Competing Denialisms

Steve Douglas drew my attention to the above comic from SMBC. As someone who deals both with denialists who attack mainstream science, and denialists who attack mainstream history, I don’t know that I think one is worse than the other. And since both evolutionary biology and ancient history deal largely with theories that make sense of piecemeal data within a convincing explanatory framework, both leave plenty of room for denialists of either sort to engage in the sort of tactics featured in the comic.

What do readers think? Which is worse – denialism in science or denialism in history? Or are both equally pernicious? Or is there some other that is worse still – anyone out there besides Hemant Mehta encountered geometry-denialism?


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  • Paul Regnier

    You could compare different forms of denialism on the basis of the dangers posed by the acceptance of their views. In this respect, I’d say that HIV/AIDS denial is the most dangerous of the lot, given that 3 million people a year do not die from the theory of evolution or the roundness of the Earth.

    Or you could make some kind of moral comparison between them, and I’d suggest that most people would single out Holocaust Denial, given the nature of the event it denials and the hateful ideology it stems from.

    But in terms of the dopey logic they use, one form of denialism looks much like any other to me: JDers and HDers both employ exactly the same type of dubious arguments from silence.

  • arcseconds

    Historical denialism is usually more plausible than evolutionary denialism, i think. They’re usually denying that a single event occurred (or claiming a single event occurred), so they don’t reject the entire framework wholesale, whatever methodological acrobatics they may perform to back up their particular pet issue.

    And it doesn’t stretch credibility too much to suppose we might be wrong about a specific event. In fact, it’s quite likely that we are wrong about a few historical events, even though the probability of being wrong about any specific event which is well attested to is quite low (Troy is the usual go-to example here). Even a conspiracy is not inconceivable.

    The parallel with evolutionary biology would be a single species or lineage, and again we probably are wrong about a few of those.

    What creationists are doing is more like what’s depicted in the cartoon: rejecting essentially all of history except for the very recent past, and all modes of historical research except maybe for reading the daily newspapers (but no searching the archives!).

    Now, of course, we still could be wrong about evolution, but for us to be wrong about that would require something really odd and completely unprecedented going on, like in Terry Pratchett’s Strata.

    However, I think I can make some sort of sense of creationists. They have some theses that they are completely unwilling to shift, and they’ll do whatever they can to defend them. This is actually a familiar enough possibility from deductive logic (one man’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens), and philosophy of science (Kuhn’s paradigms, Lakatos’s research programmes, Quine’s ‘web of belief’ etc – of course they all admit of some possibility of overthrowing core beliefs, but you just have to make the appropriate adjustments here). They also don’t understand scientific proof or scientific theories or the philosophy of science at all well. And, of course, they cheat.

    And, you know, often they can be quite rational and informed about anything other than evolution and most of the history of the universe.

    So, you know, I can kind of think their position through, I think.

    The people that weird me out far more are people where you just don’t appear to be living in the same world, talking the same language, or make any real connection with. I’ve had the odd conversation with people like that, but the one that sticks out in my recollection is a debate a friend of mine had with a Time Cube acolyte about mathematics (my friend is a mathematician). It was very weird, the time cube fellow really just seemed to have an utterly alien conception of what mathematics is. For him it seems to be some kind of dreamy metaphysical landscape structured on magical, aesthetic grounds which nevertheless embodies fundamental physical truths about the world.

    However, I actually think the historical denialists are the most morally problematic. I ultimately don’t mind much about people’s idiosyncratic, left-field beliefs about this and that, they can be interesting, and I even think it’s important for reasons of autonomy to leave them to it where possible. If you believe the Earth is in the centre of the universe and surrounded by crystal spheres, then cool, whatever. But not believing in the Holocaust isn’t going to be some floating belief you have that never breaks my leg or picks my pocket – it’s not going to disconnected from your views of Jews and National Socialism, so you’re definitely trespassing into leg-breaking, pocket-picking, vile territory there.

    • Mary

      Yes I agree that denial of the Holocaust trumps people’s creation beliefs. And I don’t see anything wrong with people having their own beliefs. I am however concerned with the Bible creationist fundamentalist denial which is simply based on “group-think” rather than investigation. This kind of approach LEADS to horrible things like the Holocaust!
      Hitler was able to seduce a whole country to persecute the Jews based on Christian rhetoric. Note that I am NOT saying that Hitler was a Christian. What I am saying is that he told the people that he believed that God had appointed him to take care of the “Jewish problem”.
      Why did they fall for this? Because they were not taught to question and investigate on their own. And because they confused religion with God.
      These poor souls probably just thought that they were being “good Christians.”
      Many creationists use their ideology to justify the hatred and persecution of others. This is where it branches off from being a harmless belief system to being destructive to society.
      Yes I do believe in freedom of religion. But that is not what these people want. The only “freedom” they want us to have is to believe the way that they do.
      So yes, the YECS have the right to their delusions, as long as they don’t foist it on others.

      • rmwilliamsjr

        So yes, the YECS have the right to their delusions, as long as they don’t foist it on others.

        can we isolate ourselves from the effects of significant numbers of people denying modern biology?
        anti-vaxxers for example challenge herd immunity.
        YEC’s challenge school curriculum and withdraw their kids from public schools if they don’t get their way. they challenge museum displays, they disrupt science classrooms with their “were you there?” campaign. they push out old earth pastors in churches, claiming they have surrendered to secularism in accepting an old earth.

        “foist it on others”, how can they be silent with such strong and contrary beliefs? they will push whatever buttons they can reach. they are not the amish living in isolation, they are a big part of modern society.

        • Mary

          I get your point, however, not all Christians are as militant as these people. I was raised with the lie of creationism, however nobody taught me to be an a-hole about my beliefs. I may be wrong, but it seems like the militant creationist movement is relatively new. Or maybe I have just been out of the loop.
          I have certainly become disillusioned with the poor behavior of conservative Christians. What ever happened to respecting other’s beliefs? They want to redefine “freedom of religion” to mean “you can believe what you want as long as you agree with us.” Going by that “logic” we’d be living in the same kind of society as many Muslim countries. They pay lip service to democracy when what they really want is a Theocracy. Of course even if that were to happen they would still be unhappy because then they would be arguing about what kind of theocracy to have and who should run it. That is how wars get started!
          They should crawl back into their fantasy-land and leave the rest of us alone.

  • Steve Douglas

    Of course, the main point of the comic was that most history teachers aren’t as likely to encounter a large group of students inclined to deny swaths of material based on religious reasons.

    In the overall scheme of things, historical denialists like Holocaust skeptics do stand a good chance of being as problematic for society in different ways. But then again, from a strictly mathematical perspective, the serial science deniers surely outnumber the number of history deniers (although the latter seems to be rising), and the latter’s arguments at least seem to be quite a bit less facepalm-worthy among even non-specialists than the former’s–which, admittedly, might make them more insidious.

  • Neil Rickert

    anyone out there besides Hemant Mehta encountered geometry-denialism?

    I’m not sure that Hemant was commenting on geometry denialism. I thought he was just saying that geometry is hard to teach, which I would put down to conceptual confusion.

    I don’t think there is much organized geometry denialism.

  • Dr. David Tee

    The only people I see in denial are those who do not believe and reject the truth of scriptures even though they are provided with evidence for the validity of the Bible and God every day of their lives. How sad.

    • James F. McGrath

      Very often those who might otherwise be open to God are put off by arrogant commenters on blogs who tell lies about the Bible, science, or both. Just something to think about.

    • Mary

      I have encountered you on several blogs recently and you have not provided any kind of evidence for your point of view. Where is this evidence that supposedly has been provided every day of my life? If you have evidence independant of the Bible then tell us!
      I doubt you can.