This has become an increasingly hot topic, one that has been discussed many times and that even led to the publication of a book about it (Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter).

We do not propose to rehash or discuss all that has been said on this topic, but we do want to offer a few comments that we think are essential to understanding the role of denial, which then help see the more subtle, less visible manifestations of denial.

As we often do, we begin with a definition.

 
Denialism is generally seen as  the refusal to accept well-established theory, law, fact or evidence. 

From this perspective, it is a state of mind that refuses to accept or believe things.  It often includes rejection of information from authorities.

The objects of denial

Based on the definition of denialism, we see that something is being denied. .That something is the object of the denial.

For example, the reality of the Holocaust and AIDS have been seen as objects of denial (e.g., there was NO Holocaust, there is NO AIDS epidemic).  Denialism has also been applied to those who deny climate change and/or global warming, and/or human contribution to climate change/global warming.

We think it is CRUCIAL to look for the object of denial.  Why?  Because some will say they are not denying something, when in fact, they are.  They don't recognize the true object of their denial.  In other words, they will correctly state that they are NOT denying A, while in fact they are denying B, which can be just as significant as the non-existent denial of A.

Recently, we saw a television show during which there was a discussion of climate change.  One of the panelists insisted she was NOT denying climate change, or even global warming, but went on the accuse the person who shared concerns about climate change of "scare tactics" and "bullying," saying he should stop doing that if he wanted people to hear and respect what he had to say.

Can you see what she was actually denying?  No, it wasn't denial of climate change.  It was denial of fear such change could arouse, maybe even should arouse.

To help clarify this, imagine the following to scenarios:

A mother is standing in her front yard and sees her son playing in the street.  She yells, "Johnny, get out of the street!  There's a car coming!"  There really is a car coming.

 

A mother is standing in her front yard and sees her son playing in the street.  She yells, "Johnny, get out of the street!  There's a car coming!" There really isn't a car coming.

The difference between these two is that the first is not a scare tactic.  There really is a car coming and thus it really is appropriate for Johnny's mother to be afraid and share that fear with Johnny, in hopes that it will lead him to getting scurrying out of the street.

But the second scenario is a scare tactic.  There is no car.  Johnny's mom may be afraid one might come eventually, but she's just trying to frighten her son into getting out of the street.

How does this apply to what the woman was denying when confronting the person concerned about climate change?  She was saying he was doing something like scenario 2, saying something untrue, or exaggerated to scare and motivate people.  She was agreeing that there is climate change but denying that it is something to be afraid of.

BUT, and this is a big but, the man concerned about climate change is doing Scenario 1, he's afraid, because he sees the threat as real, and he would like others to agree, be similarly alarmed by the situation and do something about it.

Why denial?

We don't know exactly why folks deny reality.  It probably depends on the person and the thing being denied.  But there have been at least three possible reasons proposed:

 1. Religious beliefs:  This usually arises in terms of such things as the fact of evolution (often confused with the theory of evolution).

2. Self-interest.  How this manifests may vary according to what the person perceives as beneficial.

3. A psychological defense mechanism against disturbing ideas: Sometimes folks do it to feel calm.

We do offer a further discussion of what we call the "head-in-the-sand" syndrome (see below).

 To see our page discussing the desire not to see reality (AKA Head in the Sand)

 To go to the brief introduction to intentional efforts to obstruct, or avoid reality

 To go to the Articles Page

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