Linking Denialism and ConservatismWhat's more important in "denialism" -- the denial of science -- ideology or psychology? There are unambiguous ideological trends, with much of denialism being associated with the political right and tremendous overlap among denial of both evolution and climate change. But maybe this is more than just politics because once you buy into one form of denial then the other forms start looking more reasonable as well. Maybe all it takes is one taste...
Debora MacKenzie writes in the May 15, 2010 issue of New Scientist:
Perhaps it is no surprise that some industries are prepared to distort reality to protect their markets. But the tentacles of organized denial reach beyond narrow financial interests. For example, some prominent backers of climate denial also deny evolution. Prominent creationists return the favour both in the US and elsewhere. Recent legislative efforts to get creationism taught in US schools have been joined by calls to "teach the controversy" on warming as well.If it was just psychology, though, I'm not sure that would explain why there is so much more denialism on the right than on the left -- and why the denialism is so much more "mainstream" and common in conservative circles. Even if ideology doesn't play any sort of role (which strikes me as unlikely), there still has to be more going on which creates some sort of affinity...
These positions align neatly with the concerns of the US political and religious right, and denial is often driven by an overtly political agenda. Some creationists have explicitly argued that the science of both climate and evolution involve "a left·wing ideology that promotes statism, nannystate moralism and ... materialism".
People who buy into one denialism may support others for this reason. Dan Kahan at Yale Law School has found that people's views on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage predict their position on climate science too. This, he argues, is because social conservatives tend to be pro-business and resist the idea that it is damaging the planet (Nature, vol 436, p 296).
But other denialisms suggest psychology, not just ideology, is crucial. There is no obvious connection between conservatism and vaccine or AIDS denial, and flu denial was promulgated by a left-leaning group suspicious of the vaccine industry.
Nevertheless, some connections exist that hint at a wider agenda. For example, there is considerable overlap in membership between the vaccine and HIV deniers, says John Moore, an AIDS researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. Both movements have massive but mysterious funding.
Consider, too, the journal of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a lobbying group for private medicine. It showcases nearly all denialist causes. In the past two years it has published articles claiming that HIV tests do not detect HIV, secondhand smoke does little harm, smoking bans do not reduce heart attacks, global warming presents little health threat and proposals for a US vaccination registry are "not really about vaccines but about establishing a computer infrastructure ... that can be used for other purposes later". It repeatedly published discredited assertions that vaccines cause autism.
It is tempting to wonder if activists sympathetic to climate and evolution denial might be grasping opportunities to discredit science in general by spreading vaccine and HIV denialism.
The conservative character of much denial may also explain its success at winning hearts and minds.Concern with and criticism of denialism isn't an abstract, academic exercise. Denial of science kills -- several hundred thousand have died in Africa due to the denial that AIDS is caused by HIV and denial about the role of tobacco in so many cancers killed hundreds of thousands in the West. Denial about the nature and efficacy of vaccines will start killing in larger numbers if it isn't stopped soon. Humanity has never been able to afford the presence of people in denial about reality, but our modern world has become so dependent on science that denial is growing progressively more dangerous.
George Lakoff, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that conservatives have been better than progressives all exploiting anecdote and emotion to win arguments. Progressives tend to think that giving people the facts and figures will Inevitably lead them to the right conclusions. They see anecdotes as inadmissible evidence, and appeals to emotion as wrong.
The same is true of scientists. But against emotion and anecdote, dry statements of evidence have little power. To make matters worse, scientists usually react to denial with anger and disdain, which makes them seem even more arrogant.