Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What cannot be denied

That would be denialism. New Scientist has a collection of essays on the subject, which actually ameliorate some of the puzzlement I have had about the phenomenon. The contributors discuss several underlying causes, ranging from corporate sponsorship of disinformation campaigns to populist ideologies which view experts as oppressive elites.

Deborah McKenzie's framing essay, Living in denial, proposes that "All denialisms appear to be attempts . . . to regain a sense of agency over uncaring nature: blaming autism on vaccines rather than an unknown natural cause, insisting that humans were made by divine plan, rejecting the idea that actions we thought were okay, such as smoking and burning coal, have turned out to be dangerous." I'm not sure this generalization is true -- I don't see how it explains AIDS denialism, holocaust denialism, or that it even makes sense internally. Is the danger of tobacco somehow an example of uncaring nature depriving us of agency? On the contrary, it seems to me. We have agency, we can smoke or not.

She goes on to interview Seth Kalichman, who we have met here previously. Seth sees psychological disorders in the leaders of many denialist movements, including grandiosity and neurotic suspicion. This may be true, but perhaps Michael Shermer's formulation that denialism is essentially backwards thinking -- arguing from a pre-ordained conclusion to cherry pick the evidence -- will seem less confrontational. These are not mutually exclusive views, of course.

It is a waste of time to argue with ideological true believers; they aren't interested in finding the truth based on evidence, they just believe. However, if there is hope in winning some people away from denialism, it lies in cultivating critical thinking skills. Many people are persuaded to denialist movements simply because denialists are very successful at manipulating the way most people normally think. McKenzie interviews Greg Poland, who says that anti-vaxers are innumerate, unable to grasp concepts of probability. "People use mental shortcuts: my kid got autism after he got the shots, so the vaccine must have cause it."

So what this tells me is that I need to get back to the statistics for dummies project. I've back-burnered it because I'm trying to figure out how to do it better. But you'll be glad to know I've actually gotten some help, and I'll be talking with an expert on adult education tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I gotta love the fortune cookie I got today: "In all matters of opinion, you always say it better."


Anonymous said...

I don’t much like modern ‘pop’ Anglo writings on ‘denial’.

The original idea (without going into detail or tracing history) was a ‘cognitive’ mechanism that allows ppl to completely obscure, eradicate, very painful facts; or to act as if these did not exist, while being somewhat aware on some level. Most of us use denial-type mechanisms often. We put the past behind us, let it slip away, even forget entirely (the bad parts); we ‘deny’ (for ex.) that we are in an abusive relationship, etc. I knew, intellectually, my father was going to die, but denied it in the sense that I never thought about it, acted as if that tomorrow would not come. All of us have experiences like this. We humans need an optimistic or rosy outlook, and spend much of our time smoothing over social interactions, ignoring and covering up the bad, sugar-coating, going for the ‘good’...

The flip side of ‘denial’ is ‘rationalization’ - we construct arguments, explain, justify: horrors, catastrophes, violence, evil, etc. thereby sort of ‘rationalizing’ it away. A city was destroyed because God was angry at loose morals; US drones are not killing random civilians in Pakistan, but ‘evil Taliban terrorists’; an abuser had an unhappy childhood and is ‘doing his best and will reform’...

The modern Anglo use of ‘denial, denialist’ is perjorative, and really means, “stupid idiots who deny / contest / refuse to believe” whatever the conventional wisdom of the moment it. It seems to have gathered legs mostly through ‘Holocaust denial’.

It is in a way similar to ‘conspiracy theorist’, which brands a certain section of opinion that refuses the potted explanations of the PTB and the MSM. (Few ‘conspiracy theorists‘ believe in nutty ‘conspiracies’, at a first level they are simple ‘refusniks‘ or ‘denialists’.)

And then that hmmm stance is psycholgised further, such as recovering a sense of agency. (New scientist)

In this way, opinion, belief, particular political stances, interpretation of information, alternative narratives, different readings of reality, contesting Gvmt actions (as well as frankly crank-pot ideas but that is my judgment!) are all thrown into the same pot and become ‘psychologised’, that is linked to ‘individual characteristics‘ assimilated to ‘mental illness’ similar to bi-polar, neurological damage, etc.

Readers will be well aware of the fact that the USSR treated public dissidents as schizophrenics that had to be locked up and shocked (literally) out of their weird world views. (Aka threatened, coerced.)

Americans would say this was cruel, illegitimate, and a symptom of hyper-authoritarian control on the part of a ‘nazi‘ type lame-empire - they would be right.

However, the pressure to adherence to conventional wisdom, or to what is deemed to be ‘accepted facts‘ takes many forms, as does social control, and history may be, or become, a shockingly stark spotlight.

The shrill condemnation of ‘denialists’, and the lame psycho-babble served up to support disdain towards them not only rings hollow but signals a system grappling with issues that have spun out of control. In China, it was, not good to ‘have bad thoughts’ .. it a familiar situation.

Denialism should be framed, first of all, into the general rubric of ‘belief’, as C did in his post. What is belief? Who believes, what, why, and with what degree of certainty?


Cervantes said...

I agree that it's difficult to draw the line between reasonable skepticism and dissent, and insistence on beliefs which are clearly irrational, which is what "denialism" has come to mean in the modern sense. I too am not so convinced by the psychological theories, which are also applied oftentimes to political dissenters. On the other hand, nobody is saying that anti-vaxers or AIDS deniers should be locked up or medicated.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and thank goodness that anti-vaxers, AIDS deniers are not hounded.

Yet perhaps at some point, it might become necessary, in the eyes of some, to forcibly vaccinate children. Or one might have wished to remove Thabo Mbeki (AIDS denialist in South Africa) with some force.

The common good (as perceived) would then trump ‘freedom’, ‘individual choice’, etc. That opens up a can of squirming philosophical worms, as well as pragmatics on the ground, the means to carry out whatever planned action, etc. It is an ancient opposition, present in all organized societies - the balance or negotiation between individual opinion, the actions or non-actions that follow from it (and possible garnering of advantage) vs. what is judged as positive, or essential, vital, necessary, for the ‘commons.’

To pursue about vax/>causes autism, I have no clue about the motives, the spurs, of Wakefield’s devastating scientific articles. But it is certainly possible that his work, or temp. conclusions, were prompted by a popular meme. If so, Science, quote unquote, (the Lancet no less) did not investigate but got on the band-wagon, if you follow.

The scientific community considered him a nut (in my milieu) but did not take the time and trouble to denounce, or trounce him. They were above all that. Research would wend its merry way and populist nonsense would be ignored. The few who tried to point out that this was not the case, and that medical and psychological science are for ever fed by what one might call sociological inputs were ignored.