Denialism does not start with D! (Although, in another language, this could be true.)
By Yvette Leong
In Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, John Worthing is confronted by his fiancée Gwendolen regarding his real name (he has been till this moment masquerading as ‘Ernest’). His reply?
“I could deny it if I liked. I could deny anything if I liked. But my name certainly is John. It has been John for years.” (Act II, Part 2)
Human beings seem to have an unfortunate knack for denying things that are true, or could likely be true. Denialism may be motivated by greed, fear, philosophy, beliefs and values, or even a person’s quirkiness of thought. But what is denialism? Is it simply ignoring facts or lying? Diethelm and McKee, in their Viewpoint article, used the following definition:
“…the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists.” (p. 2, emphases mine)
The danger of such a manipulative and negative attitude towards scientific knowledge can be demonstrated by the public health examples given by Diethelm and McKee. HIV causes AIDS – this is well established on the basis of scientific evidence. However, the South African government under Mbeki denied this causative relationship, to the detriment of thousands of people who were HIV-positive, and their children.
As such, Diethelm and McKee propose that scientists should be able to recognize the tactics used by denialists and respond appropriately (by uncovering these tactics in the eyes of the public). Five tactics of denialism were identified
1) Creation of conspiracy
2) Use of fake experts
3) Selectivity of information sources
4) Creation of impossible expectations of the capabilities of research
5) Use of misinterpretation and myths
The authors conclude that scientists should be aware and wary of denialism. Scientists should also address attitudes rather than the subject under debate (since under their working definition, no debate exists). While I fully agree with these, I cannot help feeling that Diethelm and McKee have presented a rather biased view. The authors give the impression that ideas can be either fact or fiction, and give no room for being open to the values and attitudes of others. Their tone is almost condescending when describing the beliefs of Christians with regards to the creation of the world. As scientists, we cannot ignore (indeed, deny!) the role of culture, tradition, and faith in human societies – labelling people as “denialists” just because they subscribe to a particular worldview is disrespectful and serves only to fuel the negative feelings these people may have towards science. This in turn hinders important, even life-saving, communication. As the title of this post suggests, an idea from one place may mean something completely different (and therefore perceived as threatening or ridiculous) to someone in another part of the world. Good scientists would not dismiss these views, but with professionalism and empathy, put these views through proper tests.
We would also do well to remember that science is a dynamic discipline. Even if there is scientific consensus and a treasure-trove of hard evidence now, something may be discovered along the way that modifies or even completely changes our knowledge of the subject. There are countless examples of this, from the classification of life forms to medical discoveries – this is what makes science exciting! To close our minds to other possibilities is to deny the very basis of scientific inquiry, which I hope we will never do.
Diethelm, P & McKee, M 2009, ‘Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?’, European Journal of Public Health, vol. 19, no. 1, 2–4, pp. 2-4.