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Not just a river in Egypt
Icon denialism.svg
♫ We're not listening ♫
You can't give up just because it's hopeless! You gotta hope even more! And cover your ears and go BLEH BLEH BLEH BLEH BLEH BLEH BLEH BLEH!
—Fry, Futurama

Denialism is the refusal to accept well-established theory, law, fact or evidence[1]. "Denialist" is pejorative.

In scientific contexts, the denialist can deny a cause (carbon dioxide does not cause global warming), an effect (the Earth is not warming), the association between the two (CO2 levels are rising and the Earth is warming, but not because of the carbon dioxide), the direction of the cause-and-effect relationship (carbon dioxide concentrations are increasing because the earth is warming) or the identification of the cause-and-effect relationship (other factors than greenhouse gases are causing the Earth to warm). Often denialists practice minimization (the Earth is warming, but it's not harmful) and use misplaced skepticism to give an unwarranted veneer of scientific thinking.

Major scientific targets of denialism include evolution, global warming, the link between HIV and AIDS, the link between smoking and lung cancer, and evidence that there is no correlation between vaccination and autism. Often self-interest is the motivation behind denialism, hence arguments are often politicised or financially motivated. For example, tobacco companies denied the smoking-lung cancer link (even though they were well-aware of it for decades) as it would have hurt their profits, and Andrew Wakefield had a strong conflict of interest in ensuring people didn't take established and effective vaccines. Similarly, global warming denialists tend to oppose the solutions that are needed to address the problem (see the logical fallacy of argument from adverse consequences), and are supported by energy conglomerates and others who could lose financially from reductions in fossil fuel use. Because of financial incentive, denialism can take the form of the accounting known as deferred financing cost,Wikipedia's W.svg i.e., someone else will pay for the costs while the company/denier takes the profits — a future generation, a different stock holder, the government, or an innocent bystander.

Politicians use variations of the phrase "I'm not a scientist but…" to proclaim that they are proudly and willfully ignorant of science while at the same time that they are willing to offer policy opinions in other areas where they also have no expertise, especially economics or religion. The proudly ignorant include a frightening cast of 2016 GOP Presidential candidates, and the speaker of the House of Representatives: Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, John Boehner, Rick Scott, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Marco Rubio.[2][3][4][5][6]

Denial of fact is one of the foundations of woo. Denialism can also fill a deep psychological need, as in the question of why one's child has autism — since in reality there is no known easy answer.[7]


Don't talk to me of independent study or scientific trial/I'm in denial, deep in denial/And as the waters rise around me/I'll just hold my breath and say it isn't so!
—"Denial Tango," Men with Day Jobs[8]

Mark and Chris Hoofnagle at Denialism Blog use their "Denialists' Deck of Cards" series[9] to describe how denialists of all stripes use remarkably similar tactics. Denialists often claim that an established set of knowledge or scientific theory is not proven or "sound" and lacks evidence (or enough evidence). They say it is a controversy, requires balance, or requires both the strengths and weaknesses be considered. These tactics 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 produce competing evidence through their own "research", which is often poorly performed (if at all) as it often is done by public relations firms with no technical expertise. They encourage people to form their own opinions or do their own tests, rather than relying on studies with appropriate methods and 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 slime legitimate scholars). Actual errors in mainstream science will often be blown out of proportion.[10] 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.[11] The use of self-generated content on the Internet ("Web 2.0") unfortunately contributes to the dissemination of denialist arguments.[12]

Leah Ceccarelli describes the rhetoric of denialists:[13]

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 … 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.[14]

Diethelm and McKee have identified five characteristics of denialists:[15]

  1. The identification of perceived conspiracies. This includes belief of corrupted peer review and inversionism (i.e., attributing some of one's own characteristics and motivations to others).[16]
  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, especially in medicine, as one study rarely conclusively proves something.[17] Others note that this includes anecdotal evidence[7] and quote mining.[18]
  4. Demanding impossible standards for research.
  5. Use of fallacy, including misrepresentation and false analogy.[19] Informally, this can include a witch's brew of half-truths and sob stories.[20] 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," [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?"[21]

Denialism vs. skepticism[edit]

A skeptic will question claims, then embrace the evidence. A denier will question claims, then reject the evidence.
Neil deGrasse Tyson[22]

It is possible to conflate skepticism and denialism, as proponents of both seem to "deny" that something exists until they're convinced otherwise. Denialists themselves often claim to be skeptics, and very rarely self-identify as denialists. But 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 in how they view and acquire and interpret data. 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 essential 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.[23]

And another blogger:

Carl Sagan popularized the skeptical mantra: "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Authentic scientific skepticism is an intellectual and scholarly pursuit that requires honesty, rationality, logic, and evidence. Real skeptics do not cling to absurd conspiracy theories for which there is no evidence, nor do they engage in obfuscation, misrepresentation, data fabrication, smear campaigns, or intimidation tactics. These are the methods of deniers.[24]

The scientific community's response to the possibility of an arsenic-based life form is a current example of skepticism.[25] Take Carl Zimmer:

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.[26]

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[edit]

External links[edit]


  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. Why Do Republicans Always Say 'I'm Not a Scientist'?
  3. Texas’ Perry on reparative therapy: 'I don’t know'
  4. "I'm Not a Scientist"
  5. In DC, Gov. Rick Perry talks 2016
  6. When It Comes to Climate Chagne, GOP Candidates are the Mad Not-A-Scientists Hillary Clinton Campaign
  7. 7.0 7.1 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.
  8. Denial Tango
  9. Hoofnagle, Chris Jay. "The Denialists' Deck of Cards: An Illustrated Taxonomy of Rhetoric Used to Frustrate Consumer Protection Efforts." 9 February 2007. Accessed 31 May 2013.
  10. http://debunkingdenialism.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/common-denialist-tactics-defined-and-destroyed/
  11. 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 creationism), but the line is thin.
  12. 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.
  13. Caccarelli is actually describing sophists who manufacture controversies, but the overlap is substantial.
  14. Ceccarelli, Leah "Manufactroversy, The Art of Creating Controversy Where None Existed" Science Progress Spring/Summer 2008: 82-84.
  15. Diethelm, Pascal; McKee, Martin. "Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?" European Journal of Public Health 2009(19): 2-4.
  16. 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.
  17. Kalichman, Seth. Denying AIDS Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience and Human Tragedy, Chapter 6. Text provided on www.thebody.com
  18. http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/09/the_denialists.php
  19. http://www.giveupblog.com/2006/09/denialists.html
  20. Generally about the "impending suffering of millions of people," but often involving stories about how brown people/insert other religion here/small independent artists are going to steal our money, steal our identities, steal our country, steal our dogs and rape our women.
  21. 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.
  22. Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter
  23. http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2010/03/13/pandagon-global_warming_denialism_part_3_the_difference_between_skeptics_and_deniali/
  24. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-boslough/npr-finally-stops-referri_b_6165846.html
  25. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2010/12/08/of-arsenic-and-aliens-what-the-critics-said/
  26. Zimmer, Carl. "'This Paper Should Not Have Been Published,' Scientists see fatal flaws in the NASA study of arsenic-based life." Slate. 7 Dec 2010. Accessed 8 Dec 2010.