What Drives Denialism? The Simple Answer

By Michael Edmonds 27/10/2011 9


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


9 Responses to “What Drives Denialism? The Simple Answer”

  • It’s a bit more complicated than that.
    First you have to divide up the denialists (deniers?) into two groups- those who are sincere, and those who are denying for commercial or other reasons than genuine belief. The latter group is small but can be very influential as we know.
    In the ‘sincere’ group are a faction who are simply contrarian- they just want to be in the minority on any given issue. I have often found that contrarians don’t feel very strongly about the issue in question, (eg “9/11 was a US government conspiracy”) but they get a kick out of simply being different. It’s their way of affirming their identity.
    That leaves the remainder, whose thought processes are more mysterious. Some people are simply incapable of thinking in a logical way, and others can be logical on some topics and not on others. A lot of creationists are probably like that.

  • Kemo sabe

    I agree that the thought processes of denialists are potentially more mysterious and complex, but I still would suggest that one of the underlying drivers is that many of them want life to be simple and easy, so they reject anything that makes life too complicated or uncomfortable (of course as you point out some contrarians may have other drivers as well).

    I think this is also an underlying driver for many areas of pseudoscience, for example, homeopathy – it is much simplier to believe in 200 year old beliefs about sympathetic medicine, than to attempt to understand how modern medicine and the human body work.

  • I agree with Kemo Sabe that the reasons for denialism are manifold. Some antivaxers, for instance, sincerely believe that their efforts will lead to better public health, and some of what they advocate does make sense. In other words their motivations appear to be sincere and public-spirited, if misguided.
    I don’t know if I agree with your thesis of wanting things to be simple – some antivaxers go to all kinds of lengths to construct alternative theories when the simple approach might just be to trust the advice from one’s doctor that vaccination is beneficial.

    Climate change denial is an interesting one. I think some folk are just plain contrary – as Kemo Sabe described. It’s also strongly influenced by people’s political views. It’s pretty much an article of faith for the far right – clearly motivated by their fears that it will impinge on their precious personal freedoms.

  • Agree that the motivations of denialists are likely to be manifold. My personal take on this is that a probably relatively significant fraction are bewildered by the complexity and often contradictory evidence from science around the above issues. This is not at all helped by media reporting of science. Without the training and ability to understand what experiments/arguments are scientifically sound (for example something as simple as distinguishing between correlation and causation), it is impossible to distinguish between spin and facts. My feeling has been that this simply results in a general mistrust of complex science. It is easier, if you like. to disbelieve scientific evidence than making informed decisions on which science give genuine guidance. So I agree with you, Michael, that the wish to have simplicity is a motivator, but my take on this is that the breadth and depth of science knowledge required to inform opinions is increasingly unachievable for many folk thus leading to a general distrust of anything scientific. You end up with gut feelings that are justified post-hoc. Given that science is getting ever more complex and appears to be in favour of more component based work (despite the acknowledge need for synthesis and integration of information) I cannot see this getting better. There are going to be only very few people who are able to make a truly informed decision, the rest of us will have to choose to believe or disbelieve spin. Perhaps this means real scientist will need to get significantly better at spin?

  • There is also what might be called ‘denial by association’.
    In other words, if you hold a particular belief, you have to deny any proposition that undermines that belief.
    An example might be geocentricity. If you believe that the earth is the centre of the universe, as some do, then you have to deny that the moon landings ever happened.
    I should imagine any creartionist would have a lot of ‘associated denying’ to do.
    Thre presumably comes a point where the weight of denial becomes too much to bear, for some people at least.

  • Carol,

    “I don’t know if I agree with your thesis of wanting things to be simple – some antivaxers go to all kinds of lengths to construct alternative theories when the simple approach might just be to trust the advice from one’s doctor that vaccination is beneficial.”

    Good point, but I would suggest that the reason antivaxxers construct such complex theories is that they are trying to justify a simplistic core belief – that vaccinations don’t work.
    The title of my post was probably a bit misleading. I don’t think that the need for “life to be simple” is the only think driving denialism, but I do think that of you dig down to the core of many denialism beliefs part of it is that the denialists have some simple core beliefs which they “want” to be true. However to justfify them they often have to construct rather complex arguments (often including conspiracy theories).
    Although as Kemo sabe points out the true contrarians may just like to be “different”
    I think it is interesting (and probably very useful) when engaged with a denialist to try and dig down to get to their core beliefs, because if we understand these we can at least see why they believe what they believe

  • Good point, but I would suggest that the reason antivaxxers construct such complex theories is that they are trying to justify a simplistic core belief – that vaccinations don’t work.

    Personally, in the case of those opposing vaccines I believe a key deeper, underlying, issue is wanting to be in control of their own lives and opposing decisions that see as imposed on them by others — the anti-vaccine part is a mix of individual justifying their wish to ‘self medicate’ (read: self-control), if that phrase is appropriate here, and the consequence of older ‘scare’ campaigns carried into the present day. (Offit’s book Deadly Choices is a good source for some background on the latter in particular; I reviewed it on my blog a while ago.)

    For example, this wish for self-control would go some way to explaining why ‘natural remedies’ constantly pop up in the same context as opposing vaccines. (It’s also a reason I’m leery of ‘stealth’ marketing from that industry in part targeted at the anti-vaccine lobby and their followers; they’re a well-off industry that appears to rely heavily on direct marketing.)

    There is a marketing-type spin for ‘simpler times’ that does go with this. This has the rosy glow of a re-invented past that was ‘better’, when in practice a (careful) look at statistics or a talk to great-grandmother would suggest otherwise.

  • Apologies to SAB, your comment got caught up with my spam. Thanks for your thoughtful comments