Skeptics vs. Denialists

Amanda Marcotte points out what should be clear but is not to some people: there is a major difference between skeptics and denialists. She points out the error in referring to global warming denialsits as skeptics as opposed to denialists and defines what denialists are:

Let’s get into definitions.  What is a denialist?  Denialists are a very specific form of conspiracy theorist.  Some conspiracy theories argue the Freemasons control the world, that Bush was behind 9/11, or that there was a plot to kill JFK.  They create alternative readings of history that satisfy their allergy to the chaotic form real systems take.  Denialists, however, are more interested in taking those things that are established science or history, and denying their reality or importance. They often have ulterior political motives, but sometimes they just deny because reality makes them feel small or dependent or helpless.  There are a lot of denialists:

*Holocaust deniers, who promote the idea that the Holocaust was a hoax.  They either flat-out deny it, or, more commonly, they try to say it wasn’t as bad as history would have you believe.
*Anti-vaxxers, who promote the idea that the great public health innovation of the modern world is actually more dangerous than helpful.
*Moon landing nutters, who deny that the U.S. put a man on the moon, and claim it was staged.
*Creationists, who deny the theory of evolution.
*HIV denialists, who deny that HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, which is related to conspiracy theories about how the government is behind AIDS.

Later she explained the difference with skeptics:

What is a skeptic, and why aren’t denialists skeptics?

Skeptics also ask questions, but a big difference between skeptics and denialists is that skeptics listen to answers and regard evidence as paramount.  Denialists tend to see the piles of evidence against their claim, and see a conspiracy theory to perpetuate a hoax.  But skeptics accept good evidence.  Skeptics have a lot of respect for science, and denialists are usually out to undermine scientists working in the field where they have an agenda.  Denialists will wear the costume of scientific thinking, but they usually show a piss-poor understanding how how the accumulation of studies and data work.  (For instance, they promote the idea that if one study can be found to be flawed, this brings down the whole theory, as if the other hundreds of studies don’t count.)

This distinction is really important, because the role of skeptics is to dispute and even disprove outrageous conspiracy theory claims.  Skeptics fight against denialists.  That’s why I’m interested in skepticism—I fear that there’s a surge of denialist thinking in our culture fueled by new media (which is great at a lot of good things, but also good at spreading misinformation) and the explosion in both complications in world politics and the everyday person’s awareness of them.  As science begins to dictate more and more of what we know, there’s also a cultural backlash that’s related to the overall backlash against modernism.  Skepticism is becoming more and more important as the political troops to defend science.  So when people who are part of the anti-science backlash call themselves “skeptics”, this confuses the issue.

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3 Comments

  1. 1
    Brett Robinson says:

    RT @ronchusid: Skeptics vs. Denialists http://bit.ly/9MlAvM #p2 #climate #environment

  2. 2
    Bad Wolf says:

    A very good article.  I would add my own definition of the difference between a skeptic and a denialist:  A skeptic is a person whose mind can be changed by unbiased, and credible evidence contrary to what he/she originally believed.  A denialist is virtually impossible to get to change their mind, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

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