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Activism, human nature, science, Theist Wackiness


I’m happy to report that I’m more than a lone voice in the wilderness.  It turns out that I’m jumping on a bandwagon.   My article on scientific certainty came out the same day as a series of articles in New Scientist about denial.  The two subjects are closely related, so I’ll spend some time today discussing the New Scientist slant and my own ideas.

Michael Shermer does a good job of defining “denialism” as opposed to skepticism.  In a nutshell, it comes down to the directionality of reasoning.  He who has reached a conclusion and searches for supporting evidence is in danger of succumbing to denialism.  He who follows the evidence where it leads, but holds sincere and cautious doubt, and makes pronouncements equal to the strength of the evidence — he is a true skeptic.

It {Denial} is the automatic gainsaying of a claim regardless of the evidence for it – sometimes even in the teeth of evidence. Denialism is typically driven by ideology or religious belief, where the commitment to the belief takes precedence over the evidence. Belief comes first, reasons for belief follow, and those reasons are winnowed to ensure that the belief survives intact.

He goes on to list the most prominent denial movements:

  • Climate Change Denial
  • Evolution Denial
  • Holocaust Denial
  • AIDS Denial
  • 9/11 Denial
  • Vaccine Denial
  • Tobacco Denial

In a separate article, Debora MacKenzie notes a couple of strong predictive correlations that ought to catch our eye.  First, people’s views on abortion and same-sex marriage predict their position on climate change.  To many political researchers, including Dan Kahan at Yale Law School, this is because of the political nature of religious ideology on the far right.  I’m certain (sic!) that he’s correct, but I also believe we have to look deeper.  Political and religious ideology don’t form in vacuums.  There’s no correlation between religio-political conservativism and vaccine denial, for instance.  But vaccine denial membership and AIDS denial membership displays considerable overlap.

It appears that there is denial on both the left and right fringes, and we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we focused entirely on conservative denial.  (Pardon me while I pat myself on the back momentarily.)  My suspicion is that there is a kind of “denial mind” which is particularly susceptible to the mechanisms of denial.  I also suspect that the “denial movement” is essentially two-tiered, with the most profoundly delusional leading the charge and the merely gullible filling in the ranks.  Any ideological extreme seems susceptible to the denial mindset, and the flock is just waiting for an issue that meets the emotional criteria for belief.

How to Build a Denial Movement

Speaking of which, Martin McKee, who studies the denial movement at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has identified six tactics that all denialist movements use.  (Yes… I know… Hygiene and Tropical Medicine??!  But here’s the link to the journal.  It’s peer reviewed.)

  1. Allege a conspiracy.  Claim that scientists are all in on it, and that it’s a plot against something or other.
  2. Use fake experts.
  3. Cherry Pick the evidence.
  4. Create impossible standards for your opponents.
  5. Use logical fallacies, especially emotionally appealing ones.  Create strawmen and knock them down.
  6. Manufacture doubt.  Create a controversy where there is consensus.  Cry “censorship” when fake experts, logical fallacies, and impossible standards are rejected.

I’ll admit that there’s a part of me that feels skeptical about this list.  When I read it, my first thought was this:  He’s not researching all denial.  He’s just attacking “Expelled:  No Intelligence Allowed.” But the more I’ve thought about it, he seems to be right.  This is a blueprint for tobacco, climate, vaccine, evolution, UFO abductions, homeopathy, and just about every other conspiracy I can think of.

This set of tactics is designed to prey on the “non-scientific minds” of people who are emotionally invested in a kind of issue.  At first glance, I think I might see a pattern emerging.  The conservative, authoritarian, religious mind tends to be heavily invested in issues of conformity, uniformity, morality, insulation, and maintaining economic and political power.  Thus, they respond positively to issues involving abstinence only education, abortion rights, evolution (because of its perceived moral implications, perhaps?) and the other familiar right wing bullet points.  The liberal, New Age Quacker mind will respond in almost the opposite direction to issues involving personal liberty, diversity, alternative choices, relativity, plurality, and redistributing economic and political power.

I’ll admit that right now, the scope and power of right wing denial seems to be far greater than that of left wing denial, but I don’t suggest for a minute that we should ignore it.  Homeopathy, alternative medicine, and non-vaccination are clearly very dangerous.  What I’m trying to do in my own reading (and subsequent blog posts) is help the skeptics among us to handle all denial, and to try to foster a culture of true skepticism.

Two Different Minds

Greg Poland is an avid opponent of vaccine denial.  He has coined the term “the innumerate” for the deniers because they seem unable to grasp (or perhaps accept) concepts of probability.  Instead, they use emotion and anecdote.

“People use mental short cuts – ‘My kid got autism after he got his shots, so the vaccine must have caused it,'” he says. One emotive story about a vaccine’s alleged harm trumps endless safety statistics.

However, he also relates (anecdotally!) that he has experimented with anecdote and appeals to emotion a few times when speaking to lay audiences.

“I get very positive responses – except from numerates, who see it as emotionally manipulative,” he says.

The skeptic in me immediately cries foul when hearing this.  I want more than just anecdote to suggest such a dichotomy.  But in truth, I believe that it probably exists.  There is far from a consensus on matters of personality type and innate intellectual ability, but it seems clear that there are some people better suited to some mental tasks than others.  (If you balk at this idea, spend some time reading about autism.)

I believe there’s a lesson in this observation.  We cannot expect to win the hearts and minds of the lay public with peer reviewed journals.  Facts simply do not matter as much as emotion to people who have not been trained as good critical thinkers and skeptics.  We need the scientists to keep doing the science, but it’s time to admit that the conservatives have out-marketed us.  They have blown us out of the water when it comes to winning the emotional support of the people who wouldn’t know how to turn on a Bunsen burner, much less design a quantitative double blind study.

The Underlying Fear

I believe there’s one more crucial piece of information we need if we’re going to effectively engage the deniers.   If you read my post about Pascal’s Wager, you’ve got a great window into the way I try to think about irrational beliefs.  In short, it’s a mistake to think that everybody but me is too stupid to understand the arguments I understand.  Most people are smart enough.  But “smart” is only a small part of the human psyche, and it is often overwhelmed by emotion at the unconscious level, so that it never even gets to take its metaphorical turn at bat.

If I may be so presumptuous as to suggest a seventh strategy in creating a denial movement, I suggest this:  7.  Cultivate fear in your target audience. Find out what they fear most and exploit it to your own advantage.  Consider what we know of right-wing religious deniers.  If evolution is true, their whole religious ideology crashes down upon itself.  They’re afraid they’re not God’s special creation.  They’re afraid they’re just animals.  They’re afraid that there is no such thing as “true morality,” and if they lose their grip on government, they’ll be bludgeoned to death by dildo-wielding lesbians and irate pot-smokers.  Climate deniers are afraid they’re going to have to give up their way of life.  They’re afraid for their four children.  They are afraid they might have to live like (gasp!) the rest of the world, and take public transport.  They’re afraid of being poor.

I believe that at the bottom of every denier’s psyche is a deeply rooted fear.  And to be fair, many of the fears are strictly rational.  I happen to believe that climate change is a real problem, but I don’t know the extent of it.  I am afraid for the future of humans.  I’m afraid that the changes necessary to stem the tide are so great that economic collapse would be inevitable.  I’m afraid, too.

But something in me is different.  At least with climate change.  I am willing to look at it head on and look at the evidence in spite of my fears.  I’m open to the possibility that my last few decades of life will be substantially less comfortable than my first.  I don’t like the idea, but I realize that it may happen despite my fear.

The trick for scientists is to sort out why hell, global warming, and gay men don’t scare skeptics enough that our brains shut themselves down before we have a chance to think things out.  They scare other people a lot — enough to literally turn off the cognitive centers of their brains when someone charismatic enough comes along and reassures them that their fears are justified.

I’m not suggesting that we’re immune to denial.  But there is a very large class of denial that we do appear immune to, and it’s not because we’re smart.  Lots of smart people have succumbed.

I’ve proposed answers before.  In looking at myself, I see several possibilities.  Perhaps I’ve received more neutral training in critical thinking and skepticism than other people.  Maybe I’ve been just anti-social enough that I don’t care enough about my peers to value their opinions over my skepticism.  Maybe I’ve got an over-developed tendency towards criticism.  (More than one ex-girlfriend has mentioned this possibility to me.)

The point is that tooting my own horn would be a mistake.  I’m just a dude who escaped religion and became a skeptic.  We need to spend a lot more time studying skepticism and learn what encourages it.  In the meantime, we need to market to the audience we have, which is largely un-skeptical.  It’s a long way to where we’d like to be, but science is making new discoveries all the time.  Perhaps more importantly for the here and now, the collective skeptical gaze seems to be turning away from the ivory towers and towards the billboards.  We’re learning that the truth means almost nothing without proper delivery.

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10 thoughts on “Denial

  1. First, I want to smarmily point out that I had written almost word for word exactly the content of that one article on the overall layout of your typical conspiracy theory some time ago:

    Second, though I have been an opponent of this camp for a while, I think I’m starting to drift the way of yourself, Hitchens, Pascal, etc: there *may* just be those who are so made that they cannot believe.

    This strikes me as absolutely horrifying to be honest, but there line of evidence leading there is becoming overwhelmingly strong. It means that there may be no hope to improve the overall acceptance of science & skepticism; the public is literally hard-wired to be bigoted psychopaths. Which sucks.

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | May 19, 2010, 3:15 am
  2. Kevin, please be careful with the way you say this. I’m not suggesting that there are people who, from the moment of conception, are absolutely incapable of believing in God or woo. I don’t think anyone credible is suggesting that.

    However, it does appear that along with certain genetic predispositions (personality types, if you prefer) comes a certain innate susceptibility or resistance to emotional manipulation. And since we know that so much of religion is emotional manipulation, that’s basically the same as saying “Some people are more susceptible to religion than others.”

    But in many ways, this discussion could be likened to alcohol and alcohol addiction. Regardless of genes, people who live in completely dry countries tend strongly to not have alcohol problems. Similarly, we very seldom see children raised in a high-education, atheist environment who suddenly become bible thumping Southern Baptists at age 30. The environment is a huge factor.

    What I’m suggesting — and it’s just a preliminary suggestion, not a scientific claim — is that maybe we the bloggers, writers, and public figures have been playing in the wrong ballpark. Maybe we’ve completely overlooked a third category of atheist. We have the militants like Hitchens, and we have the accomodationalists like Shermer. Maybe we need the salesmen like… oh, what was Alison’s boy-crush’s name… Vince.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 19, 2010, 2:14 pm
  3. I think the main difference between conservative and liberal conspiracy theories are what they’re directed to.

    Conservative ones tend to be a distrust of government [such as they planted the bombs in Twin Towers to take over the world etc…

    Where as Liberal ones are more distrust of corporations. Such as the vaccine corporation is just out to make money so they lie about vaccines etc…

    So I don’t think any particular worldview [liberal or conservative] is any more or less likely to form theories.

    The worldview may shape where the irrational distrust is
    directed to, but I don’t think any of them more rational than the other.

    oh, what was Alison’s boy-crush’s name… Vince.

    wait, what?

    Posted by Cpt_Pineapple | May 20, 2010, 8:11 pm
  4. The worldview may shape where the irrational distrust is
    directed to, but I don’t think any of them more rational than the other.

    You know that’s precisely what I said, right?

    Posted by hambydammit | May 21, 2010, 3:46 am
  5. You know that’s precisely what I said, right?


    I kinda hit my head as I fell out of my chair when I saw Kevin’s post.

    Though I think he seems to be taking an extreme stance on the issue [as he seems to usually do] he does seem to finally realize the role of differences in hardwiring etc…

    Anyway, though I think you’re moving more in the right direction with this entry although I do have the usual nitpicks.

    Such as your comparison with alcohol. The difference of course is somebody growing up in a dry country, as opposed to growing up without religion, is that beer would be hard to get in prohibition, as opposed to the web of nonsense spreading on the internet.

    This is where the conspiracies are mostly coming from.

    Nobody is indoctrinated into thinking 9/11 is an inside job. Nobody is indoctrinated into thinking vaccines cause autism.

    They read about it on the web.

    We might be able to control the flow of alcohol relatively easily, however it’s much much harder to do so with information.

    Posted by Cpt_Pineapple | May 21, 2010, 10:34 pm
  6. [quote]Though I think he seems to be taking an extreme stance on the issue [as he seems to usually do] he does seem to finally realize the role of differences in hardwiring etc…[/quote]


    No, I didn’t say I was buying into you ‘TEH HUMAN NATURES!’ bullshit. You haven’t even managed to provide an explanation for what ‘human nature’ specifically is, or how it’s special, or what we can derive from it.

    I was saying that I’m starting to lean in the direction of Hitchens & Pascal, and what I thought Hamby was saying (apparently I was mistaken) – that atheism is something of an aberration. The whole ‘God’ thing just doesn’t click with some people, and never will; our own brains simply don’t work that way.

    Of course, that’s just a hypothesis right now, and we’d need a lot more evidence to begin proclaiming it as true, but my own personal experiences with acquaintances & family members has pumped me full of enough anecdotal bias to see me tilting it’s way.

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | May 23, 2010, 6:17 am
  7. …I also love the accusation that I’m ‘extreme’ on issues. Yeah. I’m ‘extreme’ on immigration amnesty because I don’t like the idea of Mexicans being set on fire and tossed into the ditches; I’m ‘extreme’ on opposing religion because I don’t like seeing people getting ripped-off, butchered, etc; I’m ‘extreme’ on issues like education, environmental protection & sustainable living because I don’t want to leave a barren Earth to the next generation.

    Alison, on the other hand, thinks she can solve the world’s problems by showing-up in Baghdad with a gun, and that’s not extreme at all.


    Posted by Kevin R Brown | May 23, 2010, 6:46 am
  8. Kevin do you think animals have nature? That is wolves do this or that due to instincts etc…?

    Well, what makes humans any different from other animals? Humans ARE animals Kevin, and we have nature and instincts just like any other animals.

    Do you believe in “The Blank Slate”? That is our minds are a blank state that is shaped entirely by our enviroment and that humans have no instincts?

    Everytime I explain human nature to you, you just ignore it.

    Alison, on the other hand, thinks she can solve the world’s problems by showing-up in Baghdad with a gun, and that’s not extreme at all.


    I love how you previously ranted about me about my passive approach and that you cried for me to support military actions, but then when you realize that I do, you just about face and rail on me for supporting the military actions.

    You’re a hypocrite. A complete and utter textbook case.

    Posted by Cpt_Pineapple | May 23, 2010, 4:30 pm
  9. I was saying that I’m starting to lean in the direction of Hitchens & Pascal, and what I thought Hamby was saying (apparently I was mistaken) – that atheism is something of an aberration. The whole ‘God’ thing just doesn’t click with some people, and never will; our own brains simply don’t work that way.

    Well, no. Saying that either atheism or theism is the norm or an aberration is missing the point. For instance, in Sweden, a child raised by atheist parents in an atheist environment with no exposure to fundamentalist theism would be an aberration if he suddenly converted to militant Islam at age 25. The norm would be for him to be like his parents — an atheist.

    What I’m saying is that there seems to be some hardwiring responsible for individuals’ susceptibility to certain kinds of environmental stimuli, and this makes them more or less likely to hold certain beliefs given the proper situation. Even with some of the bias issues with the RWA scale, it does appear that the personality type itself is real. Authoritarians will tend towards conservative conspiracy theories, religion, and distrust of pluralism. “Anti-authoritarians” — for lack of a better word — will tend towards distrust of the government, corporations, and anything lots of people agree on.

    Another factor to take into consideration is that we Westerners often think of our value systems as somehow innate, but they’re not. Western culture is far more individualistic than Eastern culture. Collectivism is far older than Marx, and probably was what led to our initial success as a species. The degree to which a culture is an individualist surely has a lot to do with the prevalence of non-conformism, whether that means being an atheist or a theist.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 23, 2010, 7:42 pm
  10. While I’m in rant mode Kevin, I would also like to add that you seem to have an extreme and annoying tendacy of getting into black and white thinking into these things.

    It seems any disagreement what so ever with you on any of these issues somehow means that the person who disagrees supports and condones the actions.

    I’ve seen it with your recent topic on Mexican immigration.

    It is getting very tiresome,and annoying and quite frankly insulting to hear that I somehow support genocide or mass murder because I don’t agree with many atheists.

    Which brings me to the point that it aggrivates me that so many atheists [such as yourself] are in denial of any empirical study on these issues that don’t fit your pre-convceved conclusions.

    Posted by Cpt_Pineapple | May 23, 2010, 9:27 pm

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