Monday, September 24, 2012

The mental gymnastics of denialism

Alex Tabarrok points out an especially heinous Counterpunch article denying the scale of the Cambodian genocide. I read through the piece. It's filled with standard misuse of evidence. Some people in Cambodia are denialists, and that's clearly stronger evidence than the extensive demographic research and extrapolations from mass graves that experts have used to estimate casualties. There is a quote from Chomsky that is so patently absurd it's amazing the man could ever be considered the world's top public intellectual. Specifically, Chomsky said the death toll in Cambodia could have been inflated by a factor of a thousand. Considering low estimates of the casualties are around 740,000 and highs are around 3.42 million, and we're pretty sure more than 740-3420 people died during that time, I think it's fair to say Chomsky's "assessment" is not very sound.

None of this is particularly interesting on its own. There are denialists for all kinds of atrocities, and I don't put much confidence in Counterpunch's average quality. I just wanted to make a note about the methodology of the denialists' psyche. Shamir, the article's author, closes with this:

Now we may cautiously reassess the brave attempts to reach for socialism in various countries. They were done under harsh, adverse conditions, under threat of intervention, facing hostile propaganda. But let us remember: if socialism failed, so did capitalism. If communism was accompanied by loss of life, so was and is capitalism. But with capitalism, we have no future worth living, while socialism still offers hope to us and our children.
Shamir comes close to flatly explaining why he is denying the fact of a million deaths in Cambodia: because he is a socialist, and so was Pol Pot. Socialism looks bad if Pol Pot killed a million people, so he must not have done it. Earlier in the article Shamir calls Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot "incorruptible," and paints independent historians' official estimates of communist atrocities as American governmental propaganda used to disparage its political enemies. It's clear that Shamir's denialist defense of socialism is not isolated to the one example of Cambodia where he found overwhelming evidence against conventional narratives. No, he will disbelieve anything that makes socialism look bad.

(He furthermore claims that the introduction of capitalism killed more Russians than communism. I have seen this claim before; it is derived by comparing official Soviet government demographics with demographic surveys conducted by a new government and new researchers following the fall of Communism. It is hardly sound science, considering the extensive documentation of misleading figures or outright lies in Soviet reports.)

Consider a similar mindset among global warming denialists. Here, I am not talking about those who deny anthropogenic causes of climate change (though I do believe they are wrong). I mean those who deny all evidence of rising average earth temperatures. How frequently do they lay their minds just as bare as Shamir does? Environmentalists are making the whole thing up, they say, because they want to impose communism on the United States and control the populace. The parallel is obvious. If global warming is true, there might be reasons to tax carbon and subsidize alternative forms of energy. Critics of capitalist consumerism might have a point. However, capitalism is good and taxes are bad. Therefore, global warming is not true.

This type of thought pattern is common among humans. One way to dispel it: Imagine a world in which, say, capitalism is on net good and global warming is still happening. Or a world in which socialism is a more just economic system, but socialists murdered millions of people for their cause. What would such a world look like? How could you tell which world you're in? This is the essence of evaluating empirical claims.

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