ScienceBlogling Matt Nisbet argues that scientists* shouldn’t call science denialists, well, denialists. I listened to the audio clip he linked to, and I’m unconvinced.
Leaving aside the issue that denialism (or calling someone a denialist) actually has a use–according to the clip, the term describes a certain set of behaviors, which the clip splits into three categories:
- “Strategic denialism” or cynical denialism. The speaker knows something is correct, and lies anyway.
- Fear-based denialism. The denialist is afraid to confront a known fact. For example, if you were vomiting blood, you don’t call a doctor because she will tell you that you’re sick.
- Worldview denialism. This is avoidance of inconvenient truths (to steal a phrase), or what I’ve called willful ignorance. Creationists do this a lot.
Again, it’s clear denialism has a very useful descriptive function. What’s also clear from the clip is that the only people who are offended by being called denialists are the denialists. This has always been what I think is my fundamental problem with Nisbet’s approach: the perceived need to convince everyone.
That’s a foolish strategy, and it’s what I call the Kumbaya Fallacy. During the 80s and 90s, there was a popular revisionist version of the history of the Civil Rights movement that claimed that we all one day just realized that denying black people the vote and lynching was bad and that it needed to stop (i.e., we just held each others hands ’round the campfire and began singing Cumbaya).
Not exactly. The Civil Rights movement shamed enough people into forcing the end of segregation–often at the point of a federalized guardsman’s bayonet. If the Civil Rights movement had waited to convince the overwhelming majority of Americans of the justness of its cause, black people still wouldn’t be able to vote. There will always be those who don’t want to face reality, whether it be cynical self-interest, fear, or slavish devotion to a worldview. No mystical or mythical incantation of the right, focus-group tested, perfect phrase will alter this. The effort would be far better spent politically organizing.
At times does better language help? Sure. I’ve accomplished what I have, in part, because I am a reasonably good communicator to different audiences (although no one, not even the Mad Biologist, is perfect).
Finally, the piece focused on global warming denialists. How has the environmental movement failed? I would argue, with the exception of the movement conservatives who are not a majority, most people think global warming is real and man-made. Also, some candidate won an election rather handily (even though he was black) with environmentalism as a major part of his platform. Most editorial and op-ed pages are dominated by those who accept the reality of global warming (even though op-ed pages seem to often serve as a bastion of wingnut welfare in the name of political balance).
It would appear the denialists aren’t doing so well….
*It might not be the best communication strategy to hector scientists about their failures rather than showing us how it’s done. We do have science to do. If your approach works, then use it.