environment & politics

On Denial

Skeptical Science takes a look at people who are in denial of scientific consensuses. An overwhelming number of lines of scientific evidence connects HIV to AIDS, smoking to lung cancer, humans to climate change and so on, yet many people choose to ignore the reality. When you’re not into denial to make a quick buck (perhaps a journalist hoping to take the money of a polluting firm or tobacco company), why else would people believe nonsense?

Certain defence mechanisms are tell-tale signs of denial. In one experiment, people were asked if they believed there was a link between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Those who answered yes were shown evidence that there was no such link, including a direct quote from President Bush. Despite the overwhelming evidence, only 2% of participants consciously changed their mind (although interestingly, 14% denied they ever believed in the link despite indicating so in the initial survey).

The most common response was attitude bolstering. This involves bringing to mind arguments that support pre-existing views while denying any counter evidence. The process is reflexive and almost sub-conscious. Attitude bolstering has an unexpected and unfortunate consequence. When one encounters threatening evidence, the cognitive process of bringing supporting arguments to the fore results in a strengthening of one’s views. This is known as the backfire effect, where debunking a myth can paradoxically end up reinforcing the myth. The effect is strongest among those whose views are already quite strong.

Read the rest – it’s fascinating to place this alongside an examination of the denial industry’s methods.

The older I get, the more fascinated I become by people and their beliefs – what motivates us to think in certain ways (a character I’m creating is a very logical thinker despite having a strong faith in gods, which probably prompted this line of thought today).

Most of the world laughs at David Icke, yet his books sell many copies, and a worrying number of people believe all that he says. When I worked in bookselling, I flicked through one or two of his tomes, out of curiousity; it was interesting to see how he would use references in his essays, yet when you checked them out they were often bizarre or nonsensical connections, so he was merely creating the illusion of truth*. It’s the sort of things climate change deniers also do. (Even when I read Houdini’s writings recently, I felt a sadness for the susceptibility of people.)

I’m not sure I was really going anywhere with this, except to say that denial and illusion seem very closely related.

* I’ve put that there merely to highlight his illusion of authority.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

2 replies on “On Denial”

Equally interesting is the need people have for other people to believe the same as them. With climate change there is a rationality behind this, i.e “We’re all ***** if you don’t help cut emissions” but with spirituality it gets more tenuous. Remember the whole “Rapture” saga? How quickly that faded from popular consciousness. Everyone was vehemently against the preacher, mocking him in advance of his predicted end of world date, but when he was proved wrong, no one said anything for very long. Why aren’t they all slagging him off now? While I like to think this might be the result of the Rapture hype being forgotten because of the sad death of Macho Man Randy Savage, it is probably not the case. Is it that people need other people to agree with them to relinquish their own doubts? However rational, scientific etc you can be, however well informed, there is always an unknown, an unknowable. The most obvious example of rational fundamentalism would be Richard Dawkins. Why does he crusade against religion so much? Why does it bother him what other people think, if he’s so certain that the physical reality and his data collection span the be all and end all of everything? Because he is afraid of dying? Because scientific rationality will always be separate from spirituality?

Hi Graham,

I think most scientists would tend to not be too bothered with spirituality in what they do, on account that they can’t really be particularly scientific about it. Which probably highlights why Richard Dawkins is a c*ck for his fundamentalism. Yes, that’s fine if you don’t believe in something, but there’s no need to hammer it down out throats is there? I actually think all he’s done is found a market for peddling that approach and has taken the money with gusto. 

However, I think there’s a fine line in addressing people’s beliefs – clearly in the case of HIV, cancer, and climate change, it’s in everyone’s interest for there not to be deniers, so there’s a more valid case for persuasion and questioning of that denial. 

If it’s something like a harmless, personal spirituality – then it should be probably left alone. Having said that, what if that spirituality led to cultish, destructive behaviour? Where should the line be drawn? When others are affected?

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