The Denialism Frame

An inadequately testable and inappropriate framing.

Well this post is extremely late, it was up at Climate Etc back in April 2016 but I never got around to mirroring it here. Better late than never, I guess. See ‘update’ section at the end for 2 minor tweaks, and link to Footnotes file. Climate Etc link:

  1. Introduction

Geoff Chambers commenting recently in a Cliscep Post reminded me of the paper ‘Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?’ by Diethelm and McKee (D&M2009). Chambers calls this paper ‘the standard scientific work on Denialism’, and rightly so I think. Certainly the paper is quoted or referenced in support of many works1. Its principles also form the core of the wiki page for Denialism. Though the word ‘denialism’ existed prior to D&M2009, the paper appears to have contributed to increasing usage4 along with academic legitimization. I found no in-depth analysis of the popular framing of ‘denialism’ as promoted by D&M2009, despite its impact on several domains and not least that of climate change. So my own analysis follows.

  1. Criteria for recognizing ‘denialism’

As noted the wiki page for Denialism references D&M2009, in support of the assertion that denialism presents common features across topic domains via which denialist behavior can be recognized. Wiki summarizes the same five characteristics proposed by the paper thusly5:

  1. Conspiracy theories — Dismissing the data or observation by suggesting opponents are involved in “a conspiracy to suppress the truth”.
  2. Cherry picking — Selecting an anomalous critical paper supporting their idea, or using outdated, flawed, and discredited papers in order to make their opponents look as though they base their ideas on weak research. [This is number 3 in D&M2009, and some sources point to cherry picking of data too].
  3. False experts — Paying an expert in the field, or another field, to lend supporting evidence or credibility. [This is number 2 in D&M2009].
  4. Moving the goalpost — Dismissing evidence presented in response to a specific claim by continually demanding some other (often unfulfillable) piece of evidence.[In D&M2009 this is framed more as an impossible standard of proof rather than a moving target, yet the essence is the same].
  5. Other logical fallacies — Usually one or more of false analogy, appeal to consequences, straw man, or red herring.

So identifying denialism is apparently as straightforward as testing the target individual or social group for the above characteristics. Yet D&M2009 provides no methodology for achieving this objectively, and there are major problems with simply attempting a direct assessment.

Next page (2) for more…

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