IHCOYC nails it well. Most people don't debate the deniers because
in his words:
You don't have a hair up your arse on their
favourite subjects. They do. You don't spend
a great amount of your time reviewing in detail the
evidence for the standard model. This is how they get their jollies.
I do have a hair up my arse about this, hence this post.
A good introduction to the issue of holocaust denial is
the issue of the Anne Frank diary. Holocaust deniers
claim it was written by someone other than Anne, and
offer two different reasons. Reason number one is this:
Anne was a teenager. Teenagers are airheads.
The diary doesn't read like one written by an airhead.
Ergo, someone else wrote it. This is a good intro to
one rhetorical tool: take a nebulous issue and try
to transform it into something concrete and binary.
Anne was a teenager. And most teenagers are airheads, that is, immature.
But, airhead isn't a black or white attribute. Some kids are completely immature.
Some only slightly so. And when a young girl is locked
in an attic with nothing to do but read, write her diary,
listen to the radio, and observe her fellow inmates, one
can expect her to write more thoughtfully than if she is
free of this predicament and spends her time, like, hanging
out at the mall. Turning issues of relative observations
to binary ones is one of the many rhetorical tricks deniers
The other argument against Anne Frank demonstrates
IHCOYC's argument more closely. It is this: "The
diary was written in ballpoint pen. Ballpoint pens
weren't available until after the war. Ergo, Anne
did not write it." This is a lie, more on that in a moment.
But, do you know, without looking it up, when
ballpoints were invented? This is an integral part of
how deniers work. They make lots of references to things
the listener likely doesn't know without looking up.
But the truth, however, is that none of the prose in Anne's
manuscript is in ballpoint ink. The ballpoint markings
are in bookmarks placed in the loose-leaf part of the manuscript,
long afterward, and in some of the editor's marks and editor's
notes made by her father
when he collated her writings for publication.
The marks are there for several reasons: a lot of the
manuscript was on scrap paper and needed to be put in
chronological order. Anne's Dutch was imperfect and needed
correction, and parts of the diary are in other languages
and needed translation. After collating, Anne's father
typed up a manuscript in Dutch (that was heavily censored -
this was in the late forties, long before our confessional society)
and that was what was made into the edition of the diary you
likely read in high school.
I know this stuff because of the hair up my arse.
Most of you likely don't.
But a second issue also comes out now, about (IHCOYC's words)
"times when it is best to place your trust in the judgment of experts."
This isn't quite a matter of judgement as it is of trust.
Holocaust deniers say the diary was written in ballpoint.
I (and the people I link to) say it isn't. The way to be
sure is to go to the Dutch archives and see for yourself.
But even if you bought the plane tickets and did that,
the archivist won't let you, because paper doesn't last forever
and archivists generally don't let randoms handle original
materials. So, whose word do you take?
So now, here's a digression on why there is no "debate"
going on with holocaust deniers. When two historians (say,
Joe and Moe) engage in a debate, eventually they get to a
point where Joe says "look, Moe, if you go to this institute, walk to
this shelf, and retrieve this document, you'll find it says
this, that, and the other thing." Most likely the institute is on
another continent, and the shelf is in a section open only
by appointment. So in front of the cameras, audience, or both,
all Moe can say is "I'll take your word" or "you're a liar."
The latter option ends the debate right there and then,
and the former option can only be taken with those who have
not (or not yet) been shown to be liars. This is why once a
man has been shown to lie about primary sources, respectable
historians can no longer engage him in debate.
A scholar has a
moral and ethical obligation to fact-check his own ass so
others don't have to. People just don't have the time to
do this for every scholar's book and article. If historians
had to spend the time fact-checking each other, it would
grind the advancement of our knowledge of the past down to
a snail's pace.
It is because of the long track record of holocaust deniers
of misrepresenting primary sources that mainstream scholars
refuse to debate them.
David Irving, despite his pro-Nazi
sympathies and frothing hatred of Winston Churchil, did
not become a pariah
until his libel suit against
Lipstadt. Lipstadt hired people to check out the
in Irving's books, revealed what she found, and that is
why Irving is now beyond the pale.
In the science side of the issue, similar considerations
come in. Where history and science collide is the realm of
forensic science, a branch of science where findings are
not reproducible. For example, we could answer the Anne Frank
airhead question by locking a young girl in an attic and
seeing if it makes her diary more thoughtfully written.
That is, if we're willing to spend time in prison for
child abuse. Deniers claim that the chambers of Auschwitz could
not have been used for mass executions. There's an easy way
to put that to the test, and we all know of people we'd be
willing to use as test subjects (for example, the deniers
themselves), but somehow I don't think it likely such
an experiment will ever be carried out. Damnitall.
And thus we come to the issue of the
Fred Leuchter was hired by the holocaust denier Ernst Zundel
to look at the Auschwitz gas chambers. In a nutshell, Leuchter
went to Auschwitz, and used a hammer and chisel to take samples
from the inside walls of a gas chamber and a chamber used to
delouse clothes. Both chambers used hydrogen cyanide released
from Zyklon B pellets to do their work. In both chambers there
were deposits of Prussian Blue left by the cyanide gas's interaction
with the concrete. Leuchter took the samples from each chamber, had
the concentration of Prussian Blue measured in each. There was
more of it in the samples from the delousing chamber than from
the gas chambers. And from this, Leuchter concluded that
no executions took place in Auschwitz.
This kind of reasoning is what Pauli would have called
"ganst falsch": "not even wrong." Hydrogen cyanide kills
mammals faster and with far lower air concentration than is
the case with arthropods. So it should be no surprise that
there was less Prussian Blue deposition in a room used for
killing people. But Leuchter was even dumber. As you might
expect, the deposition of Prussian Blue is primarily on the
concrete surface, with a thickness of microns. But instead of
getting the concentration measured on the surface, Leuchter
got his samples mortar&pestled and the concentration measured
per unit volume, even though they were irregularly shaped
fragments of the concrete. Thus, Leuchter's data had
an effective error range measured in orders of magnitude.
And that's just the tip of
the iceberg of Leuchter's incompetence.
The refutation of the Leuchter Report
(another one can be found here) was done ages ago.
Deniers have not been able to defend the report,
because it contains errors of reasoning beneath the
level of a high school science fair report.
But of course, that did not stop
neo-Nazi from bringing up the Leuchter Report
in a recent story.  This is part of the modus operandi
of holocaust deniers. When they are refuted in front of
one audience, the slink back into the woodwork, to
emerge another day, in another place, and pretend the
lie they peddle wasn't addressed before. (And of course,
complain about the lack of "debate.")
This behavior is something deniers have in common with
psychics, quacks, and similar scalawags. And it is part of
why not many people set out to answer their lies. Advancing
mankind's knowledge of the past, present and future is something
that can make a scientist or historian get passionate.
Confronting frauds, however, is intellectual janitorial work.
It is not fun, especially when you know the fraud you just
faced will be back to his tricks tomorrow somewhere else.
People do it only out of a sense of civic duty. So, not enough
people do it at all.
(Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Sherman
gives his own take on holocaust deniers.)
This is tragic, given the level of the general public's
knowledge of science and history.
Back to IHCOYC: You don't spend
a great amount of your time reviewing in detail the
evidence for the standard model. Actually,
most people don't know how. In school, most people learn the
standard model of astronomy, and chemistry, and biology,
and some physics, and an overview of history. But many
of us don't have teachers who taught us early on how those
models were arrived at, examined, and proven. Without
that, and without such television babysitters as Carl Sagan and
James Burke, a guy can reach adulthood without any clue
on how historical research is done, or how the scientific
method is practiced. He will know the standard model for
many subjects, and rather than evaluate challenges to the
standard model on the merits, he will accept those challenges
that are appealing ("it is possible to defeat aging!",
"free energy is around the corner!", "I can talk to your
dead mother!") and reject those that are not ("your grandfather
was a dupe of the Elders of Zion").
This problem is why holocaust deniers make headway with
some German Americans and with Arabs, but no headway with
the general American public. This also means (for example)
that if you let a surly 12 year old boy hang out with me,
I can turn him into a neo-nazi in a short time. Being the first
to tell the tale has its advantages. This has not changed much.
Holocaust deniers used to use the humble mimeograph to
spread their propaganda. When the xerox machine came out,
they expected it to increase the number of their followers.
It didn't. When BBSes emerged, they expected to get more
followers. It didn't work. The same happened with
Usenet, and then the Web. They got no more followers.
They lost no more followers.
And that, at long last,
is the reason European governments prefer simply to censor
holocaust deniers (and why Arab governments prefer simply to
censor those who say the holocaust did happen.)
They want to prevent deniers from being the first to
tell the tale, and to reach as few people as possible
from among those who would want to believe the
Holocast didn't happen.
The European approach is as futile as any other,
and it is wrongheaded, but as
you can see, it is not motivated by any alleged inability to
rebut the arguments of holocast deniers.
Revisionism once referred to a respectable activity:
the revising of accepted opinion on the past. Specifically,
it mainly referred to the endless debate in America about the
relative importance of each of the causes of the Great Unpleasantness.
It might be a misuse of one's limited time on earth, but the
historians and Civil War buffs who do this are for the most
part honest. It was the holocaust deniers who hijacked the
term 'revisionist' and made it disrespectable. And just as
Civil War buffs have a responsibility to exlude frauds
from their circle, so do World War Two historians. And so do
Cold War historians. Already there are frauds trying to
rehabilitate Trotsky, Lenin, and even Stalin. As Cold War
revisionism increases in importance (as more and more papers
are declassified), gulag deniers will emerge out of the woodwork.
And the same dynamics will play out.
Notes: Props to TheOnlyCoolTim
and dr_k for helping me with this paragraph.
Another approach is to have a debate only
among historians who agree with each other on almost everything. The term for this is
 Here's a question:
is snowcold dishonest or just ignorant?
We report, you decide.
Finally: about the laity's troubles
with science, there is Levitt's book
It's a must read for anyone who
contemplates engaging the fringe in debate.