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A fascinating paper well worth reading is Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?
(Diethelm & McKee 2009) (H/T to Jeremy Kemp for the heads-up). While the focus is on public health issues, it nevertheless establishes some useful general principles on the phenomenon
of scientific denialism. A vivid example is the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, who argued against the scientific consensus that HIV caused AIDS. This led to policies preventing thousands of HIV positive mothers in South Africa from receiving
anti-retrovirals. It's estimated these policies led to the loss of more than 330,000 lives (Chigwedere 2008). Clearly the consequences of denying science can be dire, even fatal.
The authors define denialism as "the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists".
They go on to identify 5 characteristics common to most forms of denialism, first suggested by Mark and Chris Hoofnagle:
- Conspiracy theories
the overwhelming body of scientific opinion believes something is true, the denialist won't admit scientists have independently studied the evidence to reach the same conclusion. Instead, they claim scientists are engaged in a complex and secretive conspiracy.
The South African government of Thabo Mbeki was heavily influenced by conspiracy theorists claiming that HIV was not the cause of AIDS. When such fringe groups gain the ear of policy makers who cease to base their decisions on science-based evidence, the human
impact can be disastrous.
- Fake experts
These are individuals purporting to be experts but whose views are inconsistent with established knowledge. Fake experts have been used extensively by the tobacco industry who developed
a strategy to recruit scientists who would counteract the growing evidence on the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. This tactic is often complemented by denigration of established experts, seeking to discredit their work. Tobacco denialists have frequently
attacked Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California, for his exposure of tobacco industry tactics, labelling his research 'junk science'.
- Cherry picking
This involves selectively drawing on isolated
papers that challenge the consensus to the neglect of the broader body of research. An example is a paper describing intestinal abnormalities in 12 children with autism, which suggested a possible link with immunization. This has been used extensively by campaigners
against immunization, even though 10 of the paper’s 13 authors subsequently retracted the suggestion of an association.
- Impossible expectations of what research can deliver
The tobacco company Philip Morris tried to promote
a new standard for the conduct of epidemiological studies. These stricter guidelines would have invalidated in one sweep a large body of research on the health effects of cigarettes.
- Misrepresentation and logical fallacies
fallacies include the use of straw men, where the opposing argument is misrepresented, making it easier to refute. For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined in 1992 that environmental tobacco smoke was carcinogenic. This was attacked
as nothing less than a 'threat to the very core of democratic values and democratic public policy'.