Friday, 2 August 2013

A short history of denial

I'm sunning my weary, pale self in sunny Italy at the moment. Yesterday was Pompeii and it was scorching hot, 38C I was told. More than enough for me. No doubt someone will ascribe the recent heat wave here to global warming. The deniers will say, in slightly different words, one swallow does not make a summer. Until, that is, it gets a bit chilly when the deniers will claim that global warming has been disproved. QED.

Denialism comes in lots of flavours and each one aims to undermine its chosen field, often with a political or financial motive. Many climate deniers seem more interested in taxation than melting ice caps. For them it is the take over of the planet by some shady and ill defined world government that is the problem. Look for a conspiracy and usually you can find one. Actually, you don't need to look beyond a denier's nose because the script that most denier memes use is the one that has been used for decades.

First, undermine the science by doubting it or claiming there is a debate amongst scientists where there really isn't one. Those of us old enough to remember the days when creationists would pick up on the debate about punctuated equilibrium as a description of evolutionary change and magnify it into "scientists argue about evolution" are probably bored by seeing the same old thing pop up on more recent denier sites. If those creationists bothered to read what Eldrede and Gould were saying in support o their PE idea, they would have seen that there was no debate in evolution. In a phrase that is insultingly flung about by climate change deniers, the science is settled. At least to the extent that science is ever settled.

The play is simple. If scientists are unsure about something, then why should the rest of the public believe it? Problem is, the creation of false doubt is disingenuous. Scientists studying the field under denial don't usually doubt the big picture although they may disagree about the small details. The so called Dawkins-Gould debate wasn't about natural selection. That science was settled by the Second World War.

Talking of simple, deniers like to make the debate as simple as possible. If they can, they will make it a simple straightforward dichotomy. Either what the scientists say is true or what we say is true, is their aim. Creationists have worked on that aim for years. Either evolution gave us the huge variety of life or it was God, specifically the Christian one. Of course that is too simplistic, because there are a great many other creation stories and myths that could equally be true, but like Find The Lady, creationists don't let you choose which theory you want. They will give it to you.

Or deniers make it complicated. By taking on the trappings of science you can be as complicated as you like, since the average person is likely to be impressed by your erudition and your science. Most people don't have the maths to check formulas presented so they have no real way of finding out if what the denier says is true. This is part of the find the lady idea - make the game incomprehensible to most people and they have to rely on the bits that the average person can understand. This happens a lot at WattsUpWithThat, when complicated graphs are presented along with editorialising explanations that leave you in no doubt what you are supposed to think.

Playing with numbers, cherry picking data, graphs and the like, is an important denier game. The recent measles outbreak in Swansea was accompanied by anti-vaxxers playing with numbers.  Numerate folk demolished the denier maths but for the deniers the doubt is enough. One more person lacking the maths skills to understand the fallacy who starts to think perhaps the science might be wrong beginning to doubt is the aim.

But anti-vaxxers have another weapon. Fear. They can create fear that your child could be injured by the vaccinations. Their arguments are based in some reality but exaggerated beyond reason to create a fear that is unnecessary. Once again maths comes into it, but the argument is based on assuming most people are ignorant, not only of the science but also how to search the Internet. Page one of your Google results is not the only page you have to look at.

Anti vaxxers have had two centuries of denial to get their arguments well polished. But you cannot shine a turd, as they say. The arguments against Jenner began as soon a Jenner made his vaccination method public. Darwin ran into denialism almost as soon he published On The Origin Of Species. There have been relativity deniers, quantum deniers, cancer deniers, species deniers even. Some are part of the proper scientific debate, others are well outside it, looking in but trying to mislead the rest of the public. When deniers simplify the science they do it the disservice of undermining it by characturing it. Science is complicated and difficult to understand. Deniers don't underestimate the ignorance of their core audience - they ensure that their audience doesn't have to understand any science because they will tell you how to think. Deniers don't like that. Heaven forbid that their audience thinks for themselves. The bottom line is that science deniers have been around for many decades and they will always be with us. It is human nature to agree n a sort of tribal level and disagree with virtually everything else. In our modern world we belong to many tribes. Think posters, sports teams, authors, tv shows. We will defend our favourites and decry the others. But science has been so powerful (think of all those subjects that try to take on the trappings of science) because it has the checks and balances that allow the tribalism to be minimised. The behaviour of the deniers is not always that of scientists. In a perfect world, everyone would be Mr Spock, logical, cold and science based - not. I wouldn't want that world. Scientists are human are prone to the temptations that humans are prone to. They defend their corners and act badly at times and when they do they get found out if the evidence goes against them and their ideas. In science, after all, evidence is all. Wel, back to sun cream and lasagne duties. Someone has to sample them all.


  1. > That science was settled by the Second World War

    But that's horrible! To think nations would go to war to settle a scientific argument...

    1. Too much Sun and typing on an iPad made for very clumsy language. Like the comment by the way.

  2. The cause of the warming and a simple equation that calculates it are revealed at

    Recent reported average global temperatures are shown at

    1. Thank you for your link. I shall read it carefully before I make any comment.

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