The Varieties of Denialism

Massimo Pigliacci
I have just come back from a stimulating conference at Clark University about “Manufacturing Denial,” which brought together scholars from wildly divergent disciplines — from genocide studies to political science to philosophy — to explore the idea that “denialism” may be a sufficiently coherent phenomenon underlying the willful disregard of factual evidence by ideologically motivated groups or individuals.(*)
Let me clarify at the outset that we are not talking just about cognitive biases here. This isn’t a question of the human tendency to pay more attention to evidence supporting one’s view while attempting to ignore contrary evidence. Nor are we talking about our ability as intelligent beings to rationalize the discrepancy between what we want to believe and what the world is like. All of those and more affect pretty much all human beings, and can be accounted for and at the least partially dealt with in the course of normal discussions about whatever it is we disagree about.
Rather, the Oxford defines a denialist as “a person who refuses to admit the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence,” which represents a whole different level of cognitive bias or rationalization. Think of it as bias on steroids.
The conference began exploring the topic of denialism with a delightful keynote by Brendan Nyhan  [1] who set the tone with a talk on “The Challenge of Denial: Why People Refuse to Accept Unwelcome Facts.” This was followed by three sessions of three talks each, on Modern Strategies and Rhetoric of Denial, Political Uses of Denial, and Countering Denial: How and When? Hopefully the video of the conference will be available soon, and since contributors were asked to submit a paper to go along with their contribution, hopefully we will soon see an collection in print. I was asked to be on the final panel of the conference, attempting to bring together the several threads I noticed during the main proceedings and offer some general reflections. So the rest of this essay will refer only in passing to my colleagues’ fascinating contributions, and expand instead on the general commentary I offered.
The first two things that became clear during our discussions of denialism are particularly disturbing to me as a scientist and philosopher. First, as a scientist: it’s just not about the facts, indeed — as Brendan showed data in hand during his presentation — insisting on facts may have counterproductive effects, leading the denialist to double down on his belief.
This, of course, should not be taken to mean that the facts don’t matter. If I want to push the idea that climate change is real, or that evolution is a valid scientific theory, or that the Armenian genocide was indeed a genocide, I better get my facts as straight as possible. It’s a pure and simple question of intellectual integrity. But if I think that simply explaining the facts to the other side is going to change their mind, then I’m in for a rude awakening.
That was a lesson I learned many years ago while debating creationists. A debate is a fun event, during which your testosterone is pumped into your veins, which can rally your troops (helping, say, with a fund raising), and which may even grab the attention of fence sitters and others who knew little about the subject matter. What it certainly won’t do is to convince your opponent or any of his committed supporters. Indeed, my best moments as a debater (against Institute for Creation Research’s Duane Gish, or Discovery Institute’s Jonathan Wells) came when I was able to show the audience that these people were consciously lying to them. Nobody likes to be treated as a fool, not even a creationist.
As a philosopher, I found to be somewhat more disturbing the idea that denialism isn’t even about critical thinking. Teaching about logical fallacies isn’t going to do any better than teaching about scientific facts. Indeed, the evidence from the literature is overwhelming that denialists have learned to use the vocabulary of critical thinking against their opponents. To begin with, of course, they think of themselves as “skeptics,” thus attempting to appropriate a word with a venerable philosophical pedigree and which is supposed to indicate a cautiously rational approach to a given problem. As David Hume put it, a wise person (i.e., a proper skeptic) will proportion her beliefs to the evidence. But there is nothing of the Humean attitude in people who are “skeptical” of evolution, climate change, vaccines, and so forth.
Denialists have even begun to appropriate the technical language of informal logic: when told that a majority of climate scientists agree that the planet is warming up, they are all too happy to yell “argument from authority!” When they are told that they should distrust statements coming from the oil industry and from “think tanks” in their pockets they retort “genetic fallacy!” And so on. Never mind that informal fallacies are such only against certain background information, and that it is eminently sensible and rational to trust certain authorities (at the least provisionally), as well as to be suspicious of large organizations with deep pockets and an obvious degree of self-interest.
What then? What commonalities can we uncover across instances of denialism that may allow us to tackle the problem beyond facts and elementary logic? Participants at the conference agreed that what the large variety of denialisms have in common is a very strong, overwhelming, ideological commitment that helps define the denialist identity in a core manner. This commitment can be religious, ethnical or political in nature, but in all cases it fundamentally shapes the personal identity of the people involved, thus generating a strong emotional attachment, as well as an equally strong emotional backlash against critics. Think of Jenny McCarthy’s “I don’t care about science, my son is my science” refrain, or of people who are convinced that leftist environmentalists are out to undermine the American style of life, or of the Turkish government who equates acknowledgement of the Ottoman atrocities against the Armenians as a permanent moral stain on the very idea of a Turkish state, or again of the religious fundamentalist who equates accepting Darwin’s theory with the rejection of the divine, the end of morality and the destruction of any meaning in life. That’s why facts and reason can only do so much (or little) to turn the denialist.
Another important issue to understand is that denialists exploit the inherently tentative nature of scientific or historical findings to seek refuge for their doctrines. Even though there is an overwhelming consensus about climate change within the relevant community of experts (i.e., climate scientists, not meteorologists, medical doctors, or a random assemblage of people with PhD’s), science is a human epistemic activity, and as such it is fallible. Scientists have been wrong before, and doubtlessly will be again in the future, many times. But the issue is rather one of where it is most rational to place your bets as a Bayesian updater: with the scientific community or with Faux News?
This attitude of course indicates a poor appreciation of the very nature of science, both as an empirical and as a theoretical enterprise. I cannot tell you how many times I heard the “evolution is just a theory” refrain, obviously uttered in all sincerity by otherwise rational people — at the least as indicated by how well they can otherwise reason and function in a complex society such as our own.
Is there anything that can be done in this respect? I personally like the idea of teaching “science appreciation” classes in high school and college [2], as opposed to more traditional (usually rather boring, both as a student and as a teacher) science instruction. Unless one is going to major in a scientific field, it will do little good to cram a lot of science facts into his brain, but exposing him to the beauty as well as inner workings (and limits) of the scientific enterprise might. Something like that goes also for writing about science for the general public, where too often the picture presented is one of speculations asserted as facts (think string theory) and where the reader is told about the results but not about the messy, fascinating process that led to them. Science should be portrayed as a human story of failure and discovery, not as a body of barely comprehensible facts arrived at by epistemic priests.
Denialists also exploit the media’s self imposed “balanced” approach to presenting facts, which leads to the false impression that there really are two approximately equal sides to every debate. This is a rather recent phenomenon, and it is likely the result of a number of factors affecting the media industry. One, of course, is the onset of the 24-hr media cycle, with its pernicious reliance on punditry. Another is the increasing blurring of the once rather sharp line between reporting and editorializing. Opinions, in the editorial page, really ought to be presented in a balanced way by any serious news outlet. But facts are not opinions, even if we acknowledge that of course facts aren’t out there in the world devoid of theoretical and yes, even sometimes ideological, contexts. Indeed, one could argue that the complex relation between facts and opinions is precisely why traditional media have kept the two as separate as possible: one gets as much of the factual information as it is humanly possible to disentangle from the ideological background by way of good reporting; one then turns to (hopefully insightful) op-ed pieces to put the reporting into a broader context.
The problem with the media is of course made far worse by the ongoing crisis in contemporary journalism, with newspapers, magazines and even television channels constantly facing an uncertain future of revenues, not knowing how to adapt to the electronic era of “free” information (in case you still have doubts: there is no such thing, ever [3]). An increasingly interesting, and problematic, aspect of this issue is represented by the rise of the blogosphere (and yes, I know you are reading a webzine edited by someone who has published his own blog for more than a decade). Blogs rarely offer reporting, because reporting costs a lot of money; and while they do allow many more people to be part of ongoing societal conversations, they also increase the overall cacophony because there is little if any quality control.
During the conference at Clark there were some aspects of the problem that are highly relevant but were not addressed — naturally enough for a one-day event limited to a dozen speakers. For instance, during the final summary panel, Johanna Volhardt pointed out that psychologists surely have something to add to our understanding of denialism. And I submitted that sociologists should be at the table as well, especially in the context of the study of anti-intellectualism in the US, well understood since the classical work of Richard Hofstadter [4], and that clearly applies to the issue of denialism.
Indeed, Denialism Studies (I’m rather happy to use that term!) is a highly interdisciplinary field, arguably one of the most interdisciplinary I can think of, including history, political science, law, natural science (from physics to biology), psychology, sociology, philosophy (in various forms, from political philosophy to ethics to epistemology), to mention just some of the principal contributors. And for once, this is an academic discipline that first and foremost deals directly with urgent issues that concern us all.
Which brings me to a number of suggestions about what to do in practice. To begin with, we need to understand that the fight is a long term one, which will be characterized by advances and setbacks, as it has always been whenever we want to move society to a better place against inertia, contrarianism, and entrenched interests. And yet, we also have a number of clear victories, or at the least indubitable advances, to point to and keep in mind, so there is a rational basis for hope.
The first thing to realize is that the push back against denialism, in all its varied incarnations, is likely to be more successful if we shift the focus from persuading individual members of the public to making political and media elites accountable. This is a major result coming out of Brendan’s research. He showed data set after data set demonstrating two fundamental things: first, large sections of the general public do not respond to the presentation of even highly compelling facts, indeed — as mentioned above — are actually more likely to entrench further into their positions.
Second, whenever one can put pressure on either politicians or the media, they do change their tune, becoming more reasonable and presenting things in a truly (as opposed to artificially) balanced way.
Third, and most crucially, there is plenty of evidence from political science studies that the public does quickly rally behind a unified political leadership. This, as much as it is hard to fathom now, has happened a number of times even in somewhat recent times. Perhaps this should hardly be surprising: when leaders really do lead, the people follow. It’s just that of late the extreme partisan bickering in Washington has made the two major parties entirely incapable of working together on the common ground that they have demonstrably had in the past. You may remember the joint television ad by Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich on climate change: that could have been the beginning of a beautifully productive period to finally acknowledge and begin addressing the problem. Instead, it was a last desperate gasp drowned out by the sort of acrimony that — ironically — was started precisely by Gingrich’s divisive attitude during the famous Republican takeover of Congress in the ’90s.
Another thing we can do about denialism: we should learn from the detailed study of successful cases and see what worked and how it can be applied to other instances. At the conference we discussed in detail what is perhaps the best example of this genre: the complete debacle of the tobacco industry, especially after internal memos came out demonstrating that industry operators knew very well of the dangers of smoking while they officially kept denying them. Indeed, the story of the tobacco industry’s response to the initial health reports that put their business at risk (as early as the 1952 Readers’ Digest publication of a report critical of the industry, entitled “Cancer by the carton”) gives us the blueprint for pretty much all denialist reactions. As the recent documentary “Merchants of Doubt” [5] clearly shows, tobacco companies began to peddle skepticism, asserting in publicity campaign after publicity campaign that the science wasn’t settled yet, that there may or may not be a link between smoking and cancer. Sounds familiar? This is precisely the same playbook deployed by the oil industry on climate change, or by the Turkish government in order to cast doubt on the Armenian genocide.
And speaking of genocides, there too there are obvious success stories of governments who have acknowledged the events and acted constructively in order to repair the social fabric. One can point of course to the way Germany has handled the Holocaust after World War II, but more recently and perhaps interestingly one can also learn much from the actions of the Rwandan government. Why the differences between Rwanda and Turkey? What worked? What sort of pressures or cultural situations led to the different outcomes?
Yet another thing we can do: seek allies. In the case of evolution denial — for which I have the most first-hand experience — it has been increasingly obvious to me that it is utterly counterproductive for a strident atheist like Dawkins (or even a relatively good humored one like yours truly) to engage creationists directly. It is far more effective when we have clergy (Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State [6] comes to mind) and religious scientists (e.g., Ken Miller [7]) getting into the fray. That’s not to suggest that Dawkins or I don’t have contributions to make to public discourse, of course we do. But it matters very much who our audience is, and especially how we address it. (Yes, I’m talking about “tone,” among other things. We are educators, so we ought to know that nobody ever responds positively to being told that they are idiots or ignoramuses.)
Finally, a note on housekeeping: discussions of denialism, be they about evolution, climate change or genocide, involve a delicate balance between academic freedom and academic integrity [8], as participant Marc Mamigonian pointed out during the Clark proceedings. On the one hand, the academic (and not) freedom of speech of denialists ought to be protected. I am adamantly against laws, popular in Europe and Canada, that criminalize certain types of denialism, like that of the Holocaust. Such laws are clearly poised on a slippery slope that may very well end in a fascistic control of speech by governments and university administrators (though, ironically, that particular danger seems much closer to be realized in the United States at moment, despite the more liberal take that American law has on freedom of speech).
On the other hand, however, individuals, organizations, academics and academic presses ought to be held accountable for their actions, particularly when what they do or say violates the duty toward integrity that should be the flip side of the right to speech. There was much discussion at the conference, for instance, about a systematic denial of the Armenian genocide fostered by a particular editor at the University of Utah Press. How are we to deal with such instances of willful public mischaracterization of facts? Again, successful precedents lead the way. A few years ago a similar controversy engulfed Princeton University [9], and it was dealt with by an onslaught of public, well argued and well researched, reviews and commentaries that effectively shamed Princeton into action. Outside of academe, of course, we have the infamous case of the CEOs of tobacco companies denying the obvious (under oath) in front of Congress. Besides the possible legal action that can be taken in the latter type of case, the most effective response at the time was the ridicule that was heaped on those gentlemen (I use the word with a significant amount of irony) by late night comedians, a ridicule that made abundantly clear to the general public that those individuals had gone way beyond plausible deniability.
Make no mistake about it: denialism in its various forms is a pernicious social phenomenon, with potentially catastrophic consequences for our society. It requires a rallying call for all serious public intellectuals, academic or not, who have the expertise and the stamina to join the fray to make this an even marginally better world for us all. It’s most definitely worth the fight.
[1] Brendan has been a guest on my Rationally Speaking podcast.
[2] See: Science is not a frog, by Steven Paul Leiva, Scientia Salon, 25 August 2014.
[3] Information doesn’t want to be free, by Massimo Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking, 22 February 2013.
[4] Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter, Vintage, 1966.
[5] Merchants of Doubt, directed by Robert Kenner, 2014.
[6] Barry Lynn.
[7] Ken Miller.
[8] See: Stifling discourse, on your Left, by Massimo Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 28 July 2014.
[9] On the Princeton controversy, see: Princeton is accused of fronting for the Turkish government, by W.H. Horan, New York Times, 22 May 1996.

"Scientia Salon" (scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/the-varieties-of-denialism/), October 28, 2014
(*) Reference to the conference "Manufacturing Denial and the Assault on Scholarship and Truth," held on October 24 and 25 at Worcester State University and Clark University. The conference was co-sponsored and organized by the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University; the Robert Aram and Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marian Mugar Chair at Clark University; the Armenian Genocide Program at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University; the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR); and Worcester State University (Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity, and other departments and offices). The conference organizing committee consisted of Taner Akçam, Sarah Cushman, Debórah Dwork, Marc Mamigonian, Khatchig Mouradian, and Henry Theriault.

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