You can see it in this little-noted blog. Someone drops by to tell me I’m in error, that Rachel Carson really did plot with Pol Pot to murder millions, and then they also show up in the creationism threads defending the view that dinosaurs never existed, or in a tangentially-related note on climate change, perhaps arguing that ocean levels rising are either not a problem, or the product of Atlantis’s rising from the depths (and therefore no problem, since the denizens of that city had better science than we do and will be able to fix things, never mind their being dead for 5,000 years). [That last description is mostly fictional – mostly.]
What is it that makes one person deny reality on so many different fronts?
Mark Hoofnagle hit the research journals, listing results at denialism blog, demonstrating that crankery can be studied. This raises in my mind the interesting little question of whether such crankery is a pathology, and perhaps treatable or curable.
Our recent discussions of HIV/AIDS denial and in particular Seth Kalichman’s book “Denying AIDS” has got me thinking more about the psychology of those who are susceptible to pseudoscientific belief. It’s an interesting topic, and Kalichman studies it briefly in his book mentioning the “suspicious minds”:
At its very core, denialism is deeply embedded in a sense of mistrust. Most obviously, we see suspicion in denialist conspiracy theories. Most conspiracy theories grow out of suspicions about corruptions in government, industry, science, and medicine, all working together in some grand sinister plot. Psychologically, suspicion is the central feature of paranoid personality, and it is not overreaching to say that some denialists demonstrate this extreme. Suspicious thinking can be understood as a filter through which the world is interpreted, where attention is driven towards those ideas and isolated anecdotes that confirm one’s preconceived notions of wrong doing. Suspicious thinkers are predisposed to see themselves as special or to hold some special knowledge. Psychotherapist David Shpairo in his classic book Neurotic Styles describes the suspicious thinker. Just as wee see in denialism, suspiciousness is not easily penetrated by facts or evidence that counter individuals’ preconceived worldview. Just as Shapiro describes in the suspicious personality, the denialist selectively attends to information that bolsters his or her own beliefs. Denialists exhibit suspicious thinking when they manipulate objective reality to fit within their beliefs. It is true that all people are prone to fit the world into their sense of reality, but the suspicious person distorts reality and does so with an uncommon rigidity. The parallel between the suspicious personality style and denialism is really quite compelling.
Denialism may be a little greater problem than is generally acknowledged, in my opinion. When it infects policy makers it causes legislative and executive crackups, like Oklahoma’s Sen. Tom Coburn, who held up the naming of the Rachel Carson Post Office for a year under the bizarre misconception that she played a role in spreading malaria (ditto for Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, who shared the view but was unable to stop the bill in the House), or like the Bush administration officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development who kept refusing to authorize spending for pesticides in Africa, claiming environmental groups would oppose them while the environmental groups were lobbying the agency to spend the money on those pesticides.
Former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki denied that HIV causes AIDS. Mbeki’s refusal to act on the best science available may have led to as many as 350,000 deaths, some accounts say. Ashley Montagu told the story of Adolf Hitler’s odd views of heritage being spread by blood transfusions — to avoid any possibility of his soldiers’ being turned Jewish by a blood transfusion, Hitler forbade the use of blood banks. Tens of thousands of German soldiers died unnecessarily from lack of blood for transfusing during World War II. Partisans and scientists still debate whether and how much Ronald Reagan’s belief that AIDS was a syndrome caused by sin rather than a virus early in the AIDS crisis created a cascade of actions that still frustrates the development of a vaccination or cure.
Denialism in high school students is interesting, but most often a classroom problem. When kids take great issue with the course material the class can get derailed. Even when a teacher is able to keep the class on track, the denialist student may feel marginalized. A colleague reported a student had informed that historians now concur that George Washington was African-American. She could not be dissuaded from the view. I had a student who insisted well into the second semester than Adolf Hitler was a great leader, smart and humanitarian, framed for war crimes of the British and Americans. Unfortunately, I could not put him in contact with the earlier student who believed Hitler had been framed by the Soviet Union, and that the Americans and British were victims of the cruel hoax.
As the nominal head of public relations in the old (Pleistocene?) office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, my crew and I got the brunt of denialists and crazies. We had one woman in Salt Lake City, “Mrs. B,” who regularly called the Salt Lake office to complain about Hatch’s actions and what she assumed his beliefs must be. For a while she complained that, as someone born outside of Utah, he could never appreciate the views of the Latter-day Saints in Utah. When at last we persuaded her that he was also a Mormon, she began complaining that he ignored Utah’s non-Mormon population. Her ability to switch sides in an argument so as always to remain on the opposite side of Sen. Hatch got noticed.
Near the end of a summer session just before the recess the Senate had a lot of late-night meetings. The news of these sessions did not always make the morning papers. On one issue of some Utah import, Hatch had suggested he would probably vote one way, because of some issue of agency direction that had him concerned. In the end the agency agreed to amendments that assuaged all of Hatch’s concerns and he was happy to support the bill (I forget what it was — the issue is absolutely irrelevant to the story).
I had caught a late-night flight to Salt Lake, and arrived at the SLC office early enough to catch our Utah problem solver Jack Martin explaining to Mrs. B that Hatch did indeed care about Utah . . . Jack and I could carry on a conversation with only his occasional remarks to Mrs. B keeping her going, a scene out of a Cary Grant comedy, perhaps. “Yes, Mrs. B . . . No, Mrs. B . . . I think I see your point.” What he said was unimportant. I could hear her rant on the telephone, while I was on the other side of the room. I finally asked Jack what her issue was, and he explained it was the bill that Hatch had reveresed his position on. She was complaining at great length about his original position. I explained to Jack that an accommodation had been reached and that Hatch changed his vote in the final tally.
Jack smiled broadly as he handed me the phone. “You tell her!” It took a long time to get her to stop talking so I could explain who I was and that I had new information. Finally she fell silent and I explained that she should be happy because Hatch had come around to her position. There was a silence of a few more seconds, and she started in again: “Hatch is an idiot! Only a fool would vote that way.” And she was off again on a rant against Hatch, eviscerating the views that she herself had held less than a minute earlier.
The issue wasn’t important to her. Hatch was wrong, whatever he did, even when he supported her views.
That’s denialism in full force, a raw, unmitigated power of nature.
So what do these studies mean for our understanding of cranks? Well, in addition to providing explanations for crank magnetism, and cognitive deficits we see daily in our comments from cranks, it suggests the possibility that crankery and denialism may be preventable by better explanation of statistics. Much of what we’re dealing with is likely the development of shoddy intellectual shortcuts, and teaching people to avoid these shortcuts might go a long way towards the development and fixation on absurd conspiracy theories or paranormal beliefs.
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