Home » Articles » Addressing “Manufacturing Denial” at the Strassler Center

Addressing “Manufacturing Denial” at the Strassler Center


This post was previously published on by Emma Frances Bloomfield, an ESCI member. Its relationship to climate denial illuminates important points of concern for environmental scholars.

Denialism Studies and Re-claiming History

Image retrieved from this site.
Last weekend, I attended a conference called, “Manufacturing Denial” at the Strassler Center. At the conference, I gave a paper on the similar argument patterns and rhetorical strategies in Holocaust-denial, climate change denial, and evolution denial. The three forms appeal to a unifying framework of conspiracy that allows them to construct enemies, discredit evidence, and shift the burden of proof onto historians and scientists. The article that served as the launching point for this larger piece can be read here. Summarizing comments from the conference can be read here by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, who I had the pleasure to meet and discuss evolution with at the conference.

Presenting on my panel at the Strassler Center at Clark University. Photo credit to Khatchig Mouradian.
The series of panels addressed many instances of denial, such as the genocide during World War II, the Armenian genocide, genocide in Rwanda and Cambodia, climate change, evolution, health effects of tobacco, autism vaccines, GMOs, political myths, and others. The variety of opinions ranged between questioning the worth of focusing and responding to denial to trumpeting the great work of exposing denial in its various forms. Some even went as far as to advocate for criminalizing denialism, as some European countries have done with the Holocaust, in all of its forms. They argued that not only are the memories of victims tarnished and ‘the truth’ being re-written, but also the mental and emotional well-being of descendants and citizens are affected by denialism.
Image retrieved from this site.
In the case of climate change, scholars argued that denialism promotes gridlock in the political system and stymies preventative action. Denialism, thus, is paramount to leading to thousands (and even millions) of preventable deaths. One scholar argued that the genocide of both humans and nature may have more casualties than any genocides in the past. Though I appreciate the candor of these scholars and respect that they are elevating issues such as climate change to the level of genocide in its consequences, criminalization is not the answer. It is quite easy for denialists to take advantage of criminalization as silencing the truth. The University of Utah Press, who came under fire repeatedly for published books that denied the Armenian genocide, has recently published a book by Lewy called “Outlawing Genocide Denial: The Dilemmas of Official Historical Truth” about the dangers of outlawing. Any type of law against denialism must somehow avoid issues of freedom of speech, specifically in America, and that everyone has opinions, however seemingly irrational or misguided they are.  In fact, a common theme at the conference was the likelihood that being faced with opposing information may encourage a backfire effect that heightens the original belief. War and violence conquers; it does not convince.
One common theme that came up among the panelists and my own paper were that although literal and blatant denial is often most studied by academics and heard about by the public, denial in its implicit and subtle forms can be the most insidious. In the Q&A, an audience member asked if scholars were not misplacing their time and efforts by trying to combat denialists instead of working on other research. To not address important points of deception and denial is to remain passive and allow for evil to flourish. One of my co-panelists argued that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Scholarship, in part, is based off of the very values that we are decrying: skepticism. Scholars look critically at the state of reality, question norms, and expose constructed and often subtle workings of power. Denialists occupy an extreme version of this healthy skepticism to where even basic evidence, consensus of truth, and facts are discounted, seen as fabricated, and are questioned. How do we negotiate and foster healthy skepticism and critical analysis without invoking cynicism and isolation?

Image retrieved from this site.
At the conference, the Armenian genocide and the Turkish government’s attempt to rename the genocide as “the events of 1915” and paint the Armenian victims as insurgents speaks to a national, government-supported policy to change the past and rewrite history. It is not easy to oppose the government and challenge people in positions of authority that are purposefully disseminating misinformation. It is certainly much easier for many of us as scholars to turn the other cheek and focus on other issues. But when denial of facts and the subsequent gridlock and inaction occurs that threatens knowledge, public deliberation, and the future stability of the world, how can we not act?

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