Why science denial and science negation are different
Surprising as it may seem, we are all very good at denial. Negation, however, is a different phenomena.
Marcelo Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics, and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a recipient of the Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from the White House and NSF, and was awarded the 2019 Templeton Prize. Gleiser has authored five books and is the co-founder of 13.8, where he writes about science and culture with physicist Adam Frank.
- What makes a person espouse an ideology so intensely as to negate the reality of well-established facts? Perhaps the differences between negation and denial can help us understand.
- Negation looks to the past, while denial looks to the present and future. We negate a historical fact and we deny the reality in front of us. Negation involves a conscious choice to lie, even if it involves the suffering of millions. Denial is subtler and, surprisingly, we all do it.
- Climate change conflates both negation and denial. Hopefully, understanding why will spur more into action, as we choose to become heroes of a new anti-denialist narrative.
As members of society and as consumers of information we have been discussing quite extensively in social and commercial media the puzzling reasons as to why so many people with different levels of education and financial means would blindly negate facts that are self-evident and well-known in order to defend a position which is, more than anything else, ideologically based. In other words, what makes a person espouse an ideology so intensely as to negate the reality of well-established facts? Examples are easy to come by: Earth is flat; vaccines are bad for you; there is a deep state conspiracy bent on changing the world order; global warming is a hoax; there was no holocaust; there were no dinosaurs; we never landed on the Moon. You can add your own [here].
This list intentionally mixes two very different attitudes people have to certain facts: denial and negation. There is an essential distinction between the two which is often overlooked: negation looks to the past, while denial looks to the present and the future. In English, this distinction is not as clear as in Romance languages: people tend to use denial, as in holocaust denier, and to "be in denial." But it may be time to sharpen this distinction, to make it more effective and, hopefully, to have more clarity.
A negationist is a conscious liar. It is someone who'd rather live in a fabricated reality based on a fabricated past, even if this may mean negating the suffering of millions.
Negation requires a conscious choice to partake in a lie. Someone who negates the holocaust does so by asserting that it didn't take place, choosing to ignore historical facts, documents, and narratives that are well-established and beyond questioning. To negate the lunar landings, the sphericity of Earth, or that dinosaurs ever existed is a conscious choice to ignore scientific data that is accessible to everyone. A negationist is a conscious liar. It is someone who'd rather live in a fabricated reality based on a fabricated past, even if this may mean negating the suffering of millions. A negationist lives in a world that only exists in their mind, usually motivated by self-interest; power or money, mostly.
Denial is different. Surprising as it may seem, we are all very good at denial. We may deny that we are sick, or that the person we love doesn't love us back, or that we are not competent to do a job. Sports fans of losing teams deny the reality and go back to the stadium with hope refreshed. When we say, "John is in denial," we mean that John doesn't want to face reality as it is. This may explain why so many more succumb to denial than to negation. Reality is often hard. We may be broke; we may be lonely; we may be lost in life. In 1973, the American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, where he argued that we create elaborate defense mechanisms to protect us from the certain knowledge of our mortality. How do we do it, day in, day out, knowing that the end is inevitable? Becker argued that we are able to do this due to our dual nature, at once physical and symbolic. As animals, we are aware of our physical needs and limitations. As symbolic creatures, we contemplate the infinite and the divine; we tell stories of heroic feats that defy the reality at bay.
Trump supporters lined the street on President's Day to show support for him after his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden.
Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
We can thus begin to see why so many people in the US have chosen to deny the reality of the Biden-Harris election, or that masks and social distancing are essential tools to beat the pandemic. When ex-president Trump claimed that there was a plot to steal the election from him, he positioned himself as the hero-martyr, the victim of a destructive plot that was after him and, by proxy, also after everyone who supported him. He used the old trick of galvanizing a visceral group response by creating a fake reality that bundles people together in a single cause: he made his followers into heroes fighting for freedom. The no-mask using is a clear illustration of how far this identification of "fighting for freedom" can go, even to the denial of the obvious danger of dying from COVID. This shows that our symbolic allegiance is more powerful than the physical. No wonder so many people are ready to "die for a cause," often with tragic consequences.
Deniers find force in their cohort, energizing each other and relying on group dynamics to find companionship and strength. Tragically, by forcing our physical separation in lockdowns, the pandemic worked as a catalyst to the deniers, their perceived "loss of freedom" bringing them closer together to the point of making them all believe in the heroic dream of a power takeover. The attack on the Capitol on January 6th is the epitome of denialism in modern America, from both sides of the aisle: the perpetrators who marched and pillaged and those who failed to read the obvious signs of mounting danger, denying the reality in front of them.
Science denial — or is it science negation? A protest banner set up in front of the Republican National Convention Headquarters on August 24, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Climate change conflates both negation and denial. There is conscious lying from various interest groups—mostly large corporations that greatly benefit from the fossil fuel industry, as flagged in this article from The Guardian exposing 100 companies as responsible for 71 percent of global carbon emissions—that aim to cloud and discredit past results from the scientific community (global warming is a "hoax"), and there is denial from many well-informed people, who simply choose not to believe that they actually can do something to change the situation.
"I'm just a person, what can I do to change this massive, worldwide problem?" Well you can do many things: As a consumer, you can boycott companies that don't align with your worldview or that ignore their impact on the world's climate; you can consume less fossil fuels, turn unneeded lights off, use less water, buy a hybrid or electric car, use more public transportation (once it's safe again), eat less meat (perhaps the most impactful individual choice one can make to fight global warming)…
Although there are nuanced distinctions within negationism and denialism, by exposing their more obvious differences it may be easier to find constructive solutions that move us beyond the current climate stalemate. We need to turn climate change denial on its head, and make us all the new heroes of the "save the future" cause. Because the truth is, as climate change deteriorates our living conditions, we will all be the martyrs of our own failure to see what's in front of us.
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.
- The 'Monkeydactly', or Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, was a species of pterosaur, a group of flying reptiles that were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability of powered flight.
- In a recent study, a team of researchers used microcomputed tomography scanning to analyze the anatomy of the newly discovered species, finding that it was the first known species to develop opposable thumbs.
- As highly specialized dinosaurs, pterosaurs boasted unusual anatomy that gave them special advantages as aerial predators in the Mesozoic Era.
A newly discovered flying dinosaur nicknamed "Monkeydactyl" is the oldest known creature that evolved opposable thumbs, according to new research published in Current Biology.
The 160-million-year-old reptile is officially named Kunpengopterus antipollicatus. Discovered in China, the dinosaur was a darwinopteran pterosaur, a subgroup of pterosaurs, which first appeared 215 million years ago during the Triassic Period. Pterosaurs, like the pterodactyl, were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability of powered flight.
But unlike other pterosaurs, the Monkeydactyl was the only species in its group known to have opposable thumbs. It's a rare adaptation for non-mammals: The only extant examples are chameleons and some species of tree frogs. (Most birds have at least one opposable digit, though that digit is usually classified as a hallux, not a pollex, which means "thumb" in Latin.)
To analyze the anatomy of K. antipollicatus, an international team of researchers used microcomputed tomography scanning, which generates images of the inside of the body.
"The fingers of 'Monkeydactyl' are tiny and partly embedded in the slab," study co-author Fion Waisum Ma said in a press release. "Thanks to micro-CT scanning, we could see through the rocks, create digital models, and tell how the opposed thumb articulates with the other finger bones."
"This is an interesting discovery. It provides the earliest evidence of a true opposed thumb, and it is from a pterosaur — which wasn't known for having an opposed thumb."
As a tree-dwelling reptile, the Monkeydactyl probably evolved opposable thumbs so it could grasp tree branches, which would have helped it hang, avoid falls, and obtain food. This arboreal (tree-dwelling) locomotion would help the Monkeydactyl adapt to its home ecosystem, the subtropical forests of the Tiaojishan Formation in China during the Jurassic Period.
The researchers noted that the forests of the Tiaojishan Formation were likely warm and humid, thriving with "a rich and complex" diversity of tree-dwelling animals. But while the forests were home to multiple pterosaur species, the Monkeydactyl was likely the only one that was arboreal, spending most of its time in the treetops, while other pterosaurs occupied different levels of the forest.
K. antipollicatus and its phylogenetic position. (A and B) Holotype specimen BPMC 0042 (A) and a schematic skeletal drawing (B). Scale bars, 50 mm.Credit: Zhou et al.
This process — in which competing species manage to coexist by using the environment in different ways — is called "niche partitioning."
"Tiaojishan palaeoforest is home to many organisms, including three genera of darwinopteran pterosaurs," study author Xuanyu Zhou said in the press release. "Our results show that K. antipollicatus has occupied a different niche from Darwinopterus and Wukongopterus, which has likely minimized competition among these pterosaurs."
In general, pterosaurs are a prime example of how animals can evolve remarkably specialized adaptations. As pioneers of vertebrate flight, pterosaurs had strong and lightweight skeletons that ranged widely in size, with some boasting wingspans of more than 30 feet. The largest pterosaurs weighed more than 650 pounds and had jaws twice the length of Tyrannosaurus rex.
Unlike birds, which jump into the air using only their hind limbs, pterosaurs used their exceptionally strong hind limbs and forelimbs to push off the ground and gain enough launch power for flight. That these massive dinosaurs managed to fly, and did so successfully for about 80 million years, has long fascinated and puzzled scientists.The recent discovery shows that pterosaurs developed even more remarkable adaptations than previously thought, suggesting there's still more to learn about the "monsters of the Mesozoic skies."
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