The Existential Angst of Denialism

And this week’s award for the most ridiculous quote goes to Shawn Laurence Otto in his article entitled “America’s Science Problem”:*

“By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation’s founders, the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.”

Huh? Who’s turning away whom from the antiauthoritarian principles of our founding fathers? Did our founding fathers actually hold to antiauthoritarian principles? What exactly is “denialism”? I’m not certain denialism is a word in any current dictionary I own, but if it exists in one of yours (or his), I would be quick to admit that all humans must suffer from it for the sake of their mental health. But, honestly, I would like to know what the difference is between a sceptic and a denier and, although I could scrap together a fairly good critical comparison, why should I, when I have Michael Shermer to do so for me in his article “Living in denial: When a sceptic isn’t a sceptic”?**

“What is the difference between a sceptic and a denier? When I call myself a sceptic, I mean that I take a scientific approach to the evaluation of claims. A climate sceptic, for example, examines specific claims one by one, carefully considers the evidence for each, and is willing to follow the facts wherever they lead.

A climate denier has a position staked out in advance, and sorts through the data employing “confirmation bias” – the tendency to look for and find confirmatory evidence for pre-existing beliefs and ignore or dismiss the rest.”

Ah, thanks, Mr. Shermer for giving us the low down. Scientists, it seems, are Lockean clean slates–or, on a deeper philosophical level, they are re-birthed each time they set about to scan and interpret data, their slates cleaned at each birthing experience. They are virtual chalkboards, cleaned and shined daily by command of Mrs. Prue, the English marm, who is scrupulous in the realm of detail and cleanliness. But, wait, don’t climate deniers often come packaged as scientists? They do, and I’m left to conclude that their slates haven’t been overseen by Mrs. Prue, or, at the very least, their boards haven’t been tacitly written over by their scientific authority figures. Tsk-tsk. These credentialed deniers must be scientists with messy psychological worlds, too messy to untangle a web of data from their own anxieties or hopes.

I actually (gasp) agree with Michael Shermer on his definitions, even though he has allowed himself a position of authority by being master of such, and then subtly–or not–applying them to whom he sees fit. Indeed, in a perfect world, a scientist would interpret data without bias. Does that also mean a scientist must leave out the biases of his science colleagues and educators, or other established science authorities? This question leads me directly to the absurdity of Otto’s quote: Our forefathers weren’t antiauthoritarian. In fact, they weren’t all one way or another. Essentially, they were English and loyal to the crown until, well, they decided not to be (to gloss over a lot of history). At that point, they (Ben Franklin, to be exact) worked an alliance with France because the colonies needed the monetary assistance of one monarchic authority in order to defeat another monarchic authority, as well as his lackeys, the Redcoats. After helping the Americans, the French went ahead with their own Revolution, deposing their own grand monarch. What is the point of this oversimplified version of American/French history? Ah–the point–I have trouble with that sometimes. Humans, including our forefathers, tend to have shifting paradigms of what constitutes authority.

Aside from Otto’s quote simply being bullshit (existential crisis?), he doesn’t seem to understand human beings very well. Most people are swayed by authority. Most are tied to authority, whether they wish to be or not. I may claim (somewhat sardonically) that I’m an anarchist, but this doesn’t loosen my ties to my actual, larger-than-life authorities. Most people hold to their authorities because they have to, because it gives them a feeling of security, or because they can’t comprehend the difference between their own ideas and the ideas they’ve been taught by their authorities. Who’s to say that a non-science-denier isn’t simply holding fast to the authority he chooses, while denying the authority he doesn’t? Um, well, yeah, that’s exactly what true-blue loyalists to fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever-is-mainstream do.

I would go so far as to say, despite my tentative approval of Shermer’s definitions, that a non-biased human is impossible to find. Humans cling to authorities; they discard them; they create new ideas that change the mainstream authority’s talk points. In short, humans are in a never-ending process of personal evolutions, in which they can’t shed their pasts. But most humans love authority because they’re like children. Oh, yes, I only have my experience and observation to lend credence to the former proclamation–no evidence, sorry. However, to finish my non-evidenced assertion, conflict arises when we the people–so like children–hold to disparate authority figures. And that’s a good thing. If we all held to the same “thus saith so and so” we would have no comparisons to make, and in no sense could we make sound judgements based off critically mulling over the options, and casting off the ones that make no sense based off evidence.

I am NOT a scepticalist involved in scepticalism, nor am I a denialist involved in denialism. I’m a sceptic shaped by the world around me and the unending wealth of information found therein, and sometimes I deny the truth that my authority figures impart to me because it’s wrong.

*from Scientific American, November 2012
**from New Science, May 2010


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