Jamie L. Vernon, who has been a terrific recent addition to Chris Mooney’s The Intersection as a guest blogger, has a new post that should intrigue any of us who have been exasperated by the deep-seated anti-scientific denial that plagues discussions of climate change, evolution, vaccines and autism, and other topics. In “‘Deathers’ Offer a Unique Case Study for the Formulation of the Denialist Mentality,” Jamie considers the idea that we seem to be watching a new species of denial in its birth throes: refusal to accept that Osama bin Laden died in the assault on his compound last week. The precise details of that denial can vary; some say that bin Laden is still alive but being held in secret custody, while others think that bin Laden is dead but not under circumstances in any way resembling those that have been officially released. (Those details have been getting revised, of course, which certainly helps to feed the suspicions.) As Jamie writes:
We are currently witnessing the de novo formulation of a new denialism in regards to the death of Osama bin Laden. As I was listening to C-SPAN radio, just yesterday, two callers a Democrat and a Republican agreed that bin Laden was not dead and the entire hullabaloo was orchestrated for political gain. Because we are now armed with at least a superficial understanding of the mechanisms behind this type of thinking, we can ask questions and test hypotheses while observing the development of this particular case of motivated thought.
Read his post for the full argument, but in brief, Jamie suggests that the rise of the “Bush, not Obama, deserves credit for bin Laden’s assassination” idea—which maybe makes the reality of the terrorist’s death more acceptable for those in the U.S. who want to deny Obama credit for any accomplishment—might offer some hints about ways of winning over denialists in other areas such as climate change.
I left the following comment, annotated here with some relevant links:
“Thanks for the smart observation. I like the idea of trying to take a snapshot of the birth of a denial meme. A few thoughts come to mind:
“Somebody else (sorry that I’m forgetting who—Michael Shermer?[Ironically, I later realized it was Chris Mooney himself here]) suggested in the past few days that disaffected, al-Qaeda sympathizing Muslims around the world would be primed for deather denialism because they, too, would be emotionally motivated to reject that it had happened. Of course, al-Qaeda’s official acknowledgment that bin Laden is dead may blunt that possibility. (And I suppose it’s interesting to speculate why al-Qaeda didn’t stay silent longer to feed such suspicions.) But if you’re right, we might still see deather denial among such populations, for whom the “let’s credit Bush” dodge wouldn’t work, even while the sentiment flounders in the U.S.
“A possible problem with trying to develop similar strategies to build more support on climate change, I suspect, is that they can often be co-opted to other purposes. For example, at least some of the resistance to climate change takes the form of protest that it would destroy the economy, that the greens are anti-business, etc. The rebuttal has been that acting on climate change would actually create new economic opportunities through the development of new energy and conservation technologies, new infrastructure and the like. Of course, some of the climate deniers then turn the issue into a conspiracy aimed at funneling money into Al Gore’s pockets. Yet even more progressive voices will sometimes end up saying, yes, let’s make these energy policy reforms… but not worry about reforms that would specifically (and essentially) reduce CO2 emissions. Proposals that should be uniting support for action on climate change end up dividing it.
“And of course, there’s also the problem from a different quarter that some of these strategies for winning over deniers (or, let’s say, the denier-sympathetic) end up alienating some of the supporters who argue that everybody should take the truth straight up. Look no further than advocates for evolution like PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, who would be quick to say that the Catholic Church’s support for evolution is itself unscientific and therefore still not acceptable.”
Jamie has subsequently posted a reply to my comment and others, which reads in part:
While it may be true that a subset of climate change deniers oppose action based on economic concerns, economic justifications may not be enough to turn the tide. I suspect there is a threshold that must be met within the denialist population in order to overcome the denialism (as with tobacco and cancer). Reaching that threshold may require addressing multiple motivators.
Economics is only part of what motivates the resistance among some to accept climate change as real, it’s true, and I had selected it simply because it was easy to state the problem briefly in those terms. There’s every reason to try to find a variety of motivators that might work. I do worry that the variety of those arguments will be used by deniers to say that there’s no “real, single” argument and that climate change activists will say anything to fool the public, but of course, they say that already anyway.
So I’m very open to seeing what we can learn from this bin Laden deather nonsense that might be applicable to other anti-science problems. I’m just keeping my expectations low.