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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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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