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.

Keep science exciting – don’t deny possibilities!


Image from:


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.


6 comments so far

  1. crystal on

    Great post Yvette. I strongly agree with what you mentioned about how scientists should not ignore the role of culture and so on. Likewise, I didn’t like how Diethelm and McKee labelled Christians as “denialists” because if we all think about it, the term “denialists” can be thrown back at them. Diethelm and McKee, they too are denying that religon, culture and so on exist and that it is only human to have such strong beliefs into something. After all, everyone holds their own prospective and beliefs on things, and by being biased as to put such a label onto an individual isn’t something which I feel that scientist should ever do or say. Like you mentioned, science is a dynamic discipline, something new can be discovered, what if something linked to religon or a certain culture is scienticfically found along the way? Over the years, there has been some studies that have found that religon is something that does exist! So with such findings, who are these “denialist” scientists to say that science is everything, and only science exist? That’s just a very biased stand which I feel that every professional scientist should think about carefully, before mentioning anything without any evidence, hence denying the possibilities!

    • yveee on

      Thank you Crystal for your comment. Yes, thinking critically and being respectful are important characteristics of a good scientist 🙂

  2. ankevaneekelen on

    I can’t agree more with Crystal, indeed a great post! I would like to expand a little more on the last paragraph of the blog and come up with an example that may illustrate that denialism in medical science is not without consequences and can affect the lives of fatally ill people.

    A fairly recent example is the discovery of neural stem cells in the mature brain. Up to probably a little more than decade ago, the dogma was that the adult brain could not repair itself or regenerate. Nowadays, the experts’ view on this topic has changed dramatically. But acceptance of the new concept was a bumpy road and may still need more time. Some scientists have shown signs of denialism towards the ground breaking discovery. Luckily others, who remained critical for a long time, actually helped to shape the new concept better. This way research in this field progressed and now includes work that seems to form the basis for new clinical applications of neural stem cells in patients. The best example is probably Parkinson disease, where patients loose important brain cells that are responsible for controlled movements. Some scientists believe they are close to being able to replace these lost cells with new neural stem cells, which can grow and develop and take over the function that was lost.

    Being critical or sceptical with an open mind may actually trigger more research to test the new knowledge well. Although there seem to be limits to how much the brain can regrow, the fact that some regrowth is possible has opened up opportunities in the medical field. Denialism, on the other hand seems a dead end road to me.

    Anke van Eekelen

    • yveee on

      Thank you Anke for sharing that example! I think it really encourages us as scientists to keep investigating, and highlights the importance of perseverance in research. Imagine if scientists decided that there will never be a cure for a certain disease, or if we gave up trying to find ways to conserve biodiversity. The world would be a very hopeless place indeed.

  3. Christine on

    Hi Yvette,

    As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think that their stance against denialists was a little harsh. Isn’t communication about being open to the opinions of others (even tobacco companies) and giving everyone a chance to voice their opinions, varied as they are?

    We risk communicators have to then strategise in putting the facts in front of our opponents (or people we reject the evidence) even if they can back up their own viewpoints with supported evidence, and then presenting it to the general public. My point is that engaging in a dialogue or debate surrounding the issue and then reviewing all the views at hand, is much better than outright rejecting all viewpoints because clearly, that is the opposite of what risk communication is about.

    Ultimately and more importantly, it is up to the general public and other audiences to make their own decision and discover the consequences of their decisions – both good and bad. In the case of cigarette smoking, most people know that smoking is harmful – I haven’t met a smoker who says smoking is fine and is healthy. It is an addiction that they struggle with, not a false knowledge of the health benefits of smoking. So I think the article was missing a very vital player in the field of risk communication – the general public who should be our top priority.

    • yveee on

      Thanks for your comment Christine.

      I do think dialogue is a skill science communicators need to build. It was actually quite a paradigm shift for me to hear it for the first time in the lectures – that communication wasn’t just talking, but also listening. I came into the science communication course thinking I would be learning how to tell people about science and how to present information. However, I had forgotten this very fundamental principle – we have 2 ears and 1 mouth, as Nancy said in the last lecture. I need to learn to listen as much as I learn to talk about science in order to be an effective communicator.

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