In a recent extended thread on the Holocaust (1939-1945), I was struck by how similar the arguments and tactics used by Holocaust deniers was to tactics used by climate change deniers, and also creationists.
I also realised that this sort of direct denial of facts was increasingly common, though only among a lunatic fringe. However, even a lunatic fringe had a certain amount of power to confuse the public mind.
Denial is a well-known symptom of grief - a refusal to face unpalatable facts. We all know people who deny things that are uncomfortable but true: that they are alcoholics in spite of the devastation it causes to their loved ones, who deny their partners cheat in spite of blatant evidence, who deny they made poor choices in spite of the downward spiral in their personal health and wealth ... and so on.
Denial is a normal part of the human condition. But it can become pathological, with the person in denial holding fast to outmoded and even harmful beliefs in spite of the evidence e.g. the chain-smoker who denies smoking causes cancer and can destroy your quality of life.
Types of denial are proliferating - Obama "Birther" loons deny that a black man is legally US President to escape the discomfort of accepting that unpalatable fact. Creationists have a difficulty with a reduced role for God in nature. Holocaust deniers are antisemites who cannot accept that antisemitism led inexorably to appalling genocide. Climate change deniers are generally people of intense individualist/ authoritarian views who cannot accept communal and egalitarian action against climate change.
How is denialism spotted? Here are some characteristics I have observed. Some or all may be applicable. Some are applicable to "normal" people also, but seldom all.
- Deniers rely mainly on the media for "facts", rarely on published science or historical research. They use social media and blogs mostly to spread their views. In that sense they can be likened to a cult or a peer network. They publish mainly for members, and use the mass media to reach the public, rather than specialist journals.
- The Conspiracy Theory is at the heart of denialism. Holocaust deniers believe the Jews prevent the publication of "the truth". Creationists and climate change deniers believe scientists are suppressing research that would overthrow modern zoology or climatology. A denialism is hardly complete without its conspiracy theory.
- Sources for facts are obscure and not generally known. An aura of "knowing more than I can say" is created, which impresses the unwary.
- Evidence is anecdotal, rather than systematic or scientifically analyzed.
- Deniers play the victim/ bully role whenever it suits. Victim (Holocaust denier): "I am only asking questions" (tone of injured innocence." Bully: Strident, hectoring tone about the iniquities of Israel.
- A false claim to desire "the truth". Sometimes this is called "concern trolling" with a poster requesting facts or information. Of course, with each presentation of evidence, the questioner's doubts apparently grow. They will proclaim themselves as "still skeptics", though the skepticism is all fakery.
- Arrogance/ Boasting: Typical; "I have just been asking a few simple questions, but one can answer them."
- Deniers are isolated from the mainstream, but use the internet to insinuate themselves into it.
In the end, deniers of whatever stripe play fast and loose with the facts. When faced with these symptoms, use Google to do your own research.
Remember Orwell: Freedom is the freedom to say 2 + 2 = 4
In other words, freedom is the right to state the facts without fear. The facts are established by evidence. That is the antithesis of denialism.