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A comparative guide to science denial

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When you watch science denial in action, you will see the same sort of arguments being used over and over, often in much the same order. Here is a handy-dandy cut-out-and-keep guide, with examples from:

  1. tobacco industry,
  2. creationists, and
  3. climate change deniers.

  1. Denial of well-established evidence
  2. Listing legitimate research questions to cast doubt on a scientific theory
  3. Denialist movements as public relations projects
  4. Petitions of supporters, perhaps scientists
  5. On manufactured controversies
  6. Mere statistical data
  7. Purported conspiracy against denialist research or "rights"
  8. Use of Fake Experts
  9. Impossible standards for research
  10. Cherry Picking Data and Quote Mining
  11. External links
  12. Footnotes

Denial of well-established evidence[edit]

The following are quotes from denialists about the purported lack of scientific evidence.

Tobacco Industry Spokesman[edit]

Clarence C. Little: It is my purpose to present certain of the reasons why all such data (which are at time based on rather superficial and indirect observations) fail to convince other scientists and medical men that a cause-and-effect relationship between tobacco use and bronchogenic carcinoma has been established.

This does not mean that certain existing studies have not produced suggestive findings. It merely proposes that the problems raised by such studies are not yet solved and that much more research in depth is needed before definitive answers will be available.[1]

ID/Creationist Movement[edit]

Michael Behe: On a small scale, Darwin's theory has triumphed; it is now as controversial as an athlete's assertion that he or she could jump over a four-foot ditch. But, it is at the level of macroevolution—of large jumps—that the theory evokes skepticism. Many people have followed Darwin in proposing that huge changes can be broken down into plausible, small steps over great periods of time. Persuasive evidence to support that position, however, has not been forthcoming.[2]

Global Warming Denialists[edit]

The proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate.[3]

Listing legitimate research questions to cast doubt on a scientific theory[edit]

Denialists will point out legitimate research questions to generate doubt in the overall theory.

Tobacco Industry Document[edit]

"a. Why do mice show no tendency to develop lung cancer in experiments where they live half their lives in smoke filled chambers?

b. Why, in some experiments, do mice show a tendency to develop skin cancer, when painted over a period with tobacco tars — whereas efforts to produce lung cancer in mice, by keeping them immersed in tobacco smoke, have failed?

c. Why has the rise in lung cancer been most marked among men, although the greatest rise in the use of cigarettes in the last years seems to have been among women?

d. Why does the rate of lung cancer vary so greatly between certain cities, although the per capita rate of cigarette consumption in these cities seams approximately the same?

e. What is the correlation, if any, between lung cancer and certain changes in American life — such as steadily increased industrialization, increased urbanization, and the rising problem of atmospheric pollution in many of urban centers?

f. Why is cancer of the lung on the increase whereas no such rise appears in similar illness of the tongue, lip or throat?

g. Is the incidence of lung cancer less in rural areas than it is in urban area, and if so what is the per capita consumption of of cigarettes in these respective areas?

h. Is the incidence of lung cancer greater in cold climates than in mild climates and in the south, and if so what is the per capita consumption of cigarettes in the respective areas where this differential seemingly occurs?"[4][5]

ID/Creationist Movement[edit]

Each chapter from 3 to 7 of Darwin's Black Box is devoted to an open research question in evolution, which includes the evolution of the flagellum, the blood clotting cascade, vesicular transport, and the biosynthesis of AMP.[2] See God of the gaps.[6]

Global Warming Denialists[edit]

Why is Mars also warming if global warming is caused by humans?[7]

Denialist movements as public relations projects[edit]

The following are quotes analyzing each group from the perspective of public relations, quoting the denialists themselves.

Tobacco industry[edit]

T.V. Hartnett, president of Brown & Williamson, summarized the problem [for the tobacco industry] in an internal memorandum following the initial meeting. "Excessive care," he warned, "must be used at this time in the methods we use to counteract these claims… The problem is to challenge these findings ethically and effectively without rancor–to win friends rather than create enemies." Harnett went on to outline two approaches that would dominate the industry's strategy:

Cancer research, while certainly getting our every support, can be only half the answer…. The other side of the coin is public relations… [which] is basically a selling tool and the most astute selling may well be needed to get the industry out of this hole. It isn't exaggeration that no public relations expert has ever been handed so real and yet so delicate a multi-million dollar problem…. Finally, one of the roughest hurdles which must be anticipated is how to handle significantly negative research results, if, as, and when they develop.[8][9]

ID movement[edit]

The intelligent design movements discussed public relations in the Wedge Document, such as in the list below:

Phase II. Publicity & Opinion-making

  • Book Publicity
  • Opinion-Maker Conferences
  • Apologetics Seminars
  • Teacher Training Program
  • Op-ed Fellow
  • PBS (or other TV) Co-production
  • Publicity Materials / Publications

Global Warming Denialists (in this case, the American Petroleum Institute)[edit]

[Steven] Milloy was a founding member of a team assembled by the American Petroleum Institute (API) to create the 1998 "Global Climate Science Communication Action Plan". The API [American Petroleum Institute] made no bones about its intent in creating its plan for the public. The document plainly states that its purpose is to convince the public, through the media, that climate science is awash in uncertainty. Notwithstanding that the industry's own scientists were saying as early as 1995 that the science of climate change was undeniable …, the API set out an entire strategy bent on making doubt, in the words of the memo below, "conventional wisdom." The API document begins with a missions statement (the parenthetical additions appear in the original):

Victory Will Be Achieved When

  • Average citizens "understand" (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the conventional wisdom
  • Media "understands" (recognizes) uncertainties in climate science
  • Media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of viewpoints that challenge the current "conventional wisdom"
  • Industry senior leadership understands uncertainties in climate science, making them stronger ambassadors to those who shape climate policy.
  • Those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.[10]

Petitions of supporters, perhaps scientists[edit]

The following are statements from the petitions of denialist movements. Petitions are a common way of making a denialist movement more popular, and function as a argumentum ad populum to their validity.

Tobacco Industry Petition[edit]

Nobody will sign petitions that are pro-tobacco industry.[note 1]

ID/Creationist Petition[edit]

We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.[13]

Global Warming Denialists[edit]

There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate. [14]

On manufactured controversies[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Manufactroversy
The following are observer statements about the "controversies" that each group of denialists claim exists, when, in fact, there is none in the scientific communities.

About the Tobacco Industry[edit]

The industry’s strategy does not require winning the debates it manufactures. It is enough to foster and perpetuate the illusion of controversy in order to muddy the waters around scientific findings that threaten the industry.[15]

ID/Creationist Movement[edit]

Moreover, ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard.[16]

Global Warming Denialists[edit]

Languaging expert Frank Luntz admitted as much in his now infamous talking points memo on the environment, leaked to the public in 2002, where he confessed that the window for claiming controversy about global warming was closing, but he nonetheless urged conservative congressional and executive leaders “to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”[17]

Mere statistical data[edit]

Denialists often minimize the relevance of statistical data, as the following quotes indicate.

Tobacco Industry Spokesman[edit]

Clarence C. Little: It is the statistical data that comprise the great bulk of the material on which rest the dogmatic claims of "proof" of a cause-and-effect relation between smoking and lung cancer.

Supporters of the tobacco-guilt hypothesis say: “Look at the great number of epidemiologic studies, all showing a statistical association between cigarette smoking and the development of lung cancer in some individuals. Is not this proof of causation?”

Quantity in this statistical area is not proof or corroboration. Indeed, one would expect that all statistical studics similarly set up would show a statistical association if one of them did — but such an association is not proof of causation by any means.

Most statisticians, recognizing the secondary and indirect nature of epidemiologic evidence based on death certificates, agree that such evidence alone cannot properly be considered final or conclusive in establishing causation. It may be, and in this case is, suggestive and challenging. It demands and is receiving proper consideration by those who require additional and more direct evidence pro or con the theory of tobacco guilt.[1]

ID/Creationist Movement[edit]

Shannon’s information theory [which can be applied to evolution] is well suited to an understanding of the statistical aspect of information. This theory makes it possible to give a quantitative description of those characteristics of languages that are based intrinsically on frequencies. However, whether a chain of symbols has a meaning is not taken into consideration.[18]

Global Warming Denialists[edit]

Phil Jones said that for the past 15 years there has been no "statistically significant" warming. The admissions will be seized on by sceptics as fresh evidence that there are serious flaws at the heart of the science of climate change and the orthodoxy that recent rises in temperature are largely man-made.[19]

Purported conspiracy against denialist research or "rights"[edit]

Denialists will claim there is a conspiracy in the science they deny.

Anti-anti-smoking website[edit]

The ongoing anti-smoking campaign is not about public health, drug abuse, or teen smoking. What it is all about is money, control, and jurisdiction.[20]

ID/Creationist Movement[edit]

Intelligent design was being suppressed in a systematic and ruthless fashion. (Ben Stein, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed)[21]

Global Warming Denialist[edit]

I’ve been adding some of the most astonishing in updates below — emails suggesting conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data, possibly illegal destruction of embarrassing information, organised resistance to disclosure, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more. If it is as it now seems, never again will “peer review” be used to shout down sceptics. (Andrew Bolt in his Climategate "expose")[22]

Use of Fake Experts[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Expert for hire

Denialists will quote an "expert", who, in fact, may have no credentials in the field, often while tarnishing legitimate experts.

Tobacco Industry[edit]

"[Fake experts] have been used extensively by the tobacco industry since 1974, when a senior executive with R J Reynolds devised a system to score scientists working on tobacco in relation to the extent to which they were supportive of the industry's position. The industry embraced this concept enthusiastically in the 1980s when a senior executive from Philip Morris developed a strategy to recruit such scientists (referring to them as ‘Whitecoats’) to help counteract the growing evidence on the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. This activity was largely undertaken through front organizations whose links with the tobacco industry were concealed, but under the direction of law firms acting on behalf of the tobacco industry.10 In some countries, such as Germany, the industry created complex and influential networks, allowing it to delay the implementation of tobacco control policies for many years.11"[23]

ID/Creationist Movement[edit]

See the Discovery Institute

Global Warming Denialists[edit]

"In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute developed a Global Climate Science Communications Plan, involving the recruitment of ‘scientists who share the industry's views of climate science [who can] help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify controls on greenhouse gases’.12"[23]

Impossible standards for research[edit]

Denialists will demand an unreasonable amount of evidence, when in fact the evidence at hand is more than sufficent.

One central question for the evaluation of skepticism is 'what evidence would be convincing?' One sign that open-minded doubt has turned intractable is the answer: 'I cannot say.'" [24]

Tobacco Industry[edit]

Clarence C. Little, spokesperson for the tobacco industry: "To expect, as Dr. Wynder [a tobacco epidemiologist] and some others do, that those still unconvinced [that smoking cases lung cancer] should state the exact and specific evidence that would 'convince' them is being completely unrealistic. If one could define such specific evidence the problem would be already solved."[1]

ID/Creationist Movement[edit]

At the Kitzmiller trial, asked of Michael Behe:

"Q. And I'm correct when I asked you, you would need to see a step-by-step description of how the immune system, vertebrate immune system developed?
A [Behe]. Not only would I need a step-by-step, mutation by mutation analysis, I would also want to see relevant information such as what is the population size of the organism in which these mutations are occurring, what is the selective value for the mutation, are there any detrimental effects of the mutation, and many other such questions."[25]

Global Warming Denialists[edit]

Freeman Dyson: "I have studied their climate models and know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics and do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields, farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. ... They are full of fudge factors that are fitted to the existing climate, so the models more or less agree with the observed data. But there is no reason to believe that the same fudge factors would give the right behaviour in a world with different chemistry, for example in a world with increased CO2 in the atmosphere."[26]

Cherry picking, data and quote mining[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Cherry picking
See the main article on this topic: Quote mining

Denialists will typically select only studies or data that favor their point of view and ignore others. Or, they might select quotes that are deceptive when quoted out of context.

Tobacco Industry[edit]

The tobacco industry notoriously degraded statistical and animal studies as irrelevant to the smoking-lung cancer link.[1]

ID/Creationist Movement[edit]

Creationists are notorious for quote mining.[27]

Global Warming Denialists[edit]

Global warming denialists have been known to look at short term cooling trends.[28]

External links[edit]


  1. Though if the petition is carefully disguised, sufficient signatures can be gathered for a ballot measure.[11][12]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Little, Clarence C. "Some Phases of the Problem of Smoking and Lung Cancer" New England Journal of Medicine 1964 (264), 1241-1245.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Behe, Michael J. Darwin's Black Box 10th anniversary ed. Simon and Shuster: New York, 2006, p. 15.
  3. As quoted in Lane, Allen (2006-08-19). "The denial industry". The Guardian.
  4. Hill and Knowlton, "Preliminary Recommendations for Cigarette Manufacturers," December 24, 1953, Exhibit 3, p. 5. (Continues on to p. 6)
  5. Reference suggested by Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth of Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010; p. 18.
  6. For a discussion of this point, see Dawkins, Richard. "Why There Almost Certainly is No God." Excerpt from The God Delusion. The Portable Atheist. Philadelphia: Da Capo, 2007; pp 297-304.
  8. Brandt, Allan M. The Cigarette Century, the Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America. Paperback ed.; Basic: New York, 2009; p 165.
  9. Brandt references Timothy V. Hartnett, "Memorandum from T.V. Harnett," December 15, 1953, Bates No. 1005039779/9783 [1] .
  10. Hoggan, James, and Richard Littlemore. Climate Cover-up, the Crusade to Deny Global Warming. Greystone:Vancouver, 2009; pp 42-43.
  11. Missouri 60 Cent Cigarette Tax, Constitutional Amendment 3 (2016)
  12. Editorial On Amendment 3: Great purpose, bad weapon by Henry J. Waters III (Sunday, October 16, 2016) Missouri Cures Education Foundation.
  15. Saloojee, Yussuf and Elif Dagli. "Tobacco industry tactics for resisting public policy on health" Bull. World Health Organ. 78(7): Genebra, July 2000.
  17. Ceccarelli, Leah "Manufactroversy, The Art of Creating Controversy Where None Existed" Science Progress Spring/Summer 2008: 82-84.
  19. Phil Jones and the meaning of 'statistically significant warming', Skeptical Science
  21. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. As quoted on Expelled Exposed. Accessed 15 August 2010.
  22. Bolt, Andrew. "Climategate: Warmist conspiracy exposed?" 20 Nov 2009. Accessed 15 Aug 2010.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Diethelm, Pascal; McKee, Martin. "Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?" European Journal of Public Health 2009(19): 2-4.
  24. Allan Brandt, The Cigarette Century, the Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America
  25. "Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District Trial transcript: Day 12 (October 19), PM Session, Part 1." Talkorigins. Accessed December 3, 2011.
  28. See for example [2]