zondag 5 augustus 2007


I'm peeved at this word "denialism" that I see springing up here and there and other places. It must be new. I certainly didn't see it very much two or so years ago.

I guess I'm a denialist on some issues. I suppose I'm a global warming denialist (I think the earth is warming; I think humans have got something to do with it, though I do not know how much; I think we're better off stimulating technological development in the third world than enacting futile CO2 restriction schemes - as the former will help us if, God forbid, the warming trend will reverse at some point in the future. I guess that makes me a "denialist"). I guess I'm a second-hand smoke denialist as well (though not a first-hand one). Perhaps I'm both an evolution and a creationism denialist (I believe biological species have evolved from simpler forms by natural processes, but that's about where I stop).

Hmmmm... Thinking further, I'm an eliminative materialism denialist, a Biblical literalism denialist, a very fervent and rabid memetics denialist...

But there's of course the one particular kind of denial which (justifiably) places the denialist out of the realms of civilized discourse - which is Holocaust denial. And I have an unpleasant feeling that the whole industry of labelling various divertions from scientific and Leftist* orthodoxy - on global warming, on the HIV-Aids connection, etc. - as "denialism" is a rather transparant ploy to link the latter with the former. Am I being uncharitable here? I don't think so - as Frank Furedi points out, the almost unthinkably hyperbolic and obscene equivalence between Holocaust denial and "global warming denialism" has in fact been explicitly made.

The issue is of course that, where there had been genocides, mass murders, and concentration camps before, there was something uniquely evil in the technological sophistication and sheer single-mindedness with which the Nazis went about it. Spending extraordinary amounts of time and energy to kill those last Jews that would otherwise have been forgotten, even when the Soviet tanks were knocking on their doors. So justifiably the Holocaust becomes a symbol for human evil.

It also becomes a standard against which other human evils are measured against. So the issue of whether Hitler or Stalin was more evil becomes an issue for historians to polemicize about. More sinisterly, military interventions proclaimed to be undertaken in order to avoid new Holocaust become virtually beyond criticism. It allowed those who doubted the propagandistic claims of NATO during the bombing of Yugoslavia to be compared to "Holocaust deniers".

It would be one thing if Holocaust denialism were a largely irrelevant argument about a particular historical event - but the place the Holocaust takes in our cultural memory guarantees it to be more than that. Holocaust denial is a tool in the hands of those seeking to whitewash and legitimize the Nazi regime - whether these are Neo-Nazis such as David Irving or Islamists such as Ahmadinejad.

Note that I agree with Deborah Lipstadt that Holocaust denial should be defeated in the arena of ideas, rather than censored. I'm principally opposed to the curtailing of free speech - even that of Neo-Nazis and Islamic anti-semites. Besides, I don't trust those who would censor Holocaust deniers to stop at them.

But it is for reasons such as these that I doubt the human decency of those who use the word "denialism" for people whose ideas divert from scientific orthodoxy. Whether it be tobacco, global warming, evolution or the HIV-Aids link. The opponents of such various "denialisms" are either extraordinarily, and incredibly, naive about the connotations of the term, or they consciously abuse the force of those connotations. Which is the rhetorical equivalent of taking a shit on the kitchen table. I take a dim view on such things.

It is bordering on the immoral to, for people ostensibly caring about "science", place divergent opinions outside of the realm of scientific discourse in that way. No matter whether those opinions are wrong. The attitude behind the polemics against "denialism" are antithetical to the reflective and cautious attitude that the scientific enterprise inspires one to take against reigning orthodoxies.

Instead, the underlying attitude becomes symptomatic for a situation in which a given scientific view becomes a symbol for a given outlook on politics, society, etc. The "correct" view on global warming becomes symbolic for those who self-identify as progressive, caring about the planet, against Bush, etc. The counterposing view becomes symbolic for rednecks driving around in gas-guzzling SUVs with their cherished guns to shoot Bambi.

And that's a very dangerous situation. In past posts, I argued that positions that seem "outlandish" may be outlandish only on the basis of (unspoken and unexamined) philosophical views. The way in which cheap and despicable rhetoric on the part of anti-denialist political activists is aimed at making a given position beyond the pale in public discourse in similar fashion leads to a given position becoming an unquestioned and unexamined orthodoxy.

It's for reasons such as these that I am also leery of "skeptics" who proudly dub themselves as such. Because, all too often, you will find people there to whom science is a set of philosophically highly porous positions, rather than a method. This said, professional skeptics do perform an invaluable service in examining the claims of frauds and snake-oil merchants. It's just that I do not really have confidence in their ability to sort the odd outlandish, extraordinary, yet valid claim from the frauds and snake-oil merchants.

I wonder to what extent the particular political divisions in America impress upon which positions are, worldwide, accepted as orthodoxy and heresy. Of course, some of the shrillest rhetoric comes from Britain instead. Yet I think it is the generally Leftist* outlook in American academia and the curious position of Bush as a figurehead of all that is evil (from Christian fundamentalism and creationism to global warming to whatever) that it an important catalyst to the anti-denialism industry. It always struck me that, for all the alleged behind-the-scene roles of Bush and republicans and oil money behind "global warming denialism", quite a few global warming "skeptics" and, more widely, people taking a nuanced position on the dangers of global warming, are Canadians, Brits, Germans, Dutch and Australians.

*Endnote: I have always self-identified as on the political Left, or, more precisely, as a Socialist with a libertarian outlook on freedom of speech and sexuality. I'm strongly anti-censorship, in favour of universal health care and cheap public education, wide-ranging social security, and while we're at it, I wouldn't quite mind a little workers' ownership of the means of production. This said, I'm very much "Old Left", with more than a bit of sympathy towards the Christian socialist movements of the 20th century. And I find it increasingly difficult to identify with what goes as progressive or "liberal" particularly in the U.S. sense of the word.

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