Over the past decade, a twin-strained school of thought has taken hold in America. Like the mythical Hydra, each strain has multiple heads, which, when lopped off, two others replace it.
One strain is denialism, the practice of “refusing to admit the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence.” The other is conspiracism, “the belief that major historical and political events are brought about as the result of a conspiracy between interested parties or are manipulated by or on behalf of an unknown group of influential people.” (Oxford Dictionary)
Denialism practitioners are not called deniers but, more aptly, denialists. The reason is that deniers deny a fact or truth with intent: to conceal guilt or complicity. Denialists don’t struggle with a conflict of conscience. They firmly believe in their positions’ truthfulness. In similar manner, conspiracists are ones that traffic in conspiracy theory.
Denialists and conspiracists share common characteristics. They…
- are wont to utilizing confirmation bias, searching and presenting only evidence that supports their positions, no matter how weak, incredulous, or false.
- practice the Dunning-Kruger Effect, passionately “doubling-down” on their mistaken beliefs, superstitions, and unfounded fears despite incontrovertible evidence they’re wrong.
- are “unable to recognize their own ineptitude.”
- are True Believers, fervidly convinced of their beliefs.
- populate both the right and left.
Generally, no amount of evidence will move denialists from their entrenched position, that is until reality hits them between the eyes.
To a Nebraskan farmer, climate change might have been something to yuk about and condescendingly dismiss; but when he witnesses his fields underwater with the likelihood of frequent occurrence and faces ruin, climate change suddenly becomes up-close and personal.
Across the country, especially in the Northwest, anti-vaccinationists have resolutely refused to have their children immunized against measles and other controllable, potentially deadly diseases. It was telling, though, that when the epidemic was rampaging, many abandoned their cult-like stances and overwhelmed medical centers with their children in tow.
On the right, the classic conspiracism is Birtherism, the racist claim Barack Obama was not born an American citizen. It was championed by the current POTUS.
On the left, a potential source for conspiracism is the repressed Mueller Report, a two-year investigation culminating in a 300-page report, which Attorney General William Barr condensed to a bumper sticker.
It’s important to understand denialism and conspiracism are anti-intellectual. Like a DNA molecule, they’re two strands of the same mindset. They’re grounded in faith not reason.
Climate-change denialism, for example, has now become gospel among the Republican faithful. In the runup to the show-vote on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s visionary New Green Deal, Senate Republicans demonstrated their simplistic, mean-spirited chops not by critiquing the notion but by ridiculing Ocasio-Cortez and implicitly science.
In response, Ocasio-Cortez destroyed them. “3,000 Americans died in Hurricane María,” she tweeted. “The Midwest is drowning as we speak. 100s of Flint families were pumped w/ poisoned water & our water infrastructure is imperiled across the country. GOP thinks this is a joke. They choose to laugh+delay. We choose to lead.”
One wonders if President Kennedy weighed the daunting challenges that lay ahead before issuing his call to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. Was his proclamation based on science known on May 25, 1961 or was it pie-in-the-sky wistfulness? Or somewhere between?
In “Closing of the American Mind,” conservative Allan Bloom writes, “Reason transformed into prejudice is the worst form of prejudice, because reason is the only instrument for liberation from prejudice.” And, I add, from ignorance and stupidity.
Denialism and conspiracism form the DNA in too many Americans’ minds. Unflatteringly.