Explaining denialism

It’s ever so common to come across an evolution denier only to discover the person is also a global warming denier. This may be chalked up to ideology – American conservatism practically demands a god and it’s too pro-business to accept the science of global warming (or at least the predicted consequences). But another reason must often be sought; the denialism can extend beyond a conservative agenda. This includes HIV denial, vaccine denial, second-hand smoke denial, and a host of other forms. In fact, the anti-vax movement will often find sympathies on the left.

Some of the common underlying themes of denialism are alleging conspiracies, moving the goalposts in the face of evidence, and manufacturing evidence. In other words, it’s all very anti-scientific. But it isn’t necessarily an outright hostility towards science that causes this – though many conservatives suffer from such an affliction. Instead, it’s the way many people tend to think.

All denialisms appear to be attempts like this to regain a sense of agency over uncaring nature: blaming autism on vaccines rather than an unknown natural cause, insisting that humans were made by divine plan, rejecting the idea that actions we thought were okay, such as smoking and burning coal, have turned out to be dangerous.

This is not necessarily malicious, or even explicitly anti-science. Indeed, the alternative explanations are usually portrayed as scientific. Nor is it willfully dishonest. It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts. Denialist explanations may be couched in sciency language, but they rest on anecdotal evidence and the emotional appeal of regaining control.

Emotional appeals are not always bad. When they are mixed with substance, they make for powerful rhetoric. But often, entire arguments are premised in emotion. Take creationism/intelligent design. It isn’t that there’s any evidence for it; many people recognize that natural selection is a blind process which builds piece by piece, bit by bit, thereby not being random and not being improbable, thus making all life the product of purely natural processes. God has no place to go but out. Since no science supports creationism/intelligent design, an emotional response is the result – to the detriment of science.

[Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut at Storrs] believes the instigators of denialist movements have more serious psychological problems than most of their followers. “They display all the features of paranoid personality disorder”, he says, including anger, intolerance of criticism, and what psychiatrists call a grandiose sense of their own importance. “Ultimately, their denialism is a mental health problem. That is why these movements all have the same features, especially the underlying conspiracy theory.”

Neither the ringleaders nor rank-and-file denialists are lying in the conventional sense, Kalichman says: they are trapped in what classic studies of neurosis call “suspicious thinking”. “The cognitive style of the denialist represents a warped sense of reality, which is why arguing with them gets you nowhere,” he says. “All people fit the world into their own sense of reality, but the suspicious person distorts reality with uncommon rigidity.”

The likes of Maloney and Moritz certainly fit this profile. Both have had some of the most radical reactions to criticism I’ve seen since grade school, they both are clearly angry (especially Maloney), and both actually have taken measures to expand their web presence upon its destruction by Pharyngula and FTSOS (Moritz on Facebook, Maloney everywhere else), apparently believing what they have to say is too important to be drowned out by facts, evidence, and other pesky things.

But this extends beyond those two. Many creationists fit this profile. Just wait for one to write an editorial to a paper. The emotion, the anger. Then respond. Watch for the screeching about tone, respect, not being nice enough. And I don’t mean to watch for those reactions from my style of writing (though I get those, too). The most tempered response is met with hostility.

But as damaging as denialism has been to science education, it has had more immediate, more serious consequences.

Denialism has already killed. AIDS denial has killed an estimated 330,000 South Africans. Tobacco denial delayed action to prevent smoking-related deaths. Vaccine denial has given a new lease of life to killer diseases like measles and polio. Meanwhile, climate change denial delays action to prevent warming. The backlash against efforts to fight the flu pandemic could discourage preparations for the next, potentially a more deadly one.

If science is the best way to understand the world and its dangers, and acting on that understanding requires popular support, then denial movements threaten us all.

Science is, in fact, the best way of knowing.

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2 Responses

  1. See http://www.pointofinquiry.org and the interview with Naomi Oreskes to hear about some of this got started.

  2. I have serious doubts about global warming but I am certain evolution is a fact. Anyone can see the science is sloppy on global warming.

    Of course there is evidence of temperatures increasing marginally, but I have yet to see conclusive proof that CO2 is the chief cause of this. I also have yet to see a case made that these warmer temps are abnormal in recent earth history. (recent considering is billions of years old, say in the last few million years.)

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