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In human behavior, denialism is exhibited by individuals choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable truth. Author Paul O'Shea remarks, "[It] is the refusal to accept an empirically verifiable reality. It is an essentially irrational action that withholds validation of a historical experience or event". Author Michael Specter defined group denialism as “when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”
In science, denialism has been defined as the rejection of basic concepts that are undisputed and well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a topic in favor of ideas that are both radical and controversial. It has been proposed that the various forms of denialism have the common feature of the rejection of overwhelming evidence and the generation of a controversy through attempts to deny that a consensus exists. A common example is Young Earth creationism and its dispute with the evolutionary theory.
The terms Holocaust denialism and AIDS denialism have been used, and the term climate change denialists has been applied to those who argue against the scientific consensus that global warming is occurring and that human activity is its primary cause. Use of the word denialism has been criticised, for example as a polemical propaganda tool to suppress non-mainstream views. Similarly, in an essay discussing the general importance of skepticism, Clive James objected to the use of the word denialist to describe climate change skeptics, stating that it "calls up the spectacle of a fanatic denying the Holocaust." Celia Farber has objected to the term AIDS denialists arguing that it is unjustifiable to place this belief on the same moral level with the Nazi crimes against humanity. However, Robert Gallo et al. defended this latter comparison, stating that AIDS denialism is similar to Holocaust denial as it is a form of pseudoscience that "contradicts an immense body of research."
Anthropologist Didier Fassin distinguishes between denial, defined as "the empirical observation that reality and truth are being denied", and denialism, which he defines as "an ideological position whereby one systematically reacts by refusing reality and truth".
Individuals or groups who reject propositions on which a scientific or scholarly consensus exists can engage in denialism when they use rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. Rick Stoff quotes Chris Hoofnagle, a senior staff attorney at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic and senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, at the University of California-Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law:
Then there are those who engage in denialist tactics because they are protecting some 'overvalued idea' which is critical to their identity. Since legitimate dialogue is not a valid option for those who are interested in protecting bigoted or unreasonable ideas from scientific facts, their only recourse is to use these types of rhetorical tactics.
In a newspaper article in 2003 Edwin Cameron, a senior South African judge who had AIDS, described the tactics used by those who deny the Holocaust and those who deny that the AIDS pandemic is predominantly due to infection with HIV. He states that "For denialists, the facts are unacceptable. They engage in radical controversion, for ideological purposes, of facts that, by and large, are accepted by almost all experts and lay persons as having been established on the basis of overwhelming evidence". To do this they employ "distortions, half-truths, misrepresentation of their opponents' positions and expedient shifts of premises and logic." Edwin Cameron notes that a common tactic used by denialists is to "make great play of the inescapable indeterminacy of figures and statistics", as scientific studies of many areas rely on probability analysis of sets of data, and in historical studies the precise numbers of victims and other facts may not be available in the primary sources.
Such "recourse to data debates and pseudo-scientific 'evidence'" has also been noted as a common feature of several types of denialism in a 2009 article published in the journal Globalization and Health. This is an area which British historian Richard J. Evans mentioned as part of his analysis of the David Irving's work which he presented for the defence when Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt for libel:
Reputable and professional historians do not suppress parts of quotations from documents that go against their own case, but take them into account, and, if necessary, amend their own case, accordingly. They do not present, as genuine, documents which they know to be forged just because these forgeries happen to back up what they are saying. They do not invent ingenious, but implausible, and utterly unsupported reasons for distrusting genuine documents, because these documents run counter to their arguments; again, they amend their arguments, if this is the case, or, indeed, abandon them altogether. They do not consciously attribute their own conclusions to books and other sources, which, in fact, on closer inspection, actually say the opposite. They do not eagerly seek out the highest possible figures in a series of statistics, independently of their reliability, or otherwise, simply because they want, for whatever reason, to maximize the figure in question, but rather, they assess all the available figures, as impartially as possible, in order to arrive at a number that will withstand the critical scrutiny of others. They do not knowingly mistranslate sources in foreign languages in order to make them more serviceable to themselves. They do not willfully invent words, phrases, quotations, incidents and events, for which there is no historical evidence, in order to make their arguments more plausible.
Mark Hoofnagle has described denialism as "the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none." It is a process that operates by employing one or more of the following five tactics in order to maintain the appearance of legitimate controversy:
Tara Smith of the University of Iowa also stated that moving goalposts, conspiracy theories and cherry-picking evidence are general characteristics of denialist arguments, but went on to note that these groups spend the "majority of their efforts critiquing the mainstream theory" in an apparent belief that if they manage to discredit the mainstream view, their own "unproven ideas will fill the void".
If one party to a debate accuses the other of denialism they are framing the debate, because denialism is prescriptive: it carries implications that there is a truth that the other side denies, and polemic because the accuser usually goes on to explain how the other party is denying the asserted truth and as such the other party is in the wrong, which leads to an implied accusation that if the accused party persist with the denial despite the evidence their motives must be base.
Edward Skidelsky, a lecturer in philosophy at Exeter University, has suggested that this is a new use for the word denial and it may have its origins in an old sense of "deny", akin to "disown", (as in the Apostle Peter denying Christ), but that its more immediate antecedence is from the Freudian sense of deny as a refusal to accept a painful or humiliating truth. He writes that "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." He suggests that, by the introduction of the denier tag into further areas of historical and scientific debate, "One of the great achievements of The Enlightenment—the liberation of historical and scientific enquiry from dogma—is quietly being reversed", and that this should worry liberal-minded people.
AIDS denialism is the denial that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS denialism has been described as being "among the most vocal anti-science denial movements". Some denialists reject the existence of HIV, while others accept that the virus exists but say that it is a harmless passenger virus and not the cause of AIDS. Insofar as denialists acknowledge AIDS as a real disease, they attribute it to some combination of recreational drug use, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and side effects of antiretroviral medication, rather than infection with HIV. However, the evidence that HIV causes AIDS is scientifically conclusive and the scientific community rejects and ignores AIDS-denialist claims as based on faulty reasoning, cherry picking, and misrepresentation of mainly outdated scientific data. With the rejection of these arguments by the scientific community, AIDS-denialist material is now spread mainly through the Internet.
Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa, embraced AIDS denialism, proclaiming that AIDS was primarily caused by poverty. Due to his denial, about 365,000 people died from AIDS during his presidency. It is estimated that around 343,000 lives could have been saved had proper treatment been available.
International corporations such as ExxonMobil have been criticized for contributing to scientists and scientific experimentation questioning the scientific consensus on global climate change. ExxonMobil did not deny making the financial contributions, but its spokesman stated that the company's financial support for scientific reports did not mean it influenced the outcome of those studies. "The recycling of this type of discredited conspiracy theory diverts attention from the real challenge at hand: how to provide the energy needed to improve global living standards while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions." Newsweek and Mother Jones have published articles stating corporations are funding the "denial industry".
In the context of consumer protection, denialism has been defined as "the use of rhetorical techniques and predictable tactics to erect barriers to debate and consideration of any type of reform, regardless of the facts."
The term has been used with "Holocaust denialism" as "the refusal to accept an empirically verifiable reality. It is an essentially irrational action that withholds validation of a historical experience or event."
The Bush Administration's replacement of previous science advisers with industry experts or scientists tied to industry, and its refusal to submit the Kyoto Protocol for ratification due to uncertainties they asserted were present in the climate change issue, have been cited by the press as examples of politically motivated denialism. The general class of genocide denial, of which holocaust denial is a subset, is another form of political denialism.
Religious beliefs may prompt an individual to deny the existence of the scientific theory of evolution. Evolution remains an undisputed fact within the scientific community and in academia, where the level of support for evolution is essentially universal, yet this view is often met with opposition by biblical literalists. The alternative view is often presented as a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis's creation myth. Although no evidence for creationism exists, many fundamentalist Christians teach it as if it were fact under the banners of creation science and intelligent design. Beliefs that typically coincide with creationism include the belief in the global flood myth, geocentrism, and the belief that the Earth is only 6,000-10,000 years old. These beliefs are viewed as pseudoscience in the scientific community and are widely regarded as fictitious.
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