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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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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