US president Donald Trump has sparked anxiety in the scientific community by denying climate change, casting doubt on the use of vaccines, and generally decrying experts who don’t toe the Trump administration’s line. Virtually everything Trump disagrees with is dismissed as “fake news”.
Denialism is inevitable whenever powerful financial, governmental, cultural or religious interests come into conflict with scientific reality. HIV researcher Glenda Gray saw this first hand at the turn of the millennium, when South African president Thabo Mbeki refused to accept the link between HIV and AIDS. This prevented vital research and treatment, leading to the avoidable deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
Today’s professional deniers, with their deep pockets and sophisticated use of media, are better than ever at convincing the general public that black is white and vice versa. So in these challenging times, it pays to remind ourselves of the cunning moves in the denialists’ playbook, with this excerpt from our special report “Living in denial”.
How to be a denialist
Martin McKee, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who also studies denial, has identified six tactics that all denialist movements use. “I’m not suggesting there is a manual somewhere, but one can see these elements, to varying degrees, in many settings,” he says.
- Allege that there’s a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
- Use fake experts to support your story. “Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility,” says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
- Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
- Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
- Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.
- Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.
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