18 May 2010

The Definitive Denier

A brilliant three-paragraph deconstruction of "denier" and "denialist" by Edward Skidelsky, a philosopher at Exeter University, from last January in Prospect magazine crossed my desk yesterday. It is spot on and worth sharing:

The tyranny of denial

“Denial” is an ordinary English word meaning to assert the untruth of something. Recently, however, it has acquired a further polemical sense. To “deny” in this new sense is to repudiate some commonly professed doctrine. Denial is the secular form of blasphemy; deniers are scorned, ridiculed and sometimes prosecuted.

Where does this new usage come from? There is an old sense of “deny,” akin to “disown,” which no doubt lies in the background. (A traitor denies his country; Peter denied Christ.) But the more immediate source is Freud. Denial in the Freudian sense is the refusal to accept a painful or humiliating truth. Sufferers are said to be in a “state of denial” or simply “in denial.” This last phrase entered general use in the early 1990s and launched “denial” on its modern career. “Holocaust denial” was the first political application, followed closely by “Aids denial,” “global warming denial” and a host of others. An abstract noun, “denialism,” has recently been coined. It is perhaps no accident that denial’s counterpart, affirmation, has meanwhile acquired laudatory overtones. We “affirm” relationships, achievements, values. Ours is a relentlessly positive culture.

An accusation of “denial” is serious, suggesting either deliberate dishonesty or self-deception. The thing being denied is, by implication, so obviously true that the denier must be driven by perversity, malice or wilful blindness. Few issues warrant such confidence. The Holocaust is perhaps one, though even here there is room for debate over the manner of its execution and the number of its victims. A charge of denial short-circuits this debate by stigmatising as dishonest any deviation from a preordained conclusion. It is a form of the argument ad hominem: the aim is not so much to refute your opponent as to discredit his motives. The extension of the “denier” tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people. One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment—the liberation of historical and scientific enquiry from dogma—is quietly being reversed.

21 comments:

Tamara said...

Great essay. That last sentence, in particular, struck a chord.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

A friendly reader writes in to point out a spelling mistake:

"Roger

You made a total fool of yourself, you got your ass well and truly kicked, and you can't even spell 'definitive'. Put down the water pistol or you will drown yourself before the end of the day, professor."

I appreciate the heads up. The tone I could do without.

jae said...

Yes, the last sentence:

"The extension of the “denier” tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people. One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment—the liberation of historical and scientific enquiry from dogma—is quietly being reversed."

What delicious irony, since it is generally the so-called "liberals" who love to use this term. Of course they are not liberals in the classical sense. Because of overuse, the word has lost most of its sting.

eric144 said...

The idea of calling someone a denier is to reduce the debate to a black and white emotional level. A holocaust denier is supposed to believe that there was no persecution of the Jews.

It is the basis of tabloid journalism, an art which reached its fulfillment in the work of George Monbiot in the Guardian in which the phrases 'denier' and 'astro turfer' were usede against the global warming infidels.

The Guardian is one of the most respected newspapers in the world. Monbiot is a world famous writer who's father was a very senior British politician and his mentor was Sir Crispin Tickell, Margaret Thatcher's ambassador to the UN, a distinguished member of the British ruling classes.

caveat emptor said...

OK - so what is the politically corect term for someone who holds a view dramatically at odds with the evidence?

"A charge of denial short-circuits this debate by stigmatising as dishonest any deviation from a preordained conclusion."

Not necessarily true. There could very well be a robust debate whether 5, 6 or 7 million were killed in the Holocaust assuming there was evidence to support that range of views. Someone asserting that only 100 Jews were killed had better provide some overwhelming evidence for that or they deserve a term at least as perjorative as denier IMO.

jgdes said...

caveat emptor
If I may step in here, "Evidence" is another word that is much abused in this debate because evidence of warming is not evidence of man having caused it, it is merely assumed. Much of what is called evidence of man's involvement doesn't actually rise above opinion. Even "dramatically at odds" is over the top because the most contentious issue by far - the positive water vapour feedback - is acknowledged by everyone honest on both sides to be 100% opinion up to this point.

Hence "at odds with the weight of scientific opinion" is far more appropriate. "Non-mainstream" is acceptable. Skeptic is fine. Contrarian is probably ok imo.

cassandra said...

caveat emperor,

the caveat is what is being denied. There are two contentions in the climate change debate:

1. There is warming in the later part of the 20th century.

2. The amount of warming in the modern times is unprecedented.

I understand there is an overwhelming evidence to 1. However what is your evidence for 2? A few special trees in Siberia? Rejection of 2 would make put me in the same bunch as the holocaust deniers?

markbahner said...

"OK - so what is the politically corect term for someone who holds a view dramatically at odds with the evidence?"

It depends...is the person in question in the majority, or in a minority?

If the person who "holds a view dramatically at odds with the evidence" is in the majority, the person would probably be said to possess "common sense," or even be called "wise."

UAN said...

-5- caveat emptor

Not necessarily true. There could very well be a robust debate whether 5, 6 or 7 million were killed in the Holocaust assuming there was evidence to support that range of views.

Actually a few years ago I came across someone doing research on this issue, trying to cross check known demographics in Europe/Eastern Europe, etc., trying to eliminate double counting of the same groups etc, and he was thinking the number of Jews killed couldn't have been higher than 3 million (iirc). The impression I got was that he was accused of being a "denier" or of trying to minimize the Holocaust. He even was providing the breakdown of numbers in various regions and I didn't sense any effort to deny anything.

Once a number gets tagged to an event, whether it's true or not, that number takes on a life of its own and efforts to get more accurate numbers generates lots of blow back. Beyond numbers, once a "truth" is determined, any contrary view can, and does, lead to very directed efforts to destroy the person(s) who challenges that truth. You can ask Ward Churchill about that.

Vinny Burgoo said...

A nice summary but Skidelsky ignored the different implications of 'denial' and 'denier'. Those who wield such words in relation to climate change seem to have been very aware of the differences, because for the first ten or so years that people talked about denial and what was then called global warming nobody (that I can find) used the word 'denier', which at that time was strongly associated with extreme right-wing nutjobs and the Holocaust. Plenty of 'denial', 'in denial', 'denies' and 'deny', but no 'denier' or 'deniers' at all. Those omissions can't be coincidental. The writers wanted to stay in the realm of pop psychology, where denial is passive and innocently foolish and mostly hurts only those who are in denial, and knew that if they used the word 'denier' they would be suggesting active evil. The willingness to suggest active evil coincided with global warming's promotion from environmentalism's unproven support act to a headlining cataclysm-in-the-making.

I suspect that the earliest use of 'denial' in climate contexts was in the late 1980s but the earliest example I could find when I looked last year was from 1990 ('Greenhouse Effect: The Human Response; Anxiety Over Global Warming May Cause Confusion, Denial, Despair', Susan E. Davis, 17/04/90, _Washington Post_). The earliest use of 'denier' that I could find was in a vituperative 2001 column in _The Guardian_ ('Coming a Cropper', John Vidal, 08/08/01).

A tasty quote from 1990: 'What would be unwise is to lapse into apocalyptic thinking or ostrichlike denial.' ('The Great Climate Debate', Robert M. White, July 1990, _Scientific American_.)

Twenty years on, we're doing both.

casey451 said...

Skidelsky is also referenced by Michael Fitzpatrick in the latest New Scientist which has had a disappointingly superficial take on the recent climate change controversies. In fact this may be the first time NS has presented an opinion (well, in their "Opinion" section), from a place where the zealots do not dwell.

http://tinyurl.com/297mkyb

Oh, and, caveat emptor, if you must call names, which, after all, is what this is about, try these (lifted from Fitzpatrick's essay): "disaffected scientists, credulous journalists, charlatans, quacks and assorted conspiracy theorists and opportunist politicians." I would add "regular people wondering why supposedly educated and successful professionals are hurling names at one another." (I was called a denier for being among the latter.) At least the specificity breaks this noxious group into manageable bites.

markbahner said...

"Beyond numbers, once a 'truth' is determined, any contrary view can, and does, lead to very directed efforts to destroy the person(s) who challenges that truth. You can ask Ward Churchill about that."

This is not related to climate change, but about what issue was Ward Churchill challenging a truth, such that people attempted to destroy him?

Does it have to do with whether or not the people in the WTC on 9/11 were "little Eichmanns"?

caveat emptor said...

jgdes and cassandra - I didn't even mention climate change in my post so why are you challenging me on evidence for AGW? And no cassandra whatever your belief or non-belief of AGW I don't classify you in the same camp as holocaust "deniers"!

I was merely asking what is the term for someone that holds a position dramatically in contrast to the available evidence.

For the record I would call someone a "contrarian" who believes that the effect of GHGs in the Earth's atmosphere will be greatly different than the consensus view. OTOH, someone who denies that CO2 or methane are GHGs is (a) ignorant, (b) in denial (c) lying if they actually know better.

markbahner said...

"...I would call someone a "contrarian" who believes that the effect of GHGs in the Earth's atmosphere will be greatly different than the consensus view."

What do you think "the consensus view" is of what will happen?

What do you think is the "consensus view" for the most probable global average temperature increase from 1990 to 2100?

What do you think is the "consensus view" for the most probable sea level rise from 1990 to 2100?

How about the "consensus view" for the number and intensity of hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin for 1990 to 2010 versus 2090 to 2110?

"OTOH, someone who denies that CO2 or methane are GHGs..."

Can you name some people wo "deny that CO2 or methane are GHGs"?

caveat emptor said...

mark bahner - google "CO2 is not agreenhouse gas" or something along those lines.

You get lots of hits. Some actually majking that claim. Others putting it out there as a strawman

Frontiers of Faith and Science said...

So basically the side using the term 'denier' in reference to climate is invoking a corollary of Godwin's law.

jgdes said...

caveat emptor
Thanks for making me think about it. I just assumed we were talking about climate change since that is 99% of the discussion here. If we are talking more generally then I'd say that someone who holds a view contrary to the vast majority of the evidence could indeed be called a denier, eg denying smoking has a causal link to lung cancer because that would be denial of the apparent facts. The climate debate is not as straightforward as that because it is never so clear cut to attribute droughts, floods, storm etc to any warming at all, never mind AGW.

Basically therefore it all depends on the quality of the evidence. Someone prominent on the AGW side (can't remember who) said that the evidence for manmade climate change is more like trial-like expert opinion evidence than rigorous scientific evidence.

But of course in a trial equal space is allowed to opposing experts. ie it isn't a show of hands but a decision based on the arguments presented. Yet every debate of that type has had the contrarians winning. This is quite simply because the arguments used by the warmist side are almost always of evidence of warming itself, rather than manmade warming in particular. This conflation of natural and manmade warming seems to be a deliberate ploy but it's one that clearly doesn't convince people who are forced to give equal space to both arguments. So AGW proponents always therefore avoid debate and just fall back on the sheer number of "experts" who think the same way. But one is wont to ask how can anyone be an expert if they blithely assume that all recent warming must be manmade based on the minimal amount of real scientific evidence.

Contrarian isn't really as stark as denier because all the self-described contrarians who predicted an economic crash were proven correct despite being in the minority and largely being non-economists. In that case it was the establishment pundits, phD economists and vested interests who had refused en masse to look at the actual evidence and preferred one trendy theory over another. This is more like the situation I see in climate science today. Seemingly the only thing that will settle it would be a sharp downturn or upturn of the satellite temperature data. However, bear in mind we aren't yet able to check the raw data that produces the 30's temperature blip: We are again supposed to trust the experts. Well I've seen entirely too many false prophets in my time to allow myself to do that - and en masse endorsement of trendy but wrong hypotheses is nothing unusual in Science. In fact it's the norm.

Neusa said...

caveat emptor said... 5

"OK - so what is the politically corect term for someone who holds a view dramatically at odds with the evidence?"

Whatever that term may be It wouldn't be applicable to CAGW sceptics due to the paucity of actual tangible evidence for CAGW.

"OTOH, someone who denies that CO2 or methane are GHGs is (a) ignorant, (b) in denial (c) lying if they actually know better."

I read an awful lot about this subject and I haven't encountered anyone that rejects the concept of a greenhouse gas. The idea certainly isn't a foundation of CAGW scepticism, but there is a big difference between acknowleding the concept of a greenhouse effect and accepting that the Earth's very complex climate is being driven by anthropogenic CO2.

Mike M. said...

Let's not forget the contemptible column by Ellen Goodman that got the ol' denier ball rolling...

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2007/02/09/no_change_in_political_climate/

"I would like to say we're at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future."

My, how the label was embraced by the orcs in the AGW camp. The skeptics are stupid AND evil in their eyes. It helped to create a highly motivated, angry, well educated, permanent opposition to anything connected with the Alarmists. Brilliant move in a western democracy.

Charles said...

No event in human history has been studied more thoroughly and carefully than the Holocaust. Thousands of thesis and dissertations papers have poured over mountains of data, from physical evidence and anecdotal testimony to captured German war documents. Virtually everyone with a PhD in History will stake their career on the fact that millions of Jews were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany. One can no more "revise" this fact than one can revise the existence of gravity. Wannsee Conference records prove that Nazis planned the extermination of Jews as, "The Final Solution." German concentration camp records prove that it was carried out.

Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize genocide we send a critical message to the world. As we continue to live in an age of genocide and ethnic cleansing, we must repel the broken ethics of our ancestors, or risk a dreadful repeat of past transgressions.

Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. Deniers seek to distort the truth in a way that promotes antagonism against the object of their hatred, or to deny the culpability of their ancestors and heroes. If we ignore them, they will twist the minds of countless young people, creating a new generation of those who deny the facts of the worst episode of genocide in history. Freedom of speech and the press is a symbol of a healthy society. Yet, since no crime in history is as heinous as the Holocaust, its memory must be accurately preserved, to protect our children and grandchildren.

Museums and mandatory public education are tools to dispel bigotry, especially racial and ethnic hatred. Books, plays, films and presentations can reinforce the veracity of past and present genocides. They help to tell the true story of the perpetrators of genocide; and they reveal the abject terror, humiliation and degradation resulting from blind prejudice. It is therefore essential that we disclose the factual brutality and horror of genocide, combating the deniers’ virulent, inaccurate historical revision. We must protect vulnerable future generations from making the same mistakes.

A world that continues to allow genocide requires ethical remediation. We must insist that religious, racial, ethnic, gender and orientation persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny's only hope. Only through such efforts can we reveal the true horror of genocide and promote the triumphant spirit of humankind.

Charles Weinblatt
Author, "Jacob's Courage"
http://jacobscourage.wordpress.com/

eric144 said...

Charles Weinblatt

Noam Chomsky, the very famous left wing Jewish academic and intellectual was a holocaust denier. He wrote a forward to French academic Robert Faurisson's sceptical book. It caused him a vast amount of grief from neconservatives like Alan Dershowitz (who incidentally advocated the torture of Islamic terrorists in 2002).

Chomsky certainly wouldn't express a view like that today. It would be instantaneous career suicide. Like some quarters of global warming advocacy, with the holocaust, there is no revisionism, only denial

Alan Dershowitz

He also tried to dispute the fact that he had authorized an essay he had written in defense of Robert Faurisson to be used as the forward to Faurisson's book about Holocaust denial, but again had to back down. Chomsky took the position that he had no interest in revisionist literature before Faurisson had written the book. When confronted by Robert Nozick, a distinguished philosophy professor who recalled discussing revisionist literature with him well before the Faurisson book, Chomsky first berated Nozick for disclosing a private conversation and then he shoved him contemptuously in front of numerous witnesses.

http://tech.mit.edu/V122/N25/col25dersh.25c.html

See also

http://oliverkamm.typepad.com/blog/2004/11/chomsky_and_hol_1.html

http://www.vho.org/aaargh/fran/chomsky/NCprefaceeng.html

http://www.frontpagemag.com/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=11380

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