New Scientist ran an interesting series of articles about denial in May this year.
It got me thinking that scepticism vs denialism is another way of describing a theme often addressed in this blog. I consider myself a sceptic – meaning that I take an objective approach to the evaluation of claims – but I also find that a bit of commonsense goes a long way. Deniers, on the other hand, have a position (or end goal) staked out in advance, and sort through the data employing “confirmation bias”. This is defined by New Scientist as “the tendency to look for and find confirmatory evidence for pre-existing beliefs and ignore or dismiss the rest”. Whether sceptics agree or disagree, we can debate the issues like grown ups. Dealing with denialism feels more like trying to rationalise with a toddler having a tantrum.
It’s easy to think of denialism as an old fashioned notion, driven by zealots such as anti-evolutionary theorists or those who believed the Earth was flat. But no – denialism is alive and well in our modern world. We’ve all heard of climate change and vaccination deniers. New Scientist provides useful perspectives on these examples, as well as deniers of the ill health effects of tobacco, the existence of AIDs and those who believe pandemics such as swine ‘flu are developed and released by pharmaceutical companies. I can add more examples to this list based on personal experience in the food and health area. Those who are convinced that:
- obesity is caused by single foods or beverages (and that this is a conspiracy of global food companies).
- anti-tobacco tactics directed to certain foods are the best option to combat obesity.
- specific approved food additives or ingredients cause illnesses ranging from autism to cancer (and that this is a conspiracy of both food companies and food safety organisations).
- there are no adverse health effects of high salt diets at a population level.
- it’s acceptable to deliberately design research studies to prove a point or handpick research results to suits their means, rather than taking a more objective view.
Your typical denier often has the public’s sympathy because they’re the “underdogs, fighting the corrupt elite”. They often occupy the moral high ground for this reason. And the media love the extreme viewpoint they offer so they have a natural public stage. Regulators, businesses and governmental organisations do not have the luxury of being able to handpick evidence to suit. They have to be objective, so they often come off looking non-committal, or at worst, defensive, when facing denialists in public.
In my digging around for material on this subject I also found this delightful quote by Richard Asher, published in The Lancet in 1959.
“It is important to realise that ideas are much easier to believe if they are comforting and that many clinical notions are accepted because they are comforting rather than because there is any evidence to support them. Just as we swallow food because we like it, not because of its nutritional content, so do we swallow ideas because we like them and not because of their rational content.”
I believe this rings especially true today and I’d love to hear some more examples of denialism that you’ve come across.