Accepting the Reality of Denial

The term “Holocaust denial” is, I hope, widely understood. It refers to pretend scholarship that challenges the idea that the Holocaust happened. This has no connection at all with Holocaust scholarship. Whereas real historical scholarship examines multiple, converging lines of evidence to assemble a picture of what happened at a particular time, denial takes a tenuous “what if?” scenario and treats it as proven fact, or at least equal to scientific evidence (a useful introduction to this distinction is the first chapter of Michael Shermer’s The Borderlines of Science).

Holocaust denial exists because there is a demand for it. It’s an economic fact that there are people happy to pay for, or otherwise support, validation of their opinions. The better supported a claim is with real evidence, and the more intensely biased people are against it, the more there will be this need to legitimise a contrasting opinion.That conclusion falls neatly out of the model of value bias that I’ve been working with.

Some times the “denial” term is extended to other areas; for example “climate change deniers” and “evolution deniers” (the latter being Micheal Shermer’s suggested term for the creation science movement). Some think this sort of language should be avoided. Their argument is that it implicitly compares people to Nazis (or neo-Nazis) and hence lowers the tone of debate.

I suggest that we should go the other way: recognise that the concept of an industry of denial is entirely meaningful and that such industries are plentiful in our society (because you need them whenever you want to shape belief and haven’t got science on your side). Think of opinion columnists in newspapers: they rarely if ever have to provide evidence for their opinions, and people generally seem to buy publications whose columnists agree with their point of view (there’s a legitimate question about how much this reflects a bias, which I’ll leave for now).

It’s not opinion columnists that I’m talking about when I use the term “Industry of denial”. Nor is it everyday people trying to decide what’s right or wrong. If you disagree with something which can be proven to the best scientific or historical standards, that doesn’t automatically make you a “denier”. Most us are unaware of what proper research has to say: we’re not experts ourselves, and the media give us conflicting messages.

As well as researchers and the public who rely on them there is another category: people who engage in bogus “research”, and announce the result that people want. They might be liars, self-deceivers, or sincere but misguided, but they have an eager audience because they give a legitimacy to ideas that are threatened by actual research. Creation science/intelligent design is the clearest example of this, in that their treatment of evidence and logic is often comically unlike genuine investigation of the topic, but there is a market for their message.

So it’s meaningful to call someone a climate change denier, evolution denier or vaccine denier. It might be wrong in any particular instance, but it’s not just an insult. It just means that they are “investigating” a topic in a very biased way, with only the barest pretense of finding out what’s true.

I’d especially like to see the term “vaccine deniers” given wider currency. These are people who try to discredit the proven efficacy of established vaccines. Clearly there can be legitimate debate about new, unproven vaccines, or reasonable suspicion of the pharmaceutical giants that sell them: it’s probably fair to say that the pharmaceutical industry is often an industry of denial. Vaccine denial goes far beyond this, claiming against all evidence that even the best-established vaccines are unsafe and ineffective. The vaccine denial industry gives life to scares such as that MMR vaccine causes autism. They are deniers in multiple senses, because they encourage the rest of us to deny children potentially life-saving medicine. Peter Bowditch’s site on this topic is impassioned, but it’s a morally important topic.

Update 16 November 2007: This new article on the Committee for Scientific Inquiry site about AIDS Denialism vs. Science explains the awful consequences of denying the link between HIV and AIDS, and justifies calling the anti-HIV campaign denialists rather than dissenters.

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