The D word (denier, denial, denialism)

The “D word” is a hot potato in the current climate change debate. It comes in three flavors: denial, denier, denialism. A few simple web searches reveal that according to various sources, climate change deniers are criminals, have bizarre beliefs, are like racists or homophobes, have no scientific credibility, don’t deserve to be heard, etc.

Here’s an example from an online discussion.

I’ll also give you this: You and your fellow deniers are wrong, and you will be on the wrong side of history. In 50 years you will be scattered with the witch-burners, the white supremacists, the birthers and the creationists who illustrate the limits of the human mind and the danger that come (sic) with them. You’ll be crammed into historical footnotes that students around the world will chuckle at for those five minutes you are mentioned. I wish you could be around to see it, if for no other reason than to hear you bray frantically that Anthony Watts is still right.

Not surprisingly, those who have the are labeled as climate change deniers tend to disagree, although there are some who embrace the “denier” label.

But the D word is also being used in other contexts, as a general term for people who allegedly deny matters of fact.

Edward Skidelsky finds this use of the D word an alarming new development.

The extension of the “denier” tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people. One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment—the liberation of historical and scientific enquiry from dogma—is quietly being reversed.

I think the drama is overstated. The phenomenon he’s adressing—applying pejorative lablels to those who have minority opinions or unusual ideas about scientific subject—is nothing new; it’s just different linguistically; it’s the D word that has come into liberal and general use. Those who are now labeled “deniers” may previously have been called crackpots, kooks, pseudo-scientists, cranks, quacks, charlatans, frauds or any number of other more or less insulting terms. The D word is simply a more concise and effective way of expressing the same idea.

Is that idea a clear and useful one, though? Does it make us wiser, or does it just muddle our thinking? Are the different kinds of “denial” similar enough that they can usefully be assigned to the same abstract category? In other words, does the D word point to an identifiable phenomenon in the real world with known characteristics, or is it a somewhat arbitrary label that some like to use for opinions and ideas they don’t like? Is it a term that expresses something useful about its object, like “environmentalist”, or is it more like a non-specific derogatory label such as “asshole”?

There’s no doubt that there is such a thing as psychological denial, the classic example being alcohol or drug addicts denying that they have a problem. In such intensely personal cases, this may be clear to everyone except the addict.  But it’s still not trivial. You actually have to know a fair amount about the individual’s behavior to make that judgment. The problem in the general case is having to read people’s minds and how to avoid bias. If I attribute your opinion, which I just happen to disagree with, to “denial”, is that really the case, or is it me who’s in denial, unable to see the possibility that you might have good reasons for having that opinion?

We need to at least try to find some objective criteria. If denial or denialism is going to be an object of investigation or of a discussion that might further our understanding, we need to be able identify when it occurs, That means it has to be defined with sufficient precision to enable us to identify it.

So first, to avoid getting sidetracked, let’s review some basic logic. Any statement implies denial of any other statement that is logically inconsistent with it. If I assert that Barack Obama is president of the United States, I am implicitly denying that he is the president of Russia, the prime minister of Britian or the king of Thailand. If I say that global warming is cause primarily by changes in the Sun’s activity, I am denying that greenhouse gases are the major influence. But the converse is also true: if I state that it’s caused by greenhouse gases, I am denying that the influence of the Sun is dominant. So from a purely linguistic and logical point of view, these are equally denying something.

In other words, denial in a purely  linguistic sense will not help us divide the world ‘s population into deniers and non-deniers. But there are more specific definitions. Wikipedia has this to say about the definition of denialism:

In human behavior, denialism is exhibited by individuals choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable truth.[1] Author Paul O’Shea remarks, “[It] is the refusal to accept an empirically verifiable reality. It is an essentially irrational action that withholds validation of a historical experience or event”.[2] Author Michael Specter defined group denialism as “when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”[3]
In science, denialism has been defined as the rejection of basic concepts that are undisputed and well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a topic in favor of ideas that are both radical and controversial.[4] It has been proposed that the various forms of denialism have the common feature of the rejection of overwhelming evidence and the generation of a controversy through attempts to deny that a consensus exists.[5][6] A common example is Young Earth creationism and its dispute with the evolutionary theory.[7]

What does this mean? If denialism is “the rejection of basic concepts that are undisputed and well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a topic in favor of ideas that are both radical and controversial”, how can any new, revolutionary scientific theory avoid being labeled as “denialism”? Albert Einstein, for instance, rejected basic concepts that hardly anyone had even considered disputing, such as the notion of absolute space and time, the idea of an ether as medium for the propagation of light in outer space, and even the concept that gravity is a force acting at a distance.

Or what about the earlier definition, that “denialism is exhibited by individuals choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable truth.” How are we supposed to apply this in practice? First, how is denying realtity different from just being wrong? Edward Skidelsky (quoted above) says that “an accusation of “denial” is serious, suggesting either deliberate dishonesty or self-deception.” If so, which is it? Perhaps it would be more useful to differentiate the two instead of lumping them together. Second, assuming that we are able to ascertain that some people are in fact “denying reality”, how do we know that they are doing so because the truth is uncomfortable as opposed to other reasons such as ignorance, misunderstanding, tradition, stubbornness, or antipathy towards those who profess it? Just asking them will probably not uncover their motivation; more likely, they will deny it.

This brings us to the crux of the problem: these defintions don’t seem to offer an objective, practical way to distinguish denialism from simply being wrong for whatever reason. Or being right in spite of what everybody else might think. And if the label is simply subjective, it becomes just a cheap shot to fire at will against an opponent in a discussion. “You’re not just wrong, you’re irrational.” This is a primitive ad hominem argument, and it becomes circular because of the way it blocks dialog. If those who disagree with me are denialists, I don’t have to listen to them. And if I don’t listen to them, I’m likely to miss the arguments that might make the evidence for my point of view seem less overwhelming. And since overwhelming evidence is my reason for calling them denialists, it’s circular.

Consistent with the lack of an unambiguous definition, my experience with people who use labels like “denier” is that when two of them define it, the two definitions are usually not the same.

The concept of denialism seems to be part of a trend to over-simpify complex issues that have both political and scientific aspects. Climate change is just the most obvious case. It’s an issue that could hardly be less suitable for a black and white approach, even though it’s typically portrayed as a simple either-or question: is recent global warming caused by humans or not? Even this simple question is over-simplified, since it’s generally recognized that there are both anthropogenic and natural causes. So it’s a continuum rather than a dichotomy. Beyond that there is the question of how much it will change in the future and what impact (positive and negative) it will have. And that’s just the scientific aspect of it. In addition there are the political issues, which are at least as complex as the scientific ones.

Everybody denies something. And denying something because it’s unpleasant to think of? Well, one of the common names for that is wishful thinking. And saying you never engage in it is a little like saying you have never masturbated.  If you tell me, seriously, that you believe that you are perfectly rational and that your emotions never impact your thinking, then I say that you are simply uninformed about how your own brain works. And yet, this seems to be the attitude that hordes of climate activists are bringing to the conversation. (Many climate skeptics, too, for that matter.) It’s always the others, always “them”, never “us”, that are bringing rhetorical tactics and logical fallacies into the discussion.

In summary, denialism is an ill-defined concept posing as a well-defined one. This makes it useful for opportunistic attacks on specific viewpoints that some think should be be suppressed.


2 thoughts on “The D word (denier, denial, denialism)

  1. John Sheldon

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    Thank you for your two-part critique of ‘Merchants of Doubt’. It is simply masterful and conveys everything we’ve been saying (albeit unsuccessfully) for several years now. I suspect that you wish to remain anonymous, but if you want make contact with us please email me at:

    Yours faithfully,

    John B. Sheldon
    Executive Director
    George C. Marshall Institute

    1. dagfinn Post author

      Thank you so much, I’m really glad you liked it. There will be more; probably 4-6 parts to this.

      I’m not really anonymous. I just hadn’t taken the time to add my full name to the About page yet. My full name is in the “Big Question” post that originally appeared at Judith Curry’s blog.


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