Doubling Down on "Denial" - Evolution News & Views

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Doubling Down on "Denial"

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In the popular film The Princess Bride, the rogue character Vizzini cries out "Inconceivable!" at every unexpected turn of events. At one point, his companion Inigo comments, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means!"

As readers of ENV know, we have been challenging the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) on its habitual use of the term "denier" or "denial" to smear anyone who questions or criticizes the views on science that the NCSE wishes to promote. (See here, here, and here.) Recently the NCSE's Programs and Policy Director, Jason Rosenau, attempted to defend the use of the denier label, insisting that the terms "denier" or "denial" are of venerable status in science and in no way just a common smear. In his post he goes so far as to quote from a Mayo Clinic report on denial: "...denial is 'not being realistic about something that's happening in your life -- something that might be obvious to those around you.'" Rosenau, always handy with his Internet researching skills, comes up with a couple of helpful graphs from Google showing frequency of use for the term "denial" historically.

He cites an NCSE article from 2012, "Why Is It Called Denial?," which says:

Recognizing that no terminological choice is entirely unproblematic, NCSE -- in common with a number of scholarly and journalistic observers of the social controversies surrounding climate change -- opts to use the terms "climate changer deniers" and "climate change denial" (where "denial" encompasses unwarranted doubt as well as outright rejection). The terms are intended descriptively, not in any pejorative sense, and are used for the sake of brevity and consistency with a well-established usage in the scholarly and journalistic literature.

While this article focused on the use of the term in connection with climate change studies, the NCSE also uses the term for anyone who questions or doubts Darwinian evolutionary theory. How can they expect us to believe the term is "intended descriptively, not in any pejorative sense"? In his post, Rosenau writes about the term denial being one of the stages of dealing with death. Referring to the graph showing trends in the use of the term, he says "It picks up again after the '60s, when Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross used the term to describe the first stage of grieving." The intent is clear: if you question their version of scientific reality, you're in denial in this clinical, unhealthy sense. You're basically an ostrich with your head in the sand, or worse.

What neither Rosenau nor anyone else at the NCSE mentions is that the critiques of evolutionary theory (as offered by advocates of intelligent design and other sober analysts) and of climate change predictions are based entirely on scientific data. I've already pointed out that the very week before the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was released, the Non-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (NGPCC) issued their report with virtually opposite conclusions. Rosenau and the NCSE were all gushing over the IPCC report with nary a word about the NGPCC's report. Yet both were written by qualified climatologists with excellent credentials.

With respect to evolution, the same pattern is repeated. Stephen Meyer's recent book Darwin's Doubt raises significant scientific questions about the infusion of new biological information in the Cambrian explosion. The book cites evolutionary biologists who basically say they do not have a satisfactory Darwinian explanation for what we observe in the Cambrian event. In other words, this is a legitimate scientific debate. But you won't hear any of that from the NCSE either. Nope, anyone who questions the Darwinian story is a "denier."

And now, Rosenau wants us to accept that the term has some non-pejorative, preferred usage within scientific and journalistic literature? Please. He and the NCSE keep using that word, but I do not think it means what they think it means. Or what they say they think it does. In the face of significant evidence that goes against your favored scientific view, the real denial consists of pretending there isn't any.

Photo credit: Wikicommons.