Friday, 26 March 2010

Delusional disorder: Part II

In part I I outlined the tactics of the anti-science movement. In case you missed their various incarnations, I am talking about those denialists that claim that: the holocaust is just a PR-stunt, HIV does not cause AIDS, Global Warming is not happening, vaccines are the cause of everything evil, evolution is merely a theory, mobile phones cause cancer, terrorism is the biggest threat to your life, et cetera.

This time I want to try and understand why people are so resistent to facts contradicting their personal believesystem. The common thread of all "denialist controversies" is that no amount of evidence is sufficient to persuade denialists that they are simply wrong. This reminds me of what I was taught about the difference between an illusion and a delusion. When we have an illusion we see or hear things, but we are aware they are not actually there, i.e. illusionist, magician. A delusion, however, is seeing or hearing things without realising it is not there. No amount of evidence will convince people, suffering from a delusion, that it is imaginary, i.e. paranoid delusional disorder.

With this in mind I noticed the always invoked conpiracy -Big Pharma, Illuminati, Big Oil, et cetera- to explain away the multitude of scientific evidence refuting the denialist position. Add to that the Matrix-inspired notion that fact and fiction are essentially the same (i.e. evolution is merely one theory of many), together with the always present-both-sides-equally-fallacy invoking media, and science is guarenteed to lose.

Regardless of their idiosynchratic reality-refuting opinions the anti-science crowd shares some interesting characteristics. Skeptical Science noticed this too, and points out five characteristics of the anti-science disorder:
  1. Conspiracy theories,
  2. Fake experts,
  3. Cherry picking,
  4. Impossible expectations of what research can deliver,
  5. Misrepresentation and logical fallacies.
Personally, I see the following traits among denialists:
  1. Indoctrination,
  2. Dogma supercedes evidence,
  3. The denialist is always right, when he is proven wrong see point 2, 6 and 7,
  4. Megalomania: the denialist is the only person capable of understanding/seeing The Truth,
  5. Inconsistency: rigorously applying standards to others while failing to adhere to those standards themselves, see point 6,
  6. Using invented facts, double-standard and logical fallacies,
  7. Conspiracy theory: confronted with any evidence to the contrary it is dismissed as fake (scientists and industry work in unison to plant evidence to hide The Truth)
  8. Cult-like behaviour (because of point 1)
Thinking of the DSM-IV one can't help but notice the similarity with the paranoid delusional disorder. The propensity to create elaborate explanations for ignoring/refuting what science says is the hallmark of delusional people. Since the "teach the controversy"-crowd has succeeded in removing critical thinking skills from schools' curricula and the media in their reports refuse to "take sides" we live in a world where fact and fiction have become equal.

Update: Kimball Atwood makes some suggestions regarding adherents of "alternative medicine," and wonders why:
some people are drawn to implausible treatments, even in the face of compelling, contradictory evidence. Such investigations might begin by looking at the work of Beyerstein and Alcock, for example.
Update II: Posted a more detailed explanation on the rationale behind the anti-science crowd. 


  1. Some interesting points here, especially listing the various characteristics, or traits, of the denial movement. My question is do all denialists fit that category, or only some? And to what extent are some of those traits more the result of cognitive biases that could, with some hard work, be corrected?

  2. Good post, I've also been looking at this issue, esp. in relation to climate change:
    - denial is an emotional response and not a logical response:
    - the self-enclosed theory of the climate conspiracy also acts like a ratchet - a device that only allows movement in one way. So when evidence that disputes their idea arrives (as it does weekly) the 'self-sealing' mental construct that thy have built simply dismisses it. Yet when news arrives that seems to back their ideas - mentally, the theory moves forward. This means for the denialist, it only ever moves forward. So to the denialist must seem that with so much 'evidence' for the huge hoax accumulated, it must break into the concious of the mainstream any time now. As each new piece of denialist propaganda arrives, so the denialist thinks, "This is straw that will finally break the camel back of AGW..."

    Yet just like tomorrow, that day never seems to come. I am calling this bit of the mental construct, the Ratchet Hypothesis.