Monday, 2 March 2009

Scepticism and Denial

During an interview on Point of Inquiry with Kendrick Frazier, the editor of The Skeptical Inquirer, I was interested to hear him address a point on what is often called "denialism". This is the phenomenon whereby someone who has grave doubts about a certain doctrine or set of facts is labelled a "denier", such as with holocaust denial, climate change denial, or vaccine denial. It is a point of annoyance for many freethinkers like myself that these deniers are given, by themselves and others, the epithet "sceptic" (so a climate change denier becomes a climate change sceptic and so forth).

Surely, though, that's what they are - to some degree at least. They are "sceptical" of the claims made by those who believe climate change is real, or that the holocaust did happen, in so much as they doubt the claims. It is, as is so often the case, a matter of definition. In common parlance, there is nothing wrong with calling these people sceptics - it is much more usually seen as a position of doubt than as an attitude toward inquiry and evidence. But when the context of the conversation changes, and scepticism takes on its newer meaning with which readers of this blog will be familiar, it is no longer appropriate to refer to them in those terms.

The new meaning of sceptic, which has its origin in the U.S. with figures such as Carl Sagan and James Randi, is associated not with denial or promotion of particular doctrines, but rather an outlook. This outlook is one of free-thought, rational discourse and unbiased inquiry, and it is therefore a mistake to associate it primarily with doubt alone. Under this definition, those who oppose the ideas of climate change and the holocaust, for instance, should by no means be named as sceptics. Their minds are not open to the evidence, and their position is not flexible, as that of any good sceptic (under this definition) should be.

What they do is far more accurately described as "denial" than "scepticism", so I agree with Kendrick Frazier that they should be referred to in this way. It is all part and parcel of the process to stake a claim on the word "sceptic", and turn it into something far more positive than the curmudgeonly, narrow-minded, blind denial with which it is still too often associated in everyday contexts. Will this endeavour ever bear fruit, and is it worth it? Those are questions for another day. For now, it is enough to remember, whenever you hear someone referred to as a "sceptic" with respect to a particular issue, to ask whether the word "denier" would be a more accurate description.

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