Ideas·Ideas Afternoon

The Dangers of Denialism

"Denial is about hiding from the truth. Denialism builds a 'new and better' truth." Keith Kahn-Harris, a researcher and lecturer at the University of London, says the challenge of confronting denialism is that denialists don't see themselves as rejecters of truth. They see themselves as having the actual truth, one that the rest of us can't see or accept. Keith Kahn-Harris in conversation with IDEAS producer Naheed Mustafa.
Protestors are seen at a rally at the Boston Commons during for the March for Science on April 22, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Ryan McBride/AFP/Getty Images)

** This episode was originally broadcast on May 17, 2019.

Denial is when someone avoids acknowledging something they know to be true. A good example of this is when someone is addicted to shopping but avoids acknowledging that addiction by never looking at their credit card statements. They watch the debt mount but still claim their shopping isn't a problem.

Denialism, on the other hand, is an effort to build an alternative truth because the verifiable truth built on scientific consensus threatens something the person holds dear. 

Instead of avoiding the scientific truth about climate change, for instance, climate change denialists will embark on a mission to develop an alternative story about climate change, one they genuinely believe to be true, one that offers them the comfort they need in order to carry on. 

I think there are plenty of people within the climate change denialist world who are preserving a particular vision of the way humans can ideally act without any kind of restraint, that we can change the world without any kind of negative consequences.- Keith Kahn-Harris


Sociologist and researcher Keith Kahn-Harris is the author of Denial: The Unspeakable Truth. He says denialism is sometimes a cynical effort in which industries or individuals attempt to create chaos and confusion to preserve some kind of benefit for themselves, and in doing so pollute the public discourse with misinformation. 

Think back to the tobacco industry's efforts to deny the link between smoking and disease. For more than two decades starting in the mid-1970s, the world's major tobacco companies worked together to promote the idea there was no link between smoking and disease in an effort to preserve their multi-billion dollar business. 

But, more often, denialism is rooted in psychological discomfort where the thing being preserved is a kind of core value or belief. 

"I think there are plenty of people within the climate change denialist world who are preserving a particular vision of the way humans can ideally act without any kind of restraint, that we can change the world without any kind of negative consequences," says Kahn-Harris.

"In some respects, it's a beautiful vision. It's also not true. There are always unintended unintended consequences to everything. Nothing is cost free but it's a strong desire to preserve that goes way beyond simply preserving oil industry profits." 

He believes that something similar is at play in Holocaust denial. 

"Holocaust denialism is preserving a kind of mythical image of the Nazis and the Nazi period as something pristine and beautiful, something that they cannot bear to really shake to its foundations which I think is what the Holocaust actually does," says Kahn-Harris.

He points out that denialism's destructive impact is steadily growing with the use of technology.

Decades ago, a denialist may have had just a tiny following limited in scope and geography but today potentially has access to the world. 

Denial: The Unspeakable Truth is Keith Kahn-Harris' latest book. (Notting Hill Editions, Submitted by Keith Kahn-Harris)

Kahn-Harris writes: "As previously marginal voices climb onto the online soapbox, so the opportunities for countering accepted truths multiply. No one can ever be entirely ostracized, marginalized, and dismissed as a crank anymore. The sheer profusion of voices, the plurality of opinions, the cacophony of controversy are enough to make anyone doubt what they should believe. Denialism and denialism's ability to cast doubt can ensnare any of us."   

Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist who studies and researches, among other things, denialism. He teaches at Birkbeck College, University of London. His book, Denialism: The Unspeakable Truth is published by Knotting Hill Editions (2018).

**This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.