From climate change to the anti-vaccine movement, is denial on the rise in America?

It’s an argument out of the days of Galileo, Copernicus and Columbus. In January of this year, an esteemed astrophysicist and a chart-topping rapper went head-to-head in a public battle about the curvature of the Earth. And, remarkably, it’s not that unusual today. We’re a scientifically advanced society—computers in our pockets do nearly anything we ask, and soon enough cars will be driving themselves—but there remains a significant population that doesn’t accept what scientists tell us is true. It’s happening with vaccines, with climate change and, as seen in the upcoming film “Denial,” even with the fact the Holocaust happened.

What’s going on? Why do people choose to deny that President Obama was born in the United States? Or that evolution is responsible for human life? The answer lies in a deep-seated psychological response that helps us manage information that makes us uncomfortable.

It’s the deliberate, often psychologically motivated, neglect of information that would be too upsetting or anxiety-provoking to allow into one’s belief system
Why we deny

Denial is the “deliberate, often psychologically motivated, neglect of information that would be too upsetting or anxiety-provoking to allow into one’s belief system,” says Paul Appelbaum, former head of the American Psychiatric Association. It’s a way, really, for people to make things make sense to themselves. If you love a good steak, for example, you might find a way to dismiss the idea that animals can feel pain—what psychologists call the “meat paradox.”

A similar rationale is at play when the parent of an autistic child chooses to ignore the fact that the infamous 1998 “Lancet” study linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism was later retracted, because the parent would prefer to have something upon which to blame the child’s terrifying disorder. For many, denial is easier than being afraid or confused.

A strategy to try to neutralize what real scientists say

There are other motivations, too. Like self-interest. Cigarette manufacturers long denied that smoking was harmful. Oil companies have funded groups questioning climate change. Michael Milburn, coauthor of “The Politics of Denial” and professor of psychology at University of Massachusetts, Boston, explains this by referencing Upton Sinclair’s statement that, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Last year, for example, a North Carolina state toxicologist found that well water near a major utility’s coal ash pits was contaminated with a chemical known to cause cancer. Governor Pat McCrory, who used to work for the utility, took the position that there’s simply no way to know the truth. “We basically have a disagreement among scientists,” he told reporters. “One group of scientists, which I support, believe[s] the public ought to get all the information about the water, not limited information and one opinion.”

look at the
spread of
Our belief in vaccinating our children is dropping—with consequences.

Percentage of Americans who believe it is extremely important that parents get their children vaccinated

Our belief in vaccinating our children is dropping—with consequences.

Number of measles cases in the United States

We don’t want to admit that we’re heating up the world.

Percentage of Americans who don’t believe that climate change is the result of human activity

We don’t want to admit that we’re heating up the world.

Rank of the United States among 21 countries in percentage of population that believes in human-caused climate change

Percentage of Americans who believe GMOs are unsafe.

Percentage of American adults who believe genetically modified foods are safe

Percentage of Americans who believe GMOs are unsafe.

51 point gap

Percentage of scientists affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science who believe genetically modified foods are safe

We overlook facts if they don’t suit our political beliefs.

Percentage of U.S. voters who believe the federal government allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen

We overlook facts if they don’t suit our political beliefs.

Percentage of American whos believe President Obama was born outside the United States, despite the 2011 release of his longform birth certificate

We unthink the unthinkable.

Percentage of people in 100 countries surveyed by the Anti-Defamation League who had heard of the Holocaust

We unthink the unthinkable.

Percentage of those people who believe it is either a myth or has been greatly exaggerated

A by-the-numbers look
at the spread of
Our belief in vaccinating our children is dropping—with consequences.

Percentage of Americans who believe it is extremely important that parents get their children vaccinated


Number of measles cases in the United States

We don’t want to admit that we’re heating up the world.

Percentage of Americans who don’t believe that climate change is the result of human activity


Rank of the United States among 21 countries in percentage of population that believes in human-caused climate change

GMOs scare us—unless we happen to be scientists.

Percentage who believe genetically modified foods are safe

*Scientists polled from American Association for the Advancement of Science

We overlook facts if they don’t suit our political beliefs.

Percentage of U.S. voters who believe the federal government allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen


Percentage of Americans who believe President Obama was born outside the United States, despite the 2011 release of his longform birth certificate

We unthink the unthinkable.

Percentage of people in 100 countries surveyed by the Anti-Defamation League who had heard of the Holocaust


Percentage of those people who believe it is either a myth or has been greatly exaggerated

    Sources include: Anti-Defamation League, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Gallup, Ipsos MORI, Pew Research Center, Public Policy Polling
    The techniques of denial

    Citing scientific disagreement has become “a strategy to try to neutralize what real scientists say,” according to Shawn Otto, author of “The War on Science.” Real science isn’t about ulterior motives or business strategies; it’s a set of facts that exist whether one subscribes to them or not. In Otto’s words, “credible science is science that has the overwhelming body of evidence on its side. You can always find a scientist who will have an outlier position. That doesn’t make that a credible, balanced argument.” 

    The technique of highlighting certain scientific arguments, or even parts of arguments that fit a preconceived worldview, is a common technique, called cherry picking, used by deniers to convince themselves and others. Closely related to this is ‘appeal to non-authority’: reliance on sources whose expertise is questionable or discredited.

    Another common technique is ‘moving the goalpost,’ responding to one’s opponents by continuously demanding new sorts of evidence. After the White House produced a Hawaiian birth certificate in the face of denialists who said President Obama was born in Kenya, some shifted the goalposts by then claiming the certificate was forged or doctored.

    Finally, there is the technique of ‘conspiracy theories,’ which involves countering an opponent’s statements of facts with an accusation that something is being maliciously covered up. To be successful, that accusation of a massive cover-up requires an audience that, for whatever reason, is ripe to be convinced. For examples of this method in action, look no further than our current presidential campaign in which both candidates have a history of citing conspiracy—from the “vast right wing conspiracy” to “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks.

    Anti-intellectualism on the rise

    The big question is, why are we so ripe for the convincing? Why are so many people interested in following charismatic figures who use conspiracy theories to pit us against each other? From conflicting advice about personal health and safety to disparate views about immigration, economic inequality and other social and political concerns, the rise of self-proclaimed experts and ‘experts’ with social media acclaim has created even more tension in already straining economic, religious and cultural divides. Caught between internal fear and external confusion, it’s easy to turn to denial to maintain worldviews that make the most sense to us—whether they’re backed by facts or not.

    In some cases, the worldviews are supported by religious beliefs. In others, a hopeful reliance on plain-old ‘common sense.’ But when common sense fails to provide answers to more complex issues, relying on the expertise of others becomes necessary. And it’s this reliance on others that gives some cause for alarm, resulting in ’anti-intellectualism.’

    In the United States, anti-intellectualism dates back to the founding fathers, when Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans favored the wisdom of the common man over the expertise of the elites, embodied by Alexander Hamilton. Since then, the American population has tended to support a belief that ‘regular people’ know best and experts are suspect. This notion flares up when we think that our core values are under attack, as with McCarthyism, and today—with immigration, cyber security and other national security concerns—it seems to be back with a vengeance.

    When “fair and balanced” fails

    In this kind of environment, even as politicians and industries protect their interests by encouraging denialism of, for example, the dangers of smoking, people become more prone to believing that those in power are out to turn a profit at their expense. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is real, the percentage of Americans who say there is solid evidence of global warming is falling. And despite a lack of scientific evidence that GMO food poses a threat to human health, the USDA has begun offering a GMO-free certification.

    What makes it all worse is a fractured and polarized media that makes it easier for deniers to turn reported facts into open questions. “You get people who absolutely deny that vaccines do any good, and, in fact, insist that vaccines do great harm,” says Deborah Lipstadt, the Holocaust historian at the center of the upcoming film, “Denial.” “Then you get people who say, ‘Well. I’m not sure. The jury’s still out.’”

    From cable to live-streaming to social media, a vast array of information and opinion sources—all bearing equal authority—create what analysts call a “filter bubble,” meaning that many people today only get information, especially on the internet, that supports their preconceived notions.

    Even our most respected forms of journalism can be part of the problem, as the pursuit of balanced reporting results in giving airtime to the ‘other side’—regardless of their qualifications. Take, for example, the recent rapper-versus-physicist incident. Was the media being ‘fair’ in providing the ‘world-is-flat’ position a place for debate? In “Denial,” Lipstadt was careful to keep the focus on her antagonist—Holocaust denier David Irving—deliberately refusing to provide fodder for a debate about the Holocaust itself.

    The truth matters

    Combating denialism requires that we acknowledge it happens, recognize it for what it is and engage in honest conversation about it. Because while freedom of speech hinges on respecting other people’s values and opinions, incontrovertible truths do exist.

    Flashpoints of Denial

    The Earth is round, vaccines are lifesavers and the Holocaust happened. All of this is true. But as shown in the upcoming film “Denial,” now playing in select theaters and everywhere October 21, not everyone accepts the facts. Read on to see how truth has—and hasn’t—triumphed through the centuries.

    1633:Center of the universe

    Galileo Galilei, the first man to view the heavens with a telescope, used his findings to promote the Copernican view that the universe revolves around the sun, not the Earth. The Catholic Church disagreed, insisting that the Earth was the center of the universe and calling this contrary view a heresy. In 1633, the Roman Inquisition found Galileo guilty of heresy and sent him to prison. He died under house arrest in 1642.

    1849:The Earth is flat

    Since the ancient Greeks, there’s been evidence the Earth is round. But Victorian inventor Samuel Birley Rowbotham resumed the flat-Earth movement with his book “Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe,” arguing the Earth is a flat plane centered at the North Pole and bordered by a wall of ice. A quick-witted debater, he traveled England making public appearances. The movement continued: the International Flat Earth Society was founded in 1956, and this year, a chart-topping rapper tweeted that the world is flat.

    1925:Evolution is illegal

    Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859. But well into the 20th century, some people remained skeptical of evolution. In Tennessee, a state law made it illegal to teach evolution in public schools. High school teacher John Scopes did anyway, and his celebrated “Monkey Trial” was a sensation. Scopes was convicted— he never denied he’d taught it—but the verdict was ultimately overturned on a technicality. The Butler Act, the law he violated, wasn’t repealed until 1967.

    1945:No surrender

    Japanese officer Hiroo Onoda was sent to a Philippine island in December 1944 with orders to fend off attacks without surrender or taking his own life. By February 1945, American and Philippine forces took the island, and most Japanese died or were captured. Onoda refused to surrender, not believing the war was over or that Japan had lost. He held out for 30 years in the Philippines until 1974 when his former commanding officer relieved him of duty

    1989:Auschwitz denied

    David Irving, a pro-Nazi military historian, joined the Holocaust-denier lecture circuit and published a paper arguing that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were a “hoax” and that no mass murder happened there. This galvanized a growing movement of deniers, who claimed that the Holocaust had never happened, or downplayed any systematic mass murder of Jews.

    1994:Nicotine isn’t addictive

    In 1964, a U.S. Surgeon General report indicated that smoking was unhealthful. But cigarette companies continued to push the benefits of smoking, or at least the position that it wasn’t harmful. Testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment in April 1994, chiefs of the seven biggest American tobacco companies each said they did not believe cigarettes were addictive. (Several added that they would prefer their own children not begin smoking cigarettes, however.)

    1996:Burden of proof

    In her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” historian Deborah Lipstadt called David Irving “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial.” In September 1996, Irving sued Lipstadt and her British publisher for libel, arguing that his reputation as a historian was defamed. Filed in London, the case proceeded under British law, which places the burden of proof on a libel defendant—putting the onus on Lipstadt and her team to prove that Irving was a Holocaust denier.

    1998:Vaccine causes autism

    When respected British medical journal “The Lancet” linked MMR vaccines with autism, parents wanted to believe they’d found a cause for the illness. But the study was wrong. After revelations of fraud and conflict of interest, the article was retracted in 2010 and its author lost his medical license. Even so, vaccination rates in England dropped and measles cases rose from 56 in 1998 to 1,843 in 2013. Today, an active anti-vaccine community still insists that MMR vaccines can cause autism.

    2000:Poverty causes AIDS

    South African President Thabo Mbeki was a longstanding denier of the scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS. At the U.N. International AIDS Conference in South Africa in July 2000, Mbeki argued that AIDS is instead caused by poverty and malnourishment. Hundreds of delegates walked out. Later, Harvard researchers determined that Mbeki’s denialism led to 300,000 preventable deaths.

    2004:Weapons inspectors denied

    A year after the U.S., U.K. and allies invaded Iraq ostensibly to stop Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction, former chief weapons inspector Hans Blix accused the U.S. and U.K. governments of denying evidence that there were no WMDs. “There were about 700 inspections, and in no case did we find weapons of mass destruction,” Blix said at a conference, charging that the Bush administration had “the same mind frame as the witch hunters of the past.”

    2006:9/11 Truth

    The al-Qaeda network orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, but some people believe it was an inside job—that the U.S. government helped coordinate the attacks as a pretext for war in the Middle East. When it came to light that Kevin Barrett, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, was a 9/11 denier and a member of the group Scholars for 9/11 Truth, 61 Wisconsin state legislators called for his dismissal from the public university. But the university provost declined to take action, citing academic freedom.

    2015:Certified GMO-free

    The Food and Drug Administration and other experts say genetically modified foods are safe for consumption. “There is no evidence that GM crops have actually harmed human health,” declared the World Resources Institute. And yet many people remain skeptical and believe GMO foods might be dangerous to eat. Feeding that fear, in 2015 the USDA began certifying non-GMO foods, suggesting that there’s something wrong with GMO foods.

    February 2015:Snowball fight

    Scientists believe in human-caused global warming. Sea levels are rising, and the climate is changing. But deniers still find scientific dissenters to bolster their cause. Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment, argued that climate change was “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” One cold February day, he brought a snowball to the U.S. Senate. “We keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on’s very, very cold out. Very unseasonable.”

    Denial, Discussed

    A conversation about the motives and methods of denialism

    The new movie “Denial” dramatizes Professor Deborah Lipstadt’s successful 1996 defense against libel charges brought by British historian David Irving, whom both she and the London courts called a Holocaust denier. How does a once-respected historian become a denier? And why do people believe him? We asked four experts to discuss how denial works, what drives people to it and why it can be so compelling.

    The panelists

    Professor Deborah Lipstadt, the subject of “Denial,” is the Dorot professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University.

    Professor Dan Kahan is the Elizabeth K. Dollard professor of law and professor of psychology at Yale Law School, and he studies the relationship between politics and anti-intellectualism in the context of climate change.

    Professor Michael Milburn is professor of psychology at University of Massachusetts, Boston, and coauthor of “The Politics of Denial.”

    Shawn Otto is a writer and the author of “The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It.”


    Experts use the term “denialism.” What is that, and how does it differ from skepticism?

    Deborah Lipstadt: It’s a refusal to accept established facts and documented evidence. In the case of the Holocaust, it’s not just evidence given by the victims and bystanders, but also by the perpetrators. Hardcore denial is what I encountered in the London courtroom and from David Irving—a denial that the gas chambers were murder facilities. Today, we are seeing more softcore denial, in terms of politicization of the Holocaust and comparing it to things that may be horrible but aren’t equivalent.

    Shawn Otto: It comes from three different aspects of society. One is what I call the identity-politics war on science, which argues that science is but one of many valid ways of knowing. That causes journalists to rely on “balance”—a scientist who is speaking with all the known evidence, on one hand, and someone with a contrary opinion, on the other hand. And they’ll treat them as if they are equal, when they are not.

    Another front is the ideological war on science, which is driven by religion. This is generally in fundamentalist religions, where they do not like what science is saying about either traditional values or about either origins of the universe or origins of human life.

    Finally, these people wind up being the foot soldiers for economic interests. Where science is showing some existential challenges to an industry, as with climate change or as was the case with tobacco, instead of adapting, the industries try to cast doubt on the science in order to forestall or prevent legislation or regulation.

    Why does it happen, and why are some people susceptible to it?

    Dan Kahan: Particular science issues become entangled with these kinds of toxic cultural meanings, which invest them with significance as badges of membership in and loyalty to groups. People then use their reason to figure out how to be members of their cultural group, instead of the usual strategy of figuring out who knows what about what.

    Otto: This gets to the fundamental strength and challenge that science poses, because it is a means of developing objective knowledge that is independent of the political or gender or religious or sexual or racial or cultural identity of the person making the measurement. And because of that, it challenges the comfortable precepts that we sometimes hold because of the identity groups that we belong to.

    Lipstadt: People have long been susceptible to conspiracy theories and to notions that go against the facts. For many deniers, and I think this is the case with David Irving, it seems there is a deep-seated anti-Semitism and a feeling that Jews are getting something out of the Holocaust or using the Holocaust for their own advantage, and that the Jews are a manipulative sort so that they must be making this up.

    Does the proliferation of media play a reinforcing role?

    Otto: Absolutely it does. An example that helps put this into perspective is a device called the Volksempfanger, which was a radio the Nazis produced in the 1930s, “the people’s radio.” They filled it with propaganda and politically slanted news and patriotic music. And, if you think about it, that is a parallel to the political echo chamber that is created by politically slanted cable television news today, and by the self-selected political echo chamber that people place themselves in via social media.

    Lipstadt: Social media allows people who might never find others who share their outlandish opinions and notions, which have no basis in fact, to coalesce in a much more rapid and vigorous fashion than we’ve seen previously. We see this not just with Holocaust denial, but also vaccines, climate denial and the false notion of Muslims dancing in New Jersey on 9/11.

    Milburn: There is a social-psychological phenomenon called “pluralistic ignorance,” where people tend to believe that most people, or at least a large number of people, agree with them. They actually overestimate the percentage of the population that agrees with their particular views. The internet has greatly increased people’s ability to find others who agree with them.

    Kahan: On the internet, you can find anything you want. The question is, are you motivated to find it, and are you going to believe it? People are generally pretty good at distinguishing the currency of valid science from the counterfeit alternatives. The media can be a conduit for these kinds of forms of misinformation, but it’s also going to be responsive to the demand of people to have the information that confirms their identities. Also, there’s a market out there, and if you just insist on telling people about scientific facts and not about controversies, well, they’re not going to be interested in what you have to say.

    Is there a relationship between denial in one area, like the Holocaust, and denial in another, like climate change?

    Lipstadt: I think they relate, and they morph one into the other. You get people who absolutely deny that vaccines do any good or even insist that vaccines do great harm. Then you get people who sort of say, “Well, I’m not sure. The jury’s still out.” It’s a squishier, harder-to-pin-down kind of attitude. To some degree, that is harder to combat than the hardcore stuff. It’s much more ambiguous. Denial is a refusal to accept facts. People who are deniers do not really deserve to have their arguments categorized as “opinions.” These arguments are rooted in lies, and that is what they remain.

    Otto: It’s all motivated reasoning. They are motivated by a variety of factors, but one big factor is tribalism, or peer-group reasoning. Ironically, that’s a very similar thing to the peer review that scientists rely on, or to the feedback that groups like Alcoholics Anonymous rely on: our social vetting of ideas that confirms for us that other people think this way, too. We check out our beliefs against each other to tell whether or not they are accurate. And the problem that tribalism creates is it allows us to align ourselves with groups of people that may all agree that something is the case when in fact it is not.

    Milburn: I think the rise of denialism really goes along with higher levels of economic stress caused by unemployment. A German study found that children who were in a family of heightened stress had all sorts of major problems associated with higher levels of unemployment, higher levels of mental illness, domestic abuse, all kinds of things, and that very well may be playing a role in the increase in denial.

    Can we counteract denialism?

    Kahan: How do we restore a normal state that exists when people are processing the cues that they have to rely on to figure out what’s known by science? Right now, on these issues, they see a world filled with conflict. So we need to create a world that’s filled with normality, show them evidence that people—whom they know—know what’s going on and are evincing confidence in the science. If you start to engage in discourse that’s filled with contempt for people who disagree with you, that only reinforces the associations between the positions and the group identities that are driving the perceptions people have that, well, this isn’t a settled issue.

    Milburn: Research indicates that giving people information that contradicts their existing beliefs, particularly those with emotional grounding, is often very ineffective. I have to confess that I have not figured out exactly the best way to do this, but you have to somehow address the underlying emotional issues.

    Otto: It needs to be addressed through mechanisms that base reporting, public discourse and the types of information that we are exposed to on evidence first. And that really demand evidence over the ideas of balanced tribalism, political identity groups, or social peer groups.

    Lipstadt: Will there always be haters out there? Of course. Will there always be people who are willing to take an outlandish point of view or even pure lies and argue on their behalf? There will always be people who are conspiracy theorists. It has been around too long for it to go away. I don’t think we will ever change the people who are spreading these ideas, many of whom know that they are false but have ulterior motives. Our job is to keep them from being accepted by the mainstream.

    This seems pessimistic.

    Lipstadt: I try to be optimistic about things, but history teaches me that that is not always the case. There are people out there who are very much beguiled by these stories. When I see it seep into the general conversation of people not on extreme ends, that’s when I get worried. This is why it is so important to challenge liars about their lies. Challenge them with the facts.

    Watch the featurette

    Based on the acclaimed book “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial”, “Denial” recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s (Academy Award® winner Rachel Weisz) legal battle for historical truth against David Irving (BAFTA nominee Timothy Spall), who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier. In the English legal system, in cases of libel, the burden of proof is on the defendant, therefore it was up to Lipstadt and her legal team, led by Richard Rampton (Academy Award® nominee Tom Wilkinson), to prove the essential truth that the Holocaust occurred.

    “Denial” is directed by Emmy Award® winner Mick Jackson (“Temple Grandin") and adapted for the screen by BAFTA and Academy Award® nominated writer David Hare (“The Reader"). Producers are Gary Foster and Russ Krasnoff.

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