Chris Mooney on the deniers

Welcome to the new year, and now that I’m back from a little family vacation I’d like to applaud PAL for the excellent job he did summarizing our thesis, and the job he’s done in general in the last year. I’m busy doing my last 3rd year clerkship in neurology (even though I’m graduating in 2009 – it’s complicated) and it’s wonderful to have him at our side fighting the good fight.

Objects of interest in the last couple of weeks include (former?) framing ally Chris Mooney breaking with Matt Nisbett on the necessary language for addressing denialism. In his article defending the Obama administration’s appointment of real scientists like John Holdren or Jane Lubchenco, Mooney writes:

Use of the Term “Denier. Holdren’s aforementioned op-ed, published in the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune, is strongly worded about the problem of global warming “skepticism” or “denial”–and rightly so. It prompted a large volume of response, and Holdren has, in turn, answered his critics. It’s important to note that the op-ed wasn’t written when he was a representative of the president, and I would imagine that his language might not be as strong in the future. But in any event, I want to defend his, and anyone’s, right to use the term “denier” in a global warming context, something The Rocky Mountain News (among others) objects to. I am continually baffled by attempts to rule a perfectly good word out of bounds under the strange pretense that any use of it implies some type of connection with the phenomenon of Holocaust denial, which is the central complaint that global warming “skeptics” tend to make.

“Denier” is defined in the dictionary as meaning “one who denies.” You will note that there are no Holocaust references. The verb “deny” means (among other things) “to refuse to recognize or acknowledge; disown; disavow; repudiate.” It does not specifically refer to the Holocaust either. Perhaps that’s because the word is massively older: As notes of the etymology (relying on the online etymology dictionary):

c.1300, from O.Fr. denier, from L. denegare, from de- “away” + negare “refuse, say ‘no,’ ” from Old L. nec “not,” from Italic base *nek-“not,” from PIE base *ne- “no, not” (see un-).

Why should we not properly use this time honored word? In particular, the idea that calling someone a “global warming denier” is an implicit comparison with Holocaust denial is absurd. When one uses words like “denier,” “denial,” and “deny,” there is no necessary reference to one particular species of the broader phenomenon, and thus no more invocation of Holocaust denial than of those who denied Christ or those who are in denial about their crumbling marriages. Global warming deniers do not have the power to redefine words that long preceded them, and that will long outlive them.

I tend to agree, although I of course have a bias towards referring to their tactics in general as denialism – or the systematic use of distracting tactics to prolong debate over settled science and historical facts.

I’d also like to point out some fun items from my denialist RSS feeds over the last couple of weeks. For one HuffPo deserves credit for debunking some odious historical revisionism by Fox News on the Great Depression and this nonsense that FDR prolonged it. We should give credit where credit is due.

And I couldn’t resist noting some hysterical nonsense from crazy Joe Mercola. At the same time he decries a war on the public by modern medicine he in the next breath suggests that you forgo food and obtain all your sustenance by staring at the sun. I can’t make this stuff up.

HIV/AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore has died from AIDS and I won’t hedge and say it was merely likely it was from AIDS. A 52 year old HIV positive individual with bilateral pneumonia treated multiple times in 6 months has AIDS until proven otherwise. This woman and her daughter were killed by her foolish ideology and I have no sympathy for her similarly deluded husband. I dislike discussing the medical diagnoses of individuals (even public ones) on a blog, but in the case of HIV/AIDS denialism this is an important public health issue, and it’s important the denialists don’t get away with further revising history and science by suggesting this was anything other than what it obviously is – another death from HIV/AIDS denialism. As Ben Goldacre mentions in his coverage, HIV/AIDS denialism may be responsible for as many as 340,000 deaths so far. This is denialism that kills.

Finally for Michael Egnor (who no doubt would find our attacks on HIV/AIDS denialism to be “arrogant”) I’d suggest reading this Lancet article on adaptive evolution and antibiotic resistance. The real arrogant ones aren’t the ones fighting for legitimate scientific discourse but those that reject the most established fields in science simply because they “see design.” The issue includes several articles on the impact of evolution on medicine and is a wonderful read.

With school, travel and interviews things will be slow at first this year, but hopefully they’ll ramp up before long.