When skepticism becomes denial: The unholy alliance between science denial movements

One of the most perplexing side-effects of the Information Age is the means it unfortunately grants to many pseudo-scientific and science-denial movements to gain foothold and mutually strengthen numbers. Gone are the days when everyone would read or listen to common, well-researched, professionally written news.

Nowadays, everyone can withdraw into a self-imposed cocoon of “personalized” (and often erroneous) information. This includes big players such as Fox News — as Americans, Brits, and Australians hostage to the Murdoch empire know only too well. In reaction, liberals rely on their own reinforcement via MSNBC and similar venues.

Recently American palaeontologist Donald Prothero highlighted numerous science denial movements in his 2013 book Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future. Some of the items he discusses include:

  1. Opposition to the scientific consensus on tobacco and lung cancer since the 1960s.
  2. The denial of environmental threats such as auto pollution, acid rain and the ozone hole during the 1970s and 1980s.
  3. The continuing worldwide campaign to deny global warming and the international consensus on the human contribution to global warming.
  4. The continuing denial, mostly by certain fundamentalist groups, of the 4.56 billion year age of the Earth, and the evolution of life over millions of years, as demonstrated in the fossil record and, more recently, in DNA.
  5. The growing movement, even by very well educated persons in first-world nations, to block vaccinations of their children, in spite of the fact that claimed links to autism or other childhood medical conditions have been soundly and repeatedly refuted.
  6. Denials that unprotected sex and resulting HIV are the cause of AIDS. Yes, some people, including (sadly enough) in nations where the AIDS scourge is most deadly, still deny this indisputable fact.
  7. Pseudoscientifc medicine, which, in some nations, is even funded through government health programs.
  8. Astrology. It is hard to believe that anyone, anywhere in the 21st century, at least 500 years after the ancient cosmology was laid to rest, still takes seriously the notion that the position of the stars (quadrillions of miles away) when a person is born inside an enclosed hospital room could possibly affect his or her life or personality. Yet most major newspapers still have an astrology column, and, even in fairly well educated circles, a popular opening social line remains “What’s your sign?” or “You must be a Gemini!”

A familiar cast of characters

Many have observed that these various science denial and pseudoscience movements appear to have a common strategy and frequently have common funders. As Prothero notes, alluding to the famous line from the movie All the President’s Men, “Follow the money,” since these different types of denialism are “heavily funded by wealthy entities with vested interested that further their causes.”

For example, one often employed tactic is to recruit several “experts” with impressive-sounding credentials. Sadly, this takes advantage of the public’s willingness to assume that someone who has expertise, say, in nuclear physics or hydraulic engineering can then be taken seriously on acid rain, global warming or evolution. It also plays on the erroneous notion that all opinions deserve a fair hearing no matter how ill-founded they are.

In general, the overall approach of the science-denial movements is familiar to attorneys and barristers arguing a case before a jury: sow seeds of doubt. Once enough people are convinced there is room for doubt, even a strong scientific consensus can be successfully questioned in the public arena. And sowing doubt over one matter assists in undermining other issues, is well described in the 2007 book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

What is not as well appreciated, however, is the extent to which several of the science denial movements mentioned above were promoted by the same cast of characters, a fact that Naomi Oreskes makes clear in her book Merchants of Doubt. Fred Seitz, a retired physicist who is one of the leading questioners of the consensus regarding global warming, once campaigned against the consensus on tobacco smoke. Fred Singer, a retired rocket scientist, has opposed the scientific consensus in tobacco, acid rain, the ozone hole and, yes, global warming.

Global warming

Arguably the most serious of the science denial movements at the present time is the denial of the reality of global warming and the very high likelihood of substantial human contribution. On the question of whether warming has occurred, the latest IPCC report is crystal-clear:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.

Similarly, the evidence for the attribution of these effects to human causes is strong and getting stronger each year. As the IPCC report concludes,

Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes. This evidence for human influence has grown since [the previous report]. It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

How long will the denials go on?

On any of the above-listed items, science will largely proceed whether or not 100% of the public believes the scientific consensus. But in cases such as vaccination denial and global warming, we really do not have the luxury of doing an “experiment” (by taking no action) and seeing what the outcome is.  Polio is on the rebound in Syria perhaps unavoidably. But it is a very serious matter that infectious diseases such as whooping cough are on the rise in the United States and the U.K., in no small part because of vaccination denial (and less than perfect vaccines).

With global warming, in particular, the longer first-world nations are reluctant to act decisively, the more damage will be done, and the more difficult will be the eventual changes to the world economy and the personal lives of its seven billion (and growing) citizens. This was driven home in the latest IPCC report, which concluded that throughout the 21st century, climate change will “slow down economic growth, further erode food security and trigger new poverty traps.”

For a while Australia was a shining star among first-world nations, with its leading-edge measures, including a carbon tax, to reduce carbon emissions. But the latest developments are not encouraging, as new Prime Minister Tony Abbott is pressuring the opposition Labor party leader to yield immediately to an “unconditional repeal” of the current carbon tax. In addition, Abbott has dismissed the notion that there was any link between the recent huge bushfires and climate change.

In the U.S., the issue of global warming has almost completely fallen off the radar screen, buried by the Republicans’ recent attempts to shut down the government, and the Democrats’ anguish over the troubled roll-out of the Affordable Care Act.

But even assuming these squabbles can be settled soon, the outlook for congressional action on global warming is not encouraging. In 2012, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma reiterated his earlier characterization of anthropogenic climate change “as the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” He is hardly alone. A recent count found 115 members of the House of Representativesand 24 in the Senate still questioning global warming or the human influence on global warming, or both.

But the scientific consensus is in. The time to act is now. Will politicians have the courage to take the necessary measures, even at significant political sacrifice, and stick to them?

[This also appeared in the Huffington Post.]

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