Denialism, and related phenomena, are often portrayed as a “war on science”. This is an understandable but profound misunderstanding. Certainly, denialism and other forms of pseudo-scholarship do not follow mainstream scientific methodologies. Denialism does indeed represent a perversion of the scholarly method, and the science it produces rests on profoundly erroneous assumptions, but denialism does all this in the name of science and scholarship. Denialism aims to replace one kind of science with another – it does not aim to replace science itself. In fact, denialism constitutes a tribute to the prestige of science and scholarship in the modern world. Denialists are desperate for the public validation that science affords.
While denialism has sometimes been seen as part of a post-modern assault on truth, the denialist is just as invested in notions of scientific objectivity as the most unreconstructed positivist. Even those who are genuinely committed to alternatives to western rationality and science can wield denialist rhetoric that apes precisely the kind of scientism they despise. Anti-vaxxers, for example, sometimes seem to want to have their cake and eat it: to have their critique of western medicine validated by western medicine.
The rhetoric of denialism and its critics can resemble each other in a kind of war to the death over who gets to wear the mantle of science. The term “junk science” has been applied to climate change denialism, as well as in defence of it. Mainstream science can also be dogmatic and blind to its own limitations. If the accusation that global warming is an example of politicised ideology masked as science is met with indignant assertions of the absolute objectivity of “real” science, there is a risk of blinding oneself to uncomfortable questions regarding the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the idea of pure truth, untrammelled by human interests, is elusive. Human interests can rarely if ever be separated from the ways we observe the world.
I do not believe that, if only one could find the key to “make them understand”, denialists would think just like me. If denialists were to stop denying, we cannot assume that we would then have a shared moral foundation on which we could make progress as a species.
Keith Kahn-Harris, Denial: The Unspeakable Truth