An immunizing strategy is an argument brought forward in support of a belief system, though independent from that belief system, which makes it more or less invulnerable to rational argumentation and/or empirical evidence. By contrast, an epistemic defense mechanism is defined as a structural feature of a belief system which has the same effect of deflecting arguments and evidence. We discuss the remarkable recurrence of certain patterns of immunizing strategies and defense mechanisms in pseudoscience and other belief systems. Five different types will be distinguished and analyzed, with examples drawn from widely different domains. The difference between immunizing strategies and defense mechanisms is analyzed, and their epistemological status is discussed. Our classification sheds new light on the various ways in which belief systems may achieve invulnerability against empirical evidence and rational criticism, and we propose our analysis as part of an explanation of these belief systems’ enduring appeal and tenacity.
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We are aware that our conception of theoretical ‘immunization’ does not completely accord with the mechanisms of active immunization in medicine (vaccination), in which microbes are introduced in the body so as to enable its natural immune system to produce antibodies. The analogy is restricted to the fact that something from outside the system gets introduced as a means of protection, but the type of mechanism is, of course, very different.
It is a well-known psychological finding that people have difficulties assessing the ambiguity of statements once they have found a specific interpretation. For example, people will rate the results of a bogus personality test as an accurate description of themselves, even if these results contain only vague and ambiguous claims that are applicable to virtually anyone, a phenomenon that is known as the Barnum effect or Forer effect.
For an analogy between conspiracy thinking and Freudian psychoanalysis from an epistemological perspective, see (Boudry and Buekens, The Epistemic Predicament of a Pseudoscience: Social Constructivism Confronts Freudian Psychoanalysis, under review)
It is not even clear that ‘we’ concocted those arguments rather than a mental entity that is independent from ‘us’, which is precisely what caused Wittgenstein to remark that Freud had made an “abominable mess” of the reasons and causes of our behavior.
According to Popper (2002), in contrast with Freudian psychoanalysis, Marx’s initial theory was predictive and not without scientific merits, and it degenerated into pseudoscience only when some of his defenders resorted to ad hoc revisions and immunizing tactics.
Ron L. Hubbard wrote: “Don’t ever defend. Always attack. Find or manufacture enough threat against them to cause them to sue for peace. Originate a black PR campaign to destroy the person’s repute and to discredit them so thoroughly they will be ostracized....” (Foster 1971)
The E-meter is an instrument used by Scientologists to measure stress and detect ‘engrams’.
The problem is also similar to the Mannheim paradox: if all discourse is ideological, how is it possible to have non-ideological discourse about ideology?
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The authors would like to thank Stefaan Blancke, Filip Buekens and Massimo Pigliucci for stimulating discussions and comments, and the anonymous referees of Philosophia for valuable suggestions. This paper was presented at the Fourth Conference of the Dutch-Flemish Association for Analytic Philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven (2010).
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Boudry, M., Braeckman, J. Immunizing Strategies and Epistemic Defense Mechanisms. Philosophia 39, 145–161 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-010-9254-9