The Denialism Frame

  1. D&M2009 has little utility

A lack of underlying principles results in the fatal flaws outlined in sections 3 to 6. There is no solid phenomenon to actually test for. One cannot objectively identify all the D&M2009 criteria in a contest, and even if one could, this still cannot reliably tell us who is who. The five D&M2009 criteria are a subset from a long since categorized and much larger list of rhetoric devices18, some noted way back in Classical times. These can be deployed subconsciously (especially when passion and deep bias dominate) and if used systemically or excessively even the uninitiated can often detect their use. D&M2009 neither adds to this list, adds to our psychological understanding of specific devices, or provides a new means (or any means) of objectively discerning motivation behind device deployment.

Clarification: D&M2009 states that employing ‘some or all’ of the five characteristics in section 2 will sufficiently constitute ‘denialism’. While number 3 wouldn’t usually occur for individuals anyhow, if say three or four of the remaining characteristics can be attributed to the same individual (e.g. 1,2 and 5), then certainly a false argument is detected. Note that this doesn’t lessen the issue of domain bias in correctly detecting the cherry picking, yet it may be a blatant case or the investigator took steps filter out his / her bias (ditto for goalpost shifting, if we swapped 2 for 4). Whether this false argument actually equates to a psychological phenomenon ‘denialism’ inclusive of the negative connotations that term has accumulated, depends upon cause, to which I return in section 8.

However, the above is not in any case the sense in which D&M2009 proceeds. While the examples for each domain are short, they are just sufficiently long to see that D&M2009’s approach is to fulfill the characteristics from different individuals or organizations within a particular domain (both named and un-named). Hence ‘denialism’ is actually attributed to a whole ‘side’, whether or not the targets feel they’re actually part of a side or have any level of co-operation above zero. This approach drops straight into the difficulties explained in section 3. While a fuller and formal test might not be conducted this way, there is nothing explicit from the authors about fulfilling criteria from the same individual or organization, which would lessen the problems, nor even any hint or caution about this.

Organizations as targets brings characteristic 3 back into play and hence related issues already discussed above. A secondary issue regarding organizations is whether their stance reflects their members views or not (especially in cases where it’s unclear whether representatives are speaking personally).

  1. So does ‘denialism’ actually exist?

In attempting to answer this, we need to look at cause. ‘Ideology’13 and ‘faith’ both reflect strong cultural influence, albeit the latter word is usually used in a religious context and the former in a secular context. Of a large behavior spectrum for the culturally influenced, much is well-researched, for instance the fact that when an individual’s culture is threatened, they will defend it, and the mechanisms invoked include subconscious (and often potent) bias19. If a universal phenomenon of ‘denialism’ actually exists then we should look for it in cultural defense, to which one can add that the best form of defense is attack. When a new consensus (scientific or otherwise) threatens existing cultural values, it will be fought. (See footnote 20 for alignment to Michael Specter’s approach).

So cultural defense is a plausible candidate, yet this leads to a framing which is very different to the one that Diethelm and McKee (and Hoofnagle) arrived at. Speculating on possible denialism from this cause (we’ll call it ‘proto-denialism’) we can note that:

  1. One reason cultures are so powerful is that they are not driven primarily by dishonesty; overall, belief is both passionate and honest. Hence most ‘proto-denialists’ would be truthful, defending the truth as they see it (likewise they are not mentally ill).
  2. Cultural defense is not black-and-white, exhibiting various strengths and compromises. Hence there will not only be ‘proto-denialists’ and angels, but many folks who seem to be some of both.
  3. Just as with the defense of nations, cultural defense calls upon alliances. Hence powerful and complicating alliance effects will be in play, such as described in section 3.
  4. No one is free of cultural influence, hence in theory we’ll all be ‘proto-denialists’ of something.
  5. Cultural defense is domain orientated. Folks can be hugely biased in one domain, yet perfectly objective in another. One cannot assume similar behavior over domain boundaries.
  6. Innate or instinctive skepticism is a defense against cultural overdosing i.e. misinformation in a strong cultural context (e.g. propaganda, or systemic fear memes). Because unaided our instincts can’t detect whether an invader is cultural or evidential, especially if the latter is inappropriately promoted (plus, either one may threaten existing culture), we’d expect a strong overlap between genuine skeptic behavior and our ‘proto-denialist’ behavior.
  7. A (major) enforced social consensus will trigger a skeptic response, i.e. resistance to cultural encroachment. So how do we tell this from a scientific consensus triggering our ‘proto-denialist’ behavior, rooted in cultural defense?
  8. Cultural effects are many and varied.

Plus rhetoric is an indelible part of our expression, subconsciously working for us and making it virtually impossible to avoid all persuasive devices and logical fallacies even when attempting to be as objective as we can. We applaud excitement about scientific findings despite this may compromise objectivity; none of us are Vulcans.

It’s possible that with a lot of work, some extreme corner of the behavior spectrum could be isolated via specific criteria, which then merits labeling as ‘denialist’. But in truth the characteristics of our ‘proto-denialists’ above are radically different to expectations from the current framing, a framing which may have tainted the term beyond redemption. Nor is this approach a great plan even without that taint, because it tends to mask uncomfortable yet crucial truths, especially those in f) and g). So along with other errors we may end up fooling ourselves that there’s a nice clinical division between skeptics and ‘denialists’27. Via naïve assumption of cause from a basic categorization of rhetoric, this is exactly the trap I believe Diethelm and McKee have fallen into. Hoofnagle goes further, dishing out labels of ‘dishonest’ and ‘crank’ yet without proper theoretical grounds; despite his noble motives many of these are bound to stick onto the wrong people. Some dishonesty and crankiness will ride any cultural wave, or backlash to such a wave, or backlash to an evidential cause that is perceived as cultural encroachment. But this does not mean that cranks and liars drive the main action; they do not. Nor can the touted methods reliably distinguish crankiness from cultural influence, or skepticism from either21.

It’s possible that ‘denialism’ could never be isolated out of cultural defense, i.e. our ‘proto-denialism’ may never be meaningfully distilled into a ‘denialism’ that’s worth the name. More constructive routes should anyhow be pursued for detecting who is who in a contested domain22.

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