Here's a hypothesis: denial is largely a product of the way normal people think. Most denialists are simply ordinary people doing what they believe is right. If this seems discouraging, take heart. There are good reasons for thinking that denialism can be tackled by condemning it a little less and understanding it a little more.
Whatever they are denying, denial movements have much in common with one another, not least the use of similar tactics (see "How to be a denialist"). All set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people. This conspiracy is usually claimed to be promoting a sinister agenda: the nanny state, takeover of the world economy, government power over individuals, financial gain, atheism.
This common ground tells us a great deal about the underlying causes of denialism. The first thing to note is that denial finds its most fertile ground in areas where the science must be taken on trust. There is no denial of antibiotics, which visibly work. But there is denial of vaccines, which we are merely told will prevent diseases - diseases, moreover, which most of us have never seen, ironically because the vaccines work.
Similarly, global warming, evolution and the link between tobacco and cancer must be taken on trust, usually on the word of scientists, doctors and other technical experts who many non-scientists see as arrogant and alien.
Many people see this as a threat to important aspects of their lives. In Texas last year, a member of a state committee who was trying to get creationism added to school science standards almost said as much when he proclaimed "somebody's got to stand up to experts".
It is this sense of loss of control that really matters. In such situations, many people prefer to reject expert evidence in favour of alternative explanations that promise to hand control back to them, even if those explanations are not supported by evidence (see "Giving life to a lie").
George Lakoff, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that conservatives have been better than progressives at exploiting anecdote and emotion to win arguments. Progressives tend to think that giving people the facts and figures will inevitably lead them to the right conclusions. They see anecdotes as inadmissible evidence, and appeals to emotion as wrong.
Source has a lot more, including:
How to be a denialist
Martin McKee, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who also studies denial, has identified six tactics that all denialist movements use. "I'm not suggesting there is a manual somewhere, but one can see these elements, to varying degrees, in many settings," he says (The European Journal of Public Health, vol 19, p 2).
- Allege that there's a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
- Use fake experts to support your story. "Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility," says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
- Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
- Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
- Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.
- Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist "both sides" must be heard and cry censorship when "dissenting" arguments or experts are rejected.
The entire article is a good read, particularly if you're like me and find denialists exasperating to deal with.
Originally posted to ontd_science but I thought folks here would also be interested. My apologies to people who see the double post. This article deals specifically with science denialism, but the same principles apply to tea-baggers and other political movements. Read the methods in "how to be a denialist" and you'll immediately recognize them in current political discourse, including discussions in this community.