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HEARD the latest? The swine flu pandemic was a hoax: scientists, governments and the World Health Organization cooked it up in a vast conspiracy so that vaccine companies could make money. Never mind that the flu fulfilled every scientific condition for a pandemic, that thousands died, or that declaring a pandemic didn't provide huge scope for profiteering. A group of obscure European politicians concocted this conspiracy theory, and it is now doing the rounds even in educated circles.
Whatever they are denying, denial movements have much in common with one another, not least the use of similar tactics (see "How to be a denialist"). All set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people. This conspiracy is usually claimed to be promoting a sinister agenda: the nanny state, takeover of the world economy, government power over individuals, financial gain, atheism.
This common ground tells us a great deal about the underlying causes of denialism. The first thing to note is that denial finds its most fertile ground in areas where the science must be taken on trust. There is no denial of antibiotics, which visibly work. But there is denial of vaccines, which we are merely told will prevent diseases - diseases, moreover, which most of us have never seen, ironically because the vaccines work.
This common ground tells us a great deal about the underlying causes of denialism. The first thing to note is that denial finds its most fertile ground in areas where the science must be taken on trust.
The process is amplified by the "echo chamber" of the internet, which has made it easier than ever to encounter and spread falsehoods. It also makes it easier to start them. Propagators are often aware of what they are doing, according to Sunstein. Some act out of self-interest, such the desire for money or fame. Others are defending an ideology or faith. Some are simply malicious.
Denial is different. It is the automatic gainsaying of a claim regardless of the evidence for it - sometimes even in the teeth of evidence. Denialism is typically driven by ideology or religious belief, where the commitment to the belief takes precedence over the evidence. Belief comes first, reasons for belief follow, and those reasons are winnowed to ensure that the belief survives intact.
* In a nutshell: Global warming either (1) isn't real (2) isn't caused by humans or (3) doesn't matter
* Origin: Corporate astroturfing in the early 1990s
* Call themselves: Climate sceptics
* Influence: *****
* In a nutshell: The theory of evolution is an atheist conspiracy to undermine religion
* Origins: 19th century, though continually renewed
* Call themselves: Creationists or intelligent design advocates
* Influence: ****
* In a nutshell: The systematic mass killing of European Jews by Nazi Germany is a fabrication, or at least a wild exaggeration
* Origins: Late 1940s
* Call themselves: Holocaust revisionists
* Influence: *
* In a nutshell: HIV either (1) does not exist or (2) does not cause AIDS
* Origins: 1987, when molecular biologist Peter Duesberg of the University of California questioned the link between HIV and AIDS in an academic paper
* Call themselves: AIDS truthers
* Influence: **
* In a nutshell: The US government either orchestrated or was complicit in the 9/11 attacks
* Origins: Doubts about the official version of events were circulating within days of the attacks
* Call themselves: 9/11 truth movement
* Influence: *
* In a nutshell: Umbrella term for a disparate movement claiming that certain vaccines either (1) do not work or (2) are harmful
* Origins: Has been around for as long as vaccines
* Influence: ***
* In a nutshell: There is considerable uncertainty about the science linking tobacco smoke to lung cancer
* Origin: 1970s, tobacco industry
* Influence: *
Propagators are often aware of what they are doing, according to Sunstein. Some act out of self-interest, such the desire for money or fame. Others are defending an ideology or faith. Some are simply malicious.