Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?
Black is white and white is black
HIV does not cause AIDS. The world was created in 4004 BCE. Smoking does not cause cancer. And if climate change is happening, it is nothing to do with man-made CO2 emissions. Few, if any, of the readers of this journal will believe any of these statements. Yet each can be found easily in the mass media. The consequences of policies based on views such as these can be fatal.
All of these examples have one feature in common. There is an overwhelming consensus on the evidence among scientists yet there are also vocal commentators who reject this consensus, convincing many of the public, and often the media too, that the consensus is not based on ‘sound science’ or denying that there is a consensus by exhibiting individual dissenting voices as the ultimate authorities on the topic in question. Their goal is to convince that there are sufficient grounds to reject the case for taking action to tackle threats to health. This phenomenon has led some to draw a historical parallel with the holocaust, another area where the evidence is overwhelming but where a few commentators have continued to sow doubt. All are seen as part of a larger phenomenon of denialism.Defining and recognizing denialism
Denialism is a process that employs some or all of five characteristic elements in a concerted way.
The first is the identification of conspiracies. When the overwhelming body of scientific opinion believes that something is true, it is argued that this is not because those scientists have independently studied the evidence and reached the same conclusion. It is because they have engaged in a complex and secretive conspiracy. The peer review process is seen as a tool by which the conspirators suppress dissent, rather than as a means of weeding out papers and grant applications unsupported by evidence or lacking logical thought.
There is also a variant of conspiracy theory, inversionism, in which some of one’s own characteristics and motivations are attributed to others. For example, tobacco companies describe academic research into the health effects of smoking as the product of an ‘anti-smoking industry’.
The second is the use of fake experts. These are individuals who purport to be experts in a particular area but whose views are entirely inconsistent with established knowledge.
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’.
A related phenomenon is the marginalization of real experts, in some cases through an alliance between industry and government, as when ExxonMobil successfully opposed the reappointment by the US government of the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The use of fake experts is often complemented by denigration of established experts and researchers, with accusations and innuendo that seek to discredit their work and cast doubt on their motivations.
The third characteristic is selectivity, drawing on isolated papers that challenge the dominant consensus or highlighting the flaws in the weakest papers among those that support it as a means of discrediting the entire field.
Denialists are usually not deterred by the extreme isolation of their theories, but rather see it as the indication of their intellectual courage against the dominant orthodoxy and the accompanying political correctness, often comparing themselves to Galileo.
The fourth is the creation of impossible expectations of what research can deliver. For example, those denying the reality of climate change point to the absence of accurate temperature records from before the invention of the thermometer.
The fifth is the use of misrepresentation and logical fallacies. For example, pro-smoking groups have often used the fact that Hitler supported some antismoking campaigns to represent those advocating tobacco control as Nazis (even coining the term nico-nazis).
Logical fallacies include the use of red herrings, or deliberate attempts to change the argument and straw men, where the opposing argument is misrepresented to make it easier to refute.
Other fallacies used by denialists are false analogy, exemplified by the argument against evolution that, as the universe and a watch are both extremely complex, the universe must have been created by the equivalent of a watchmaker and the excluded middle fallacy (either passive smoking causes a wide range of specified diseases or causes none at all, so doubt about an association with one disease, such as breast cancer, is regarded as sufficient to reject an association with any disease).Responding to denialism
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. Fnally there is eccentricity and idiosyncrasy, sometimes encouraged by the celebrity status conferred on the maverick by the media.
Whatever the motivation, it is important to recognize denialism when confronted with it. The normal academic response to an opposing argument is to engage with it, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the differing views, in the expectations that the truth will emerge through a process of debate. However, this requires that both parties obey certain ground rules, such as a willingness to look at the evidence as a whole, to reject deliberate distortions and to accept principles of logic. A meaningful discourse is impossible when one party rejects these rules. Yet it would be wrong to prevent the denialists having a voice.
Instead, we argue, it is necessary to shift the debate from the subject under consideration, instead exposing to public scrutiny the tactics they employ and identifying them publicly for what they are. An understanding of the five tactics listed above provides a useful framework for doing so.