From evolution to vaccinations to global warming, something I encounter on a regular basis on television and the internet is denialism, rejecting the scientific evidence in favor of an alternative… an alternative which could be anything from pure woo to scientific-sounding arguments: “Just have faith” to “irreducible complexity.” Denialism is something that invariably causes a collective sigh an eye roll from the skeptic community because logical and fact-based responses seem to have no effect on denialists.
An article from the European Journal of Public Health defines denialism as “the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists.” The article goes on to identify five common characteristics of denialism. I’ve seen all of these “in the wild,” but items one through three are the ones I see most often.
These five characteristics were summarized by Debora MacKenzie in a New Scientist opinion piece titled Living in denial: Why sensible people reject the truth and are as follows:
- Allege that there’s a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
- Use fake experts to support your story. “Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility,” says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
- Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
- Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
- Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.
MacKenzie also adds a sixth characteristic.
Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.
In the New Scientist piece, MacKenzie looks at the “why” of denialism.
This depressing tale [about swine flu] is the latest incarnation of denialism, the systematic rejection of a body of science in favour of make-believe. There’s a lot of it about, attacking evolution, global warming, tobacco research, HIV, vaccines – and now, it seems, flu. But why does it happen? What motivates people to retreat from the real world into denial?
Her approach uses a softer glove than many skeptics use, avoiding outright condemnation of deniers but instead making an attempt to understand how denialism spreads: identifying common characteristics, tactics (above), causes, motives, and possible solutions.
The most notable common characteristic that MacKenzie defines is this.
All [denialists] set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people.
I can anecdotally confirm that statement, both in my personal life and in my readings.
Where MacKenzie goes after that is to a hypothesis that what really triggers denialism is a sense of loss of control… a hypothesis that seems a good fit to the major denialist issues.
It is this sense of loss of control that really matters. In such situations, many people prefer to reject expert evidence in favour of alternative explanations that promise to hand control back to them, even if those explanations are not supported by evidence
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.
She goes on to explain that this position is not necessarily malicious or anti-science. They simply require a human reaction.
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.
The origins of denialist claims are another matter, and MacKenzie talks about how many of the more prominent claims (tobacco, global warming) got their start with corporate backing, how deniers tend to attract other deniers, and how claims become politically and religiously charged.
The European Journal of Public Health article isn’t as philosophical in its analysis of denialist motivations, but hits home nonetheless.
Denialists are driven by a range of motivations. For some it is greed, lured by the corporate largesse of the oil and tobacco industries. For others it is ideology or faith, causing them to reject anything incompatible with their fundamental beliefs. Finally there is eccentricity and idiosyncrasy, sometimes encouraged by the celebrity status conferred on the maverick by the media.
Whatever the motivations (personal, political, financial, etc), the one thing that remains true among denialist claims is their distortion (or complete rejection) of the truth. For many issues, such as vaccinations and global warming, denialism has caused and will cause lives to be lost. For others, such as the rejection of evolution, their positions simply contribute to the “dumbing down” of America.
The frustration of dealing with most deniers is the almost impenetrable armor of ignorance they wear which deflects attempts at presenting actual evidence, be it factual or logical. They counter by trotting out any of the tactics listed at the beginning of this article, selecting the one that best fits the topic at hand. Cherry pick this evidence. Trot out this fake expert. Rage about this conspiracy theory.
When all else fails, bring up Hitler.