FLICC: 5 Techniques of Science Denial

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.

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.

F: Fake Experts

The first thing out of the mouths of science deniers is that some “legitimate scientist” supports their claim. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

So that’s FLICC, applied to three popular contentious pseudosciences. [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.

Science denial, intentional ignorance, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theorists are a pet peeve of mine. We see them all of the time on Breaking News and the Religion channel. You would think I would be used to the searingly painful ignorance displayed sometimes on our Disqus channels… but no, it still galls me when I see it. Some of the science denial I see on the Religion channel alone leaves me with a stunned mullet sort of feeling.

Evolution deniers and Flat Earth proponents are enough to drive anyone with a basic middle-school level of science education or above insane. With the amount of actual scientific data available to the average person in 2020, it dumbfounds me that there are still people who would rather wallow in their ignorance, rather than attempt to personally evolve beyond being in the 17th century.

What do you think about using FLICC as a means to determine science deniers? I personally witness these denialist techniques almost daily on our channel. One mention of climate change impacting our planet and the future of our species… and the science deniers immediately start spraying everyone with their anti-science fecal matter.

Please share your thoughts… and for those who are prone to spraying, I guess we’ll see you soon.

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