The Denialism Frame

  1. ‘Denialism’ achieves the opposite of the authors’ intent

So major failings in the concept of ‘denialism’ due to a lack of theoretical grounding, expose the authors to error and also let slip the bridle on their own bias23 as they apply their criteria to the example domains. Yet this is the least of the problems that Diethelm, McKee and Hoofnagle have created.

The three have laudably fought long against anti-science factions. Alas due to the failings above some of this fight defends dogma not science, and I fear all that will anyhow be hugely outweighed by unintended negative consequences. Hoofnagle stresses personal psychology not social psychology, and D&M2009’s vague, ill considered causes also allow this angle to prosper, diverting attention from cultural causation. Coupled with an inability to determine who is who, this means they’ve effectively supplied academic legitimacy for any side to call out any and all opponents as psychologically flawed; either systemic liars or cranks, or almost any deficiency. Memes prosper dramatically from vagueness, evolving to the worst implications without constraint because no reality-check back to an original tight definition is possible; there is no proper definition. And ‘denialism’ has indeed become a strong and negative emotive meme24, whose influence the authors have amplified.

Using ‘denialism’ to morally equate legitimate questioners with racially motivated folks who deny the holocaust, has maybe hit ‘worst’ already. Latterly Hoofnagle partially acknowledges this problem even while rehearsing his criteria again. Even the wiki page has some balance27 and notes this major issue with the framing. As far back as 2010, another Diethelm and McKee paper25 largely overlapping D&M2009 content, briefly complains that denialism is used by a ‘wrong’ side. Yet I doubt these authors or anyone else will get the detrimental ‘denialist’ genie back into a bottle anytime soon26. Any otherwise good work quoting them, will be devalued.

Diethelm and McKee wanted to provide health professionals with tools to fight harmful anti-science. Hoofnagle wanted a means to combat invalid emotional arguments. Yet their tools are fundamentally flawed, and promote a framing of ‘denialism’ that I believe amplifies misunderstanding, stigmatization, fear and other emotive reactions, at the expense of reason and scientific advance. Tools to do what they actually wanted, must have objective and cause-based methodology.

10. Updates

The paragraphs under the heading ‘clarification’ in section 7 were added after publication at Climate Etc, due to discussion with commenter Stephen Mosher there. The latter part of the 2nd paragraph in section 4 has been edited, due to commenter Joshua pointing out that Kahan’s ‘polarization with knowledge’ graphs don’t extend to true ‘experts’ (and we cannot know whether they would, especially if the quality ‘expertize’ is not just ‘more knowledge’).

Footnotes can be found here:

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