I wrote a piece about an article on ‘government denialism’ the other day, which annoyed the editor who penned it. He was unpersuaded that I could know anything about the subject, given that I dissented from the views of ’97 per cent of informed scientists’ — without explaining why, but also without quite calling me a denier. To him ‘climate change’ was obvious and its cause clear; there was no need for him to look at the evidence. I might write another piece later on about why people like him think this really is so obvious, and why people like me must be wrong because we disagree with him.
But today’s post picks up a few paragraphs written by British philosopher Edward Skidelsky, whose father is the Lord Robert Skidelsky who wrote a very fine biography of Maynard Keynes — but whom I remember most clearly as a table-tennis player in Oxford with a powerfully destructive backhand. Enough of trivial name-dropping. Son Edward has a monthly column in Prospect magazine in which he plays around with words that are in common use, like ‘inappropriate’, ‘liberal’, ‘accountability’, ‘transparency’ and the like. They are short and fun, and I particularly enjoyed the one on ‘The tyranny of denial’, which Judith Curry found and alerted readers to on her website. It was written a few years ago, but it is wonderfully relevant today. Here it is.
“Denial” is an ordinary English word meaning to assert the untruth of something. Recently, however, it has acquired a further polemical sense. To “deny” in this new sense is to repudiate some commonly professed doctrine. Denial is the secular form of blasphemy; deniers are scorned, ridiculed and sometimes prosecuted.
Where does this new usage come from? There is an old sense of “deny,” akin to “disown,” which no doubt lies in the background. (A traitor denies his country; Peter denied Christ.) But the more immediate source is Freud. Denial in the Freudian sense is the refusal to accept a painful or humiliating truth. Sufferers are said to be in a “state of denial” or simply “in denial.” This last phrase entered general use in the early 1990s and launched “denial” on its modern career. “Holocaust denial” was the first political application, followed closely by “Aids denial,” “global warming denial” and a host of others. An abstract noun, “denialism,” has recently been coined. It is perhaps no accident that denial’s counterpart, affirmation, has meanwhile acquired laudatory overtones. We “affirm” relationships, achievements, values. Ours is a relentlessly positive culture.
An accusation of “denial” is serious, suggesting either deliberate dishonesty or self-deception. The thing being denied is, by implication, so obviously true that the denier must be driven by perversity, malice or wilful blindness. Few issues warrant such confidence. The Holocaust is perhaps one, though even here there is room for debate over the manner of its execution and the number of its victims. A charge of denial short-circuits this debate by stigmatising as dishonest any deviation from a preordained conclusion. It is a form of the argument ad hominem: the aim is not so much to refute your opponent as to discredit his motives. The extension of the “denier” tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people. One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment—the liberation of historical and scientific enquiry from dogma—is quietly being reversed.
What more is there to say? As it happens a Prospect commenter suggested that Skidelsky needed to recognise that calling people ‘deniers’ was all part of the political game (though I think that was the authors’s point). He went on: ‘As to charges of “denial” being “ad hominem,” in ordinary language it isn’t – it is a simple empirical description of a position that denies something. What makes it seem ad hominem to educated people is the invocation of the psychological defense mechanism of denial. And indeed saying that someone is being defensive can be an ad hominem argument. However it can also be a legitimate if rather rough way of criticizing arguments (rather than people) by pointing to evasiveness or rejection of evidence.’
And, as always, up comes the question of evidence. I am always in favour of considering the evidence and, as in yesterday’s post, I provide the evidence as well. What puzzles me is that the editor I mentioned above was happy to tell me that I was ‘misreading the scientific evidence’, but not prepared to tell me what particular evidence that was. And so far he has not commented on the evidence I gave him in yesterday’s post on the 17-year flattening of global temperature. That is such a common position for those who support the orthodox.
The debate goes on, and so much of it is boring. Sooner or later, maybe, someone is going to say that ‘this has gone on long enough’, and recant. But I haven’t seen much sign of it so far, even though governments everywhere seem to be backing away, whatever their public pronouncements. And of course temperature might begin to rise again, too. It will need to do so in a fearful hurry, if the doomsayers and their models are to be proved right.