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Science denialism

Denialism vs. skepticism

Being a science writer is harder than being a sports writer because sports writers don’t have to deal with people who think that basketball doesn’t even exist.

Carl Zimmer

Excerpted from Denialism – RationalWiki

It is possible to conflate skepticism and denialism, as proponents of both seem to “deny” that something exists until they’re convinced otherwise. Denialists themselves often claim to be skeptics, and very rarely self-identify as denialists. But to say that a skeptic is a homeopathy denier and that a Holocaust denier is skeptical would be wrong.

While both have a negative or critical tone, the positions are different in how they view and acquire and interpret data:

Skepticism is a method – while denialism is a position.

The opposite of “skeptic” is not “believer,” and it is possible to embrace something while remaining skeptical. This is an essential part of the ethos of science as it suggests new experiments to strengthen or falsify a proposition.

Skeptics look at experiments to ensure that they were performed properly with the appropriate controls, proper data analysis and so on. The skeptical method involves examining all data and coming to a conclusion that it produces.

Denialists, on the other hand, view data slightly differently, as a means to a predetermined end – minimizing its importance if it goes against their opinion, highlighting it if it supports them, or just plain misrepresenting it for their own purposes.

Skeptics keep an open mind until data shows that a hypothesis is invalid, while denialists start with the conclusion and look for support.

To put it another way, denialism embraces confirmation bias while skepticism seeks to avoid it.

One blogger put it this way:

“”Skeptics also ask questions, but a big difference between skeptics and denialists is that skeptics listen to answers and regard evidence as paramount. Denialists tend to see the piles of evidence against their claim, and see a conspiracy theory to perpetuate a hoax. But skeptics accept good evidence. Skeptics have a lot of respect for science, and denialists are usually out to undermine scientists working in the field where they have an agenda. “

“Denialists will wear the costume of scientific thinking, but they usually show a piss-poor understanding how … the accumulation of studies and data work. (For instance, they promote the idea that if one study can be found to be flawed, this brings down the whole theory, as if the other hundreds of studies don’t count.)

This distinction is really important, because the role of skeptics is to dispute and even disprove outrageous conspiracy theory claims. Skeptics fight against denialists. That’s why I’m interested in skepticism — I fear that there’s a surge of denialist thinking in our culture fueled by new media (which is great at a lot of good things, but also good at spreading misinformation) and the explosion in both complications in world politics and the everyday person’s awareness of them. As science begins to dictate more and more of what we know, there’s also a cultural backlash that’s related to the overall backlash against modernism. Skepticism is becoming more and more important as the political troops to defend science. So when people who are part of the anti-science backlash call themselves “skeptics,” this confuses the issue.

Excerpted from Denialism – RationalWiki

From the Wikipedia article on Denialism:

In human behavior, denialism is exhibited by individuals choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable truth. Author Paul O’Shea remarks, “[It] is the refusal to accept an empirically verifiable reality. It is an essentially irrational action that withholds validation of a historical experience or event”.

In science, denialism has been defined as the rejection of basic concepts that are undisputed and well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a topic in favor of ideas that are both radical and controversial.

Several motivations and causes for denialism have been proposed, including religious beliefs and self-interest, or as a psychological defense mechanism against disturbing ideas.

In a 2003 newspaper article, Edwin Cameron—a senior South African judge who has AIDS—described the tactics used by those who deny the Holocaust and by those who deny that the AIDS pandemic is due to infection with HIV. He states that “For denialists, the facts are unacceptable. They engage in radical controversion, for ideological purposes, of facts that, by and large, are accepted by almost all experts and lay persons as having been established on the basis of overwhelming evidence”. To do this they employ “distortions, half-truths, misrepresentation of their opponents’ positions and expedient shifts of premises and logic.”

Zoidberg understands statistics

Zoidberg understands statistics

Edwin Cameron notes that a common tactic used by denialists is to “make great play of the inescapable indeterminacy of figures and statistics”, as scientific studies of many areas rely on probability analysis of sets of data, and in historical studies the precise numbers of victims and other facts may not be available in the primary sources.

Such “recourse to data debates and pseudo-scientific ‘evidence'” has also been noted as a common feature of several types of denialism in a 2009 article published in the journal Globalization and Health.[13]

This is an area which British historian Richard J. Evans mentioned as part of his analysis of the David Irving’s work which he presented for the defence when Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt for libel:

Reputable and professional historians do not suppress parts of quotations from documents that go against their own case, but take them into account, and, if necessary, amend their own case, accordingly. They do not present, as genuine, documents which they know to be forged just because these forgeries happen to back up what they are saying. They do not invent ingenious, but implausible, and utterly unsupported reasons for distrusting genuine documents, because these documents run counter to their arguments; again, they amend their arguments, if this is the case, or, indeed, abandon them altogether. They do not consciously attribute their own conclusions to books and other sources, which, in fact, on closer inspection, actually say the opposite. They do not eagerly seek out the highest possible figures in a series of statistics, independently of their reliability, or otherwise, simply because they want, for whatever reason, to maximize the figure in question, but rather, they assess all the available figures, as impartially as possible, in order to arrive at a number that will withstand the critical scrutiny of others. They do not knowingly mistranslate sources in foreign languages in order to make them more serviceable to themselves. They do not willfully invent words, phrases, quotations, incidents and events, for which there is no historical evidence, in order to make their arguments more plausible.

Mark Hoofnagle (brother of Chris Hoofnagle) has described denialism as “the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none”. It is a process that operates by employing one or more of the following five tactics in order to maintain the appearance of legitimate controversy:

  1. Conspiracy theories — Dismissing the data or observation by suggesting opponents are involved in “a conspiracy to suppress the truth”.

  2. Cherry picking — Selecting an anomalous critical paper supporting their idea, or using outdated, flawed, and discredited papers in order to make their opponents look as though they base their ideas on weak research.

  3. False experts — Paying an expert in the field, or another field, to lend supporting evidence or credibility.

  4. Moving the goalpost — Dismissing evidence presented in response to a specific claim by continually demanding some other (often unfulfillable) piece of evidence.

  5. Other logical fallacies — Usually one or more of false analogy, appeal to consequences, straw man, or red herring.

Tara Smith of the University of Iowa also stated that moving goalposts, conspiracy theories, and cherry-picking evidence are general characteristics of denialist arguments, but went on to note that these groups spend the “majority of their efforts critiquing the mainstream theory” in an apparent belief that if they manage to discredit the mainstream view, their own “unproven ideas will fill the void”.


AIDS denialism is the denial that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS denialism has been described as being “among the most vocal anti-science denial movements”. Some denialists reject the existence of HIV, while others accept that the virus exists but say that it is a harmless passenger virus and not the cause of AIDS.

Insofar as denialists acknowledge AIDS as a real disease, they attribute it to some combination of recreational drug use, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and side effects of anti-retroviral medication, rather than infection with HIV. However, the evidence that HIV causes AIDS is scientifically conclusive, and the scientific community rejects and ignores AIDS-denialist claims as based on faulty reasoning, cherry picking, and misrepresentation of mainly outdated scientific data With the rejection of these arguments by the scientific community, AIDS-denialist material is now spread mainly through the Internet.

Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa, embraced AIDS denialism, proclaiming that AIDS was primarily caused by poverty. About 365,000 people died from AIDS during his presidency; it is estimated that around 343,000 premature deaths could have been prevented if proper treatment had been available.

Climate change

Some international corporations, such as Exxon-Mobil, have contributed to “fake citizens’ groups and bogus scientific bodies” that claim that the science of global warming is inconclusive, according to a criticism by George Monbiot. Exxon-Mobil did not deny making the financial contributions, but its spokesman stated that the company’s financial support for scientific reports did not mean it influenced the outcome of those studies. “The recycling of this type of discredited conspiracy theory diverts attention from the real challenge at hand: how to provide the energy needed to improve global living standards while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” Newsweek and Mother Jones have published articles stating corporations are funding the “denial industry”.

In the context of consumer protection, denialism has been defined as “the use of rhetorical techniques and predictable tactics to erect barriers to debate and consideration of any type of reform, regardless of the facts.” The Bush Administration’s replacement of previous science advisers with industry experts or scientists tied to industry, and its refusal to submit the Kyoto Protocol for ratification due to uncertainties they asserted were present in the climate change issue, have been cited by the press as examples of politically motivated denialism.


Religious beliefs may prompt an individual to deny the validity of the scientific theory of evolution. Evolution remains an undisputed fact within the scientific community and in academia, where the level of support for evolution is essentially universal, yet this view is often met with opposition by biblical literalists. The alternative view is often presented as a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis … Beliefs that typically coincide with creationism include the belief in the global flood myth, geo-centrism, and the belief that the Earth is only 6,000-10,000 years old. …

Geocentrism versus Heliocentrism

It is a proven fact that the Earth is not the center of the universe, or even the center of our solar system. Our solar system is heliocentric – a star (the Sun) is at our solar system’s center, and Earth and the other planets orbit around it. Some science denialists reject this view and claim that the Earth is the literal center of the universe.

Big Bang Theory (origin of our universe)

There is broad scientific consensus our universe began 14.5 billion years ago.

This article is adapted from Wikipedia contributors. “Denialism.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 Sep. 2015. Web. 29 Sep. 2015.

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