Six aspects of denial: the common strategies of anti-science movements

How to win arguments against those scientists

I’ve recently been reading “The Making of the Fittest” by biologist Sean B. Carroll, a fascinating book on the evidence that DNA provides for evolution. For anyone with an interest in science it’s well worth a read.

However, chapter 9 really caught my attention. Titled “Seeing is believing” it details how opponents of science frame their arguments in an attempt to dismiss evidence that contradicts their world view.

Carroll discusses in-depth how the anti-vaccination movement and chiropractors use similar strategies in order to challenge the medical professions consensus on the efficacy of vaccines and the fact that there is no good evidence for the effectiveness of chiropractic treatments. Each movement in their own way wages a “war” against the scientific establishment in order to protect their own ideological position.

He uses these examples as a perfect point of comparisons for the creationist movement.

And so, inspired by Carroll I’ll be introducing a new feature to this blog.

New framework for categorisation: six aspects of denial

I call these strategies the “Six Aspects of Denial”.

These are the most common non-scientific objections to the science of climate change. Actually, I will be so bold as to say these six “aspects” are pretty the only arguments the denial movement has: there is no science that supports their position.

I’ll be this framework to “tag” or categorise the type of arguments used by the denial movement in all future posts. At the end of each post I’ll nominate which aspect of denial I note, and offer a brief explanation. In this I’ll be taking a leaf from the wonderful work that John Cook has done at Skeptical Science. I’m hoping such a framework helps people identify the type of arguments used by the denial movement.

I hope this framework helps people understands the flawed logic behind many of the arguments used by the denial movement.

Six aspects of denial

  1. Doubt the science – This is the standard tactic of all denial movements. Creationists attack evolution and geology as they contradict the belief a god/s created the world just under 10,000 years ago. Alternative health practitioners claim the science that demonstrates the lack of effectiveness of their treatments is at fault. On web sites, in books and on in internet forums they attack the science by cherry picking data, misrepresenting research or making bogus claims.
  2. Question the motives and integrity of scientists – This is the favourite tactic of the climate change denial movement. They claim the scientists are engaged in fraud, or are being pressured by governments to make up the results. They make up vast conspiracy theories in order to cast aspersions on the motives of climate scientists, physicists and biologists whose work confirms the reality of climate change. They use the “follow the money” argument, stating scientists are making up climate change in order to get research funding. All them are simply ad hominem attacks: playing the man.
  3. Magnify disagreements among scientists and cite gadflies – Again, one of the favourite tactics of the denial movement. The tiny percentage of actual scientists who express scepticism (Plimer, Lindzen) are dwarfed by the thousands of scientists who agree with the consensus that climate change is happening. But the denial movement exploits the media’s tendency to present “both sides” of the argument and thus help perpetrate the myth scientists are still debating climate change, when in fact there is near unanimous agreement.
  4. Exaggerate potential harm – This normally takes the form of “harm” the economy if the government intervenes. This is why opposition to cap-and-trade (or emissions trading schemes) are anathema to some parts of the denial movement. They also claim a climate change is an excuse to usher in a “world government” into existence. The denial movement plays up to these fears, playing on the anxiety that they will lose their freedoms (see below).
  5. Appeal to personal freedom – One of the great fears of the denial movements a loss freedom. Whether economic or political, they have a paranoid fear that someone (government, scientists, greens, politicians) are going to restrict their right to unlimited consumption or their freedom of speech. But reality is not a democracy. We don’t get to choose the truth about climate change, just as a popular debate about evolution decides the scientific evidence. The denial movement loves to frame this as a “debate” when none exists, claiming they have a right to doubt the science. Of course they do. But it does not mean they are correct.
  6. Acceptance repudiates key philosophy – For libertarians and free market advocates, climate change is a direct challenge to their assumption of unlimited growth. Any response to climate change will involve government intervention and global governance structures (such as a binding treaty to limit CO2 emissions). To such ideologues, it is axiomatic that such responses are “bad”. And yet the “market” can’t fix climate. Caught between having to accepting the science and what it entails and rejecting it in favour of their faith in the market, they reject the science. The same could be said of religious conservatives: like evolution, climate change is a direct challenge to the idea that a god/s has a governance role and is directly responsibly for managing the day-to-day affairs of the world. That a god/s would let climate change happen and not intervene is deeply challenging to the idea that a) they would allow such “evil” and b) the god/s is omnipotent.

14 thoughts on “Six aspects of denial: the common strategies of anti-science movements

  1. Nice write up! Would you be ok if I refer to this in the future in relation certain arguments I come across?
    The last three I’ve been more involved with over recent years (that is, before allowing myself to get into a silly debate with a denier). What’s always interested me is how whenever a political party puts forth an idea, the natural response from the opposition is always point 4. No matter what it is, change will cost money and lives… when will this become cliché? By the time the opposition is found to be wrong, they’ve already moved onto the next killer of people and economy. The most recent here I guess is the debate over the mining super tax. Personally I hope we don’t get too bogged down in the belief that we should be a mining country.
    I think both my studies in ecology and work I used to be involved in state government makes me a little irate at point 5. Endless growth just doesn’t sustain in any system. You said it well; reality is not a democracy. Well informed governance is required and is poorly displayed in current examples (from what I learnt in the SA gov when I worked there I lost a lot of respect for our potential to manage natural resources and hold big polluters responsible for their actions).

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      I’d be flattered if you used any part of this mate 🙂

      The science is settled, the question many people struggle with is it’s implications. Denial is the attempt to wave away those tough questions and hope someone else has to deal with them.

      It’s also FUD. Fear, uncertainty and doubt. Sew these and you stall debate. This is the real objective of the denial movement IMHO.

  2. Exactly; didn’t these denier’s have mothers that taught them that sweeping it under the carpet doesn’t solve the problem?
    I often make that point when I get into an argument with others; not only is the science overwhelming, almost any primary producer who lives on the land or reaps from the ocean will tell you what seems blatantly obvious – endless growth is taking it’s toll and ecosystems and landscapes are not what they were. The world is changing and the science only puts colloquial knowledge into a meaningful framework. I’m happy for them to debate over the political ramifications and changes to practices (in fact I’ve spent a fair amount in this arena and many of the innovative thoughts that arise are really interesting), but there is no major debate over the science (only if we have years or decades before certain levels are reached). To continue this argument that there is no consensus over AGW and other fossil fuel related impacts exposes itself as sheer ignorance and denial.
    Sometimes I wish I was a journo and could cover what I’ve seen on the many impacts mindless-growth philosophies have caused.

  3. A brilliant example popped up demotivational posters;
    It’s almost like that Moron book I once read: Evolution or Creation? How did we get here?

  4. DaveMcRae says:

    Thanks for this post. I am fascinated/appalled by denier psychology – what makes person think science is rubbish, evolution isn’t responsible for anti-bacterial resistance, or HIV causes AIDS, the existence of concentration camps, the Stolen Generations, tobacco, CO2 is a heat trapping gas and on the list goes.

    I was hoping to get around to do a post on John Mashey, a frequenter of many good blogs with very good comments. He doesn’t have his own blog unfortunately, but is a welcome poster to many. Anyway I did like this old post of his climatology denialists

  5. TomG says:

    “But reality is not a democracy.”

  6. manuelg says:

    Great stuff as usual. I am so happy you are doing this important work, and doing it so well and so thoroughly.

    I wrote up my own observations about the difference between skeptics and deniers, based on a comment I left on this very blog.

    And Michael Tobis summarized one of my rambling posts “The Art of Controversy: Denialist Rules of Engagement”

    What I like best about your six aspects of denial is that it succinctly summarizes the techniques and motivations of the deniers. I think it is a great framework for organizing the denialist writings that you highlight in this blog.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Thanks for commnets, I will stress I’ve adopted these aspects from Sean B. Carroll, a writer and biologist I greatly admire. I think they are a useful tool for catergorsing the types of arguments/strategies commonly used by anti-science movements. Also, thanks for links Manualg, well worth a look.

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  8. That is really some great analysis, and I went to buy Carrol’s book but it’s not available yet for kindle/iPad. AAARRRGH!

    Added your blog to my google reader and gave you a tweet as well. Well done!

  9. Paul Gross, CCM, CBM says:

    Excellent analysis. Those of us who are meteorologists and climatologists know the scientific facts, and we also know that most of the world’s climate research community is in lockstep agreement about our planet’s unusual warming and the (mostly) anthropogenic cause. Interestingly, virtually every skeptic who initiates conversation or correspondence with me is NOT a scientist, whereas most scientists I am in contact with agree with the worldwide scientific consensus. That in itself says a lot.

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