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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