Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The denialism puzzle

I've been hearing ads on National Pubic Radio - oh excuse me, not ads, "underwriting" -- for this new film that claims the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays. Here's Joe Romm comparing this absurd nonsense to climate change denialism. I came across it after a visit to Seth Kalichman's blog, where a commenter issues a veiled death threat because Dr. K maintains that HIV causes disease. As you may have noticed, it is now an official requirement for Republican candidates for office to deny evolution, anthropogenic climate change, and the toxic effects of air and water pollution.

Many questions are legitimately controversial and every once in a while, some pretty well-settled beliefs get overturned. But that's actually less common than it used to be, because unlike folks in the past, we have a vast and growing accumulated store of knowledge on which to build our conclusions, ever better methods of observing and measuring, and more powerful deductive tools and ways of testing hypotheses. We actually do know more than people knew in the past. So yeah, Galileo was right and the prevailing belief was wrong but guess what? There's zero chance Galileo will be overturned and we'll find out the earth is at the center of the universe after all.

The same goes for evolution. We know that the broad outlines of evolutionary theory are correct and that life on earth diversified over billions of years from a common ancestor. It's just a fact, like the earth going around the sun. It's been proved beyond any shadow of a doubt by an overwhelming body of evidence. Same with HIV and AIDS. Everybody who has had anything to do with HIV care knows that if you give people who are at death's door from AIDS anti-retroviral drugs, they get better. People who weigh 80 pounds, whose bodies are wracked by fungal infections and bizarre viruses, who vomit up everything they swallow, suddenly get up off their death beds and start chowing down and dancing the cha cha. They stop taking the drugs, they get sick again. They take the drugs again, they get better again. QED.

And so on. Homeopathy. Vaccines cause autism. Dick Cheney masterminded the 9/11 attacks.* Yet these people are absolutely beyond hope of convincing. No possible evidence or argument could sway them. I'm proud to say that I've changed my mind on quite a few issues after studying the evidence. But it seems a badge of honor right now for people to refuse to do so and not only to hang on fiercely to nonsensical beliefs, but to demonize and threaten people who are rational. See Rick Perry claiming that the entire enterprise of climate science is a conspiracy to steal grant funding by falsifying data, and the Virginia AG trying to prosecute Michael Mann.

And the corporate media, as we well know, is resolutely committed to avoiding sorting out truth from falsehood at all costs. "Shape of the Earth: Views Differ," as Paul Krugman imagined the headline. Our civilization is in peril. I'm at my wit's end.

* Yes, the Bush administration failed to act on information urgently provided to "president" Bush. There's probably a lot more we should know about the whole thing. But we know who proactively did it and why the buildings fell down.

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