Bronze-level articleDenialism

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Denialism is the culture of denying an established fact; when a person or group refuses to believe or accept a theory, law, fact or evidence of a well established discipline in an authoritative way. Usually this is despite overwhelming evidence, and usually for motives of convenience. Because of these motives, denialism is often subject to and powered by confirmation bias. Denial of fact is one of the methodologies in woo.[1]

In scientific denialism, the denialist can deny a cause (carbon dioxide does not cause global warming), an effect (global warming does not occur), the association between the two (the earth is warming, but not because of carbon dioxide), the temporal relationship (carbon dioxide concentrations are increased because the earth is warming) or the isolation of the cause-and-effect relationship (other factors than greenhouse gases cause the earth to warm). Often denialists will practice minimization (the earth is warming, but it's not harmful) and will use misplaced skepticism in the veneer of being a scientist when it is unwarranted.

Major targets of denialism include the link between smoking and lung cancer; evolution; the lack of a link between vaccination and autism; and global warming. Often self-interest is the motivation behind denialism, hence targets are often politicised or picked because a denialist can profit from it. For example, tobacco companies denied the smoking-lung cancer link as it would have hurt their profits, and it's been known for some time that Andrew Wakefield had a strong conflict of interest in ensuring people didn't take established and effective vaccines. Similarly, global warming denialists tend to lie on the political right and are ideologically against the solutions that are needed to curb it. Denialism can also fill a deep psychological need, as in the case of answering the question as to why one's child has autism - as, in reality, there is no easy answer.[2]



See also Characteristics of psuedoscience

The Hoofnagle boys at Denialism Blog on have described (using their "Denialists' Deck of Cards" series[3]) how their tactics are remarkably similar. Denialists often claim that an established set of knowledge or scientific theory is not proven or "sound" and lacks evidence (or enough evidence). They will say it is a controversy, requires balance, or requires both the strengths and weaknesses be considered; these make the denialists appear "fair" (and those who oppose them not) and implies doubt in what is being denied with no consideration of evidence. Denialist groups also create their own research to "study the problem" or produce their own body of "competing evidence" which is often poorly performed (if at all, as many are public relations firms). These groups will encourage people to form their own opinions or do their own tests, rather than relying on studies with appropriate controls. Lists of experts (who may have no credentials in the area) are compiled as testimonials, or public relations campaigns are used to improve denialists' images (and often slime the legitamite scholars). Legitimate errors will often be blown out of proportion.[4] Most denialist rhetoric is focused at the layperson and not the expert, and usually paints a contrast between two positions rather than being about one point-of-view.[5] The use of self-generated content on the Internet ("Web 2.0") contributes to the dissemination of denialist content.[6]

Leah Ceccarelli describes the rhetoric of denialists:[7]

First, they skillfully invoke values that are shared by the scientific community and the American public alike, like free speech, skeptical inquiry, and the revolutionary force of new ideas against a repressive orthodoxy. It is difficult to argue against someone who invokes these values without seeming unscientific or un-American.

Second, they exploit a tension between the technical and public spheres in postmodern American life. Highly specialized scientific experts can’t spare the time to engage in careful public communication, and are then surprised when the public distrusts, fears, or opposes them.

Third, today’s sophists exploit a public misconception about what science is. They portray science as a structure of complete consensus built from the steady accumulation of unassailable data. Any dissent by any scientist is then seen as evidence that

there’s no consensus, and thus truth must not have been discovered yet.[8]

Diethelm and McKee have identified five characteristics of denialists:[9]

  1. The identification of perceived conspiracies (including belief of corrupted peer review and inversionism)[10]
  2. The use of fake experts (often with the smearing of real experts)
  3. Selecting or cherry picking sources: picking the weakest papers or only ones that are contrary. Particularly worrisome is looking at only a single study, particularly in medicine, as one study rarely conclusively proves something.[11] Others note that this includes anecdotal evidence[2] and quote mining.[12]
  4. Demanding impossible standards for research
  5. Use of fallacy, including misrepresentation and false analogy.[13] Informally, this can include a witch's brew of half-truths, sob stories.[14], and/or spin to try to force the public to ignore an important issue.

An example of AIDS-HIV denialist rhetoric is from Herbert Vilakazi:

"The situation in America is one of intolerance," he [Herbert Vilakazi] continued, never raising his voice. "There are A.R.V.s [antiretroviral drugs]. Only one approach to treating this deadly illness is permitted. You are not allowed to talk about anything else." He said that people are obsessed with whether H.I.V. causes AIDS, but that he considered such arguments "completely academic and not relevant for the treatment of sick people." He went on, "Let us be honest. Who benefits from A.R.V.s? Hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars have been spent on research and you have to get a return on your investment. It is the first rule of pharmaceutical companies, and they simply terrorize their opponents. Very frankly, in America there is an official literature-and there are a lot of people in the African-American community who feel maybe there is a conspiracy and that racism has a lot to do with it. Why, for instance, is AIDS the biggest problem that exists in Africa? You start to wonder if there is a social selection for this disease. Is it not a coincidence that Africa is the poorest continent in the world? Did you ever think that it's in the interest of some people for it to stay that way?"[15]

Denialism vs. Skepticism

It is possible to conflate skepticism and denialism, as proponents of both seem to "deny" that something exists until they're convinced otherwise. However, to say that a skeptic is a homeopathy denier and that a holocaust denier is skeptical would be wrong. While both have a negative or critical tone, the positions are different from each other in how they view and acquire data to support their position.

Skepticism is a method while denialism is a position. The opposite of "skeptic" is not "believer", and it is possible to embrace something while remaining skeptical. This is an important part of the ethos of science as it suggests new experiments to strengthen or falsify a proposition. Skeptics look at experiments to ensure that they were performed properly with the appropriate controls, proper data analysis and so on. The skeptical method involves examining all data and coming to a conclusion that it produces. Denialists, on the other hand, view data slightly differently, as a means to a predetermined end – minimizing its importance if it goes against their opinion, highlighting it if it supports them, or just plain misrepresenting it for their own purposes. Skeptics keep an open mind until data shows that a hypothesis is invalid, while denialists start with the conclusion and look for support. To put it another way, denialism embraces confirmation bias while skepticism seeks to avoid it.

One blogger put it this way:

Skeptics also ask questions, but a big difference between skeptics and denialists is that skeptics listen to answers and regard evidence as paramount. Denialists tend to see the piles of evidence against their claim, and see a conspiracy theory to perpetuate a hoax. But skeptics accept good evidence. Skeptics have a lot of respect for science, and denialists are usually out to undermine scientists working in the field where they have an agenda. Denialists will wear the costume of scientific thinking, but they usually show a piss-poor understanding how ... the accumulation of studies and data work. (For instance, they promote the idea that if one study can be found to be flawed, this brings down the whole theory, as if the other hundreds of studies don’t count.)

This distinction is really important, because the role of skeptics is to dispute and even disprove outrageous conspiracy theory claims. Skeptics fight against denialists. That’s why I’m interested in skepticism---I fear that there’s a surge of denialist thinking in our culture fueled by new media (which is great at a lot of good things, but also good at spreading misinformation) and the explosion in both complications in world politics and the everyday person’s awareness of them. As science begins to dictate more and more of what we know, there’s also a cultural backlash that’s related to the overall backlash against modernism. Skepticism is becoming more and more important as the political troops to defend science. So when people who are part of the anti-science backlash call themselves “skeptics”, this confuses the issue.[16]

The scientitific community's response to the possibility of an arsenic-based life form is a current example of skepticism.[17]

None of the scientists I spoke to ruled out the possibility that such weird bacteria might exist. Indeed, some of them were co-authors of a 2007 report for the National Academies of Sciences on alien life that called for research into, among other things, arsenic-based biology. But almost to a person, they felt that the NASA team had failed to take some basic precautions to avoid misleading results.[18]

Denialism also differs from legitimate historical revisionism in that the latter acknowledges that a historical event occurred, but uses a different interpretation of evidence. Denialism is usually historical negationism.

See also

External links


  1. A more complete definition of denialism: "Denialism is the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one's viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing, but ultimately empty and illogical assertions." [1]
  2. 2.0 2.1 For a brief discussion of this, along with some commentary from the psychological literature, see MacKenzie, Debora. "Whose conspiracy?" New Scientist 15 May 2010, 38-40.
  3. Hoofnagle, Chris Jay. "The Denialists' Deck of Cards: An Illustrated Taxonomy of Rhetoric Used to Frustrate Consumer Protection Efforts." 9 February 2007. Accessed 28 May 2011.
  5. Strictly speaking, one could make a distinction between tactics that create doubt (as is the case in consumer products such as tobacco) and those that flat-out deny science (such as creationist), but the line is thin.
  6. Kata, Anna. "Anti-vaccine activists, Web 2.0, and the postmodern paradigm – An overview of tactics and tropes used online by the anti-vaccination movement" Vaccine. Not yet in print.
  7. Caccarelli is actually describing sophists who manufacture controversies, but the overlap is subtantial.
  8. Ceccarelli, Leah "Manufactroversy, The Art of Creating Controversy Where None Existed" Science Progress Spring/Summer 2008: 82-84.
  9. Diethelm, Pascal; McKee, Martin. "Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?" European Journal of Public Health 2009(19): 2-4.
  10. A detailed account of conspiracies in science can be found in EMBO Reports: Goertzel, Ted. "Conspiracy Theories in Science." EMBO reports (2010) 11, 493-499.
  11. Kalichman, Seth. Denying AIDS Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience and Human Tragedy, Chapter 6. Text provided on
  14. Generally about the impending impoverishment of multimillion dollar companies, but often involving stories about how brown people/insert_other_religion_heres/small independent artists are going to steal our money, steal our identities, steal our country, steal our dogs and rape our women.
  15. Specter, Michael. "The Denialists; The dangerous attacks on the consensus about H.I.V. and AIDS." New Yorker 12 March 2007. LexisNexis Academic. Accessed 7 November 2010.
  18. Zimmer, Carl. "'This Paper Should Not Have Been Published,' Scientists see fatal flaws in the NASA study of arsenic-based life." The Slate. 7 Dec 2010. Accessed 8 Dec 2010.
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