What is at the root of denial? A Must Read from Chris Mooney in Mother Jones

Chris Mooney has been exploring the basic underpinnings of denialism lately, with this latest article a good summary of the basic problems:

In a recent study of climate blog readers, Lewandowksy and his colleagues found that the strongest predictor of being a climate change denier is having a libertarian, free market world view. Or as Lewandowsky put it in our interview, “the overwhelming factor that determined whether or not people rejected climate science is their worldview or their ideology.” This naturally lends support to the “motivated reasoning” theory—a conservative view about the efficiency of markets impels rejection of climate science because if climate science were true, markets would very clearly have failed in an very important instance.

But separately, the same study also found a second factor that was a weaker, but still real, predictor of climate change denial—and also of the denial of other scientific findings such as the proven link between HIV and AIDS. And that factor was conspiracy theorizing. Thus, people who think, say, that the Moon landings were staged by Hollywood, or that Lee Harvey Oswald had help, are also more likely to be climate deniers and HIV-AIDS deniers.

This is similar to what we’ve been saying for years. Ideology is at the heart of antiscience, (yes even liberal ideology) and when in conflict with science will render the ideologue incapable of rational evaluation of facts. The more extreme the ideology, the more likely and more severe the divergence from science. Then there is the separate issue of cranks who have a generalized defect in their reasoning abilities, are generally incompetent at recognizing bad ideas, often believing conflicting theories simultaneously, and are given to support any other crank who they feel is showing science is somehow fundamentally wrong. This is the “paranoid style”, it’s well-described, and likely, irreversible. However, more run-of-the-mill denialism should be preventable.

We’ve discussed this extensively in regards to research by Dan Kahan, although I have disagreed with this jargon of motivated reasoning. Chris, however, knows what they’re referring to with their fancified science-speak, ideology is at the root of denial.

Recognizing that the problem of anti-science is not one of a lack of information, or of education, or of framing is of paramount concern. This is a problem with humans. This is the way we think by default. People tend to arrive at their beliefs based on things like their upbringing, their religion, their politics, and other unreliable sources. When opinions are formed based on these deeply-held beliefs or heuristics, all information subsequently encountered is either used to reinforce this belief, or is ignored. This is why studies showing education doesn’t work, the more educated the partisan is on a topic, the more entrenched they become. You can’t inform or argue your way out of this problem, you have to fundamentally change the way people reason before they form these fixed beliefs.

Scientific reasoning and pragmatism is fundamentally unnatural and extremely difficult. Even scientists, when engaged in a particular nasty internal ideological conflict, have been known to deny the science. This is because when one’s ideology is challenged by the facts you are in essence creating an existential crisis. The facts become an assault on the person themselves, their deepest beliefs, and how they perceive and understand the world. What is done in this situation? Does the typical individual suck it up, and change, fundamentally, who they are as a person? Of course not! They invent a conspiracy theory as to why the facts have to be wrong. They cherry pick the evidence that supports them, believe any fake expert that espouses the same nonsense and will always demand more and more evidence, never being satisfied that their core beliefs might be wrong. This is where “motivated reasoning” comes from. It’s a defense of self from the onslaught of uncomfortable facts. Think of the creationist confronted with a fossil record, molecular biology, geology, physics, and half a dozen other scientific fields, are they ever convinced? No, because it’s all an atheist conspiracy to make them lose their religion.

How do we solve this problem?

First we have to recognize it for what it is, as Mooney and others have done here. The problem is one of human nature. Engaging in denialism doesn’t have to mean you’re a bad person, or even being purposefully deceptive (although there are those that have that trait), the comparison to holocaust denial, always a favorite straw man of the denialist, is not apt. Denialism in most people is a defense mechanism that protects their core values from being undermined by reality. And no matter what your ideology, at some point, you will have a conflict with the facts because no ideology perfectly describes or models all of reality. You are going to come into conflict with the facts at some point in your life no matter where you are on the ideological spectrum. The question is, what will you do when that conflict arises? Will you entrench behind a barrier of rhetoric, or will you accept that all of us are flawed, and our beliefs at best can only provide an approximation of reality – a handy guide but never an infallible one?

Second, we have to develop strategies towards preventing ideological reaction to science and recognize when people are reacting in an irrational fashion to an ideological conflict with science. One of my commenters pointed me to this paper, which describes an effective method to inoculate people against conspiratorial thinking. Basically, if you warn people ahead of time about conspiratorial craziness, they will be more likely to evaluate the claims of conspiracists with higher skepticism. We should encourage skeptical thinking from an early age, and specifically educate against conspiratorial thinking, which is a defective mode of thinking designed to convince others to act irrationally (and often hatefully). When we do see conspiracy, we shouldn’t dismiss it as harmless, the claims need to be debunked, and the purveyors of conspiracy theories opposed and mocked. Before anyone ever reads a line of Alex Jones, or Mike Adams, a training in skepticism could provide protection, and with time, the paranoid style will hold less and less sway. People primed to expect conspiratorial arguments will be resistant, and more skeptical in general. The Joneses, Moranos, and the Adamses of the world don’t have the answers, they know nothing, and their mode of thought isn’t just wrong, but actively poisonous against rational thought. As skeptical writers we should educate people in a way that protects them from their inevitable encounter with such crankery. This is why writers like Carl Sagan are so important with his (albeit incomplete) Baloney Detection Kit. He knew that you have to prepare people for their encounters with those with an ideological agenda, that others will bend the truth and deny the science for selfish reasons.

This is what is at the heart of true skepticism. First, understanding that you can be wrong, in fact you will often be wrong, and all you can do is follow the best evidence that you have. It’s not about rejecting all evidence, or inaction from the constantly-moved goalposts of the fake skeptics. It’s about pragmatism, thoughtfulness, and above all humility towards the fact that none of us has all the answers. Second, it’s understanding not all evidence is created equal. Judging evidence and arguments requires training and preparation as recognizing high-quality evidence and rational argument is not easy. In fact, most people are woefully under-prepared by their education to do things like read and evaluate scientific papers or even to just judge scientific claims from media sources.

Thus I propose a new tactic. Let’s get Carl Sagan’s Baloney detection kit in every child’s hands by the time they’re ten. Hell, it should be part of the elementary school curriculum. Lets hand out books on skepticism like the Gideons hand out Bibles. Let’s inoculate people against the bullshit they’ll invariably contract by the time they’re adults. We can even do tests to see what type of skeptical inoculation works best at protecting people from anti-science. It’s a way forward to make some progress against the paranoid style, and the nonsense beliefs purveyed by all ideological extremes. There is no simple cure, but we can inoculate the young, and maybe control the spread of the existing disease.

17 thoughts on “What is at the root of denial? A Must Read from Chris Mooney in Mother Jones”

  1. Are there any good/great skeptical texts that are not under copywrite, or are owned by a group that would allow the distribution of the text for free? I think if there were, or a books cr could be purchased by an orginization like center for inquiry, passing a text out like the Gidions would actually be quite feasible. Imagine printing copies of demon hounted world for cost and putting them in every motel in Anerica!

  2. Great article. Could you maybe discuss “core beliefs” in another article? The term is not mentioned on the about page: http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/about/

    There are numerous definitions, explanations and lists of core beliefs on the web, although surprisingly, there is not a Wikipedia entry. I would be interested in reading your definition and explanations.

  3. Haunted* I don’t know what hount’s are or where in aNerica they would be! I can’t type very well on my phone!

  4. I agree with specific and ongoing training in skepticism. However something else that plays a role in disciplined thinking that tends to be overlooked or taken for granted is mindfulness–even though it’s essential to monitoring and evaluating your own ideas and opinions. Its practice can help internalize what otherwise might end up being yet another empty intellectual exercise, or worse, fodder for yet more junk skepticism.

    Look, you can hardly hit a button or turn a dial without being assailed by chorusses of mindless, hooting monkeys. At the very least it’s a powerfully destracting environment, and imo it’s downright poisonous to reasonable discourse.

  5. I think there’s a huge difference in being a holocaust denier and not accepting global warming. Everybody can go and review the documents, pictures and testimonies about the holocaust. To have that all faked it would take a conspiracy that puts the moon landings to shame.
    OTOH, there’s probably not a 100 people in the world that are sufficiently knowledgeable to review all the climate data and make an informed comment based on true understanding. The rest of us just believes that it’s happening, but have to trust someone else to know what they’re talking about. People might pick other people to believe based on ideological choices, but that’s not the same as denying verifiable facts as in holocaust denial.

  6. @mu

    The comparison based on ideology of the two groups is not apt. However, the methods used by global warming denialists are the same. Conspiracy theories, cherry-picking, fake experts, moving goalposts and logical fallacies, are the core elements of denialism and they are used by both groups. The fact that the evidence for global warming is more technical doesn’t make the conspiracy theory any less absurd as it would require the national academies of science of every nation of the world to be lying in concert with thousands of scientists, scientific journals, government officials. It’s just as absurd. That’s the part of the comparison that I would say is apt.

  7. @Mu

    there’s probably not a 100 people in the world that are sufficiently knowledgeable to review all the climate data and make an informed comment based on true understanding.

    There are thousands of active climate researchers.
    Reviewing all the data is impossible in every sufficiently advanced field. I guess climate science falls within this category.
    Everyone with some background in physics will easily get the idea that adding certain gases to the atmosphere possibly might result in significant warming.
    Simply not believing in a conspiracy of scientists from dozens of nations, of different political beliefs and religious confessions, and some confidence in the scientific process will lead to acceptance of AGW.

  8. the strongest predictor of being a climate change denier is having a libertarian, free market world view.

    They had to do a “study” to figure that one out? I pretty much just figure, at this point, that anyone apposed to anything that involves regulation, actual reality, and involved either imaginary, or real, costs to the market place, is, by default, libertarian (Or, Tea Party, but then, those are just libertarians who think that “God” will solve the problems, not the invisible hand-job of the market).

    But, yeah, liberals have their own nitwits, and its definitely driven by ideology too. Its just… right now at least, *everyone* on the other side of the line from liberals seems to be nothing except ideologs, with crazy assed ideas about what gods, markets, or the universe in general, actually works like, and, for a lot of them, there is quite literally nothing at all that can change their mind. Some of that I, frankly, blame on belief in religion too. But, not for the reason of believing in the god behind it, or what ever set of ideas some group think it stands for. No, rather, I blame the fact that they seem to imagine you can do the same thing with a scientific paper as they do with a bible, and just reword it, reinterpret the contents, and mangle the meaning, until it reflects their own vision of what it **should** mean, and then they can just, like everyone else, claim they got it right, and everyone else is wrong.

    There was an interesting blog post a few days back, commenting on, for example, how, if you go back to the earlier version, without a lot of edits, indexes, and tacked on explanations, when people call ‘hell’ now, was, starting from the earliest parts, forward – 1) Gehenna – the garbage dump, outside of the main city, which the bodies of the diseased where burned in, 2) Sheol – which, more or less, literally refers to the grave they place your body in, 3) Hades – A sort of limbo like place, where souls wait, until god gets around to doing something about them, and Tartarus – the place where sinning “angels” get sent, while, basically, waiting for their trial date. Hell never even makes an appearance in the Bible, at all, but you would be hard pressed to not find a single Christian church that doesn’t believe in it, and 20 different explanations of what it is, along with at least twice as many “explanations” as to which passages actually refer to it. When people think that this sort of, “Things mean what I want to them to, even when written down.”, is normal, its hardly a surprise that you get some of the insane idiocy you see, with people taking bits and pieces of science articles, and trying to claim those fragments also support libertarianism, creationism, trickle down economics, or … anti-GMO rhetoric.

    The problem isn’t people not having the information. Its the assumption that information is malleable, and you can ignore the bits you don’t like, as long as you can find enough bits that “support” what ever delusional crap you actually want to believe. And, some groups, like libertarians, are masters at this sort of bizarre thinking (and, many of them, even if not currently religious, once where, and still use the same sort of goofy logic on other subjects). But… as much as I hate to admit it, the left is probably even worse at such goofy logic, because they don’t just cherry pick the bits of faith they like, they try to glue every bit of it they can, even the ones that contradict each other (like, say atheistic Buddhism, pagen ritual, and semi-Christian Jesusy stuff), into a more or less consistent, if, from anyone who understand the contradictions, incoherent, faith. Its not just a case of rewriting some passages, tacking in explanations that ignore context, or shoving all the bits they don’t agree with under a carpet, and going, “Uh, where does it say that? I don’t see it”, but twisting multiple, and often mutually exclusive, ideas, into a big pretzel, and claiming its all the same thing.

    Its hardly a surprise such a person would believe in vitamins, aspirin, and, say, band aids, but, at the same time, be scared to death of GMO, and consult a chiropractor for back pain, probably while wishing they could find one that included aroma therapy. Sigh…

  9. Meh, Dyson is stale, old news to those who actually bother to inform themselves on climate. A simple search reveals how he’s been well picked over in numerous places including, of course, Real Climate and Climateprogress.

    Mooney already wrote about him here:

    He’s also listed in Sourcewatch, but Skeptical Science is most succinct:

    Peer-reviewed skeptic papers by Freeman Dyson

  10. The reason I don’t believe in the man-made climate change hoax is because every other similar such mind-invention has proven to also be a scam.

    When I was growing up, first it was “The Rain Forests! The Rain Forests! We must save the rain forests, or we’re all going to die!”

    Then it was “The Ozone Hole! We’re all going to be crispy critters!”

    Once in a blue moon you will still hear someone bring up these old topics, but by and large they ran their course, people realized it didn’t and never would make a difference in their lives, and so they have to invent a new scam.

    Unfortunately, with a constant new pool of people to fool, ( Immigration, babies being born etc. ) there is a never-ending supply of moldable minds to brainwash. Yes, I fell for these scams myself, until I lived long enough to see the pattern.

    Even the newest scam keeps having to be tweaked, first it was called “Global Warming,” problem was every time they held a conference they were greeted with two feet of snow and cold temperatures, so they changed the name to “Climate change.”

    The scientists that tell the truth are let go and their research monies are cut off. They have to justify their existence, and so many of them will come up with “junk-science” to keep their jobs and the money rolling in.

  11. “Even the newest scam keeps having to be tweaked, first it was called “Global Warming,” problem was every time they held a conference they were greeted with two feet of snow and cold temperatures, so they changed the name to “Climate change.””

    the IPCC has been called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ever since its founding, way back in 1988. in the scientific literature, it’s been in common usage as far back as the 50s: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2153-3490.1956.tb01206.x/abstract

    “The scientists that tell the truth are let go and their research monies are cut off. They have to justify their existence, and so many of them will come up with “junk-science” to keep their jobs and the money rolling in.”

    if i were a scientist in search of easy money, i think i’d consider one of the many lucrative jobs in finance or industry (like so many others have) before trying to persuade tens of thousands of my colleagues to set up a convoluted, decades-long conspiracy, just to secure our existing meagre salaries. but hey, maybe that’s just me.

    and concern about rainforest deforestation and the ozone hole haven’t abated: it’s more that the media no longer seem to consider them excitingly novel.

  12. Wow, the ozone layer is, if anything, an example of an environmental success. With the universal adoption of the Montreal protocol the production of halogenated agents that deplete the ozone layer has virtually ceased and there has been a measurable decrease in the rate of ozone depletion. Given the CFCs have a lifetime in the atmosphere on the order of 50-100 years, one would not expect a reversal, but a measurable impact has been discerned and it’s thought recovery will take the rest of this century. What a terrible example of a scientific scam.

    Then you go into the grant conspiracy, do you really think that scientists fabricate this data for grants? Do you realize that is just conspiratorial nonsense? Do you know any scientists? Have you ever worked in a scientific field producing research?

    When actual scientists hear this stuff it’s astounding. It’s so absurd that people believe this nonsense and shows such profound ignorance of how we fund and perform R&D that I wonder if there’s any hope for this place.

  13. The libertarian thing again? Check out some Shane Killian and others like him. The OVERWHELMING amount of people that i know are denialists (yeah it’s an anecdote) are as liberal as they come. Anti vax , GMO-scare, homeopathy-loving lefties. More Natural News articles than you can shake a stick at.

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