Welcome to the most exciting, the most thrilling and the most sexually anticipated series of posts on this inane blog. I thought up most of this text while falling asleep once, and then forgot it all. These are the dregs of my somnambulance. Embrace them.
Denialism is the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one's viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing, but ultimately empty and illogical assertions.
Hoofnagle and Hoofnagle, What is Denialism?
There are many kinds of denialism. The most well-known, perhaps, is Holocaust denialism; the attempt to deny the facts of the Holocaust, that roughly 6 million Jews and 6 million Slavs, homosexuals, gypsies and others were executed in mass and deliberate killings enacted with the full knowledge of and by the Nazi government with the collusion of governments and citizenry of several nations, through the use of gas chambers built especially for the purpose, and myriad other means of murder. For the most part when they break into our quiet little internet corner we laugh it off or rebuke them with indignation - no serious thinking person could possibly fall for the obvious falsehoods of Holocaust deniers; they are openly driven by puerile interests, and they stand naked and exposed in the light of literal tons of documentary evidence, hundreds of thousands of witnesses, scientific inquiry and confession - so why humour them? This is actually an excellent question, but not one to be answered today.
AIDS denialism is perhaps second in infamy in the West, although its successes internationally are far greater, and far graver; it is the attempt to deny that HIV causes AIDS, and to deny the efficacy of AIDS treatments, which themselves are frequently blamed for symptoms or AIDS itself. The brief adoption of AIDS denialism by the South African government under President Mbeki alone killed hundreds of thousands of people and has resulted in the preventable transmission of the disease to thousands of babies from their infected mothers, and we are suddenly rather less inclined to laugh at them than at Holocaust deniers. It contradicts as much evidence as holocaust denial must. It has as little foundation in fact, although the arguments are more technical and we can't follow them all. But it has been and is taken seriously by very powerful people, and people without such power die as a result.
Closer to home the cost of the tobacco industry's concerted attempts to deny the carcinogenic properties of smoking, and then of second hand smoke, are long-exposed, and to a greater extent the toll is also forgotten despite the immense number of lives tobacco continues to take; with industry efforts to deny climatology, we witness the dangerous pattern emerge again, where industry and faux scholarship are pitted against the scientific community. Homeopaths often, and certainly amongst themselves, deny that 'allopathic' medicine - their jargon term for evidence-based medicine - is effective, and are occasionally exposed, with the aegis of an assumed and fictional authority, advising patients against using well-evidenced treatments and for using a sugar pill, which, numerous studies and a century or two later, still does not have an effect greater than placebo. Similarly anti-vaccine campaigners have tried various ruses in combating medicine, the most well known in America perhaps being the promulgation of the claim that the thiomersal preservative used in some vaccines causes autism. In Britain, where thiomersal usage has always been low, but which has experienced an identical spike in autism diagnoses, the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (known as the MMR 'triple jab') is typically blamed. It contains no thiomersal, and also does not cause autism. The efforts of such people, and a media willing and eager to stoke the flames of sensationalism and fear, have resulted in a drop in the MMR vaccine's usage, and measles is once more endemic in Britain. The diagnoses of autism continue to rise, as they do in America, Japan, and Canada despite the removal of most or all vaccines containing thiomersal, and extensive studies and meta-analyses across each nation demonstrating that neither thiomersal nor the MMR vaccination cause autism.
Clerics in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan have spread rumours that the polio vaccine causes sterility, and is a Western plot to eradicate muslims, leading to drops in coverage which have led to minor outbreaks in the latter countries and larger ones in Africa. The Catholic Church champions opposition to effective condom programmes in Africa, skimping on scientific accuracy when theology fails, hindering efforts to combat AIDS through the simple art of dishonesty regarding the science and statistics of such efforts. Pharmaceutical companies do this sort of thing all of the time; sometimes even twice, before breakfast. The efforts of creationists in the US to suppress biology education in state schools in the US are legion, have been expensive for taxpayers, and have resulted in several generations of children in various locales having their educations hindered for no sane reason, but typically creationists do not enjoy much success in such efforts, at least for very long. Japanese officials and MPs frequently deny the extent of the horrors committed by the Imperial Army during the second world war, and this denial creeps into text books and syllabuses.
Many forms of denialism, regardless of success, seem to be rather less malevolent irrespective of their popularity. Who cares if Bob in accounting thinks George Bush fired a missile into the Pentagon on 9/11 and Neil Armstrong never set foot on the moon? If someone thinks Oliver Stone's JFK is full of ground-breaking revelations does it make a difference to man or beast? No, of course. But the same kind of thinking, the same stalwart opposition to the full weight of evidence, and the same opposition to numerous sciences, mathematics and well-established historical methodologies underpin all of these beliefs. Rather than looking at the validity of the beliefs themselves I'm going to make a series of posts looking at some of the ways in which denialists transmit their ideas, in a mad frenzy of anti-science bingo of how the propaganda is, indeed, catapulted. I believe any reasonably intelligent and well-informed person will readily be able to weigh and find false these various denialist claims, which I've spent a ridiculously long time refuting to little avail anyway - I'll try to resist sticking in the refutations to the individual examples I'll raise, but the flesh is weak. This will be grossly informal of course; the categories I've chosen are based on my own meandering surprise at how often the same kind of arguments, the same strategies of attacking science, are engaged in across the denialist spectrum.