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.

Thought of the day

I got several shots and medications for my upcoming trip to Africa. S-should I fear getting autism?

A win for vaccines

A court has ruled again against vaccine-autism claims.

The special U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled that vaccines could not have caused the autism of an Oregon boy, William Mead, ending his family’s quest for reimbursement.

“The Meads believe that thimerosal-containing vaccines caused William’s regressive autism. As explained below, the undersigned finds that the Meads have not presented a scientifically sound theory,” Special Master George Hastings, a former tax claims expert at the Department of Justice, wrote in his ruling.

In February 2009, the court ruled against three families who claimed vaccines caused their children’s autism, saying they had been “misled by physicians who are guilty, in my view, of gross medical misjudgment”.

1 in 4 parents believes stupid shit

The number is actually probably much more than 1 in 4, but those are the results of a study which has concluded that 25% of parents believe vaccines cause autism.

One in four U.S. parents believes some vaccines cause autism in healthy children, but even many of those worried about vaccine risks think their children should be vaccinated.

Most parents continue to follow the advice of their children’s doctors, according to a study based on a survey of 1,552 parents. Extensive research has found no connection between autism and vaccines.

“Nine out of 10 parents believe that vaccination is a good way to prevent diseases for their children,” said lead author Dr. Gary Freed of the University of Michigan. “Luckily their concerns don’t outweigh their decision to get vaccines so their children can be protected from life-threatening illnesses.”

That’s about par for the anti-vaccine crowd. I believe this will be harmful to my child, but not really. Yes. No.

Sometimes dumbness is coddled. Fortunately, this is not one of those times.

Some doctors are taking a tough stand, asking vaccine-refusing parents to find other doctors and calling such parents “selfish.”

A statement from a group practice near Philadelphia outlines its doctors’ adamant support for government recommended vaccines and their belief that “vaccines do not cause autism or other developmental disabilities.”

“Furthermore, by not vaccinating your child you are taking selfish advantage of thousands of other who do vaccinate their children … We feel such an attitude to be self-centered and unacceptable,” the statement says, urging those who “absolutely refuse” vaccines to find another physician.


One point of note, this study was conducted through an online survey. It isn’t like those utterly random, selection-bias polls that populate every corner of the Internet, but still. C’mon.

Sacrificing language for political correctness

There was a letter to the editor not long ago where a local professor objected to the phrasing of a headline.

A story in the Jan. 10 edition featured the headline, “Educating Maine’s Autistic Children.” This phrase is representative of how the Kennebec Journal often refers to people with disabilities, and I am requesting that you adopt person-first language as editorial policy.

Person-first language is a widely accepted practice that acknowledges the power of language to control and “otherize” people with disabilities.

As a professor of special education at the University of Maine at Farmington, I emphasize the importance of using person-first language to our future teachers, and I am disappointed when our own newspaper does not model accepted and standard writing practices for our students.

This professor (Rick Dale) has good intentions here, but he’s pushing the limits. First, this whole person-first business assumes the reason someone might say “autistic child” instead of “child with autism” is based upon a lack of concern for the child. That isn’t true and, if anything, is insulting to a huge swath of individuals who genuinely care about those with autism. Second, how is person-first language “standard”? It’s a relatively recent trend for political correctness. Whether it’s right or not is one question that can be debated, but whether it’s standard or not is not up for discussion: it lies outside the bounds of normal writing and discourse and is primarily the concern of those in the relevant field (as Dale notes later on) or with relatives afflicted with disorders like autism.

Observing person-first language requires the use of phrases that emphasize the person and not the disability. For example, the headline in question would become “Educating Maine’s Children With Autism.” Realizing that newspapers have space considerations, I want to point out that the suggested phrase is only three characters (including spaces) longer than the headline the KJ used.

My objection here is that this is so obviously unwieldy; it is not a concise way of writing or speaking. It reminds me of the movement to use “he/she” or “him or her” in place of male-only pronouns. It’s an ugly way to write a thing. Furthermore, it reminds me of the other part of that movement where people insist on using female-only pronouns in place of male-only pronouns where gender is not relevant. All that does is bring gaudy attention to an issue which is in all likelihood irrelevant to the subject at hand. The difference, however, is that with the female/male pronoun debate, it’s a result of a shortcoming of the English language. With the person-first argument, there is no shortcoming; the traditional phrasing (“autistic child”) is born of an outside convention.

Another issue is one raised in the Wikipedia article to which I linked. Some people view their situation not as one of disability, but rather as part of their identity. It’s a valid issue; imagine talking to Jesse Jackson and referring to him as a person who is black. I would hazard a guess that he’d prefer to be called a black person; his color is an integral piece of him and how he defines himself. (And if I happened to pick a bad example – and I don’t think I did – then this can obviously apply to plenty of other people, at any rate.)

Genes and intelligence

More Evidence That Intelligence Is Largely Inherited: Researchers Find That Genes Determine Brain’s Processing Speed

In a study published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience, UCLA neurology professor Paul Thompson and colleagues used a new type of brain-imaging scanner to show that intelligence is strongly influenced by the quality of the brain’s axons, or wiring that sends signals throughout the brain. The faster the signaling, the faster the brain processes information. And since the integrity of the brain’s wiring is influenced by genes, the genes we inherit play a far greater role in intelligence than was previously thought.

What the study found was that myelin thickness corresponds to intelligence. That is, the more fatty covering of the axons in your brain, the more intelligent you are likely to be. And because myelin thickness is genetically linked, intelligence has a genetic link.

What’s important to remember here is that intelligence isn’t soley about genetics. We are not our genes. Environmental influences are still overwhelmingly strong in determining intelligence. Take the South. I doubt there’s really such a large contingent of people with thin myelin gathered below the Mason-Dixon line. It’s more likely a lack of education funding and general principles praising intellectual achievement (see last 50 thousand election cycles, especially the last three national elections).

Because the myelination of brain circuits follows an inverted U-shaped trajectory, peaking in middle age and then slowly beginning to decline, Thompson believes identifying the genes that promote high-integrity myelin is critical to forestalling brain diseases like multiple sclerosis and autism, which have been linked to the breakdown of myelin.

Weird how science does good things.

Palin and Science

Sarah Palin is spouting off again on science. She still has no idea what she’s talking about.

You’ve heard about some of these pet projects they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.

Here are some links from the first search page on ScienceDaily.com. Search term “fruit flies”.

In Lean Times, Flies Can’t Survive Without Their Sense Of Smell
For Best Pest Detection, Suit The Attractant To The Fruit Fly
Bar Flies: Fruit Flies Searching For Shut Eye: Possible ‘Sleep Gene’ Identified
The Good And The Bad Of A Potential Alzheimer’s Target
Fruit Flies Learn and Remember Better When Lacking One Receptor
Human Aging Gene Found In Flies
Like Sweets? You’re More Like A Fruit Fly Than You Think
One Missing Gene Leads To Fruitless Mating Rituals

Fruit fly - Science Daily

There are another 45 pages of results.

Update: I just found a little more info on this earmark. Numbers range from $211,000 to $826,000 (the reason for the discrepancy is unclear). This link gives the upper range. The point of the research seems to specifically rely upon saving California’s olive groves – not that Sarah Palin had any idea, nor that it would have mattered if this was even some of the research into fruit flies that goes to understanding autism.