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The How and Why of Denialism

From evolution to vaccinations to global warming, something I encounter on a regular basis while researching articles for this blog is denialism, rejecting the scientific evidence in favor of an alternative… an alternative which could be anything from pure woo to scientific-sounding arguments: “Just have faith” to “irreducible complexity.” Denialism is something that invariably causes a collective sigh an eye roll from the skeptic community because logical and fact-based responses seem to have no effect on denialists.

An article from the European Journal of Public Health defines denialism as “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.” The article goes on to identify five common characteristics of denialism. I’ve seen all of these “in the wild,” but items one through three are the ones I see most often.

These five characteristics were summarized by Debora MacKenzie in a New Scientist opinion piece titled Living in denial: Why sensible people reject the truth and are as follows:

  1. Allege that there’s a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
  2. Use fake experts to support your story. “Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility,” says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
  3. Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
  4. Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
  5. Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.

MacKenzie also adds a sixth characteristic.

Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.

In the New Scientist piece, MacKenzie looks at the “why” of denialism.

This depressing tale [about swine flu] is the latest incarnation of denialism, the systematic rejection of a body of science in favour of make-believe. There’s a lot of it about, attacking evolution, global warming, tobacco research, HIV, vaccines – and now, it seems, flu. But why does it happen? What motivates people to retreat from the real world into denial?

Her approach uses a softer glove than many skeptics use, avoiding outright condemnation of deniers but instead making an attempt to understand how denialism spreads: identifying common characteristics, tactics (above), causes, motives, and possible solutions.

The most notable common characteristic that MacKenzie defines is this.

All [denialists] set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people.

I can anecdotally confirm that statement, both in my personal life and in my readings.

Where MacKenzie goes after that is to a hypothesis that what really triggers denialism is a sense of loss of control… a hypothesis that seems a good fit to the major denialist issues.

It is this sense of loss of control that really matters. In such situations, many people prefer to reject expert evidence in favour of alternative explanations that promise to hand control back to them, even if those explanations are not supported by evidence

All denialisms appear to be attempts like this to regain a sense of agency over uncaring nature: blaming autism on vaccines rather than an unknown natural cause, insisting that humans were made by divine plan, rejecting the idea that actions we thought were okay, such as smoking and burning coal, have turned out to be dangerous.

She goes on to explain that this position is not necessarily malicious or anti-science. They simply require a human reaction.

It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts. Denialist explanations may be couched in sciency language, but they rest on anecdotal evidence and the emotional appeal of regaining control.

The origins of denialist claims are another matter, and MacKenzie talks about how many of the more prominent claims (tobacco, global warming) got their start with corporate backing, how deniers tend to attract other deniers, and how claims become politically and religiously charged.

The European Journal of Public Health article isn’t as philosophical in its analysis of denialist motivations, but hits home nonetheless.

Denialists are driven by a range of motivations. For some it is greed, lured by the corporate largesse of the oil and tobacco industries. For others it is ideology or faith, causing them to reject anything incompatible with their fundamental beliefs. Finally there is eccentricity and idiosyncrasy, sometimes encouraged by the celebrity status conferred on the maverick by the media.

Whatever the motivations (personal, political, financial, etc), the one thing that remains true among denialist claims is their distortion (or complete rejection) of the truth. For many issues, such as vaccinations and global warming, denialism has caused and will cause lives to be lost. For others, such as the rejection of evolution, their positions simply contribute to the “dumbing down” of America.

The frustration of dealing with most deniers is the almost impenetrable armor of ignorance they wear which deflects attempts at presenting actual evidence, be it factual or logical. They counter by trotting out any of the tactics listed at the beginning of this article, selecting the one that best fits the topic at hand. Cherry pick this evidence. Trot out this fake expert. Rage about this conspiracy theory.

When all else fails, bring up Hitler.

(h/t)

Rachel calls bull-pucky

Phil Plait is a Rachel Maddow fanboi and I can’t say I blame him. Though Rachel is fallible and has made mistakes before, more often than not, she hits the proverbial nail on the head, so when she gave her commentary on Climategate, the ACORN “scandal,” and other right-wing, anti-reality nonsense, Phil couldn’t resist linking to her video (and commenting on it…worth a read)… and I couldn’t resist watching it.

Another dead-on hammer-strike.

Phil rightly comments that the far right doesn’t have the copyright on nonsense, but the Republican “unholy alliance” it has formed with fundamentalist religion has led it to its pervasive anti-reality stance.

He concludes with this…

Global warming is real. Evolution is real. Vaccines do not cause autism. Homeopathy doesn’t work. These are facts, and they don’t care whether or not denialists spin, fold, and mutilate them. Until we face up to reality, however, they will spin, fold, and mutilate us.

I’ll drink to that.

Long Term Evidence for Vaccines

Newsweek has an article today titled The Long Term Evidence for Vaccines and it does a great job showing just how important vaccinations are and how vaccinations provide invaluable benefits to children.

The article starts out on a depressing (and infuriating) note…

Throughout North America and Europe, an anti-vaccination movement has steadily grown over the past two decades, and was recently jet-propelled amid anxiety over immunizing pregnant women and children against the H1N1 “swine flu.” The greatest fall-off in child vaccination, and the strongest proponents of various theoretical dangers associated with vaccines, are all rooted in wealthy, mostly Caucasian communities, located in the rich world. At a time when billions of people living in poorer countries are clamoring for equitable access to life-sparing drugs and vaccines for their families, the college-educated classes of the United States and other rich countries are saying “no thanks,” even accusing their governments of “forcing” them to give “poison” to their children.

…but goes on to lay out the evidence regarding the importance of both childhood vaccinations and vaccinations for pregnant women (for the benefit of the unborn child).

Other vaccine-preventable diseases—measles, rubella, mumps, chickenpox, and whooping cough—can damage the optic nerves and hearing of fetuses and newborns. The effect in these cases is immediate and obvious. In the pre-vaccine era in the United States, a thousand kids lost their hearing every year due to measles infection, five out of every 10,000 children who contracted mumps suffered permanent deafness, and 10 percent of child deafness was due to rubella (a.k.a. German measles).

And today, in countries with spotty child-immunization achievements—including the United Kingdom—viral infection in utero or in infancy accounts for 10 to 25 percent of child deafness.

There’s plenty more information in the article and it’s definitely worth a read, especially for those who may be unsure about whether to vaccinate their children and need some convincing.

What happens when people choose not to protect their children with the appropriate vaccinations (or choose not to get vaccinations themselves)? We lose the “herd immunity” protection that helps keep potentially deadly diseases from affecting those who cannot get the vaccines due to age or health reasons. Refusing vaccinations for communicable illnesses (measles, mumps, rubella, polio, pertussis, flu, etc) is not only irresponsible, it’s potentially deadly and puts the general population at risk for illnesses that were all but nonexistent in developed countries… before the anti-vaxxers started their campaign of misinformation.

The article elaborates…

The unimmunized few are a threat to all, as they may harbor viruses and pass them onto others whose vaccine-induced immunity is waning due to HIV, cancer, or simply the passing of time. Conversely, failing to be immunized in childhood renders young adults vulnerable to infectious diseases that they may not encounter until they go off to college or travel outside of their home regions.

Vaccines are one of the most effective and important scientific advances in medical history. They have saved countless lives and continue to protect our population from potentially deadly or debilitating diseases. Due to the misinformation that is frequently spread regarding vaccines, however, the frequency of childhood vaccinations has been declining, threatening not only the health of the children, but our herd immunity that is so desperately needed to protect those with compromised or weak immune systems.

The article concludes with this

Yes, the proper adjective [for vaccines] is “precious”: miracles of science that, combined with smallpox immunization, saved more lives during the 20th century than were lost in all the wars, all the genocides, and all the epidemics of that hundred years. When a baby in an African village dies of measles, or a schoolchild in China succumbs to typhoid fever, none can question how precious that lost life was, or how vital a difference a vaccine could have made.

Get your children (and yourself) vaccinated.

Are vaccinations a satanic tool?

Wow. Daniel Florien at Unreasonable Faith relates an experience he had recently with someone who is an anti-vaxxer for a reason that he (and I) hadn’t heard before. Normally, I’ll hear arguments that vaccines contain deadly toxins or that they don’t work or that the government is trying to get us used to doing what they say (!!!). The reason that Daniel heard is…

They’re using the vaccines to introduce microchips into the population — these chips are the mark of the beast. They’ll use them to track us and eventually we won’t be able to buy or sell without these chips, just like the Bible says. Don’t get the vaccines!

Wow. Just add this to the giant trash bin of absurd reasons to avoid protecting your children.

Go check out his post for the rest of the story.

Goodbye, Smallpox! Thanks, Science!

Today is the 32nd anniversary of the elimination of smallpox, according to Wikipedia. How was it eliminated?

Vaccines.

That’s medical science at its best… not “alternative” medicine, not homeopathy, not prayer, not the “Will of God.” Science. Real people doing real research to develop real solutions to real problems.

Nothing works like science.

Phil Plait says it better than I could (as usual).