Denialism is a term used to describe those who reject propositions that are well supported by evidence. Examples include those who vehemently deny that anthropogenic global warming is occurring, that HIV causes AIDS and those who claim that smoking does not cause lung cancer and that vaccines do not work. Much has been written about the techniques used by those promoting denialist positions, however, I am also interested in what drives people to push denialist positions – what makes them believe that they are right and the majority of experts in the field they are denying are wrong.
I think at a basic level, the answer is simple. Most people like life to be simple, and easy to understand. It is much simpler to believe that we can convert billions of tonnes of carbon compounds into carbon dioxide and release it into the air with impunity; it is easier to blame AIDS on drug addicts and the sexually promiscuous and to suggest that a good diet + supplements is all that is needed to avoid it; it is easier to believe that the billions of dollars earned by the tobacco industry industry are not tainted with the deaths of lung cancer victims; it is easier to hope that good luck and a good diet will protect children from the hazards of measles and mumps.
Unfortunately, science has shown that life is not simple. Extensive research has shown the dangers of increasing the amount of green house gases in the atmosphere, of not vaccinating, of smoking and that HIV is the cause of AIDS. But these are messages that are difficult to face for many because to respond to them we have to accept some unpleasant truths and change our behaviours. Global warming, for example, threatens the worlds industry and economies. For some it is much easier to believe what we want to believe in spite of the facts. And here lies the danger. If belief is allowed to trump fact, then we cannot acknowledge that a problem exists. ANd if we do not acknowledge a problem exists we cannot fix it.
“When you are studying any matter… Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficial social effects if it were believed. Look only and solely at what are the facts.” Bertrand Russell, 1959