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Have a Cigarette!

Denial is everywhere. People just cannot – or deliberately choose not to – accept some facts. I see it in religion, politics, business, everywhere. And not only are the same tactics used over and over again, but in many cases the same people are involved in one denial campaign as were involved in past campaigns which have now been discredited.

One of the biggest campaigns of misinformation and deliberate denial of all time involved the tobacco industry. When the link between tobacco and cancer became a well accepted fact (standard disclaimer here: every fact is open to some interpretation and doubt but some are so well established that doubt is unreasonable) the tobacco industry launched a massively dishonest propaganda campaign to protect itself and which went on for years.

Does this phenomenon still exist today? Well the tobacco industry has moved on and now accepts smoking is dangerous – but that hasn’t stopped them from aggressively marketing a product they admit is dangerous or from selling it into less advanced countries with looser advertising laws. But the same tactics are now being used in an attempt to discredit climate change. In fact some of the most prominent climate change deniers were involved in tobacco harm denial as well!

One way deniers attempt to refute climate change is to point out examples of specific times at specific places where the temperature has dropped rather than increased, or to quote particular years which are cooler than other carefully chosen preceding years. This is like saying tobacco is safe because one particular smoker hasn’t died yet. They refuse to look at the big picture because that wouldn’t support what they want to believe, but while that can be quite convincing to many people who are ignorant of the real facts it is a very dishonest approach.

Of course the phenomenon goes far beyond climate change denial. It is common in any situation where a powerful group wants to protect its place at the expense of everyone else. Here in New Zealand the dairy industry is in major denial over its effect on water quality. Most New Zealand rivers are badly affected by dairy effluent and in the past few years dairy farmers have made substantial profits yet most seem disinterested in following the law and reducing that pollution.

In response to this a representative of Federated Farmers said something like this: the problem is overstated because my farm produces very low levels of pollution. Does this sound like a smoker saying that he hasn’t died from cancer yet so everything must be OK? A single example doesn’t disprove a trend.

Many forms of denial are relatively benign although there is inherent harm in any group’s inability to accept the facts. Look at our old friends the creationists for example. They deny the overwhelming evidence of modern biology, geology, cosmology, and just about every other science. They are the ultimate deniers and so totally out of touch that it’s hard to take them at all seriously.

But the creationists have done a lot of harm. They continually try to have their pathetic ideas taught in schools while blocking the teaching of scientific fact (yes, yes, I know, refer to the disclaimer above). In a world where science and technology are so important this is clearly harmful to society as a whole.

Plus there’s the phenomenon where one form of denial tends to be associated with others. I know creationists who also deny global warming, and I haven’t checked but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they also denied the harm intensive agriculture and other industry cause to the environment.

So denial itself is a bad thing. The next time I hear anyone denying pollution, or evolution, or climate change I should just say “here, have a cigarette!”

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