The art of denial

I was sent this insightful article by ANU academic Andrew Glikson about denialism written by two medical scientists, Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee.

Whether it is the belief that the world is only a few thousands of years old, that HIV does not cause AIDS, or greenhouse gases don’t affect the energy balance of the planet, there are five unifying characteristics of denialism according to Diethelm and McKee.

As I listed them here, I found myself ticking them off one by one.

See what you think:

1. Belief that a major conspiracy is blocking the truth from being told (yes, we’ve heard that one!¬† A massive army of thousands of zombie scientists are keeping a dark secret about climate change).

2. The use of fake experts which is accompanied by the denigration of established experts and researchers (anyone come to mind … Watts, Carter, Bolt?)

3. Selectivity – drawing on isolated papers that challenge the consensus or highlight flaws in the weakest papers so as to discredit an entire field (sunspots anyone?).

4.¬† Creation of impossible expectations of what research can deliver (… GCM models can’t predict the weather next week … so we can’t use them to study climate change!)

5. Use of misrepresentation and logical fallacies (remember Bob Carter’s line several years ago? ¬†Atmospheric CO2 went up this year but global temperature didn’t, therefore climate change does not exist).

According to Diethelm and McKee, the normal academic response is to engage with the opposing argument, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the differing views. But as the authors point out, this only works as long as both parties obey certain ground rules, such as a willingness “to look at the evidence of the whole, and to reject deliberate distortions and accept the strength of logic”.

If either party chooses not operate under those rules, then they will tend to win (unfairly), often resulting in a false impression of the resolution of the debate to the non-expert observer.

Diethelm and McKee argue that the end of this article that “it is necessary to shift the debate from the subject under consideration, instead exposing to public scrutiny the tactics (denialists) employ and identifying them publicly for what they are. An understanding of the five tactics listed above provides a useful framework for doing so.”

After the frustrations of trying to pursue rational academic debate with people like Peter Ridd, Bob Carter and others, I would tend to agree with this perspective.

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