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Denialism: what drives people to reject the truth

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The long read
Denialism: what drives people to reject the truth

From vaccines to climate change to genocide, a new age of denialism is upon us. Why have we failed to understand it? By Keith Kahn-Harris

Fri 3 Aug 2018 06.00 BST Last modified on Fri 3 Aug 2018 10.58 BST

We are all in denial, some of the time at least. Part of being human, and living in a society with other humans, is finding clever ways to express – and conceal – our feelings. From the most sophisticated diplomatic language to the baldest lie, humans find ways to deceive. Deceptions are not necessarily malign; at some level they are vital if humans are to live together with civility. As Richard Sennett has argued: “In practising social civility, you keep silent about things you know clearly but which you should not and do not say.”

Just as we can suppress some aspects of ourselves in our self-presentation to others, so we can do the same to ourselves in acknowledging or not acknowledging what we desire. Most of the time, we spare ourselves from the torture of recognising our baser yearnings. But when does this necessary private self-deception become harmful? When it becomes public dogma. In other words: when it becomes denialism.

Denialism is an expansion, an intensification, of denial. At root, denial and denialism are simply a subset of the many ways humans have developed to use language to deceive others and themselves. Denial can be as simple as refusing to accept that someone else is speaking truthfully. Denial can be as unfathomable as the multiple ways we avoid acknowledging our weaknesses and secret desires.

Denialism is more than just another manifestation of the humdrum intricacies of our deceptions and self-deceptions. It represents the transformation of the everyday practice of denial into a whole new way of seeing the world and – most important – a collective accomplishment. Denial is furtive and routine; denialism is combative and extraordinary. Denial hides from the truth, denialism builds a new and better truth.

In recent years, the term has been used to describe a number of fields of “scholarship”, whose scholars engage in audacious projects to hold back, against seemingly insurmountable odds, the findings of an avalanche of research. They argue that the Holocaust (and other genocides) never happened, that anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is a myth, that Aids either does not exist or is unrelated to HIV, that evolution is a scientific impossibility, and that all manner of other scientific and historical orthodoxies must be rejected.

In some ways, denialism is a terrible term. No one calls themselves a “denialist”, and no one signs up to all forms of denialism. In fact, denialism is founded on the assertion that it is not denialism. In the wake of Freud (or at least the vulgarisation of Freud), no one wants to be accused of being “in denial”, and labelling people denialists seems to compound the insult by implying that they have taken the private sickness of denial and turned it into public dogma.

But denial and denialism are closely linked; what humans do on a large scale is rooted in what we do on a small scale. While everyday denial can be harmful, it is also just a mundane way for humans to respond to the incredibly difficult challenge of living in a social world in which people lie, make mistakes and have desires that cannot be openly acknowledged. Denialism is rooted in human tendencies that are neither freakish nor pathological.

All that said, there is no doubt that denialism is dangerous. In some cases, we can point to concrete examples of denialism causing actual harm. In South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki, in office between 1999 and 2008, was influenced by Aids denialists such as Peter Duesberg, who deny the link between HIV and Aids (or even HIV’s existence) and cast doubt on the effectiveness of anti-retroviral drugs. Mbeki’s reluctance to implement national treatment programmes using anti-retrovirals has been estimated to have cost the lives of 330,000 people. On a smaller scale, in early 2017 the Somali-American community in Minnesota was struck by a childhood measles outbreak, as a direct result of proponents of the discredited theory that the MMR vaccine causes autism, persuading parents not to vaccinate their children.

More commonly though, denialism’s effects are less direct but more insidious. Climate change denialists have not managed to overturn the general scientific consensus that it is occurring and caused by human activity. What they have managed to do is provide subtle and not-so-subtle support for those opposed to taking radical action to address this urgent problem. Achieving a global agreement that could underpin a transition to a post-carbon economy, and that would be capable of slowing the temperature increase, was always going to be an enormous challenge. Climate change denialism has helped to make the challenge even harder.

Denialism can also create an environment of hate and suspicion. Forms of genocide denialism are not just attempts to overthrow irrefutable historical facts; they are an assault on those who survive genocide, and their descendants. The implacable denialism that has led the Turkish state to refuse to admit that the 1917 Armenian genocide occurred is also an attack on today’s Armenians, and on any other minority that would dare to raise troubling questions about the status of minorities in Turkey. Similarly, those who deny the Holocaust are not trying to disinterestedly “correct” the historical record; they are, with varying degrees of subtlety, trying to show that Jews are pathological liars and fundamentally dangerous, as well as to rehabilitate the reputation of the Nazis.

The dangers that other forms of denialism pose may be less concrete, but they are no less serious. Denial of evolution, for example, does not have an immediately hateful payoff; rather it works to foster a distrust in science and research that feeds into other denialisms and undermines evidence-based policymaking. Even lunatic-fringe denialisms, such as flat Earth theories, while hard to take seriously, help to create an environment in which real scholarship and political attempts to engage with reality, break down in favour of an all-encompassing suspicion that nothing is what it seems.

Denialism has moved from the fringes to the centre of public discourse, helped in part by new technology. As information becomes freer to access online, as “research” has been opened to anyone with a web browser, as previously marginal voices climb on to the online soapbox, so the opportunities for countering accepted truths multiply. No one can be entirely ostracised, marginalised and dismissed as a crank anymore.

The sheer profusion of voices, the plurality of opinions, the cacophony of the controversy, are enough to make anyone doubt what they should believe.

So how do you fight denialism? Denialism offers a dystopian vision of a world unmoored, in which nothing can be taken for granted and no one can be trusted. If you believe that you are being constantly lied to, paradoxically you may be in danger of accepting the untruths of others. Denialism is a mix of corrosive doubt and corrosive credulity.

It’s perfectly understandable that denialism sparks anger and outrage, particularly in those who are directly challenged by it. If you are a Holocaust survivor, a historian, a climate scientist, a resident of a flood-plain, a geologist, an Aids researcher or someone whose child caught a preventable disease from an unvaccinated child, denialism can feel like an assault on your life’s work, your core beliefs or even your life itself. Such people do fight back. This can include, in some countries, supporting laws against denialism, as in France’s prohibition of Holocaust denial. Attempts to teach “creation science” alongside evolution in US schools are fought with tenacity. Denialists are routinely excluded from scholarly journals and academic conferences.

The most common response to denialism, though, is debunking. Just as denialists produce a large and ever-growing body of books, articles, websites, lectures and videos, so their detractors respond with a literature of their own. Denialist claims are refuted point by point, in a spiralling contest in which no argument – however ludicrous – is ever left unchallenged. Some debunkings are endlessly patient and civil, treating denialists and their claims seriously and even respectfully; others are angry and contemptuous.

Yet none of these strategies work, at least not completely. Take the libel case that the Holocaust denier David Irving brought against Deborah Lipstadt in 1996. Irving’s claim that accusing him of being a Holocaust denier and a falsifier of history was libellous were forensically demolished by Richard Evans and other eminent historians. The judgment was devastating to Irving’s reputation and unambiguous in its rejection of his claim to be a legitimate historian. The judgment bankrupted him, he was repudiated by the few remaining mainstream historians who had supported him, and in 2006 he was imprisoned in Austria for Holocaust denial.

But Irving today? He is still writing and lecturing, albeit in a more covert fashion. He still makes similar claims and his defenders see him as a heroic figure who survived the attempts of the Jewish-led establishment to silence him. Nothing really changed. Holocaust denial is still around, and its proponents find new followers. In legal and scholarly terms, Lipstadt won an absolute victory, but she didn’t beat Holocaust denial or even Irving in the long term.

There is a salutary lesson here: in democratic societies at least, denialism cannot be beaten legally, or through debunking, or through attempts to discredit its proponents. That’s because, for denialists, the existence of denialism is itself a triumph. Central to denialism is an argument that “the truth” has been suppressed by its enemies. To continue to exist is a heroic act, a victory for the forces of truth.

Of course, denialists might yearn for a more complete victory – when theories of anthropogenic climate change will be marginalised in academia and politics, when the story of how the Jews hoaxed the world will be in every history book – but, for now, every day that denialism persists is a good day. In fact, denialism can achieve more modest triumphs even without total victory. For the denialist, every day barrels of oil continue to be extracted and burned is a good day, every day a parent doesn’t vaccinate their child is a good day, every day a teenager Googling the Holocaust finds out that some people think it never happened is a good day.

Conversely, denialism’s opponents rarely have time on their side. As climate change rushes towards the point of no return, as Holocaust survivors die and can no longer give testimony, as once-vanquished diseases threaten pandemics, as the notion that there is “doubt” on settled scholarship becomes unremarkable, so the task facing the debunkers becomes both more urgent and more difficult. It’s understandable that panic can set in and that anger overwhelms some of those who battle against denialism.

A better approach to denialism is one of self-criticism. The starting point is a frank question: why did we fail? Why have those of us who abhor denialism not succeeded in halting its onward march? And why have we as a species managed to turn our everyday capacity to deny into an organised attempt to undermine our collective ability to understand the world and change it for the better?

These questions are beginning to be asked in some circles. They are often the result of a kind of despair. Campaigners against anthropogenic global warming often lament that, as the task becomes ever more urgent, so denialism continues to run rampant (along with apathy and “softer” forms of denial). It appears that nothing works in the campaign to make humanity aware of the threat it faces.

The obstinacy with which people can stick to disproved notions is attested to in the social sciences and in neuroscientific research. Humans are not only reasoning beings who disinterestedly weigh evidence and arguments. But there is a difference between the pre-conscious search for confirmation of existing views – we all engage in that to some extent – and the deliberate attempt to dress this search up as a quest for truth, as denialists do. Denialism adds extra layers of reinforcement and defence around widely shared psychological practices with the (never articulated) aim of preventing their exposure. This certainly makes changing the minds of denialists even more difficult than changing the minds of the rest of stubborn humanity.

There are multiple kinds of denialists: from those who are sceptical of all established knowledge, to those who challenge one type of knowledge; from those who actively contribute to the creation of denialist scholarship, to those who quietly consume it; from those who burn with certainty, to those who are privately sceptical about their scepticism. What they all have in common, I would argue, is a particular type of desire. This desire – for something not to be true – is the driver of denialism.

Empathy with denialists is not easy, but it is essential. Denialism is not stupidity, or ignorance, or mendacity, or psychological pathology. Nor is it the same as lying. Of course, denialists can be stupid, ignorant liars, but so can any of us. But denialists are people in a desperate predicament.

It is a very modern predicament. Denialism is a postenlightenment phenomenon, a reaction to the “inconvenience” of many of the findings of modern scholarship. The discovery of evolution, for example, is inconvenient to those committed to a literalist biblical account of creation. Denialism is also a reaction to the inconvenience of the moral consensus that emerged in the post-enlightenment world. In the ancient world, you could erect a monument proudly proclaiming the genocide you committed to the world. In the modern world, mass killing, mass starvation, mass environmental catastrophe can no longer be publicly legitimated.

Yet many humans still want to do the same things humans always did. We are still desiring beings. We want to murder, to steal, to destroy and to despoil. We want to preserve our ignorance and unquestioned faith. So when our desires are rendered unspeakable in the modern world, we are forced to pretend that we do not yearn for things we desire.

Denial is not enough here. As an attempt to draw awareness and attention away from something unpalatable, it is always vulnerable to challenge. Denial is a kind of high-wire act that can be unbalanced by forceful attempts to draw attention to what is being denied.

Denialism is, in part, a response to the vulnerability of denial. To be in denial is to know at some level. To be a denialist is to never have to know at all. Denialism is a systematic attempt to prevent challenge and acknowledgment; to suggest that there is nothing to acknowledge. Whereas denial is at least subject to the possibility of confrontation with reality, denialism can rarely be undermined by appeals to face the truth.

The tragedy for denialists is that they concede the argument in advance. Holocaust deniers’ attempts to deny that the Holocaust took place imply that it would not have been a good thing if it had. Climate change denialism is predicated on a similarly hidden acknowledgment that, if anthropogenic climate change were actually occurring, we would have to do something about it.

Denialism is therefore not just hard work – finding ways to discredit mountains of evidence is a tremendous labour – but also involves suppressing the expression of one’s desires. Denialists are “trapped” into byzantine modes of argument because they have few other options in pursuing their goals.

Denialism, and related phenomena, are often portrayed as a “war on science”. This is an understandable but profound misunderstanding. Certainly, denialism and other forms of pseudo-scholarship do not follow mainstream scientific methodologies. Denialism does indeed represent a perversion of the scholarly method, and the science it produces rests on profoundly erroneous assumptions, but denialism does all this in the name of science and scholarship. Denialism aims to replace one kind of science with another – it does not aim to replace science itself. In fact, denialism constitutes a tribute to the prestige of science and scholarship in the modern world. Denialists are desperate for the public validation that science affords.

While denialism has sometimes been seen as part of a post-modern assault on truth, the denialist is just as invested in notions of scientific objectivity as the most unreconstructed positivist. Even those who are genuinely committed to alternatives to western rationality and science can wield denialist rhetoric that apes precisely the kind of scientism they despise. Anti-vaxxers, for example, sometimes seem to want to have their cake and eat it: to have their critique of western medicine validated by western medicine.

The rhetoric of denialism and its critics can resemble each other in a kind of war to the death over who gets to wear the mantle of science. The term “junk science” has been applied to climate change denialism, as well as in defence of it. Mainstream science can also be dogmatic and blind to its own limitations. If the accusation that global warming is an example of politicised ideology masked as science is met with indignant assertions of the absolute objectivity of “real” science, there is a risk of blinding oneself to uncomfortable questions regarding the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the idea of pure truth, untrammelled by human interests, is elusive. Human interests can rarely if ever be separated from the ways we observe the world. Indeed, sociologists of science have shown how modern ideas of disinterested scientific knowledge have disguised the inextricable links between knowledge and human interests.

I do not believe that, if only one could find the key to “make them understand”, denialists would think just like me. A global warming denialist is not an environmentalist who cannot accept that he or she is really an environmentalist; a Holocaust denier is not someone who cannot face the inescapable obligation to commemorate the Holocaust; an Aids denialist is not an Aids activist who won’t acknowledge the necessity for western medicine in combating the disease; and so on. If denialists were to stop denying, we cannot assume that we would then have a shared moral foundation on which we could make progress as a species.

Denialism is not a barrier to acknowledging a common moral foundation; it is a barrier to acknowledging moral differences. An end to denialism is therefore a disturbing prospect, as it would involve these moral differences revealing themselves directly. But we need to start preparing for that eventuality, because denialism is starting to break down – and not in a good way.

On 6 November 2012, when he was already preparing the ground for his presidential run, Donald Trump sent a tweet about climate change. It said: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

At the time, this seemed to be just another example of the mainstreaming of climate change denialism on the American right. After all, the second Bush administration had done as little as possible to combat climate change, and many leading Republicans are prominent crusaders against mainstream climate science. Yet something else was happening here, too; the tweet was a harbinger of a new kind of post-denialist discourse.

Trump’s claim is not one that is regularly made by “mainstream” global warming denialists. It may have been a garbled version of the common argument on the US right that global climate treaties will unfairly weaken the US economy to the benefit of China. Like much of Trump’s discourse, the tweet was simply thrown into the world without much thought. This is not how denialism usually works. Denialists usually labour for decades to produce, often against overwhelming odds, carefully crafted simulacra of scholarship that, to non-experts at least, are indistinguishable from the real thing. They have refined alternative scholarly techniques that can cast doubt on even the most solid of truths.

Trump and the post-truthers’ “lazy” denialism rests on the security that comes from knowing that generations of denialists have created enough doubt already; all people like Trump need to do is to signal vaguely in a denialist direction. Whereas denialism explains – at great length – post-denialism asserts. Whereas denialism is painstakingly thought-through, post-denialism is instinctive. Whereas denialism is disciplined, post-denialism is anarchic.

The internet has been an important factor in this weakening of denialist self-discipline. The intemperance of the online world is pushing denialism so far that it is beginning to fall apart. The new generation of denialists aren’t creating new, alternative orthodoxies so much as obliterating the very idea of orthodoxy itself. The collective, institutional work of building a substantial bulwark against scholarly consensus gives way to a kind of free-for-all.

One example of this is the 9/11 truth movement. Because the attacks occurred in an already wired world, the denialism it spawned has never managed to institutionalise and develop an orthodoxy in the way that pre-internet denialisms did. Those who believe that the “official story” of the September 11 attacks was a lie can believe that elements in the US government had foreknowledge of the attacks but let them happen, or that the attacks were deliberately planned and carried out by the government, or that Jews/Israel/Mossad were behind it, or that shadowy forces in the “New World Order” were behind it – or some cocktail of all of these. They can believe that the towers were brought down by controlled demolition, or that no planes hit the towers, or that there were no floors in the towers, or that there were no passengers in the planes.

Post-denialism represents a freeing of the repressed desires that drive denialism. While it still based on the denial of an established truth, its methods liberate a deeper kind of desire: to remake truth itself, to remake the world, to unleash the power to reorder reality itself and stamp one’s mark on the planet. What matters in post-denialism is not the establishment of an alternative scholarly credibility, so much as giving yourself blanket permission to see the world however you like.

While post-denialism has not yet supplanted its predecessor, old-style denialism is beginning to be questioned by some of its practitioners as they take tentative steps towards a new age. This is particularly evident on the racist far right, where the dominance of Holocaust denial is beginning to erode.

Mark Weber, director of the (denialist) Institute for Historical Review, glumly concluded in an article in 2009 that Holocaust denial had become irrelevant in a world that continues to memorialise the genocide. Some Holocaust deniers have even recanted, expressing their frustration with the movement and acknowledging that many of its claims are simply untenable, as Eric Hunt, previously a producer of widely circulated online videos denying the Holocaust, did in 2016. Yet such admissions of defeat are certainly not accompanied by a retreat from antisemitism. Weber treats the failures of Holocaust denial as a consequence of the nefarious power of the Jews: “Suppose The New York Times were to report tomorrow that Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust centre and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum had announced that no more than 1 million Jews died during the second world war, and that no Jews were killed in gas chambers at Auschwitz. The impact on Jewish-Zionist power would surely be minimal.”

Those who were previously “forced” into Holocaust denial are starting to sense that it may be possible to publicly celebrate genocide once again, to revel in antisemitism’s finest hour. The heightened scrutiny of far-right movements in the last couple of years has unearthed statements that might once have remained unspoken, or only spoken behind closed doors. In August 2017, for example, one KKK leader told a journalist: “We killed 6 million Jews the last time. Eleven million [immigrants] is nothing.” A piece published by the Daily Stormer in advance of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that same month ended: “Next stop: Charlottesville, VA. Final stop: Auschwitz.”

Indeed, the Daily Stormer, one of the most prominent online publications of the resurgent far-right, demonstrates an exuberant agility in balancing denialism, post-denialism and open hatred simultaneously, using humour as a method of floating between them all. But there is no doubt what the ultimate destination is. As Andrew Anglin, who runs the site, put it in a style guide for contributors that was later leaked to the press: “The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. There should also be a conscious awareness of mocking stereotypes of hateful racists. I usually think of this as self-deprecating humour – I am a racist making fun of stereotypes of racists, because I don’t take myself super-seriously. This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes. But that’s neither here nor there.”

Not all denialists are taking these steps towards open acknowledgment of their desires. In some fields, the commitment to repressing desire remains strong. We are not yet at a stage when a climate change denier can come out and say, proudly, “Bangladesh will be submerged, millions will suffer as a result of anthropogenic climate change, but we must still preserve our carbon-based way of life, no matter what the cost.” Nor are anti-vaxxers ready to argue that, even though vaccines do not cause autism, the death of children from preventable diseases is a regrettable necessity if we are to be released from the clutches of Big Pharma.

Still, over time it is likely that traditional denialists will be increasingly influenced by the emerging post-denialist milieu. After all, what oil industry-funded wonk labouring to put together a policy paper suggesting that polar bear populations aren’t declining hasn’t fantasised of resorting to gleeful, Trumpian assertions?

The possibility of an epochal shift away from denialism means that there is now no avoiding a reckoning with some discomfiting issues: how do we respond to people who have radically different desires and morals from our own? How do we respond to people who delight in or are indifferent to genocide, to the suffering of millions, to venality and greed?

Denialism, and the multitude of other ways that modern humans have obfuscated their desires, prevent a true reckoning with the unsettling fact that some of us might desire things that most of us regard as morally reprehensible. I say “might” because while denialism is an attempt to covertly legitimise an unspeakable desire, the nature of the denialist’s understanding of the consequences of enacting that desire is usually unknowable.

It is hard to tell whether global warming denialists are secretly longing for the chaos and pain that global warming will bring, are simply indifferent to it, or would desperately like it not to be the case but are overwhelmed with the desire to keep things as they are. It is hard to tell whether Holocaust deniers are preparing the ground for another genocide, or want to keep a pristine image of the goodness of the Nazis and the evil of the Jews. It is hard to tell whether an Aids denialist who works to prevent Africans from having access to anti-retrovirals is getting a kick out of their power over life and death, or is on a mission to save them from the evils of the west.

If the new realm of unrestrained online discourse, and the example set by Trump, tempts more and more denialists to transition towards post-denialism and beyond, we will finally know where we stand. Instead of chasing shadows, we will be able to contemplate the stark moral choices we humans face.

Maybe we have been putting this test off for too long. The liberation of desire we are beginning to witness is forcing us all to confront some very difficult questions: who are we as a species? Do we all (the odd sociopath aside) share a common moral foundation? How do we relate to people whose desires are starkly different from our own?

Perhaps, if we can face up to the challenge presented by these new revelations, it might pave the way for a politics shorn of illusion and moral masquerade, where different visions of what it is to be human can openly contend. This might be a firmer foundation on which to rekindle some hope for human progress – based not on illusions of what we would like to be, but on an accounting of what we are.

Adapted from Denial: The Unspeakable Truth by Keith Kahn-Harris, which will be published by Notting Hill Editions on 13 September, and is available to pre-order at

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