Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?


See Wikipedia’s well referenced page on denialism: here


Diethelm and McKee quote the Hoofnagle brothers in defining denialism as the ’employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate when there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists.’ (Diethelm & McKee, 2009) In this article, it is the  authors’ hope that by identify and giving examples of the 5 characteristic elements that denialism employs, the reader can recognize and confront denialism when faced with it in the future.

Denialism is a process that employs some or all of five characteristic elements in a concerted way.

1)”The first is the identification of conspiracies.”

It is insinuated that the community did not study the evidence independently and arrive at the same conclusion. Instead, the consensus is a result of a complex and secretive conspiracy at work. Identification of conspiracies aims to frame the debate and shed doubt on established consensus.

2)”The second is the use of fake experts.”

Paying experts in the field or a related field to lend support and credibility to their argument or selecting experts whose view coincide with theirs even though their views may be inconsistent with established knowledge.This is often complemented by denigration or defamation of the extablished experts and researchers to discredit their work and cast doubt on their motivations.

3)”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.”

Also known as cherry picking, papers that support their views are brought into the debate while weaker papers that oppose their view are attacked. Doing this ignores the other research and papers that may not be in their favour. It is a kind of fallacy of selective attention.

4)”The fourth is the creation of impossible expectations of what research can deliver.”

By focusing and drawing attention to the limitations of science and research and asking for impossible things, it discredits the scientific consensus, ignoring the data and knowledge accumulated thus far. This can take place as moving the goalpost. ‘Evidence presented in response to a specific claim is dismissed and some other (often greater) evidence is demanded. In other words, after a goal has been scored, the goalposts are moved farther to discount the attempt.’

5)”The fifth is the use of misrepresentation and logical fallacies.”

Logical fallacies such as ‘straw men’ are employed. By misrepresenting the opponent’s claim with a similar yet unequivalent claim which is easier to refute, the illusion of refuting the original position is created.

Critical Analysis

The paper provides insight into many of the widely debated topics in the media today. I think the paper achieves what Diethelm and McKee hoped, by identifying denialism when it is at work, it allows us better critical understanding of debates as well as the motivations of the debaters.

Also, the paper is useful should we find ourselves locked in a debate sitting on the opposite side of a fence from deniers. By having clearer understanding of the elements they would employ, perhaps we can arm ourselves better against attempts to discredit and refute us.

One thing of note about the people who engage in denialism is that their minds are already made up. Instead of having open minds and not jumping to a conclusion before studying all the evidence, listening to all parties and considering all possibilities which is hallmark of the scientific discourse, they will stick stubbornly to their views in spite of the consensus. This also makes it sometimes impossible to engage in a meaningful discourse with them.

Denialism makes heavy use of rheotoric, framing, misdirection, heuristics and logical fallacies to further their objectives.  The paper by Diethelm and McKee makes a very interesting and thought provoking read and provides insight into communication strategies for political, scientific, religious, moral and environmental debates.

Question for the reader

What are some examples of denialism that you have come across recently? ‘Ponding‘ comes to mind. Definite misrepresentation there.

Further reading

Logical fallacies make for a very interesting read,  so does this book.


Diethelm P., and M. McKee. (2009). Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond? European Journal of Public Health, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2–4. Available at:



1 comment so far

  1. leothg on

    This is indeed an interesting post of ‘Denialism’, especially more contradicting in this 21st century we are living in. Interestingly enough, my word document underlines the word ‘Denialism’ in red which adds into the depth of the topic that this form of behavior, is out of the common senses and was form because of human behaviors.

    I believe this theory of ‘Denialism’ exist anywhere and everywhere in the society we are in. Anyone can deny, and willfully decline any statements made that are not in their favor or dictionary.

    One example i can relate this is the recent incident that happens in my office. One contractor claims that the agreement that we signed with him stated that we need to inform our closing of deal three months before the stated date, but however when the office checked, it was only 60 days. In addition that agreement was not signed by either parties in the company’s database. However, the contractor pester the fact that it is our fault and we should renew our contract with him for another one year. When we asked him to send a copy of his agreement, he does not want to send it. This questions the credibility of his claims, however due to the act of impulse, he remove one of the company’s website on his server without the company’s consent.

    The above example just happened a couple of days ago, and right now my colleagues are still trying to fix this as it is related to the government sector.

    But anyway, sometimes it really question the credibility of one’s claim when they stubbornly decide or believe what they choose to believe, and wistfully put out their own supporting documents to support their own claims.

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