Denialism and Skepticism


In discussions of scientific research, it is common (especially on the internet) for labels like “denialism” and “alarmism” to be thrown around. It is also common for people on the anti-scientific-consensus side to claim that the label “denier” is simply pejorative: It means nothing more than someone you disagree with, and (the claim typically continues) it’s a vicious attempt to associate (e.g.) people who disagree about the facts of climate change with holocaust deniers. In a tit-for-tat move, these people then invoke the label “alarmist” to label people who buy into the hype about the dangers of climate change.

If we want to engage in honest debate rather than name calling, they say, we should call them “climate skeptics” rather than deniers.

I use the terms denier and denialism (as you’ve no doubt noticed), so I think it’s worth saying a few words about why I do, and why you should too.

First, I’m not convinced that the historical root of the term denier is especially tied to holocaust denialism. There are many different varieties of denialism, evolution denialism, thermodynamcis denialism, history denialism, and maybe even football denialism. And I also don’t think that holocaust denial is the first thing people think of when they hear the term denier. Indeed, few students in my classes have even heard of holocaust denialism.

Second, when I (and many others) use the term denialism it isn’t an empty pejorative. It is instead a label for a broad class of cognitive errors that surface in wide variety of circumstances. For example, although there are huge differences between creationists and anti-vaxers, they both trot out the same set of fallacies in support of their positions. This is also true of AIDS/HIV deniers, 9/11 truthers, lung cancer deniers, and on and on.

And yes, climate change “skeptics” are also guilty of these very same fallacies. This is why it makes sense to consider these various anti-science and pseudoscience movements as a class. And this is precisely what I (and others, like Pigliucci, who talk about science and denialism) are referring to when we label something a form of denialism. We could be wrong, of course, but the label is not meaningless.

Third, it would be a misnomer to use the label “skepticism” to refer to most forms of denialism. Skepticism has a variety of meanings, but a core notion of skepticism is a commitment to reason. In the case of philosophical skepticism, the claim is that reason reveals we have no true knowledge. With popular or movement skepticism, the claim is that our confidence in a claim should be a function of our total evidence for that claim (including how extraordinary it would be).

Importantly, all these forms of skepticism involve applying critical reasoning to our own epistemic situation. Skeptics carefully consider the possibility that they might be wrong. And this is painfully lacking in denialism.

It is just an objective fact that those engaged in denialism are employing various fallacies and are not reasoning well. Of course the people opposing good science will deny this, but this doesn’t mean that we should buy into their mistakes and mislabel their positions and arguments.

It may seem mean to say that someone is putting forward bad arguments, but that doesn’t make the charge wrong. We’re trying to figure out which arguments are good and which are bad, and the answers to these questions are not arbitrary (nor do the depend on political or moral commitments).

So I don’t apologize for using the term denier, but I do take to heart the suggestion that sometimes it’s not the most productive thing to do.

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