The Wonders of Denialisms

Are there no limits to the human capacity to deny scientific facts?

If you’re inclined to doubt science, why not start with the germ theory of disease?  After all, isn’t it implausible that illness, death, and even mass epidemics are caused by tiny invisible organisms that invade our bodies?  And what’s the evidence for that, really?  Just the findings of scientists who can get big grants from NIH to study these so-called bacteria — not to mention studies financed by Big Pharm which makes a lot of money with supposed cures — and the views of doctors whose professional status and incomes are pumped up by their use of chemical antibiotics to treat diseases.  And don’t forget about the massive government spending for sanitation and water treatment to eliminate “germs,” and the extensive regulation of the food industry, Big Government in action!

The germ theory of disease was a 19th century creation of men like Pasteur and Lister.  Even after it gained general acceptance, not everyone was convinced.  I was planning to write a parody of climate denial in terms germ denial. I assumed everyone would agree that germ denial was ridiculous.  But we live in a world where parody is difficult.  As it turns out, there actually are germ denialists who accept that germs exist but don’t think they’re the real cause of disease.  Rejection of the germ theory is found across the political spectrum, including some believers in alternative medicine, not to mention those like Christian Scientists who have theological reasons to reject it.

So far as I know, there aren’t many people who think that bacteria and viruses don’t exist at all and are just optical illusions created by microscope lenses.  But there are a significant number who deny their medical importance.  Some think that bacteria and viruses are a symptom of disease rather than a cause, finding a hospitable environment in the ill patient.  Others admit that they cause the symptoms of disease, but think that the “real” cause is some weakness in the body’s defenses, thus making vaccines and other preventive measures pointless.  Of course, there’s a small grain of truth to that, since lower immunity or other health conditions do make infection easier. But that’s hardly a reason for rejecting vaccines or antibiotics.

The germ theory has been rock solid science for over a century.  It’s hard to know what lesson to draw in terms of climate denialism.  On the one hand, you could find this to be grounds for despair — no matter how strong the science or how visible the practical benefits of a scientific theory, there will still be people who reject it.  On the other hand, these people are only the fringe, so maybe someday we will be able to get the vast majority of the public to understand that germs cause disease, the earth goes around the sun, species evolve — and yes, greenhouse gases do cause climate change.

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Reader Comments

2 Replies to “The Wonders of Denialisms”

  1. Dan, the much greater question is how can we unite all peoples and nations to protect an acceptable long-term future quality of life for our civilization?

    Considering current events, no institution or group has an implementable answer today, and as you keep emphasizing from a global warming point of view, time is rapidly running out.

  2. A couple of fun facts:

    It is worth remarking that a simple calculation of the earth’s temperature based on solar radiation (a problem often given early in differential equations or heat transfer classes, because it is a nice exercise) shows that the earth’s average temperature should be about -18 C, (and any engineer should be able to do this calculation and may have – to do it yourself, look up the Stefan–Boltzmann law). The reason this is not true is because of the influence of the CO2 on the greenhouse effect (which was discovered by precisely this calculation, many, many years ago). The difference between 0 ppm and the historic 280 or so gives our current temperature difference of about 38 C. So, if the historic 280 goes much higher or even doubles, what happens to the temperature? If it’s linear, we are all toast, and even if it’s not we are still in trouble. This doesn’t give the details, but it does give a solid “Ruh Roh” that should give everyone the idea that there is at least something to anthropogenic climate change.

    Another interesting note is that coal exists because it took about 80 million years after plants “invented” lignin for microbes to figure out how to digest it efficiently (still a major problem in biofuel engineering). Wood basically just sat around until it got buried and became coal (hence the Carboniferous Age). We are now putting that 80 million years of carbon back into the atmosphere in a hundred years or so – it should not be a big surprise that there are consequences.

    Perhaps the climate denialists are operating on the “Wiley Coyote” theory of gravitation: You won’t fall ’till you look down.

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About Dan

Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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