The Threat of Denialism

How a self-inflicted psychological condition has become a civilization-threatening mass hysteria, and what we can do about it.

Last week, in a class for the National Constitution Center, Supreme Court Justice Breyer made the following remark:

… prompting the following exchange among two of my favorite Twitter follows, Dennis Herring and Dirk Schwenk (Esq) (follow them if you have any sense whatsoever).

To which I replied…

Apologies to Dennis for the snark, but I did want to address the issue of “whether we can find political consensus with Republicans” in more depth than a tweet or a tweet thread would do. And to do this, we have to look at the pandemic of Denialism sweeping America.

What is Denialism?

First, a definition:

Denialism: The employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists. 1

People suffering from Denialism do some, or all, of the following:

  1. Use fake experts

  2. Exercise selectivity of information sources

  3. Identify conspiracies

  4. Make exaggerated demands of what true research can answer

  5. Use of misrepresentation (lies) and logical fallacies

We all deny reality in our lives, many of these denials just part of the social structures which make living together possible: I may decide to deny the reality that my neighbor is a complete and utter shit when I run into him at the store, even to the point of exchanging banal pleasantries. Denial? Yes. Necessary? Also, yes.

The next level of denial is where we believe things which may not be consistent with reality but the belief itself is relatively harmless - moon landing denial, believing in Bigfoot in 2021, JFK was likely killed by someone not named Oswald – forms of denialism which may make you an irritating (or esteemed) member of some online community or other, but the beliefs themselves pose no harm to you or others.2

However the last two decades have witnessed a fundamental change in socially allowable, capital-D Denialism, a metastasizing of a relatively benign condition which is now harming millions of people. As with Holocaust denial, the first extreme version of Denialism which was studied extensively, these denials go beyond fun, even beyond self-harm, and they are now becoming a literal threat to the future of the country and possibly the species:

… Climate change denialism

… Anti-Vaxxing

… COVID Maskholes

… Big Lie (2020 was a stolen election)

… Satanic Panics (a catchall phrase for the moral panics endemic in modern life)

… QAnon

This growth is fueled by two historic trends it may be impossible to buck, the internet and human nature.  

How is Denialism propagated? Why are we now being swamped by people who deny basic reality?

I was talking to Mindlinx CEO John Scheel about the explosion in demand for mental health services for, frankly, all 340,000,000 of us. Chuckling at my off-the-cuff market analysis which included every single American soul, John noted that he created Mindlinx, a company specializing in providing online HIPPA-compliant psychological counseling services nationwide, precisely because of this massive upsurge in need. The conversation turned to why this explosion was happening and I noted

The issue is that, for the first time in human history vast swaths of humanity both receive the mental disorders of thousands of other people directly and, in turn, are able to transmit their own mental disorders to an audience of thousands, possibly millions. So 2-4 billion of us get on the internet, in what, at times, just seems one REALLY LOUD ROOM, passing on our own neuroses’ and allowing others, including malevolent actors, to pass theirs on to us. The internet is, literally, the single greatest vector of mental disorders created by mankind.

Facebook. Twitter. Text messages. YouTube. TikTok. NextDoor. All of these and more, so much more, accessible in ways unimaginable, all of these services allowing us to transmit and receive the fears, delusions, and problems of hundreds, thousands of others, these mental disorders individually delivered and transmitted with a dopamine hit which itself is addictive.

The structure of the internet, and how we interact with it, is tailor made for mental disorders such as Denialism to flourish. We register to websites to which we find interesting and supportive, thereby ignoring differing points of view. Information bubbles are easily created merely by clicking the subscribe button on YouTube, or the follow button on TikTok. We join Facebook groups which are moderated so that Thoughtcrime is not allowed (Just go to a Mommy group sometime. I dare you.) And, eventually, algos pick up on this and start feeding us engaging content, which, many times is content which reinforces previously held notions by means of creating feelings of hostility and fear of others.

In short: The internet is fantastic at transmitting and facilitating mental disorders, especially Denialism, via the use of dopamine-producing hostile content.

But… Civilization threatening?

The above is problematic enough were it just 340,000,000 Americans venting their mental issues online, but when you add in foreign actors who prefer American power to decline, tired of our moralizing re: Democracy, tired of the Pax Americana imposed upon the world since 1945, tired of the cultural imperialism, and with their own internal and personal needs, America finds itself in an epoch-defining moment, where foreign actors are using the above power of the internet to fuel anger-based delusions, with the goal being to, at least, weaken American power and, at most, to break this country from within.

And America is easily fractured, for America is nothing but a shared delusion in and of itself. The theory of Americanism is that we are not Americans because we were a tribe who lived here since time immemorial, but that we are Americans because we believe in the ideals of the Founding Fathers, or, as Superman so elegantly put it, Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and if you choose to believe in this system, you, too, are an American.

But… destroy this belief, make “America” into some ethnonationalist state, convince 25-35% of the people that the remaining 65-75% are not “real Americans”, create an alternate reality where objective facts don’t matter, only winning does… and you can shatter America.

As America is currently being shattered.

With the installation of Donald Trump as the leader of one of the two major political parties of the United States, the handling of the COVID crisis, his 2020 electoral and popular vote loss, and the subsequent propagation of the Big Lie, Denialism has become the official position of the predominant organ of the American Right, the GOP, even while Denialism was killing over a half-million Americans in the pandemic alone.

Look at the objective reality – by any measure, a President which lost 16 million jobs and 250,000 lives the year prior to election day, all while lying about it, should have suffered Hoover-esque drop of support (over 25%). But Trump gained over 9 million votes from 2016-2020 despite being the worst President since, well, Hoover. 3

In addition, while promoting the Big Lie that the election was stolen, he led a televised Insurrection against the United States of America on January 6th, 2021… with the reality of this Insurrection is being denied by the GOP five months later. And Trump is still denying the reality of the election, recently it being reported he is telling people he is going to be reinstated in August:

So… how do we reach people suffering from Denialism?

I have bad news, Dennis – talk isn’t going to do it. To the experts, Denialism is not treated by discussion: arguing with denialists just reinforces Denialism as the following Guardian quote notes:

The most common response to denialism, though, is debunking. Just as denialists produce a large and ever-growing body of books, articles, websites, lectures and videos, so their detractors respond with a literature of their own. Denialist claims are refuted point by point, in a spiralling contest in which no argument – however ludicrous – is ever left unchallenged. Some debunkings are endlessly patient and civil, treating denialists and their claims seriously and even respectfully; others are angry and contemptuous.

Yet none of these strategies work, at least not completely. Take the libel case that the Holocaust denier David Irving brought against Deborah Lipstadt in 1996. Irving’s claim that accusing him of being a Holocaust denier and a falsifier of history was libelous were forensically demolished by Richard Evans and other eminent historians. The judgment was devastating to Irving’s reputation and unambiguous in its rejection of his claim to be a legitimate historian. The judgment bankrupted him, he was repudiated by the few remaining mainstream historians who had supported him, and in 2006 he was imprisoned in Austria for Holocaust denial.

But Irving today? He is still writing and lecturing, albeit in a more covert fashion. He still makes similar claims and his defenders see him as a heroic figure who survived the attempts of the Jewish-led establishment to silence him. Nothing really changed. Holocaust denial is still around, and its proponents find new followers. In legal and scholarly terms, Lipstadt won an absolute victory, but she didn’t beat Holocaust denial or even Irving in the long term.

There is a salutary lesson here: in democratic societies at least, denialism cannot be beaten legally, or through debunking, or through attempts to discredit its proponents. That’s because, for denialists, the existence of denialism is itself a triumph. Central to denialism is an argument that “the truth” has been suppressed by its enemies. To continue to exist is a heroic act, a victory for the forces of truth.4

(Emphasis mine, JT.)

And what do the experts say? Here is the Mayo Clinic offering helpful advice:

You might find it frustrating when someone you love is in denial about an important issue. But before demanding that your loved one face the facts, take a step back. Try to determine if he or she just needs a little time to work through the issue.

At the same time, let the person know that you're open to talking about the subject, even if it makes both of you uncomfortable. Ultimately, this might give your loved one the security he or she needs to move forward. Your loved one may even be relieved when you bring the issue up.

It may be me, but the above seems an extremely weak approach to the situation we are facing today. “Work through the issue”? The issue is that the Internet is the single greatest vector of mental disorders the world has ever seen, its ability to create self-reinforcing intellectual and emotional bubbles via dopamine-fueled bits of anger is unparalleled, and there are bad faith actors who, for over 10 years, have been using this to tear America asunder by creating alternate realities and belief systems specifically designed to turn American against American.

We don’t have time to wait.

Well, holy hell, this is bleak. What does this mean for America?

Yes, infecting a nation bristling with 6,000 nuclear weapons with a self-inflicted, reinforcing mental disorder where the afflicted literally create, and react to, their own reality may not have been the long-term game-winning play originally thought. Subverting the party who already was displaying fascistic penalties… not too great either.

Usually, this is the part of the essay where I’m supposed to fire off some suggestions on how to combat this, some policy suggestions, but, to be fair, I don’t know what to do. On the individual level, we can’t talk to the Denialists, not about the things they’re doing which are threatening the global order and American Democracy, as that reinforces the alternate reality. We cannot wait until they figure it out as the Mayo clinic advises, as we don’t have time to wait, not if we genuinely don’t want nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the very people who weaponized the Coronavirus by means of Denialism.

In some ways, the problem with Denialism is worse in America because our First Amendment freedoms and economic structure strictly limit the government’s response to this problem. We can’t just ban Facebook (to pick one), we can’t install “truth filters” on the individual users, we aren’t going to set up a Bureau of Fact Management (nor should we), and, of course, we sure as hell aren’t going to turn off the Internet.

I just fear that what usually happens… that the contradictions explode into warfare at the expense of millions of lives and global suffering… is going to happen again. China is not going to be interested in sitting back, watching a nuclear power go insane because the mental and legal restrictions caused by our belief in something called “the First Amendment” is in opposition to the obvious need to bring our citizens back to a shared reality, and China… or someone… will be compelled to intervene.

Or, more likely, this interaction with Dave Roberts of Vox:

The above is Americas future if we allow Denialism to go unchecked.

1

European Journal of Public Health, Pascal Diethelm, Martin McKee Volume 19, Issue 1, January 2009, Pages 2–4

2

You will never convince my internal 5 year-old that Nessie does not exist.

3

As a personal note, I do find it interesting that the two major groups most infected with Denialism… especially Trumpian Denialism… are:

1.      The Libertarians and Randians who are denying an objective scientific reality to support their ideological… well, psychological… need for isolation. “I’m not wearing a mask because this virus does NOT do what the experts are saying. According to my Google search…” says the 42 year-old structural engineer paying monthly dues to the Objectivist Society.

2.      Evangelicals, who are denying God’s reality to support their ideological… well, psychological… need to punish others. If you believe in God, and you believe God created the Universe, and you believed God when he said it was “good” – then how can you reconcile the rejection of God’s Universe (for viruses are real and the means to reduce transmission have been known for thousands of years) with the idea that you are following God’s instructions? Christians denying the reality of the world God created so they could watch 500,000 die have damned their own souls, especially since the entire religion is based on the idea that God judges salvation by how one operates under God’s rules within the Universe God created.

Both groups have as an article of faith that the Universe exists, is objectively rational, and/or operates on its (or Gods) own rules. And when faced with a test of this belief (viruses are real and can be understood), a test which impinged on more lofty beliefs (I have the Freedom to do X)… both groups denied reality en masse and started propagating Denialism themselves.

4

Denialism: what drives people to reject the truth, Keith Kahn-Harris

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/aug/03/denialism-what-drives-people-to-reject-the-truth