What is the root cause of denialism?

denialism (usually uncountable; plural denialisms)

  1. describes the position of those who reject propositions that are strongly supported by scientific or historical evidence and seek to influence policy processes and outcomes accordingly[1].

In recent years the messages of politically conservative groups in the US have become increasingly at odds with scientific findings. The latest example is the recent claim by US Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., that “legitimate rape,” in his words, rarely causes pregnancy. I initially thought this was a brain-addled individual making things up on the fly during a radio interview. However, I’ve since learned that this is the official position of American Right to Life, The American Family Association, and the Human Family Research Center, three anti-abortion groups (Dan Horn, “Science Suffering in the Debate Over Rape,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, 8/26/2012). The groups make this claim because they believe it will make it easier to pass legislation that bans abortion without exceptions for rape and incest, but the scientific evidence does not support their claim that rape is less likely to result in pregnancy. As in other current controversies involving social issues, conservative groups not only ignore scientific evidence when it doesn’t support their views, but make claims that are at odds with the evidence.

Increasing numbers of politically and religiously conservative groups are adopting this anti-science approach. The conservative John Birch society started the anti-Agenda 21 movement opposed to sustainable development and the anti-fluoridation campaign[2]. The Tea Party gave birth to the “Birthers” movement that claims President Obama is not a US citizen because he was born in Kenya, despite the overwhelming evidence that he was born in Hawaii. Currently the most important scientific claim that deniers dispute is that the Earth is warming due to release of the greenhouse gas CO2during burning of fossil fuels, again despite overwhelming evidence supporting this claim.

How did this all start? I believe that conservatives embarked on the slippery slope of denialism beginning with the Creationist movement that arose in response to the scientific theory of evolution. Motivated by their religious beliefs, which are rooted in a literal interpretation of the bible, fundamentalist Christians either passively choose to ignore evidence of evolution or actively fight to stop the teaching of evolution in public schools. It seems that once people become accustomed to denying evidence, they become increasingly adept at it. No amount of evidence will convince active climate change deniers that climate change is occurring. Based on my personal observations (I would love to see a study that tests this claim), it seems that most climate change deniers are politically conservative, fundamentalist Christians who also deny the reality of evolution. Such individuals will crow about scientific findings that support their views, but will ignore or attack findings that are at odds with their views rather than change their views. This dogmatic approach is rooted in political ideology. Recent studies suggest that the only way to persuade climate change deniers to adopt climate change mitigation measures such as cap and trade is to convince them that even if climate change claims are false, mitigation measures will have a positive effect on social welfare such as greater technological and economic development[3]. While this may treat the symptoms of denialism, it doesn’t address the causes. What can cure the disease of denialism? Effective teaching of evidence-based science in public schools is a start, but society needs to find new ways to stem the spread of denialism, which is making our country less competitive and harming future generations.

[1] http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/denialism

[2]The John Birch Society also opposed the civil rights movement and promotes claims that the UN is plotting to take over the world.

[3] http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v2/n8/full/nclimate1532.html


About johncayers

John C. Ayers is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. As a geochemist he specializes in sustainability and also the chemistry of natural waters. He has been PI on 5 and co-Pi on 2 grants from the National Science Foundation, and has a publication h-index of 14. He has been Associate editor of American Mineralogist and Geochemical Transactions of the American Chemical Society, and does GIS consulting for the ERS group. He is currently writing a book titled " Sustainability: The Problems of Peak Oil, Global Climate Change, and Environmental Degradation."
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