Living in Denial?

Michael Kruse brought an article to my attention a few weeks ago by Debora MacKenzie in New Scientist entitled Living in Denial: Why sensible people reject the truth. This article is part of a series of articles discussing the issues regarding truth and perception of truth: Special report: Living in denial (you may need a subscription to read many of the articles). MacKenzie’s article is concerned primarily with issues of health, environment, and public policy, issues ranging from evolution to vaccines to H1N1 to global warming. The issues addressed range far and wide though. How we know, how we filter through information to reach decisions, who we trust and why, how information is spread, … this is a fascinating topic. An article by Jim Giles Unleashing the Lie addresses how ideas spread, in print, news, on the internet.

Small excerpt from MacKenzie’s article:

HEARD the latest? The swine flu pandemic was a hoax: scientists, governments and the World Health Organization cooked it up in a vast conspiracy so that vaccine companies could make money.

Never mind that the flu fulfilled every scientific condition for a pandemic, that thousands died, or that declaring a pandemic didn’t provide huge scope for profiteering. A group of obscure European politicians concocted this conspiracy theory, and it is now doing the rounds even in educated circles


Here’s a hypothesis: denial is largely a product of the way normal people think. Most denialists are simply ordinary people doing what they believe is right. If this seems discouraging, take heart. There are good reasons for thinking that denialism can be tackled by condemning it a little less and understanding it a little more. [emphasis added]

This last paragraph above hits a key point. It is common to bash deniers as ignorant, valuing ideology over truth – here is where the arrogance of science and scientists comes into play far too often. But ‘denial’ – how ever it comes – is not generally an underhanded attempt to twist truth to personal liking – rather it is an attempt to wrestle with a complex set of (occasionally conflicting) information to determine how to act and react.

How do you evaluate information on evolution, global warming, and other hot topics?

Do you ever analyze how you reach a decision?

One more article in the series, this one by Michael Fitzpatrick, Living in Denial: Questioning science isn’t blasphemy:

THE epithet “denier” is increasingly used to bash anyone who dares to question orthodoxy.

How ironic. The concept of denialism is itself inflexible, ideological and intrinsically anti-scientific. It is used to close down legitimate debate by insinuating moral deficiency in those expressing dissident views, or by drawing a parallel between popular pseudoscience movements and the racist extremists who dispute the Nazi genocide of Jews.

As philosopher Edward Skidelsky of the University of Exeter, UK, has argued, crying denialism is a form of ad hominem argument: “the aim is not so much to refute your opponent as to discredit his motives”.

Such attempts to combat pseudoscience by branding it a secular form of blasphemy are illiberal and intolerant. They are also ineffective, tending not only to reinforce cynicism about science but also to promote a distrust for scientific and medical authority that provides a rallying point for pseudoscience.

As Skidelsky says, “the extension of the ‘denier’ tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people”. What we need is more debate, not less.

Oh the arrogance of it all – when power, prestige, and ego mix with truth and teaching. My suggestion in the post Myths We Believe that scientists could display a counterproductive arrogance in dealing with the general public provoked a rather long discussion … but this is a key issue. Truth, perception of truth, and communication are important issues.

Of course it isn’t limited to science and scientists. Using the H word (heresy) in discussions of the Christian faith turns off discussion and limits growth and understanding. This is, it seems, an issue of the power of the priesthood, whether clergy, theologian, or scientist, whether the orthodoxy is religious or scientific.

We must teach – not pronounce – and this covers all areas of thinking. Any attempt to simply pronounce truth and demand adherrance to a party line will fail to convince and will be self-defeating in the long run. This is true within the church – an authoritarian list of beliefs, quashing questions, will not spread the gospel or develop mature Christians. Likewise an attitude of arrogant pronouncement followed by ad hominem caricature will not convince many of the truth of evolution, global warming, or the efficacy of vaccination.

I’ve moved through a few different issues here – but the topic is fascinating.

How do we know what is true – how do we evaluate?

But more than this – once convinced of the truth …How do we teach or persuade, in areas of gospel, doctrine or science? What is the responsibility of the “expert”?

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