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Edward Skidelsky: Words That Think For Us

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Judith Curry, Climate Etc.

The extension of the “denier” tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people. One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment—the liberation of historical and scientific enquiry from dogma—is quietly being reversed. – Edward Skidelsky

 

From the Prospect Magazine, an article titled “Words that think for us.”  It is very short, I reproduce it here in entirety:

“Denial” is an ordinary English word meaning to assert the untruth of something. Recently, however, it has acquired a further polemical sense. To “deny” in this new sense is to repudiate some commonly professed doctrine. Denial is the secular form of blasphemy; deniers are scorned, ridiculed and sometimes prosecuted.

Where does this new usage come from? There is an old sense of “deny,” akin to “disown,” which no doubt lies in the background. (A traitor denies his country; Peter denied Christ.) But the more immediate source is Freud. Denial in the Freudian sense is the refusal to accept a painful or humiliating truth. Sufferers are said to be in a “state of denial” or simply “in denial.” This last phrase entered general use in the early 1990s and launched “denial” on its modern career. “Holocaust denial” was the first political application, followed closely by “Aids denial,” “global warming denial” and a host of others. An abstract noun, “denialism,” has recently been coined. It is perhaps no accident that denial’s counterpart, affirmation, has meanwhile acquired laudatory overtones. We “affirm” relationships, achievements, values. Ours is a relentlessly positive culture.

An accusation of “denial” is serious, suggesting either deliberate dishonesty or self-deception. The thing being denied is, by implication, so obviously true that the denier must be driven by perversity, malice or wilful blindness. Few issues warrant such confidence. The Holocaust is perhaps one, though even here there is room for debate over the manner of its execution and the number of its victims. A charge of denial short-circuits this debate by stigmatising as dishonest any deviation from a preordained conclusion. It is a form of the argument ad hominem: the aim is not so much to refute your opponent as to discredit his motives. The extension of the “denier” tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people. One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment—the liberation of historical and scientific enquiry from dogma—is quietly being reversed.

A different perspective from David Burgess in the Comments:

Denialism, anti-denialism, and anti-anti-denialism (this article) are part of politics and journalism, not part of science. And the rules are different. As it has been said “Politics ain’t beanbags,” and the term for those who think otherwise is “losers.”

In politics you need short pithy terms to help your point rise above the noise. Such terms always involve a degree of oversimplification, but using pithy terms will get the general populace closer to the truth than not using pithy terms. By demanding the purity of scientific discourse in the rough and tumble of politics, scientists defend their own perfectionism at the cost of losing vastly important political battles on health, the climate, education, and indeed just about any public policy issue.

Political skills are vastly different from scientific skills. By all means give qualifying details once you you have a particular audience’s attention. But if you don’t know how to persuade a more general audience, please either learn how or stay out of the battle.

As to charges of “denial” being “ad hominem,” in ordinary language it isn’t–it is a simple empiricial description of a position that denies something. What makes it seem ad hominem to educated people is the invocation of the psychological defense mechanism of denial. And indeed saying that someone is being defensive can be an ad hominem argument. However it can also be a legitimate if rather rough way of criticizing arguments (rather than people) by pointing to evasiveness or rejection of evidence.

Political language almost always involves an element of dramatization by personalization, making it seem like a personal attack. The reality is more subtle: we attack persons partly as symbols of the ideas we are contesting. “Denial” is legitimate political shorthand, and not using it makes the world a worse place.

JC comments:  This article appeared in this morning’s twitter feed, it was published Feb 12, 2010.  David Burgess suggests a distinction between the use of ‘denier’ vs ‘denial’, whereby denial refers to the argument and denier to the person.  I don’t think this distinction is meaningful: when used in a political debate, the main objective seems to be a personal attack.

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