Denial Ain't No River in Egypt

April 23, 2012

Torah Kachur

In a world of incredibly sophisticated science exploring endless realms of the body, the Earth and the universe it is unfathomable that people can deny incontrovertible facts about the world we live in. 


It is true that we are faced with thousands of scientific findings every day that sometimes seem overwhelming, overcomplicated and often contradictory.  We require so much thought just to simply process all of that information let alone think about it critically.  Our age is the Age of Information where every fact is at the tip of our fingers all the time and everyone seems to want to push more and more information at us to fill our already full brains.


Is denial of scientific consensus simply information overload?  Is it easier to deny than to think?  We, as a society, are faced with denialism that is changing the course of history.  Denialism has become dangerous.  In the information age, denial is more than just ignorance, it's stupid.


The AIDS denialism has past the point of dangerous.  AIDS denialists believe that HIV does not cause AIDS but is simply a passenger virus - they claim that there are people who live with HIV but never gets AIDS as proof it doesn't cause AIDS.  The most famous AIDS denialist is South African President Thabo Mbeki who famously said "Personally, I don't know anyboy who has died of AIDS.  I really, honestly don't"  (September 2003).  Well there you go Thabo, HIV doesn't cause AIDS...obvi.


In a paper published in 2008, public health officials from Harvard suggest that Mbeki's stance, and subsequent political policies to not provide access to drugs that prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus, has killed over 300,000 citizens.  Yes, three hundred thousand people.  His refusal to side with science has killed a third of a million people, those same people he was supposed to lead.  There is only one scientist who does not acknowledge that HIV causes AIDS - one scientist against evidence accumulated for over 20 years and a Nobel prize to boot.  Does the squeeky wheel get the grease or the boot?


Denialism isn't about questioning the scientific process, that is skepticism.  Skepticism provides a framework for inquiry and furthers scientific thought by increasing the demand for the burden of proof.  Denialism is rejection of evidence or ignoring evidence to the contrary.  It is taking one piece of evidence that agrees with your position and ignoring every piece of evidence that disagrees.  Skeptics question, Denialists reject.


Denialism was perfected by Big Tobacco - simply denying the science was an attempt to spread doubt.  We watch the video of the "Seven Dwarfs" of Big Tobacco perjuring themselves in a U.S. court that nicotine is not addictive.  All the science, and I mean ALL the science disagreed with them.  They simply just ignored it.  That act was not a simple strategy, it was a subversive and planned attempt to undermine science to sway public opinion. 



And denialists are at it again, climate change denialists have been compared quite accurately to the machine that Big Tobacco employed.  The Fifth Estate, a CBC documentary, probed the process of denialism in action.  It is an intentional misrepresentation of scientific fact, changing words to open the door for doubting the undoubtable.  The slick wording, the greasy hands that guide it - all seem to be no match for scientists who hide behind their evidence.  Evidence seems to no longer be good enough.


Deny climate change, AIDS or the dangers of tobacco all you want in your own home.  It's when our policy makers ignore the science does it get dangerous.  We are killing ourselves and our planet because our leaders deny what the science knows.  Educate yourself or risk being another one of their victims.







Sheree on April 23, 2012
One of the great regrets of my life is that I didn't pursue my interest in science after junior high and high school. I did well in my courses but I had a weak math background and let myself be influenced by the then-norm (late 70s, early 80s) that "girls don't do science" unless they're abnormal or want to be a doctor or nurse.

In the past 10 years, I've rekindled my interest in science. I've been reading science books and magazines. More recently, I've begun to work to share bits and pieces of science news through social media and blogging.

It's too late for me to be a scientist in the academic sense of the word but I can still be a citizen scientist and an advocate for science. That's where I know I can make a difference.
Ryan Shannon on April 24, 2012
Where a lot of people get hung up in the climate change debate is in the sheer complexity of the science, where the actual debated portion is relatively small. Deniers twist the debate into a simplified "is climate change occurring?" (yes) when the questions being asked in the scientific community concern the mechanics, the causal factors, the degree, and the timeframe - none of the questions around which preclude action to mitigate human contributions to the apparent problem.

The real trouble is that science is getting increasingly bad at selling itself to the general public. There is such an enormous knowledge gap between a serious scientist and your average B.A. student (nevermind your average individual citizen) that it really seems like they're speaking entirely different languages. That's where it becomes important for people that bridge those worlds to explain and debate the issues too.

The unfortunate reality is that most of the planet's population believes what they can observe - we humans are fundamentally grounded creatures. At some point, a sufficiently large gap in scientific knowledge makes science appear little more than magic, and removes it from credibility.

Science needs to sell itself and sell it's accessibility. Arguments grounded in abstract reason and truth, no matter how observationally- or experimentally-based, don't really resonate with humans - we have to experience something to really understand it. Until science starts to get more and more people involved, we're always destined to have a large number of deniers walking among us.

The good news is that, practically-speaking, with the advent of the Internet and mass instant communication, science has become more accessible than ever.



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