A couple of days ago on Exploring Our Matrix (a blog I thoroughly recommend for RS students), James McGrath compared Jesus mythicists with those who spin conspiracy theories around the recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. McGrath took a bit of a pasting from some commenters on his blog, who found the comparison offensive.
I have mixed feelings about McGrath’s post. Upon reflection, I think McGrath was wrong to use the tragedy to score a cheap point in an academic debate. However, I do I think McGrath’s argument is a valid one: some of the reasoning employed by mythicists could equally be (and indeed is) used to justify all sorts of marginal theories, including thoroughly unpleasant positions such as 9/11 trutherism and holocaust denial. At the same time, I think it needs to be made clear that pointing out that (for example) holocaust deniers and mythicists employ similar arguments, or that the two movements share other characteristics, does not imply that there is any moral equivalence between these positions.
I thought it might be useful then, to make a comparison between mythicism and a different form of denialism, one where I actually sympathise with the ideology that underpins it. As it happens, I think I’m in a reasonable place to be able to do this because something has recently dawned upon me: I used to be a denialist.
Let me explain. Some of you might know that I’m a vegetarian. These days I’m a fairly sloppy sort of vegetarian: I wear leather shoes, I don’t obsessively check food labels for suspect ingredients, and I occasionally enjoy the odd pint of bitter, even though it might contain extract of fish bladder. In my younger days though, I took it all much more seriously. I kept a strict vegan diet, pitched up at animal rights demos, and saved up my pennies to buy vegetarian DMs. Thinking back, I’m amazed that my friends and family put up with me for as long as they did, I must have been a terrible bore…
Like many vegetarians, I became interested the debate about the legitimacy of vivisection, the use of animals in medical experiments. In particular, I held a view, common among people who hold strong beliefs about animal rights, that scientific experiments on animals are not only morally unjustifiable, but also scientifically flawed.
A few days ago, I read an interesting blog post on some of the tactics used by denialists and noticed that the author listed the anti-vivisection movement as an example of denialism. And of course he was spot on. I’d never really thought about it before but there it was: I used to be a denialist.
As with other forms of denialism, the position of anti-vivisection campaigners is completely opposed to the consensus position among medical researchers (i.e. that animals offer the best model of the human body when testing new medicines or procedures). As with other forms of denialism, anti-vivisectionists tend to focus on the problems with the scientific case for animal experiments (such as the case of thalidomide, where animal experiments failed to identify a risk to unborn children). As with other forms of denialism, prominent anti-vivisection authors often (though not invariably) lack relevant qualifications and expertise. As with other forms of denialism, these authors tend to appeal directly to the general public rather than participating in genuine academic discussion (via self-published books and leaflets; we didn’t have the internet in my day).
And as with other forms of denialism, anti-vivisectionists tend to share a strong ideology that is obviously closely related to the debated issue. So just as holocaust deniers are usually characterised by anti-semitic views, and mythicists tend to share a militant form of atheism, anti-vivisectionists almost invariably share a strong commitment to animal rights.
One of my students once asked me whether I thought that denialists arrive at their views on the basis of their ideology and then manipulate the evidence to support their views, or whether it was more likely that their ideology predisposed them to look at the evidence in a particular way, such that they arrived at a conclusion that supported the ideology. It’s an excellent question, and the answer is, I think, a little bit of both.
Of course, denialists reject the idea that ideology has anything to do with their views on the issue being debated, and in a sense I think they’re telling the truth. Certainly I genuinely thought that animal experiments were scientifically flawed, and I could have given you plenty of evidence why that was the case. I’d say I was pretty good at debating with people on the topic, even people with more obvious qualifications than mine.
What I think what is happening here is that a set of ideological beliefs is predisposing the denialist to interpret the evidence that favours their existing beliefs. However, once this has happened, I think perhaps this reading of the evidence strengthens the initial ideology. Once the evidence (or at least your reading of it) has persuaded you that animal experiments aren’t even good science, wouldn’t that make you more convinced that you were right in the first place that animals are misused by scientists? Similarly, once the evidence has persuaded you that the holocaust is a hoax arising out of a Jewish conspiracy, wouldn’t that confirm your anti-semitic worldview? And when the evidence has persuaded you that Jesus didn’t even exist, wouldn’t that make you more convinced that religion is a lie? And so, as the ideology is reinforced, a denialist’s reading of the evidence becomes ever more biased, and the ideology becomes more and more confirmed – a denialicious circle.
That’s why I think it’s almost impossible to confront almost any form of denialism on the basis of the evidence. Actually, I’ll clarify that: mainstream historians and scientists should certainly address the flaws and errors in the arguments of denialists, but it’s as well to recognise that you’re not going to change a denialist’s mind merely by pointing out that their reading of the evidence is wrong. Denialists will either ignore or gainsay any evidence that you put forward.
I suspect that the only way that most denialists will change their minds is by coming to see that there is something wrong with the underlying ideology, or at least that things are not quite as black and white as they appear. Certainly, nobody ever persuaded me on evidence grounds that I was wrong about vivisection. Actually I could still put up a pretty good fight in a debate if you feel like a row about it. What happened was that as time passed I gradually became less vegangelical. I lapsed to being a regular vegetarian, stopped reading animal rights literature, and generally found other things to think about. As that happened, I think that gave me the intellectual space to re-think my perspectives.
So today, while I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of vivisection, I’ve come to accept that they are scientifically valid. It would be convenient for me if they weren’t, but they are. Perhaps a necessary part of becoming a mature thinking person is realising that the world does not always arrange itself to suit our beliefs.