The Sciences

"Deathers" Offer a Unique Case Study for the Formulation of the Denialist Mentality

The IntersectionBy The IntersectionMay 6, 2011 5:54 PM


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This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., an HIV research scientist and aspiring policy wonk, who recently moved to D.C. to get a taste of the action

Climate change skeptics, 9/11 truthers and "birthers," those who deny President Obama's American citizenship, have

provided us with an extensive record of denialism within American culture that is worth studying. Indeed, entire disciplines have been established to understand and explain these behaviors. Chris Mooney and others have begun to put the pieces together in a way that allows us to formulate communications protocols that effectively counteract the drivers of "motivated reasoning." However, because the above mentioned examples of motivated cognition arose simultaneously with this field of study, we have lacked the benefit of observing the transmogrification of the denialist mentality as it happens.

We are currently witnessing the de novo formulation of a new denialism in regards to the death of Osama bin Laden. As I was listening to C-SPAN radio, just yesterday, two callers a Democrat and a Republican agreed that bin Laden was not dead and the entire hullabaloo was orchestrated for political gain. Because we are now armed with at least a superficial understanding of the mechanisms behind this type of thinking, we can ask questions and test hypotheses while observing the development of this particular case of motivated thought. For simplicity's sake, I'll call them "deathers." Of particular interest when studying the deathers is what exactly are the competing interests between which they must make a satisfactory choice and what are the ends or goals to which they strive. One would expect that there are at least two competing interests in the minds of the deathers. The first could be a desire to believe that an existing threat, that of a terrorist mastermind, has been eliminated. The second interest appears to be a desire to find fault with President Obama, regardless of the benefits that might come from his service. According to Dan Kahan

, one of the thought leaders in this field, this all happens subconsciously. Therefore, the deather must undergo a series of mental operations that lead him to choose the latter in order to satisfy a desired endpoint. We can only speculate what that desired outcome might be. One example could be the need to be a loyal Republican to the extent that this requires questioning any good outcome produced by a Democratic President. A more sinister scenario might be that the individual harbors conscious or subconscious racist sentiments that motivate him to reject any semblance of excellence from a black President. An issue that complicates the matter is that individuals will have personal motivations to justify their denialism. In any case, the deather unknowingly processes the information provided to him in a way that supports his desired outcome. Clearly, the President's speech will not satisfy the deather. In-depth interviews by others in the administration describing the details of the operation are also insufficient. Even the presentation of a photograph will be explained away as a forgery. In other words, the source of the conflict (in this case the Obama administration) can do little or nothing to overcome the internal processes that cause the deather's brain to reject the facts. So, how do we convince the deathers that Osama bin Laden is actually dead? I will venture to suggest that we must resolve the conflict between the deather's two competing interests, the desire for the removal of a threat vs. finding fault with Obama, while allowing the deather to achieve his desired outcome (let's say that he can still be a loyal Republican). This must be done without forcing him to accept that which causes him conflict (in this case that President Obama was responsible for a positive outcome). If you'll notice what's happening in the media

and on Capitol Hill, the attempts to credit President Bush

with this mission are currently serving this purpose. By crediting President Bush with the intelligence information that led to bin Laden's death, the deather can accept that bin Laden is dead without acknowledging the contribution from President Obama. Because I believe the deather movement is largely motivated by political partisanship, I predict that the more credit that is given to President Bush, the less we will hear from the deathers. If my prediction holds water, then similar approaches might be implemented with climate change skeptics and other denialist movements. Consider this: Upon the accumulation of a preponderance of evidence in support of evolution, the Catholic Church re-evaluated its position

on evolution to accept the mechanism while attributing it to the hand of God.


Jamie Vernon is a CRTA Research Fellow at the National Cancer Institute and a former Science Policy Fellow at Scientists and Engineers for America

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