1. Opinion

Maxwell: Denialism takes root, choking off facts

Published May 30, 2014

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that has been reporting on climate science since 1988, gave the world an unequivocal warning in March: If destructive human activity — especially greenhouse gas emissions — is not brought under control soon, mankind's future on the planet is bleak.

"Observed impacts of climate change have already affected agriculture, human health, ecosystems on land and in the oceans, water supplies, and some people's livelihoods," according to the report. "The striking feature of observed impacts is that they are occurring from the tropics to the poles, from small islands to large continents, and from the wealthiest countries to the poorest."

Even though the IPCC is a panel of nearly 200 elite scientists from around the world, too many Americans deny that human activity has anything to do with global warming. Untold numbers deny that the planet is warming.

Many scholars say this kind of skepticism means that Americans mistrust science more today than ever before. It is a perplexing trend, because so much is at stake. In his book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, Michael Specter, a technology and science writer, points out that for hundreds of years, the overwhelming majority of Americans held the view that science was neither good nor bad, that it objectively offered new and valuable information that improved the quality of our lives.

In the United States, science is now being treated as if it were a special interest that does not always serve the greater good. It is one thing for individuals to be in denial. But when large groups, especially those who are well-organized and well-financed, are in denial of truth, the welfare of entire populations can be threatened.

"We have all been in denial at some point in our lives; faced with truths too painful to accept, rejection often seems the only way to cope," Specter writes. "Under those circumstances, facts, no matter how detailed or irrefutable, rarely make a difference. … Unless data fits neatly into an already formed theory, a denialist doesn't really see data at all. That enables him to dismiss even the most compelling evidence as just another point of view. Instead, denialists invoke logical fallacies to buttress unshakable beliefs."

Climate change is the most talked about area of denial, but there are other areas we should be concerned about.

Many people, for example, who did not experience the era of terrible diseases such as polio, measles, mumps, chickenpox and whooping cough have been misled to see a direct relationship between childhood vaccinations and the rising incidences of conditions such as diabetes, asthma and autism. They deny that vaccines save lives. Clearly, science does not support their reasoning.

Water fluoridation is another high-profile target of deniers. While most pediatricians and dentists swear by the benefits of fluoridation, legions of fluoride deniers, many of them elected officials, cannot be disabused of their fallacious thinking and blatant distortions of the truth.

One of the deniers' main scare tactics is to claim that fluoridation is linked to lower IQ scores in children, cynically preying on the emotions of parents.

The distortions typically take one of two routes. The first is to repeatedly misrepresent valid research until the distortions become the new truth. The second route is to cite inferior research, using findings that are methodologically flawed or not peer-reviewed by independent scientists or not relevant to fluoridation in the United States.

When all else fails, deniers make the government and scientists co-conspirators. "Denialism couldn't exist without the common belief that scientists are linked, often with the government, in an intricate web of lies," Specter writes. "When evidence becomes too powerful to challenge, collusion provides a perfect explanation."

Many scientists and progressive elected officials worry that as political and religious conservatism grows stronger in more sectors of American life, denialism will increase and become more destructive.

While acknowledging valid reasons for the pessimism, Specter believes that science will triumph: "Ultimately, dramatic achievements have always taken us past our fears and overcome denialism — because progress offers hope and for humans nothing beats hope. Fear might threaten progress; in the end, though, it won't prevent it."