Is calling people “deniers” legitimate?

A friend earlier challenged me over the use of the word “denier” to describe people who don’t accept the facts of anthropogenic climate change (ACC), on the basis that “denier” is a loaded term.

To put the discussion into context, a self-described climate “skeptic” had stated in comments on a blog that “no evidence can convince me”. The specific objection was that denier implies that it suggests a knowledge of the truth of a claim, whereas the assertion was that the person might merely “mistrust sources of information”.

My person position is that denial is an appropriate word, and is deliberately chosen, and has a specific meaning. However, it may create a barrier to overcoming differences and achieving closure in the debate, although I would suggest that there is, in all cases of denialism as I define it, a mismatch in the points of stasis, which means that the dispute is unlikely to be resolved.

To be clear, I know there are issues with identifying consensus, but I am not addressing that in this discussion; I am assuming for the sake of the argument that the consensus has been pragmatically agreed in some way.

The classic example of denialism, and the origin of “denial” as a label for a form of discourse, is the holocaust, and deniers famously include the author David Irving, a self-described holocaust “revisionist” and Nick Griffin, leader of British National Party. Despite the existence of extensive documentation, first-hand witnesses (from both sides of the event) and broad consensus on the part of historians, holocaust denialists seek to downplay the magnitude of the event, the roles of senior members of the Nazi party in orchestrating the events or that the holocaust happened at all. Typically, justification turns on the holocaust being an propaganda tool of the Allies, a conspiracy by a Zionist conspiracy or that the German treatment of Jews did not differ from the treatment of Axis prisoners by the Allies.

More importantly, the claims often seem to be driven by an underlying ideology: in the case of holocaust denialism, proponents of holocaust denial narratives seek to diminish the horrors associated with Nationalist Socialism and fascism as practised in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and thus legitimise their political leanings and anti-Semitism. In addition, the narrative causes harm: in this case, the harm can be caused against the survivors of the event (by denying the suffering they experienced), or from those who seek to ensure that such horrors do not recur by undermining their activities.

The key characteristics of denialist narrative as identified from holocaust denial are:

  1. A narrative that significantly diverges from consensus interpretation of evidence.
  2. The narrative includes elements derived from alleged conspiracies that have been successfully kept secret.
  3. The narrative serves an ideological, and political, end.
  4. The narrative causes, or has the potential to cause, harm.

Other examples of denialism include denial of evolution (as creationists have been labelled, notably by Richard Dawkins), denial of ACC, denial of vaccine efficacy and denial of tobacco harm. (One could include numerous other examples, including, for example, the Flat Earth Society.)

Denial of evolution satisfies the first two criteria by claiming that vast quantities of evidence have been maliciously misinterpreted and that biologists and journals are perpetrating this for purposes often unspecified, but often suggested to involve dark spiritual forces. In this case, the narrative seeks to promote a particular religious view, and whilst harm is caused to the way in which people are taught about the world in which they live, denying the reality of evolution has potential to cause significant harm in the way we consider, for example, infectious diseases.

In addition to the first four criteria, an additional characteristic can perhaps be identified.

  1. Proponents of the narrative engage in intellectually dishonest practices when engaging with opponents.

In the case of evolution denial, this includes the continued use of arguments which have been successfully countered, and extensive use of cherry-picking and quote-mining.

ACC “skeptics” (as they style themselves) deny the reality of man-made climate change, a position contrary to settled consensus in the climate science community. It has been asserted that this is both a green (environment) and a red (socialist) conspiracy, and this betrays the underlying ideology, which has been demonstrated to be associated with agencies promoting libertarian (ie. unregulated) capitalism, and with a vested interested in promoting use of hydrocarbon fuels. The harm here is that caused to the long-term stability of the climate, and the intellectual dishonesty is seen in the way in which the “skeptics” seek to manufacture controversy.

Vaccine and tobacco denial both have significant harms, and have been characterised by a number of incidents of intellectual dishonesty, which I’ll not catalogue here.

Two logical questions arise, one directly from the original challenge and one as a matter of semantics. The original challenge suggested that this was mere distrust or miscomprehension of consensus views (and I certainly wouldn’t suggest this is a case of cognitive deficit, just to cover myself). However, despite multiple attempts at bridging “misunderstandings”, there haven’t been any sustained successes in communicating effectively with deniers; indeed, the claim originally labelled “denialist” was that no evidence would change their mind.

This, along with other issues, to me suggests that whatever it is they are engaged in – and for whatever ideological reason – it isn’t science. Some theories (eg. creationism) are so broad as to explain everything, and therefore don’t really explain anything. Others deny the importance of evidence or try to introduce the supernatural into the domain of science – something argued against by Aristotle more than two thousand years ago. However, their positions are potentially dangerous, particularly, if political decisions are made on the basis of advice posing as scientific.

Second, how does climate “skepticism” this differ from Skepticism, as defined by the global movement? Massimo Piglucci neatly encapsulates the fundamental difference: Skepticism is characterised by a demand for evidence proportional to the nature of the claim. As so neatly demonstrated above, climate “skeptics” will be persuaded by no evidence or rational argument presented to them.

As a further note, denialism differs from normal disagreement because of the nature and scope of the issue at stake. Whilst I may have political differences with people, typically such differences are different interpretations of the same evidence and information. In the case of denialism, the evidence is irrelevant to the disagreement.

I believe, therefore, denialism is an appropriate label, which used semantically encapsulates the fundamental position of the group, which is that they deny or seek to deny what might be called “reality”. As a type of discourse, it has distinct characteristics that set it apart from other forms of contention.

Labelling people as deniers undoubtedly creates a barrier to communication across paradigmatic boundaries. However, as mentioned previously, the statement “no evidence will convince me” automatically excludes the possibility of successful engagement. I question therefore whether the use of more sensitive language would result in any benefit to existence of denialism. I would welcome information on how we can effectively engage across intractable epistemic boundaries.

The discussion is therefore about third parties to the discussion – observers and those who are seeking advice on policy issues. Arguably, this can go either way. Using the label denialist could either be perceived as an aggressive move that diminishes the value of advice by those in tune with the consensus, or could be viewed as an effective way to communicate the value of an opposing viewpoint. I would suggest that the success of the label can only be assessed within the context of the use of the label. I think it therefore behoves the practitioner to consider the appropriateness of the language within the context in which it is being used. As a short-hand for communicating within a given community, it seems to me to be both justified and legitimate.


About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

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