The Denialism Frame

  1. The standard of proof; a more useful criteria?

So confirming some of the bullet points in section 2 cannot be done objectively, and even if it could this does not reliably confirm which side is overall a denialist side, because behaviors are frequently mirrored. Yet I haven’t thus far included bullet 4 in the discussion. Is not a stable and realistic threshold of proof, and so a ‘right’ side that promotes this threshold, objectively recognizable?

Well D&M2009 cites four domains: HIV/AIDS, creationism, smoking/cancer, and climate change. The first seems to have a very definitive threshold; if one can independently replicate the development of AIDs from HIV, then bingo, proof achieved. And unfortunately there have been far too many inadvertent and tragic replications10. Yet for a wicked system like climate, how can a clear threshold of proof for imminent (before 2100) calamity, which is the key contested issue11a, even be established? Scientists and economists still range over either more, or less, global danger than an IPCC impact assessment that after decades of effort, seems vague at best. Neither calamity or net benefit is ruled out. A threshold of proof for the much contested ‘second hand smoke’ issue (properly a sub-domain, yet one cited by the authors) is dependent upon social and medical statistics. Hence this isn’t just a matter of simple replication and bias might afflict any threshold determination. This subject is home turf for the authors, they’re acknowledged experts; yet in eletter replies to D&M2009 and elsewhere there is not only robust criticism of the paper, but specific criticism of the authors’ stance on second hand smoke, from other experts. As a novice in this domain, how do I know which experts are false, or if neither are false yet the science is simply immature? There’s also complaint about the authors’ selection bias, rhetoric devices and use of defamation11b, so as usual there is defensive behavior on both sides; who is who?

Like the HIV case, proof of evolution over creationism seems like a very safe bet; familiar issues such as the increasing resistance of diseases to antibiotics allow us to actually perceive evolution in action. Yet what would this contested domain look like just 10 years, say, after Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species? And what supporting evidence was available then?12 I submit that while the relevant criteria for proof may be obvious now, even to the educated elite they were not at all obvious then12a. So if the correct evidential goalpost and hence the ‘right’ side can only be confirmed for cases which are obvious long in retrospect, an assessment of the goalpost criteria is not particularly useful or reliable either. In the generic case, we cannot be certain of where on the timeline of science emergence we actually stand12b.

This all suggests that objective recognition of a stable and achievable standard of proof is not so simple a matter. The only definitive case (HIV) requires no consensus, being manifest via replication10. For many domains, a stable standard of proof simply reflects the maturity of the relevant science, and if the science isn’t mature (the long time to iteratively collect and analyze social trend or medical or climate data can impede that maturation), then standards of proof will be contested just like everything else, and could legitimately move, and will not be easily and objectively pinned own.

So even the most hopeful criteria in D&M2009 fails to provide us with a reliable means of identifying an overall ‘denialist’ side. And considering that similar rhetoric and behaviors typically appear on opposing sides, do these criteria truly define ‘denialist’ activity anyhow? Can both sides be ‘denialist’? Assuming one side is indeed ‘denialist’ overall, surely many folks therein are legitimately motivated? At this point one has to question not just the D&M2009 criteria, but whether ‘denialism’ is an appropriate framing and what principles this framing is based upon.

  1. D&M2009 does not establish cause

D&M2009 has only a single short paragraph dealing with the underlying reasons for denialism. The rest of the text explores the example four domains w.r.t. the cited main behaviors, supplying references. This is disappointing; in order to deal properly with a phenomenon, one first has to understand its cause(s). And when boldly stating that we are indeed seeing a well-defined phenomenon in the first place, one should surely have a reasonable grasp (or theory) of cause. Yet the relevant paragraph simply states denialist motivations as: eccentricity, idiosyncrasy (apparently with both these sometimes encouraged by maverick celebrity status), greed (corporate largesse from oil and tobacco is cited), and ideology13 or faith.

A major problem from a social psychology point of view is that these are very different motivators with very different power, scope, and resultant behaviors13a, which suggests the authors have barely considered cause at all, despite this is crucial. However D&M2009 cites Mark Hoofnagle’s blog (2007) as a primary source, wherein there is certainly more about cause. At this point it’s worth noting that D&M2009 is a close replication of Hoofnagle’s ideas (which already included the five main characteristics listed in section 2), merely distilling his concept of denialism and adding in the references from example domains, plus some extra nuance14 (Hoofnagle is properly cited, so nothing wrong with this). Yet Hoofnagle claims15 a very clear cause, dishonesty, which D&M2009 conspicuously drops. Hoofnagle also hints at mental illness16.

Diethelm and McKee are very wise to drop ‘dishonesty’ as a motivator17. Dishonesty is not a prime social driver and could not seriously power the behavior of, for instance, the 45% of Americans that D&M2009 cites as rejecting the evidence of evolution, or consistently produce significant minorities who exhibit similarly strong resistance in very different domains. For this, a potent universal social driver is needed, which also rules out eccentricity, idiosyncrasy and celebrity status (can be secondary / tertiary effects, as may dishonesty), and to a large extent greed too13a (its role is domain dependent yet not usually primary). While this leaves two that happen to fall on the target, we literally have only the single words for them, i.e. ideology and faith, but nothing whatsoever regarding some profound implications.

With D&M2009 shorn of Hoofnagle’s almost passionate fingering of dishonesty, a casual list of assumed causes seems to have been substituted, which means that ‘denialism’ is not based on principles and isn’t a characterized phenomenon, about which for instance one could make predictions. ‘Denialism’ is merely a set of observed rhetoric responses, which in the tremendously complex world of human sociality could occur for all sorts of reasons, only some being that people are inappropriately opposing known, genuine and proven scientific facts (while indeed some people theoretically championing the evidence will employ such rhetoric too).

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18 Responses to The Denialism Frame

  1. hunter says:

    Excellent deconstruction of yet another in a long list of strange consensus papers whose author(s) work so hard to delegitimize skeptics. The lack (or avoidance?) of self reflection is the most interesting aspect of the derivative hackneyed paper.

  2. andywest2012 says:

    Thanks, hunter, appreciated. Agree on lack of self-reflection, not to mention a complete lack of awareness that the paper will simply ‘legitimise’ anyone to arbitrarily call out any group they don’t like as ‘denialist’.

  3. Brad Keyes says:

    Andy, do the paper’s perpetrators even seem to know whether, in proposing those 5 “characteristics,” they’re DEFINING denialism on one hand, or making contingent CLAIMS about denialism on the other?

    (That distinction makes all the difference—a fundamental difference—to any attempt to grapple with such feculent thinking, yet if adherents to said thinking are any guide, the question doesn’t even seem to have occurred to these sewer-skulls.)

  4. andywest2012 says:


    It’s difficult to tell, but I think they are attempting in some way to define it, even though they only consider what one might call the shallow externalities of their proposed ‘condition’. With a few changes, pretty much the entire thing comes from Hoofnagle, and his blog is entirely about drawing a circle around ‘denialists’ and neutralising them, so to speak. It boggles me that they appear to have done no research whatsoever into the social and psychological conditions that might be in play, or at least practically nothing reflects this angle, it’s all just about the rhetoric that is supposed to identify this behaviour. In fact, their paper legitimises anyone calling practically any group ‘deniers’.

    • andywest2012 says:

      P.S. insomuch as anything like this exists, it is not an independent psychological condition, it is an extreme cultural reaction, which means it is wholly cultural value dependent.

  5. Brad Keyes says:

    The saddest thing is that, once you get an opinion pieces like this published adjacent to actual papers, everyone else is then licenced to say “there is a body of serious research on the phenomenon of denialism and how it works,” switching at will between using your baseless insults as a definition of the word denialism, on one hand, and as a contingent finding about the people who exhibit whatever it is you choose to call denialism, on the other hand. At times like this Will Janoschka’s hatred of academia seems less irrational.

    • andywest2012 says:

      I couldn’t agree more on that point. They have essentially provided academic license via a flawed test regarding a spurious ‘psychological condition’, that anyone can use in accusing anyone else, hence contributing heavily to all-out warfare within any conflicted domain. This has hugely undermined everything that they hoped for out of this initiative (Hoofnagle particularly seems to have spent years attempting very nobly yet ineptly to fight ‘science denial’). More than sad, absolutely tragic.

      • Brad Keyes says:

        Really? I thought the Hoofnagles (both of them) were just anti-skeptic tools? Can you tell me more about the nobility (albeit ineptitude) with which they’ve done… well, anything? Do you mean they were ‘fighting’ [with science-based arguments, I hope] against deniers of modern biology or something like that? I know of the Hoofnagli is a physiologist, so I’m just guessing here.

      • andywest2012 says:

        Yes. One of the brothers has a site somewhere, where they nobly enthuse folks to combat the anti-science demons in various domains, from memory including creationism, second hand smoke (usually called ETS I think, Environmental Tobacco Smoke), and others as well as of course climate change. Somewhere or other on there it sets out their noble motives as I recall, though I’d say the effort generally falls short of science based arguments (hence the arisal of the rhetoric tests), albeit in ETS I think they had some domain expertise. The fact of nobly ‘fighting’ doesn’t automatically mean fighting with the right tools (!) even if they think they are using science for its own defence.

        I think it’s from there I first looked at the ETS issue; if you want to see arterial blood sprayed around, that’s a great place to go, albeit the domain is much smaller than the climate one. I never questioned the conclusion of (the highly damaging effects of) SH smoke until I saw that there seemed to be major cultural behaviour on both sides of the fight. Unfortunately, unlike the CC domain, it is nowhere near big enough to have the social data to say where the root cultural behaviour lies, so I now withhold judgement. Although in a completely unsupported don’t quote me pure speculation sort of way, I will say that the orthodox side did give me a few of the gut feel creepies that are rather too reminiscent of the climate orthodox side. This is from maybe 3 years back or so I guess, don’t know what it looks like now. Can’t find my Hoofnagle link, I’m sure you could turf him up within a minute or so though.

  6. Brad Keyes says:

    Thanks for all that added context Andy. I still don’t get the gist of your remark that they’ve undermined their aims with this Denialism ‘scholarship’—isn’t it presumably exactly what they intended to do: provide an academic fig-leaf for hate speech against the out group? Or do you mean, they did it so ham-fistedly that people will hate them rather than their intended victims? Or is it some third interpretation I haven’t thought of?

    • andywest2012 says:

      I think you may be over-thinking this 0:

      I don’t recall the actual wording, but the intent was to provide tools that would help people defend science against attack and help squelch the rampant spread of anti-science myths. The fact that depending on the domain they are sometimes *not* on the side of cultural consensus (which is always wrong), e.g. creationism, maybe GMOs I can’t recall (as well as sometimes being adherents to a cultural consensus, e.g. that of CAGW), emphasises that their intent was genuine. They really believe that they have derived a tool that will help defend the boundaries of science, and encouraging its deployment over all domains demonstrates not some conscious or indeed nefarious attempt to silence critics inside just one domain where they happen to particularly hate ‘the enemy’. No, they really believe they have something workable, and they really do think that the sides they vigorously defend *must* all be right and are underwritten by ‘the’ science. Essentially they always default to the dominant consensus. They complain about aggressive rhetoric somewhere; it is their intent to lessen it (despite having also partaken). Never blame conspiracy or mal-intent before ruling out the far more common ineptness and noble cause.

      • Brad Keyes says:

        I’m less charitable. I have trouble sympathising with the motives of anyone who develops a tool that can so easily—almost as if by design—fall into the hands of any majority that wishes to entrench its paradigm against new ideas, i.e. STOP SCIENCE in its tracks.

      • andywest2012 says:

        Many things look like they are designed. But for instance the social phenomenon of CAGW is a feature of cultural evolution as the eye is feature of biological evolution 😉 We sometimes have to resist the default assumption of design. Regarding individuals, they clearly invent things, but that doesn’t tell what was in charge of their thoughts at the time. And it’s also quite obvious that whatever they were thinking, it is indeed an inept effort. Given Diethelm and McKee have already complained some years back that ‘denialism’ is being used by a ‘wrong’ side, I think they literally had no idea that this tool was so flawed it would go wild, and can get used by anyone against anyone, including against dominant consensuses.

      • Brad Keyes says:

        The Hoofnagli also haemorrhage (my) sympathy with their laughable definition of denial in terms of ‘the illusion of debate,’ which they explain as ‘the use of structured arguments by two sides against each other’s points of view in order to create the false impression that there are two sides debating each other.’ Shorter Hoofnagli: denialism is debatalism, and debatalism is bad because it involves debating in such a way as to make people think there’s a debate.

        Such ineptitude sure seems effortful to me. They’re supposedly high-school graduates. How two brothers with half a brain each could come up with something so brainless boggles the brain, unless it was on purpose.

  7. Brad Keyes says:

    And more primitively, the excuse of defending science against scientifically-incorrect beliefs is incoherent. A category error.

    You “defend science” by protecting the method at its heart, not by crushing mistaken belief systems. You defend science, in other words, AGAINST NAOMI ORESKES and anyone else who tries to vandalise the machinery of the scientific method. Not against Creationists, who pose no threat to it whatsoever.

    • andywest2012 says:

      “Such ineptitude sure seems effortful to me.”

      Easy as falling off a log; in most cases you don’t even have to think at all. Nonsense like this circulates constantly, often with emotive strength (probably ‘moral high ground’ or some such in this case), which engages those not on their guard or when (at first intrusion) that guard is overridden by cultural values that happen to align with the source or content in some strong way. I wouldn’t be surprised if the seeds came from elsewhere. Each one who passes on makes a ‘contribution’ or tweaks the language. There are lots of rhetoric recognition lists with far more types than in the Hoofnagle / DM list, and they aren’t the first ones to look at the role of such rhetoric in cultural conflict, but they may be competing for the shallowest end of the pool!

      I don’t think creationists have posed zero danger to science. Cultural groups tend to believe the science that aligns to their values and resist the science that challenges those values. Defending science depends on understanding this (among other things), and Dan Kahan is a useful resource in this area. But I completely agree that trying to crush whom one believes is the enemy is a very mistaken approach (partly why I don’t like the term ‘enemy’ in any conflicted domain). Anyhow they fluffed it big-time with their denialism test, and indeed the very term, which destructive genie for all domains will never be coaxed back into the bottle.

  8. Brad Keyes says:

    Where does your profound loss of cynicism come from, Andy? Some childhood incident? Who failed to hurt you? What will it take to restore your lack of faith in humanity? It’s not too late!

  9. andywest2012 says:

    I would like to think that I have neither faith nor lack thereof (on the basis that ‘lack of faith’ is usually interpreted to mean you think badly of something, but like faith, via emotion not reason). In practice, this is not possible.

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