Deny, Deny, Deny
I fell into a rather nasty little trap the other day when I bristled at the suggestion that those who deny that HIV causes AIDS are easily comparable to creationists who deny evolution. My initial impulse was to argue that the two camps, while equally annoying, are sufficiently distinct to warrant separate strategies when dealing with them.
Now I realize the folly of trying to draw arbitrary lines between disparate groups that nevertheless exhibit a good deal in common. It is more useful to analyze each according to is own weaknesses. Just as there are more differences within members of each so-called "race" than there are between the races (rendering the term meaningless), so the anti-science rhetoric and propaganda of each denial gang within the larger anti-science movement is best described by its own motivations and fallacies. Trying to assign them into higher-level divisions is pointless.
In that spirit, herewith a brief look at some of the more popular brands of head-in-the-sand denialism, in chronological order.
A special case to be sure, as what they deny -- the ability of the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology to explain the diversity of life -- came along after their core belief had been around for millennia. Their motivation is religious. It's not simply that arcane calculations drawn from the Old Testament posit that the universe is only 6,000 years old, but that to accept evolution is to demote humankind from a special place in that universe. With creationism comes serious implications for our relationship with nature and other cultures. In that sense, it is easy to understand why adherents are reluctant to accept a worldview that diminishes their god's role from active participant in human affairs to passive bystander.
Suggested response strategy: patience.
2. Holocaust deniers
Although based in old-fashioned anti-Semitism, which predates just about every surviving form of bigotry, Holocaust denialists have transcended mere cultural animosity but actually take issue with well-documented recent history. They not only dispute eyewitness testimony, but challenge mountains of physical evidence. The alleged conspiracy required to have successfully revised so much of the historical record boggles the mind, and dwarfs even the Area-51 fantasies of a government cover-up of alien abductions. To this extent, they are perhaps the least rational of all denialists, and the least likely to be convinced of the error of their ways. Their motivation is rooted in jealousy and an extreme lack of self-confidence.
Suggested response strategy: dismissal.
3. HIV/AIDS denialists
A puzzling aggregation of homophobes and ultra-skeptics/paranoiacs who come to their belief from disparate places. Some have had personal experiences or come across compelling anecdotes that cast doubt on the overwhelming scientific evidence tying the development of AIDS to infection by HIV. Others begin with a deep-seated suspicion of the entire medical establishment and extend that distrust to any or all prevailing wisdom regarding health-care treatments. Some of the more ardent of this gang are beyond hope because of exposure to extreme cases of suffering; others are worth the effort as they are sometimes willing accept the scientific method.
Suggested response strategy: repeated exposure to the facts.
4. Climate change dissidents
The scientific evidence in favor of an anthropogenic explanation for the majority of the warming experienced by the planet in the past century has now reached the point where the number of climatologists willing to identify with this group is approaching zero. (The recent radiosonde data that did away with the apparent discrepancy between surface and stratospheric temperature trends may have been the nail in the coffin.) But among non-experts, the movement enjoys continued support. Motivation? From the corporate side, it's simply greed and narrow-minded, short-term visions. At the personal level, it could often be explained by political tendencies and a skeptical approach to the educated elite.
Suggested response strategy: a broadening of the mind through travel or education about the implications for the subject's children.
I'm sure there are a few more good examples. But it's a beautiful day out there, and I'd like to get some sun.