseudosciences; create expectations about phenomena
  • rely on heuristics and commonplaces, for example people's fast conclusion that expensive means valuable; the consensus or bandwagon heuristic saying that if everyone believes something, it must be true; that a long message must be strong; the representative heuristic saying that similar situations lead to similar outcomes; the natural commonplace - what is natural is good, what is man-made is bad; the goddess-within commonplace that the spiritual side of humans is suppressed by modern materialistic science (use science in both ways, as something whose authority supports your partial goals but something that isn't complete and must be beaten by more important things)
  • to protect your construction from the external world, attack opponents via innuendo & character assassinations; these tricks create new pseudotopics for discussions (are these people ethical or qualified?), they create doubts about the skeptics, and also discourage them from any action

Finally, Pratkanis says that even true science sometimes uses some of these tactics which is dangerous because if these tricks are given weight, pseudoscientists may abuse them even more efficiently. Finally, Pratkanis had classical ESP phenomena in mind when he wrote his text but you can see that the stop-the-climate-change pseudoscience uses 100% of these tactics: it is the ultimate synthesis of all previous pseudosciences. Let me clarify why all the tactics are being used:

  • the phantom or impossible goal is to stop the climate from changing
  • the commitment is indeed being gradually increased: the subjects are supposed to emit ever smaller amounts of CO2 and believe in increasing catastrophes
  • the hierarchy of credibility is carefully designed, with 2500 mostly average but politically passionate scientists at the top of this credibility pyramid
  • meaningless associations are being established, for example do you remember Al Gore's 1000 clones? In other cases, pre-existing organizations are directly transformed into associations to promote the pseudoscience
  • the movement has rituals (lying naked on the glaciers, using bikes for 200 meters once you jump out of your private jet etc.), symbols (pictures from catastrophic movies etc.), jargon (deniers, court jesters), beliefs (the whole AGW orthodoxy), shared goals (stop the climate change), shared feelings (Gore: reducing CO2 has become a deeply moral question), secret information (unpublished reports that AGW is even worse than ever before or sea level will rise more than anyone would believe because of mysterious Hansen's "calculations"), and of course enemies (the skeptics and the corporations)
  • consumers and victims of the pseudoscience have been transformed to salespersons; look at Alexander Ač, for example
  • catchy images are the melted glaciers, swimming polar bears, hurricanes etc.; a portion of glaciers were always melting, hurricanes were always blowing, and polar bears were always swimming but they're still catchy images
  • regardless of any details, the AGW pseudoscience is about the conservation of life on Earth and well-being of future generations in 2100 while its opponents are not
  • all the heuristics in the list are misused; expensive is valuable: define a price of reductions of hot air (CO2 emissions) and it becomes valuable even though its real price is zero (you may buy the indulgences yourself); declare that there is a "consensus" about AGW so it must be true; show how long the IPCC report is so it must be really impressive; representative heuristic: argue that hundreds of millions of years ago, some species went extinct because of climate change and we will thus also die; of course, claim that everything that is man-made such as warming is wrong and everything that is natural is right; preach that the materialistic industrial society suppresses the priceless eco-friendly spirits of Gaia within our souls; science is a tool to increase credibility until it is used to falsify some of AGW statements
  • and finally, of course, the AGW pseudoscience identifies skeptics with corrupt people paid by oil corporations, court jesters, holocaust deniers; that changes the debate into "who pays them?"; the authority of the skeptics is constantly undermined by lies and hatred produced by the advocates of the pseudoscience; the skeptics start to ask themselves: isn't it better for me to be silent?

And that's the memo.

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