Living in denial: Why sensible people reject the truth

A very good article!

Living in denial: Why sensible people reject the truth – opinion – 19 May 2010 – New Scientist.

HEARD the latest? The swine flu pandemic was a hoax: scientists, governments and the World Health Organization cooked it up in a vast conspiracy so that vaccine companies could make money.

Never mind that the flu fulfilled every scientific condition for a pandemic, thatthousands died, or that declaring a pandemic didn’t provide huge scope for profiteering. A group of obscure European politicians concocted this conspiracy theory, and it is now doing the rounds even in educated circles.

This depressing tale is the latest incarnation of denialism, the systematic rejection of a body of science in favour of make-believe. There’s a lot of it about, attacking evolution, global warming, tobacco research, HIV, vaccines – and now, it seems, flu. But why does it happen? What motivates people to retreat from the real world into denial?

Here’s a hypothesis: denial is largely a product of the way normal people think. Most denialists are simply ordinary people doing what they believe is right. If this seems discouraging, take heart. There are good reasons for thinking that denialism can be tackled by condemning it a little less and understanding it a little more.

Whatever they are denying, denial movements have much in common with one another, not least the use of similar tactics (see “How to be a denialist”). All set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people. This conspiracy is usually claimed to be promoting a sinister agenda: the nanny state, takeover of the world economy, government power over individuals, financial gain, atheism.

All denialists see themselves as underdogs fighting a corrupt elite

This common ground tells us a great deal about the underlying causes of denialism. The first thing to note is that denial finds its most fertile ground in areas where the science must be taken on trust. There is no denial of antibiotics, which visibly work. But there is denial of vaccines, which we are merely told will prevent diseases – diseases, moreover, which most of us have never seen, ironically because the vaccines work.

Similarly, global warming, evolution and the link between tobacco and cancer must be taken on trust, usually on the word of scientists, doctors and other technical experts who many non-scientists see as arrogant and alien.

Many people see this as a threat to important aspects of their lives. In Texas last year, a member of a state committee who was trying to get creationism added to school science standards almost said as much when he proclaimed“somebody’s got to stand up to experts”.

It is this sense of loss of control that really matters. In such situations, many people prefer to reject expert evidence in favour of alternative explanations that promise to hand control back to them, even if those explanations are not supported by evidence (see “Giving life to a lie”).

All denialisms appear to be attempts like this 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.

This is not necessarily malicious, or even explicitly anti-science. Indeed, the alternative explanations are usually portrayed as scientific. Nor is it willfully dishonest. It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts. Denialist explanations may be couched in sciency language, but they rest on anecdotal evidence and the emotional appeal of regaining control.

Anecdote and emotion

Greg Poland, head of vaccines at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and editor in chief of the journal Vaccine, often speaks out against vaccine denial. He calls his opponents “the innumerate” because they are unable to grasp concepts like probability. Instead, they reason based on anecdote and emotion. “People use mental short cuts – ‘My kid got autism after he got his shots, so the vaccine must have caused it,'” he says. One emotive story about a vaccine’s alleged harm trumps endless safety statistics.

Seth Kalichman, a social psychologist at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, understands this better than most: he spent a year infiltrating HIV denialist groups. Many of the people he met were ordinary and sincere. “Denialism fills some need,” he says. “For people with HIV, it is a coping strategy,” albeit a maladaptive one.

Kalichman, however, feels that everyday reasoning alone is not enough to make someone a denialist. “There is some fragility in their thinking that draws them to believe people who are easily exposed as frauds,” he says. “Most of us don’t believe what they say, even if we want to. Understanding why some do may help us find solutions.”

He believes the instigators of denialist movements have more serious psychological problems than most of their followers. “They display all the features of paranoid personality disorder“, he says, including anger, intolerance of criticism, and what psychiatrists call a grandiose sense of their own importance. “Ultimately, their denialism is a mental health problem. That is why these movements all have the same features, especially the underlying conspiracy theory.”

Neither the ringleaders nor rank-and-file denialists are lying in the conventional sense, Kalichman says: they are trapped in what classic studies of neurosis call “suspicious thinking”. “The cognitive style of the denialist represents a warped sense of reality, which is why arguing with them gets you nowhere,” he says. “All people fit the world into their own sense of reality, but the suspicious person distorts reality with uncommon rigidity.”

It is not only similar tactics and psychology that unite denial in its many guises: there are also formal connections between the various movements.

Many denialist movements originate as cynical efforts by corporations to cast doubt on findings that threaten their bottom line. Big Tobacco started it in the 1970s, recruiting scientists willing to produce favourable data and bankrolling ostensibly independent think tanks and bogus grass-roots movements (see “Manufacturing doubt”). One such think tank was The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), set up in 1993 by tobacco company Philip Morris (American Journal of Public Health, vol 91, p 1749). TASSC didn’t confine itself to tobacco for long. After getting funds from Exxon, it started casting doubt on climate science.

Such links between denial movements are not unusual. A number of think tanks in the US and elsewhere have been funded by both the oil and tobaccoindustries and have taken denialist positions on smoking and warming.

TASSC folded when its true identity became widely known, but its successor,JunkScience, still rubbishes tobacco and climate research and warns people not to believe any scientist who says something “might be” true or uses statistics – which pretty much covers all scientists.

Perhaps it is no surprise that some industries are prepared to distort reality to protect their markets. But the tentacles of organised denial reach beyond narrow financial interests. For example, some prominent backers of climate denial also deny evolutionProminent creationists return the favour both in the US and elsewhere. Recent legislative efforts to get creationism taught in US schools have been joined by calls to “teach the controversy” on warming as well.

These positions align neatly with the concerns of the US political and religious right, and denial is often driven by an overtly political agenda. Some creationists have explicitly argued that the science of both climate and evolution involve “a left-wing ideology that promotes statism, nanny-state moralism and… materialism”.

People who buy into one denialism may support others for this reason. Dan Kahan at Yale Law School has found that people’s views on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage predict their position on climate science too. This, he argues, is because social conservatives tend to be pro-business and resist the idea that it is damaging the planet (Nature, vol 436, p 296).

But other denialisms suggest psychology, not just ideology, is crucial. There is no obvious connection between conservatism and vaccine or AIDS denial, and flu denial was promulgated by a left-leaning group suspicious of the vaccine industry.

Common ground

Nevertheless, some connections exist that hint at a wider agenda. For example, there is considerable overlap in membership between the vaccine and HIV deniers, says John Moore, an AIDS researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. Both movements have massive but mysterious funding.

Consider, too, the journal of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a lobbying group for private medicine. It showcases nearly all denialist causes. In the past two years it has published articles claiming thatHIV tests do not detect HIVsecond-hand smoke does little harmsmoking bans do not reduce heart attacksglobal warming presents little health threatand proposals for a US vaccination registry are “not really about vaccines but about establishing a computer infrastructure… that can be used for other purposes later”. It repeatedly published discredited assertions that vaccines cause autism.

It is tempting to wonder if activists sympathetic to climate and evolution denial might be grasping opportunities to discredit science in general by spreading vaccine and HIV denialism.

The conservative character of much denial may also explain its success at winning hearts and minds.

George Lakoff, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that conservatives have been better than progressives at exploiting anecdote and emotion to win arguments. Progressives tend to think that giving people the facts and figures will inevitably lead them to the right conclusions. They see anecdotes as inadmissible evidence, and appeals to emotion as wrong.

The same is true of scientists. But against emotion and anecdote, dry statements of evidence have little power. To make matters worse, scientists usually react to denial with anger and disdain, which makes them seem even more arrogant.

Poland has reached a similar conclusion. He has experimented a few times with using anecdote and appeals to emotion when speaking to lay audiences. “I get very positive responses – except from numerates, who see it as emotionally manipulative,” he says.

There are lessons here for other scientists who engage with denial. They can only win by learning to speak to the “innumerates”, who are otherwise likely prey for denialists.

The stakes are high – and sometimes even personal. Like many vaccine developers, Poland has received death threats. “I get phone messages saying ‘I hope your kids are safe’,” he says. So has Faye Flam, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who has written in support of climate science.

I get phone messages saying ‘I hope your kids are safe’

Denialism has already killed. AIDS denial has killed an estimated 330,000 South Africans. Tobacco denial delayed action to prevent smoking-related deaths. Vaccine denial has given a new lease of life to killer diseases like measles and polio. Meanwhile, climate change denial delays action to prevent warming. The backlash against efforts to fight the flu pandemic could discourage preparations for the next, potentially a more deadly one.

If science is the best way to understand the world and its dangers, and acting on that understanding requires popular support, then denial movements threaten us all.