It’s Not Politics- It’s Denialism

Nayla Delgado, Staff Writer

In the current political era, we have seen a significant trend occurring all over the socio-political atmosphere highlighted by a Donald Trump tweet that has resurfaced during his presidency, claiming “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” As ridiculous as the claims seem, the U.S. President is not the only one to outwardly criticize and disagree with climate change despite the scientific facts. Many prominent figures have recently directly encouraged the rejection of scientific evidence, from flat-earthers to anti-vaxxers. But why do we see this trend in the age of information, where scientific evidence is more accessible than ever?

Denialism is defined as a person’s choice to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth. It can alternatively be defined as an irrational action that withholds the validation of a historical experience or event when a person refuses to accept an empirically verifiable reality.  In a sense, technology has exacerbated this issue; a world of opinions, discussions, and resources are available at our fingertips and this overwhelming mass of information creates an overarching sense of doubt in the minds of many. When journalism centers on twitter discussions and clickbait titles, it’s difficult to discern truth from sensationalism.

However, not all people are prone to falling into denialism; studies show that certain circumstances can predispose an individual. Personality is a significant factor ¾ those who tend to adhere to the status quo and reject change, especially that of a long-standing system, are more likely to fall into denialism. Demographics reveal that those most affected by denialism tend to be older, less educated, and highly religious as well. But the biggest factor in denialism seems to be politics: conservative voters are more likely to discount climate change. This represents a much more concerning phenomenon of institutional denial.

If a certain party, politician, or company directly benefits from the denialism of their voters and consumers then they will continue to perpetuate the false narratives for their own profit. In some cases, these officials are actually aware of the issues that they publicly deny such as many oil companies who are aware of pollution research yet continue to publicly promote doubt in order to keep their consumer base without losing profit.

Change plays an important role in why denialism occurs; it’s much easier to simply deny an issue exists at all than recognize it and have to bear the responsibility of resolving the issue. Climate change, for example, is an especially tricky subject because it requires us to face that resolving climate change is not just about implementing better policies, it calls for the recognition of the fundamental issues of our economic system and a direct change in our preconscious approach to consumerism.

To many psychologists, denialism comes as no surprise at all. Sigmund Freud’s long referenced substantial theories on coping mechanisms and denial provide the framework for why this occurs. Cognitive Dissonance Theory can also expand on the phenomena of denialism, it states that a person experiences mental discomfort if they hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values and that this discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a person’s belief clashes with new evidence. By this theory, when we are confronted with an opposing belief, we must either accept the new evidence and change our original beliefs or reject the new evidence as untrue. We also tend to fall into confirmation bias, a cognitive tendency to only accept information and facts that support our own beliefs. Thus, a cycle of self-confirmation is created, and the denialism is perpetuated for the benefit of corrupt companies and politicians.

In some cases, denialism can be extremely dangerous as seen in the measles outbreak. Anti-vaxxer parents who deny the science behind vaccinations created emergency outbreaks of long eradicated diseases and the lives of many children are lost. Denialism is not only detrimental to progress; it can cost us human lives.

Yet we continue to retreat into denialism because as fragile humans, it is much easier to pretend the problem does not exist rather than make the effort to produce any real change.  In order to break down these cognitive issues, we must recognize and submit to the process of scientific inquiry. We must acknowledge the research that presents even the most uncomfortable truths and we must use this to create change in the fundamental flaws in our society.