Denialism in the Literature

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s good news though! A description of the tactics and appropriate response to denialism was published in the European Journal of Public Health by authors Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee. It’s entitled “Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?” and I think it does an excellent job explaining the harms of deniailsm, critical elements of denialism, as well as providing interesting historical examples of corporate denialism on the part of tobacco companies.

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. Thabo Mbeki’s denial that that HIV caused AIDS prevented thousands of HIV positive mothers in South Africa receiving anti-retrovirals so that they, unnecessarily, transmitted the disease to their children.1 His health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, famously rejected evidence of the efficacy of these drugs, instead advocating treatment with garlic, beetroot and African potato. It was ironic that their departure from office coincided with the award of the Nobel Prize to Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi for their discovery that HIV is indeed the case of AIDS. The rejection of scientific evidence is also apparent in the popularity of creationism, with an estimated 45% of Americans in 2004 believing that God created man in his present form within the past 10 000 years.2 While successive judgements of the US Supreme Court have rejected the teaching of creationism as science, many American schools are cautious about discussing evolution. In the United Kingdom, some faith-based schools teach evolution and creationism as equally valid ‘faith positions’. It remains unclear how they explain the emergence of antibiotic resistance.

In particular I found their inclusion of a tactic of inversionism interesting:

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’, described as ‘a vertically integrated, highly concentrated, oligopolistic cartel, combined with some public monopolies’ whose aim is to ‘manufacture alleged evidence, suggestive inferences linking smoking to various diseases and publicity and dissemination and advertising of these so-called findings to the widest possible public’.9

This is in a subsection on their coverage of conspiracy in denialism and it rings very true. Often those who function with a conspiratorial mindset project their motives, tactics, and style of thinking on their opponents. It’s nice to have word for it, but I usually think of inversionism as the tendency of some to readily believe anything that inverts a commonly held belief. A tendency which many scientists manifest, probably because the science and facts often contradict intuition and “common-sense” beliefs. Maybe we can think of a better word for this, or maybe simply refer to it as projection.

I also enjoy their conclusion:

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.

Excellent! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Many of the letters in reply are also pretty fascinating. You see a lot of feelings of persecution:

Clearly, no dissent is allowable from the doctrines of tobacco control in Diethelm’s and McKee’s perspective. This perspective brands hundreds of reputable scientists throughout the world as denialists, no different from Holocaust deniers. While I disagree wholeheartedly with these scientists, I will stand up for their right to express their dissenting opinions without having their characters assassinated because of the direction, rather than the scientific reasonableness, of their positions.

Criticism of scientifically untenable positions is suppression of dissent! It’s punishing heresy! Pointing out that denialists use dishonest methods is like Hitler! This is the classic example of self-persecution you always see when it’s made clear the methods of denialists are not different from holocaust denial to evolution denial. This, whether they like it or not, is a factual statement. Denialism is pretty predictable and consistent in form no matter what the topic. The response is inevitably “You’re comparing me to a holocaust denier!”, when in reality all we’re doing is comparing the tactics. Holocaust deniers and tobacco/cancer denialists are both human beings, is that an unfair comparison? Or, one could argue that those who deny tobacco smoke causes cancer might actually be worse than holocaust deniers, as holocaust deniers, while they are despicable bigots, are not defending an ongoing campaign of death.

The authors’ reply is perfect.

Then there’s a amusing defense of the Galileo Gambit:

Finally, D&M consider Galileo as a reference that tobacco “denialists” should refrain from citing in support of their unacceptable views. What is not understood here is that the problems related to tobacco and drug research and policy are very similar. From there, Galileo is and will remain a universal reference [13].

The ego on these people is astounding. There might be one or two people who are as paradigm-shifting as Galileo in a generation, or even a century, but all these cranks seem very comfortable in assuming his mantle. Some humility please. Their reply again is perfect. But I worry. At some point this will just devolve into arguing with cranks; something to be avoided at all costs. And when you consider one of the complaining letters is from a guy who doesn’t even think nicotine is addictive, well, what’s the point of arguing?

Diethelm, P., & McKee, M. (2008). Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond? The European Journal of Public Health, 19 (1), 2-4 DOI: 10.1093/eurpub/ckn139