Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Taking a leak

One of the topics I used to teach in my last job was a short course on clear thinking. It was about how political arguments are constructed and how we fall prey to rhetorical tricks and false logic. I used a variety of examples, mainly drawn from contemporary campaigns, the media and, especially, from conspiracy theories. One of the most common of these is a process that concentrates all attention on a single small item and thereby exaggerates its significance. The item can be real, misinterpreted and/or taken out of context, or even downright fictitious. However, the use of this single, small point is then extended to question a conceptual whole. By fixating on a piece of minutiae, it is possible to distract someone from the mass of evidence pointing the other way.

This way of thinking is central to a whole range of conspiracy theories, and admirably suited to the mindset of obsessives, but one of the most common places you can run across it is if you study miscarriages of justice. One piece of evidence, such as a dodgy forensic test or, more frequently, a confession under duress (and note how one confession outweighs hundreds of denials even after it has been withdrawn) is used to obscure overwhelming evidence of innocence.

As a result of this interest of mine, my news feeds in recent days have been flooded with items about the hacked emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The story even became a dismal item on Channel 4 News, whose news values seem to plummet daily, and was given the usual irritating John Humphries treatment on Radio 4's Today Programme. If you want to follow some of the debate there are two horrendously long threads at Real Climate.

I was going to write something as a non-scientist about the construction of the argument when I saw the perfect post and knew I couldn't do better. So go over to Carbon Fixated where all is revealed, Newtongate: the final nail in the coffin of Renaissance and Enlightenment ‘thinking’. The next blockbuster for Dan Brown perhaps?


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, but feel free to have a go at the rest of the Denier Canon. A great deal of it is based on faulty logic as well as simply lying, so informed deconstruction and exposure by an experienced writer would be a welcome breeze.