Denialism: Sometimes there’s no other way to describe it. Except maybe one.

Here we go again.

Every so often, one of the–shall we say?–less popular members of our crew of science bloggers, someone who, despite being an academic whose area of expertise is ostensibly science communication, has stepped in it again. I’m referring, of course to Matt Nisbet. Only this time, it’s not him lecturing us just on how to combat creationism. No, this time around, he isn’t limiting himself to just that, although that is what he made his name doing, around the blogosphere anyway. This time around, he’s perturbed at a certain word, a certain term that we skeptics sometimes feel compelled to use when confronting cranks who are not interested in honest debate but rather perpetuating a scientifically discredited point of view because of ideology. Such cranks include creationists, anthropogenic global warming denialists, 9/11 Truthers, “alternative” medicine mavens, and even Holocaust deniers. In fact, that last term goes to the heart of the current kerfuffle, because it is a word that has irritated Matt. It is a word that Matt thinks that we should never, ever use again.

Yes, Matt Nisbet is unhappy with skeptics who use the term “denier,” and he’s gone on the air for PRI International to express his displeasure.


Actually, when Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney first published their thesis on “framing science,” it resulted in a lot of controversy here on the ol’ ScienceBlogs. Oddly enough, at least at the beginning, I was one of the few who defended Chris and Matt’s thesis that, to communicate complex scientific ideas to the general public it is necessary to “frame” them in terms that resonate with the public. It seemed pretty darned common sense to me at the time based on my being a physician who has to use framing all the time to explain complicated medical issues to patients. I looked at the hostility to the concept of framing that came from a lot of the pure scientists in the blogosphere to the more practical, “applied science” of modern medicine, where framing seemed like an obvious strategy, and concluded that much of the controversy was due to a cultural divide between academics and those who actually did have to explain complex science to the public every day. Unfortunately, over time, I came to realize that, whatever merit the concept of framing may or may not have, in Matt Nisbet’s hands it seemed to mean an unrelenting kissing of the posteriors of religious people so as not to “alienate” them and an equally unrelenting scolding of successful science communicators who are too–shall we say?–blunt for Matt’s tastes.

My disillusionment with the concept of framing as taught and applied by Matt came to a head this spring, when he and Chris Mooney scolded P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins over the “Expelled!” incident. This was a famous incident in which PZ was refused entrance to a screening of the anti-evolution movie Expelled! while the producer didn’t recognize Richard Dawkins with him–and let Dawkins in. Matt even went so far as calling the incident “really, really bad for science” and Chris saying that it “helps Ben Stein, people.” utterly useless and unable to provide practical strategies for combatting what I consider to be the most pernicious form of antiscience out there right now: antivaccinationism. It was at that point that I wished that Chris Mooney would detach himself from Nisbet’s orbit, because Mooney seems far less impressed with his own awesomeness and more willing to reassess and retool based on data. True, he’s been quite angry in the recent past over his perception of unrelenting hostility towards the framing thesis, but I suspect (or at least I hope) that he is coming to realize that his framing partner has a tin ear.

So what, specifically, is Nisbet’s complaint this time around? He doesn’t like the term “denier” and thinks that no one should ever use it. Because Mark Hoofnagle has already done the work for me transcribing what Matt said in his interview, I’m going to be lazy, link to him, and steal that section, especially since he has commentary on it with which I largely agree:

Jason Margolis: Denial is a loaded term, often associated with the denial of atrocities in Nazi Germany and because of this, Mathew Nisbet, a communications professor at American University, doesn’t like using the term.

Nisbet: It sort of violates a third rail of political rhetoric in that it immediately puts or triggers people’s interpretations of the holocaust in the implication of the holocaust denier.

Jason Margolis: Nisbet says when you refer to your opponents as “deniers” you’re associating them with some of the most evil people in history.

Nisbet: The counter charge would be “how dare you call me a denier”, when that happens now the debate goes in the direction of exactly where you don’t want it to go, it becomes a discussion of the personalities involved in the conflict, rather than the substance of the issue, which was your original goal in the first place, so ultimately it end up being very distracting.

Matt also objects to the use of the term “antiscience”:

The frame device “denier” should be laid to rest in the same rhetorical grave as other terms such as “anti-science.” They serve little purpose other than to feed polarization while also frequently backfiring, turning the debate into a discussion of the alleged underhanded or sensational tactics of science defenders rather than a focus on the substance of the issues themselves.

Worse, these terms are also often inaccurate. Few if any people in modern society are actually “anti-scientific,” just like on few issues are the facts or evidence as clear as the Holocaust, the comparison called to mind in any use of “denier” in political discourse.

Hmmm. I guess I’m a big time sinner in Matt’s eyes. I frequently and unapologetically apply the term “antiscience” to those who are…well, antiscience. A better example I can’t think of than antivaccinationists. They are deniers in every sense of the word. They deny the efficacy of vaccines. They deny the scientific consensus that vaccines do not cause autism. They are anti-science in that they abuse science, deny it, and torture it to fit their ideology, all the while claiming to wrap themselves in its mantle. Come to think of it, I don’t hesitate to use the same sorts of language when it comes to outright quacks. They deny well-established scientific medicine and are antiscience in that they deny well-established science. What else besides a “denier” or “antiscience” can one call a homeopath, given that for homeopathy, multiple well-established physical laws and theories would have to be incorrect. We’re not talking global warming, where there is still some degree of uncertainty, not even close.

Now, I’m not oblivious to the fact that the term “denier” is a loaded term that is associated with Holocaust denial. Of course I know that! I’ve been involved in combatting Holocaust denial myself for a decade now. Indeed, I’ve made the very point myself that one should be very careful in deploying this term because if it’s done poorly it leaves an easy opening for the denialist to claim that he’s being called a Nazi (alas and ironically, I can’t find the link to my old post where I first made that very point–curse having such a large and extensive blog archive!). However, to take the term off the table completely, as Matt seems to be arguing that we should do, is willingly giving up an accurate shorthand term for what it is that deniers do. The same problem applies to the term “antiscience,” which so accurately describes a large variety of pseudocience and ideologically-motivated denial of accepted science. One reaon I refuse to do so is because, well, Matt hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory when it comes to his recommendations (read: pontifications and self-righteous orders) about science communication. A more important reason why I refuse to do so because I agree with Mike the Mad Biologist. Getting along and not insulting your opponent unnecessarily are worthy goals, but sometimes they interfere with winning. Sometimes it’s necessary to be blunt and tell it like it is. I also tend to agree with Mark Hoofnagle that “denialism” (perhaps a better term than “deniers” because it sounds less like “Holocaust denial” but conveys the same idea) is not about the science. It’s about specific and fairly easily recognizable deceptive techniques of argument used by deniers to deny a scientific or scholarly consensus for which there is a large amount of supporting data based on ideological reasons. Indeed, the nature of denialism was well described in the interview in which Matt Nisbet spoke:

  1. “Strategic denialism” or cynical denialism. The speaker knows that a contention or science-based assertion is correct but lies and says it is not, usually as a tactic to get what he wants.
  2. Denialism based on fear. The denialist is afraid to confront a known fact. This tends to be more personal, as in denying the seriousness of a symptom because one is afraid of what that symptom means. I’ve written a series of posts on the deadly power of denial, specifically this form of denial.
  3. Worldview denialism. This is usually what I’m talking about when I use the term “denialism.” It’s the denial of science, history, or any other well-established knowledge that conflicts with one’s world view. Thus, disparate forms of denialism like Holocaust denial and creationism both fall under this category. Holocaust denial exists because the Holocaust conflicts with a worldview that is sympathetic to the Nazis, for instance, while evolution conflicts with the religious worldview of creationists. (And, no, once again, I’m not saying that creationists are Nazis.)

In fact, what I find rather odd about Matt’s reaction to the interview is that he seems to think he’s delivered a slam-dunk argument against using terms like “denier” and “antiscience” when in the context of the interview he really has not. Indeed, Jason Margolis was very skeptical of his assessment and seems to have a better idea of what’s happening:

Jason Margolis: At a conference of self-labeled climate change skeptics in New York they agree, the term denier is offensive. Yet the speakers themselves continually bring up the term and the idea of the holocaust.

Tim Ball: About five years ago the Times of London referred to me as a climate change denier with all of the holocaust connotations of that term.

Roy Innis: We are deniers, in a very slick way of pushing us into a corner to look as if we like the moral equivalent or the immoral equivalent of the Nazis – holocaust deniers.

I think Mark Hoofnagle gets it right when he points out that these climate change deniers actually seem to view it as a point of pride to be called “deniers” and eagerly claim cry “persecution!” and whine about how they’re being likened to Nazis. Indeed, if the term “denier” didn’t exist, they would find some other term to take offense over, because viewing themselves as the “persecuted minority” is essential to their success in seeming to have a valid argument. It plays on people’s sense of fairness and general belief that there are always “two sides” to a story, even when scientifically there often are not. He’s also right when he points out that there is no substantive debate to be held with such people, mainly because they are not interested in substantive debate. They want to create a pseudodebate or a “manufactroversy,” in which there is no scientific controversy, but they want to perpetuate the appearance of a “debate,” again because the science or history conflicts with their world view. Again, I see no problem calling them on it.

Of course, if you’re less pugnacious than Mike, Mark, or me, in my benevolence, I’ll suggest an alternative term other than “denier” or “denialist.” Lately, I’ve started to like the term “pseudoskeptic.” It captures the essence of what denialists do almost as much as the term “denialist.” Remember, a true skeptic is always open to changing his or her mind if the evidence and science demand it. In contrast, no amount of evidence will ever change the mind of a pseudoskeptic. Also, unlike a skeptic, a pseudoskeptic will defend his position with logical fallacies, bad science, misinformation, and misleading arguments, while representing himself as a “skeptic” of established science. Indeed, climate change denialists like to refer to themselves as “skeptics,” even though they are in reality pseudoskeptics, as do HIV/AIDS denialists, who like to be known as AIDS “skeptics.” Even creationists like to be known as “evolution skeptics.” That’s because the label of “skeptic” implies reasoned questioning that is characteristic of the scientific method, and, of course, deniers/pseudoskeptics wnat to wrap themselves in the mantle of skepticism.

In the end, though, whatever term you choose to use, denier, denialist, or pseudoskeptic, they all refer to maintainers of a false debate, a pseudodebate, based on a caricature of science and reason, all to support their world view when it is in conflict with reality. Mark Hoofnagle makes an additional point that I tend to agree with. “Framing” may be useful for short term persuasion, but in the long term it’s bound to fail. A far more effective way to combat denialism is to teach people what good science is and what it is not, what constitutes sound arguments and what constitutes logical fallacies and bad arguments. Then they’ll be more able to recognize for themselves when someone is trying to snooker them with ideologically-motivated pseudoscience. Finally, Matt’s “framing” business seems to shun diversity. To Matt, it seems to me, it’s his way or the highway. Yet, often different techniques are required for different situations. Sometimes the diplomatic “framing” approach may be effective; other times a more blunt, full frontal assault is required. We should not put all our eggs into one basket of rhetorical armaments, so to speak, any more than the U.S. military would rely only on fighter jets and get rid of armored vehicles and infantry. Different weapons are required for different battles, often different combinations of weapons are needed for different battles. Matt’s framing thesis seems utterly oblivious to that simple observation, and that’s why I’ve decided, after having supported it, that, even though it probably has value in a number of situations, as practiced by Matt, framing equals spin equals defeat.