Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Denialism: what drives people to reject the truth

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Keith Kahn-Harris has an extract from his book Denial: The Unspeakable Truth in the Guardian:

We are all in denial, some of the time at least. Part of being human, and living in a society with other humans, is finding clever ways to express – and conceal – our feelings. From the most sophisticated diplomatic language to the baldest lie, humans find ways to deceive. Deceptions are not necessarily malign; at some level they are vital if humans are to live together with civility. As Richard Sennett has argued: “In practising social civility, you keep silent about things you know clearly but which you should not and do not say.”

Just as we can suppress some aspects of ourselves in our self-presentation to others, so we can do the same to ourselves in acknowledging or not acknowledging what we desire. Most of the time, we spare ourselves from the torture of recognising our baser yearnings. But when does this necessary private self-deception become harmful? When it becomes public dogma. In other words: when it becomes denialism.

Denialism is an expansion, an intensification, of denial. At root, denial and denialism are simply a subset of the many ways humans have developed to use language to deceive others and themselves. Denial can be as simple as refusing to accept that someone else is speaking truthfully. Denial can be as unfathomable as the multiple ways we avoid acknowledging our weaknesses and secret desires.

Denialism is more than just another manifestation of the humdrum intricacies of our deceptions and self-deceptions. It represents the transformation of the everyday practice of denial into a whole new way of seeing the world and – most important – a collective accomplishment. Denial is furtive and routine; denialism is combative and extraordinary. Denial hides from the truth, denialism builds a new and better truth.

In recent years, the term has been used to describe a number of fields of “scholarship”, whose scholars engage in audacious projects to hold back, against seemingly insurmountable odds, the findings of an avalanche of research. They argue that the Holocaust (and other genocides) never happened, that anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is a myth, that Aids either does not exist or is unrelated to HIV, that evolution is a scientific impossibility, and that all manner of other scientific and historical orthodoxies must be rejected.

In some ways, denialism is a terrible term. No one calls themselves a “denialist”, and no one signs up to all forms of denialism. In fact, denialism is founded on the assertion that it is not denialism. In the wake of Freud (or at least the vulgarisation of Freud), no one wants to be accused of being “in denial”, and labelling people denialists seems to compound the insult by implying that they have taken the private sickness of denial and turned it into public dogma.

But denial and denialism are closely linked; what humans do on a large scale is rooted in what we do on a small scale. While everyday denial can be harmful, it is also just a mundane way for humans to respond to the incredibly difficult challenge of living in a social world in which people lie, make mistakes and have desires that cannot be openly acknowledged. Denialism is rooted in human tendencies that are neither freakish nor pathological.

All that said, there is no doubt that denialism is dangerous. In some cases, we can point to concrete examples of denialism causing actual harm. In South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki, in office between 1999 and 2008, was influenced by Aids denialists such as Peter Duesberg, who deny the link between HIV and Aids (or even HIV’s existence) and cast doubt on the effectiveness of anti-retroviral drugs. Mbeki’s reluctance to implement national treatment programmes using anti-retrovirals has been estimated to have cost the lives of 330,000 people. On a smaller scale, in early 2017 the Somali-American community in Minnesota was struck by a childhood measles outbreak, as a direct result of proponents of the discredited theory that the MMR vaccine causes autism, persuading parents not to vaccinate their children.

More commonly though, denialism’s effects are less direct but more insidious. Climate change denialists have not managed to overturn the general scientific consensus that it is occurring and caused by human activity. What they have managed to do is provide subtle and not-so-subtle support for those opposed to taking radical action to address this urgent problem. Achieving a global agreement that could underpin a transition to a post-carbon economy, and that would be capable of slowing the temperature increase, was always going to be an enormous challenge. Climate changedenialism has helped to make the challenge even harder.

Denialism can also create an environment of hate and suspicion. Forms of genocide denialism are not just attempts to overthrow irrefutable historical facts; they are an assault on those who survive genocide, and their descendants. The implacable denialism that has led the Turkish state to refuse to admit that the 1917 Armenian genocide occurred is also an attack on today’s Armenians, and on any other minority that would dare to raise troubling questions about the status of minorities in Turkey. Similarly, those who deny the Holocaust are not trying to disinterestedly “correct” the historical record; they are, with varying degrees of subtlety, trying to show that Jews are pathological liars and fundamentally dangerous, as well as to rehabilitate the reputation of the Nazis.

The dangers that other forms of denialism pose may be less concrete, but they are no less serious. Denial of evolution, for example, does not have an immediately hateful payoff; rather it works to foster a distrust in science and research that feeds into other denialisms and undermines evidence-based policymaking. Even lunatic-fringe denialisms, such as flat Earth theories, while hard to take seriously, help to create an environment in which real scholarship and political attempts to engage with reality, break down in favour of an all-encompassing suspicion that nothing is what it seems.

Denialism has moved from the fringes to the centre of public discourse, helped in part by new technology. As information becomes freer to access online, as “research” has been opened to anyone with a web browser, as previously marginal voices climb on to the online soapbox, so the opportunities for countering accepted truths multiply. No one can be entirely ostracised, marginalised and dismissed as a crank anymore.

The sheer profusion of voices, the plurality of opinions, the cacophony of the controversy, are enough to make anyone doubt what they should believe.


So how do you fight denialism? Denialism offers a dystopian vision of a world unmoored, in which nothing can be taken for granted and no one can be trusted. If you believe that you are being constantly lied to, paradoxically you may be in danger of accepting the untruths of others. Denialism is a mix of corrosive doubt and corrosive credulity.

It’s perfectly understandable that denialism sparks anger and outrage, particularly in those who are directly challenged by it. If you are a Holocaust survivor, a historian, a climate scientist, a resident of a flood-plain, a geologist, an Aids researcher or someone whose child caught a preventable disease from an unvaccinated child, denialism can feel like an assault on your life’s work, your core beliefs or even your life itself. Such people do fight back. This can include, in some countries, supporting laws against denialism, as in France’s prohibition of Holocaust denial. Attempts to teach “creation science” alongside evolution in US schools are fought with tenacity. Denialists are routinely excluded from scholarly journals and academic conferences.

The most common response to denialism, though, is debunking. Just as denialists produce a large and ever-growing body of books, articles, websites, lectures and videos, so their detractors respond with a literature of their own. Denialist claims are refuted point by point, in a spiralling contest in which no argument – however ludicrous – is ever left unchallenged. Some debunkings are endlessly patient and civil, treating denialists and their claims seriously and even respectfully; others are angry and contemptuous.

Yet none of these strategies work, at least not completely. Take the libel case that the Holocaust denier David Irving brought against Deborah Lipstadt in 1996. Irving’s claim that accusing him of being a Holocaust denier and a falsifier of history was libellous were forensically demolished by Richard Evans and other eminent historians. The judgment was devastating to Irving’s reputation and unambiguous in its rejection of his claim to be a legitimate historian. The judgment bankrupted him, he was repudiated by the few remaining mainstream historians who had supported him, and in 2006 he was imprisoned in Austria for Holocaust denial.

But Irving today? He is still writing and lecturing, albeit in a more covert fashion. He still makes similar claims and his defenders see him as a heroic figure who survived the attempts of the Jewish-led establishment to silence him. Nothing really changed. Holocaust denial is still around, and its proponents find new followers. In legal and scholarly terms, Lipstadt won an absolute victory, but she didn’t beat Holocaust denial or even Irving in the long term.

There is a salutary lesson here: in democratic societies at least, denialism cannot be beaten legally, or through debunking, or through attempts to discredit its proponents. That’s because, for denialists, the existence of denialism is itself a triumph. Central to denialism is an argument that “the truth” has been suppressed by its enemies. To continue to exist is a heroic act, a victory for the forces of truth.

Of course, denialists might yearn for a more complete victory – when theories of anthropogenic climate change will be marginalised in academia and politics, when the story of how the Jews hoaxed the world will be in every history book – but, for now, every day that denialism persists is a good day. In fact, denialism can achieve more modest triumphs even without total victory. For the denialist, every day barrels of oil continue to be extracted and burned is a good day, every day a parent doesn’t vaccinate their child is a good day, every day a teenager Googling the Holocaust finds out that some people think it never happened is a good day.

Conversely, denialism’s opponents rarely have time on their side. As climate change rushes towards the point of no return, as Holocaust survivors die and can no longer give testimony, as once-vanquished diseases threaten pandemics, as the notion that there is “doubt” on settled scholarship becomes unremarkable, so the task facing the debunkers becomes both more urgent and more difficult. It’s understandable that panic can set in and that anger overwhelms some of those who battle against denialism.

A better approach to denialism is one of self-criticism. The starting point is a frank question: why did we fail? Why have those of us who abhor denialism not succeeded in halting its onward march? And why have we as a species managed to turn our everyday capacity to deny into an organised attempt to undermine our collective ability to understand the world and change it for the better?

These questions are beginning to be asked in some circles. They are often the result of a kind of despair. Campaigners against anthropogenic global warming often lament that, as the task becomes ever more urgent, so denialism continues to run rampant (along with apathy and “softer” forms of denial). It appears that nothing works in the campaign to make humanity aware of the threat it faces.

The obstinacy with which people can stick to disproved notions is attested to in the social sciences and in neuroscientific research. Humans are not only reasoning beings who disinterestedly weigh evidence and arguments. But there is a difference between the pre-conscious search for confirmation of existing views – we all engage in that to some extent – and the deliberate attempt to dress this search up as a quest for truth, as denialists do. Denialism adds extra layers of reinforcement and defence around widely shared psychological practices with the (never articulated) aim of preventing their exposure. This certainly makes changing the minds of denialists even more difficult than changing the minds of the rest of stubborn humanity.

There are multiple kinds of denialists: from those who are sceptical of all established knowledge, to those who challenge one type of knowledge; from those who actively contribute to the creation of denialist scholarship, to those who quietly consume it; from those who burn with certainty, to those who are privately sceptical about their scepticism. What they all have in common, I would argue, is a particular type of desire. This desire – for something not to be true – is the driver of denialism.


Empathy with denialists is not easy, but it is essential. Denialism is not stupidity, or ignorance, or mendacity, or psychological pathology. Nor is it the same as lying. Of course, denialists can be stupid, ignorant liars, but so can any of us. But denialists are people in a desperate predicament.

It is a very modern predicament. Denialism is a post‑enlightenment phenomenon, a reaction to the “inconvenience” of many of the findings of modern scholarship. The discovery of evolution, for example, is inconvenient to those committed to a literalist biblical account of creation. Denialism is also a reaction to the inconvenience of the moral consensus that emerged in the post-enlightenment world. In the ancient world, you could erect a monument proudly proclaiming the genocide you committed to the world. In the modern world, mass killing, mass starvation, mass environmental catastrophe can no longer be publicly legitimated.

Yet many humans still want to do the same things humans always did. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more—indeed, there’s an entire book.

I also point out Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, by Daniel Goleman.

Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2018 at 12:13 pm

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