‘Denialism’ is a neologism in search of a meaning. Let’s see if we can find it one. As it turns out we’re going to fail. As it turns out calling someone a denialist is going to have about as much cognitive content as calling him an asshole. It’s an expletive. A term of strong disapproval. But it says nothing about the grounds of that disapproval, beyond its having something to do with one’s espousal behavior. A denialist is someone who espouses a view at odds with that of the speaker.
Well, not quite. I think the Riders are a better team than the Stamps, and you think the opposite, but it would be odd for you to call me a denialist. So denialism must be some particular collection of views I hold but you hold in contempt. What’s the common denominator? As it turns out there isn’t one, other than it’s a pejorative you attach to certain of my beliefs because in your mind it sounds like you’ve scored some kind of three-pointer by doing so. Perhaps you can do better, but that’s the best I can come up with. Now let’s see how I’ve come up with this best.
Some years ago I was in Pakistan, and I was gobstruck to discover that even among the more educated, hardly anyone had heard of the Holocaust. Would we call these people Holocaust deniers? Surely not. To be a denier one must at least have heard of whatever it is she’s denying. The case is similar, I suppose, to what it is to deny Jesus. This is why even mainstream evangelicals are prepared to let those who had yet to be told about Jesus off the hook. Heaven certainly not, but perhaps a stint in Purgatory, where and until they’ll be given a more fully ‘informed’ choice about whether to believe in Jesus or not.
Of course there’s a difference between being told something and being informed about it, by which I do not mean that to be informed is necessarily to be told the truth. To be informed is simply to be given adequate information to forge an opinion, an opinion which still may, for all that, turn out to be false.
For example, most of us, I take it, are reasonably ‘informed’ about the Alamo. We know the who – on the one side the evil Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and five thousand of his soldiers, on the other the heroic
Colonel Travis, Davie Crocket, and a hundred eighty more,
Captain Dickenson, Jim Bowie, present and accounted for.
We know the what – a siege, at the outset of which,
“You may ne’er see your loved ones,”
Travis told them that day.
“Those who want to can leave now,
Those who fight to the death let ‘em stay.”
In the sand he drew a line
with his army sabre.
Out of a hundred eighty five
not a one to cross the line.
And then, after thirteen days, a battle, in which he, Santa Anna, “killed them one and all.” We know the where – “In the southern part of Texas near the town of San Antone.” We know the when – “Back in 1836.” And we know the why – Travis was asked to delay Santa Anna long enough for Houston to raise an army.
Is all this true? Well, there might have been a little embellishment, but certainly nothing like God parting the waters of the Red Sea. In fact Egyptologists are now telling us that the Exodus narrative may be false not in some of the details but in its entirety. Which is pretty much what contemporary revisionists are saying about the Holocaust. The Exodus is the myth by which Jews lionized their ancestors to justify the ethnic cleansing of Canaan, and the Holocaust is that same myth reprised to justify the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
My own view, for what little it’s worth, is that, Antarctica aside, there isn’t a square inch on this planet that hasn’t been conquered, at one time or another, by people not of that place. And so if conquest requires justification there’s going to be a whole lot of people moving back to where they came from. So you go right ahead and tell yourselves whatever foundation stories you like, but in the end they’re your stories, not ours. So no, God didn’t give this land to these people and that land to those. And even if He did, what makes Him think it was His to be handing out in the first place?
But I digress.
So someone has to at least know what she’s talking about to count as denying what she’s denying about it. If you’ve rung my doorbell to tell me about Jesus but I’m too distracted with other things to pay you any mind – the baby’s crying, or that damn washer in the basement is banging because it’s out of balance again – I’m not a Jesus denier. If you’ve come to tell me about Jesus but I’ve already had the Hari Krishna’s at the door this morning, and then the Mormons, and then the Heaven’s Gate people – and so I’m just not interested because I’m suffering road-to-perdition fatigue – I’m not a Jesus denier. Even if you tell me my immortal soul hangs on what you’re telling me – or in the case of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) that the future of the entire human race is hanging by a thread – if I have more pressing concerns or I’m just suffering from end-of-the-world fatigued, I am neither a Jesus denier nor an AGW denier. I’m just a mom trying to get the kids dressed for school.
The issue gets a tad muddier if, at your urging, I do become a tad informed about the issue but then declare myself an agnostic. This can mean one of two things. I might be saying – call this the weak version – I don’t yet, and perhaps never will, feel confident enough of my command of the issue to take even a tentative position on it, be it AGW, or vaccination safety, or the truth about 9/11. This will get me into some trouble, but not nearly as much as denying – call this the strong version – that any of us do, or perhaps even can, know enough to pass judgment on AGW or vaccination or 9/11.
In the case of weak agnosticism I’ll be accused of moral turpitude, that is, vis a vis AGW of shirking my epistemic duties as a member of the human race, or in the case of vaccination of allowing my kids to free ride on their herd immunity, or in the case of 9/11 of being culpably less than requisitely vigilant as a citizen of the democratic polity I enjoy.
The problem with these kinds of accusations, fair though they may be, is that they open the accuser to a tu quoque. And there’s no shortage of tu quoque’s to be tossed hither and fro. With so many nations on the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons, we’re closer to Helen Caldicott’s nuclear midnight than we’ve ever been. Why are you not out there campaigning for nuclear disarmament? The particulates of plastic on the ocean floors are rapidly making their way up the food chain to us. Why are you still buying bottled water? If they lied about 9/11 what makes you think they’re not lying about the real purpose behind fluoridation? How did you let your government fail in its responsibilities to Omar Khadr? And so on.
But the True Believer is impervious to tu quoque’s. What should matter most to all is just what happens to matter most to her. And the fact that others can and do say the same just shows that they’re wrong.
Again, for what little it’s worth, I’m grateful that there’s something that matters most for you so that something else can matter most for me, because there’s not a whole lot that shouldn’t matter most to anyone. For someone it’s the salt water filling his lungs because his ‘fare’ from Tripoli to Lampedusa didn’t cover the cost of a lifejacket. For another it’s his child dying from juvenile leukemia. And for yet another it’s balancing the municipal budget between snow removal and homeless shelters. AGW, vaccination safety, the truth about 9/11, they’re all in our collective mental hopper, but there’s nothing that warrants top priority categorically. Well, except of course for accepting Jesus as our personal savior. “For what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world” – including his life and that of his child – “and lose his own soul?” (Mk 8:36)
Is there anything that matters most to more than one of us? I doubt it, but perhaps. Are there things that, though they don’t matter most to more than one of us, they nevertheless do matter to more than one of us? Certainly there are. And do they not sometimes require collective action? Desperately! And is this collective action not sometimes in conflict with what matters to several others of us? Unfortunately yes. When this happens we do our cause no service by claiming the high ground. Either we resort to force of arms – not usually the best option – or we negotiate, in both good faith and moral humility.
A constituent of moral humility, by the way, is epistemic humility. Epistemic humility is not the forte of the True Believer. This is why True Believers, like Torquemada, eventually resort to the sword, and for their sins die by it. And this is as it should be. Yes, “Nature red in tooth and claw!” But it is the defensive wound that is most beloved by the gods of all our religions.
So, is the weak agnostic a denialist? No she is not. She neither asserts nor denies because she doesn’t claim to know. And she doesn’t claim to know because she’s rightly averse to epistemic hubris.
But what about the strong agnostic? Strong agnosticism is just skepticism by another name. If none of us can know, or at least we never will, then, like Buridan’s ass, we’re frozen in stasis and we starve to death.
Well, not quite. This is because there’s no such thing as “I ain’t doin’ nothin’.” What we call doin’ nothin’ is really just doing something else. So the question is always, what shall we do?
The answer can be guided by all kinds of considerata, including the direness of certain outcomes multiplied by their relative probabilities, the fortuitousness of other outcomes multiplied by their relative probabilities, the precautionary principle when operating under two-dimensional uncertainty, and so on.
But the denialist is not a skeptic. If he were he’d be suspending judgment. But he’s not. He’s denying what others are asserting. Is he denying the certainty with which what he’s denying is asserted? Of course he is. One can hardly deny that p without denying the certainty of p. Does he deny he could be mistaken? Of course not. Certainly no more than does the asserter deny he could be mistaken. These are not disputes between disputants who take themselves to be infallible. An asserter or denier who claims he couldn’t be wrong, save on a matter of simple logic, is declaring himself a god. If God couldn’t get the rational value of pi right, chances are neither can any mere mortal.
“That,” you might say, “is because pi doesn’t have a rational value.”
Says who? You, a mere mortal?
Okay, so so far we have what the denialist is not. He is neither an agnostic nor a skeptic. But neither can he just be a denier. This is because to assert that p is just to deny the denial of p. So every asserter is every bit as much a denier as any denier. In fact, what is AGW assertion other than the denial that AGW is a socialist hoax? What is a pro-vaxxer if not one who denies that vaccines are unsafe? What is it to subscribe to the official narrative if not to deny each of the 9/11-Truthers’ alternative truths? Clearly we need something more. But what?
Enter the dual notions of dissimulation and the scientific consensus. And here there be dragons!
The charge of denialism is one of disapprobrium one levels against an opponent. With the rare exception of those who’ve subverted the term by turning it into an honorific – like kike for Jew, fag for gay, nigger for black, crone for post-menopausal woman – no denier self-identifies as a denial-ist. The ‘-ist’ suggests an ideology behind the denial, or if not an ideology then at least something driving the belief other than simple belief. So a charge of denialism is automatically an ad hominem circumstantial.
“Well, as a Republican you would argue for the trickle-down effect of lower taxes, now wouldn’t you?!” Or, “Of course your research is going to show that AGW is false. You’re a shill. You’re being well-paid by your oil company employers to show precisely that!”
The trick here, of course, is that – not unlike “Oh, that’s just a denialist trope!” – these ad hominems relieve the speaker of having to actually engage the claim that lower taxes might have the trickle-down effect being claimed, or to engage the data and analysis on AGW being offered by the oil industry’s shill. But the problem, once again, is that these ad hominems can cut both ways. “It’s only because you’re a Democrat that you argue that the rich should pay more of what you’re claiming is their ‘fair’ share of taxes, which of course merely begs the question.” Or, “Of course your research shows that AGW is real. If it didn’t, you’d have a hard time getting yet another NSERC grant to research a problem you claim doesn’t exist. Do you have any idea how much Chapters and Indigo make on what they call their Chicken Little shelves? A helluva lot more, I assure you, than the Koch brothers can afford to pay their stable of shills!”
So if a denialist is someone who may be ‘laterally motivated’, once again we have no way to distinguish the AGW denier from his counterpart. We need something else. And this is where ‘the scientific consensus’ is thought to do yeoman service. Motivation aside, a denialist is someone who denies what the scientific consensus asserts.
Of course this could be as readily expressed as someone who asserts what the scientific consensus denies. But this would be a quibble that does no work. Since nothing hangs on it, except the mind’s preference for a ‘tis-so over a ‘tis-not, let it be granted that the denialist denies. And let it be granted not just that he denies what the asserter asserts, but that it’s the asserter, not the denier, who has the scientific consensus on her side. Now all we need to know is what counts as the scientific consensus, and why having it on one’s side should count in one’s favor.
Now look. I’m not going to bullshit you. I haven’t done the research. I don’t think I’d even know how. So I’m just going to conjecture that the most frequent error in argumentation – second only, of course, to the Studies-Show-That fallacy – is begging the question. So we need to come up with a definition of the scientific consensus that doesn’t presuppose itself. And I say the scientific consensus because there’s no shortage of consensuses, scientific or otherwise. Nazi Science boasted a very strong consensus, though threat of execution might have had something to do with that. But certainly there’s a reasonable degree of uniformity among Creation Scientists, enforced, I suppose, by the PICS, the Principle of Internal Christian Seemliness.
So to get past all these consensuses to the the one, we’re going to have to argue that neither the Nazis were nor the Creationists are doing what we mean by science. By science we mean investigations and assertions grounded in, well, the scientific method. Experimentation with a control group to preclude false positives, inductively adequate sample sizes, replicability … You know, that sort of thing.
But the Method has its limitations. No one’s been able to replicate the magic bullet, so we cover it with the Butterfly Effect, which is just an ass-covering way of saying, “Gee, I dunno.” The replication of the collapse of Building 7, though it would be fun to watch, might be a tad too expensive. And without the cooperation of the Creator – I guess we’d first have to ask Him to be the Destroyer – Creation is pretty much a one-off. And besides, science includes lucky guesses, stumblings onto things, connections made in our sleep …
Moreover, even when we can confirm, we can’t really. All we can do is fail to falsify. But that’s generally good enough. Good enough for what? Prediction and control. What we mean by science is whatever we do, and however we do it, that yields prediction and control. Or, since prediction and control aren’t bivalent values, a claim is scientific to the degree that it yields prediction and control.
If this be doubted, ask yourself what we’d do if there were a Seer, somewhere up in the sky, we could ask any question whatsoever, and He’d always give us the answer that afforded us impeccable prediction and control. What we now call science would be a burden without compensatory payoff. Or maybe we’d just resurrect the etymological meaning of the word science and redefine it as the consulting of the Great Seer?
Of course some claims – Creationism is probably among them – though not offering much in the way of prediction and control, earn their keep in the coinage of explanation. Explanations that offer no prediction and control are a dime a dozen, and for most of us uninteresting. But for others they satisfy their (perhaps too easily satisfied) curiosity.
In my view, to try to undermine that satisfaction is just churlish. Every people has its myths – creation myths, foundation myths, myths about this or about that. We Jews have our Exodus and our Holocaust. Americans have their Mayflower and their Alamo. Always to be outdone, Canadians have their Vimy Ridge. I wish all of them God’s speed. But since these narratives neither predict nor control anything, they’re not scientific assertions, and so an explanatory consensus about them can’t count as a scientific consensus.
I suspect most philosophers of science would disagree. And perhaps for good reason. For if my analysis were right, it would yield some rather counterintuitive corollaries, one of which being that neither the denial of the historicity of evolution (Creationism), nor denial of the historicity of the Holocaust, could count as a species of denialism. Why? Because a denialist has to be denying a scientific consensus, and views about the origins of the cosmos, or the whereabouts of six million missing persons, are epiphenomenal. They’re epiphenomenal because nothing action-guiding, i.e. involving prediction and control, hangs on them.
Not so, one might argue. They’re not epiphenomenal if one chooses to assign them consequences. They wouldn’t be epiphenomenal if one says, for example, that because Creationism is true, evolution ought not to be taught in science class, or because the Holocaust was a Zionist myth, the Jews ought to be driven into the sea.
But I’m going to bite the bullet on this one. If the theory of evolution, though false, gives us prediction and control, but Creationism, though true, does not, then I say teach the falsehood as science and leave the truth to literature. Why? Because science is about our physical survival and delectation, whereas literature is about the world we inhabit in our heads.
And if the justification for the State of Israel – assuming it needs one – is overdetermined by the Holocaust and the simple right of conquest, then consign the Holocaust wherever you like. If its Arab neighbors had the power to throw the Jews into the sea, they would have done it by now, and the historicity of the Holocaust would have had no more to do with the case, tra la, than the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la.
But none of this tells us what a consensus is, nor how to find the the one. The consensus can’t simply be the majority view, because then most of the great breakthroughs in the history of science were made by denialists. And the moment one acknowledges that, then induction would instruct him to encourage denialism rather than condemn it. So the argument has to be that it’s only the consensus if it’s been faithful to the Method. But then on pain of circularity the characterization of the Method can make no mention of the role of consensus. But if all that matters is the Method, then the notion of consensus is no longer doing any work.
In fact it’s hard to see what work the notion of consensus can do. If one bucks the consensus, if she’s an ‘outlier’, then isn’t this precisely what John Stuart Mill argued we should want her to be? So our critique of the notion needn’t even proceed to the two real theory-killers, the first being that being the consensus can’t be much of a virtue if it turns out it consists of nothing but multiple copies of the same view. A hundred copies of the same newspaper is not a hundred reports of the same story, it’s one. So if 97% of scientists agree there’s been AGW, and they think so because that’s what the one colleague they rely on for such matters has assured them, then that 97% represents no more than the assurance of that one colleague.
We need also take into account, when we’re doing our counting, the number of scientists who’ve been bullied by peer pressure into drinking the Kool-Aid. If we know it’s true of Holocaust denial – and we certainly do! – what makes us think it’s any different with AGW denial? I can attest – and I’ve read more than a few scientists who attest – that it’s not.
And the second is that we’re presupposing who counts as one of the scientists whose views are to be consulted. I’m Canada’s foremost philosopher of war. According to whose judgment? That of Canada’s foremost philosopher of war.
What we have, then, is a bootstrapping problem. And how do we solve a bootstrapping problem? By fiat. What’s a Jew? Someone born of a Jewish mother. Helpful, but not very. Not unlike the apostolic succession, ultimately one simply designates a valuation day and then enumerates a list of deciders. Who are we? We’re the people who take as our scientific bishops those who’ve been so designated by those they take as their scientific bishops. It’s an embarrassingly arbitrary way of assigning authority. But one that’s worked remarkably well over the years, if not the centuries.
And that’s just the point. If an institution, no matter how arbitrary in its foundations, nonetheless delivers the goods, that’s not just good enough. That’s as good as it can be. Some scientific institutions are better than others. By what measure? By delivering verdicts that deliver in turn on prediction and control.
The Pope ex cathedra aside, no institution has proven itself infallible. But the measure of failure is not some one-off. It’s number multiplied by consequence. So of course after Thalidomide consumers have been wary of governmental oversight of the pharmaceutical industry. Contrary to what the pro-vaxxer lobbyists try to argue, this isn’t irrationality. It’s rationality in perfect working order. It’s fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice, shame on me. Is the anti-vaxxer overreacting? Not if it’s her child we’re talking about.
Are we done? No, what remains is the refuge of last resort for the intellectual fakir, namely the claim that his opponent doesn’t really believe what he espouses. A denialist, says he, is one who knows the truth but for personal gain advances the falsehood anyway.
How does the accuser know this? There’s no point asking a liar if he’s lying. The accuser could induce that his opponent might be lying for personal gain if he himself is prone to lying for personal gain. But he’s not, so the accusation must be grounded on … On what? On that he must know what I know because I know it, and so if he’s asserting otherwise he must be lying. Or if he’s not lying, he’s been duped by those who are.
So who’s a denialist? He’s either a liar or a dupe. Why a dupe? Because he’s someone who doesn’t trust who I trust. Of course I’m not a dupe. How could I be? How do I know that he’s a dupe and I’m not? you ask? It’s self-evident.
To me, of course. What other self have I got?
So what is there left for denialism to be? A move in a language game, and not a very laudable one. It has no cognitive content, but it’s thought to have perlocutionary heft, though only on those stupid enough not to notice the con. It pretends to say something, but really it’s an attempt to win the argument by pretending the argument’s already won. It’s a facon de parler “twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.”
In all these debates – over AGW, vaccination, 9/11, the list goes on and on – plenty are the knaves. And plenty more are the fools. Don’t be a fool. Or better yet, do us all a favor and just don’t be a knave.