Readings on Tourette’s Syndrome and Science Denial

A MAN WITH A CONVICTION is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger — Chris Mooney, quoted in Mother Jones

Some of our best friends do it. I recently became interested in writing an article about the rationale behind science denial, but frankly its complex underpinnings baffled me. We see perfectly ordinary people as well as exceptional people, both passionately opposed on principle to massively overwhelming evidence that mankind’s unrelenting injection of billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere is changing our climate. What drives normally reasonable people to conclusions, say, as extreme as the followers of Harold Camping’s Family Radio religious group who spread their message of doom prophesied for May 21?

“To the shock and distress of a handful of ultra-devout Christian believers, the sun went down yesterday on an America and a world that had signally failed to end. Instead of a series of earthquakes hitting successive countries at 6pm local time and heralding The Rapture – in which millions of the Faithful would ascend to heaven before the Second Coming of Christ – planet Earth simply carried on and, mostly, kept calm.” —

We’ve all seen down-and-out individuals shuffling down the street shouting obscenities. I always assumed this to be just the end result of too many drug and alcohol overdoses combined with the harsh circumstance of the life of the addicted and homeless. According to Wikipedia “Tourette’s was once considered a rare and bizarre syndrome, most often associated with the exclamation of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks (coprolalia), but this symptom is present in only a small minority of people with Tourette’s.”

Can individuals learn to control the symptoms of science denial?

And then, in one PBS special, here came a tandem explanation of both Tourette’s Syndrome, which I didn’t know much about, and science denial, which I thought I did. I learned that individuals can be trained to control the symptoms of Tourette’s. It’s only then that I thought to ask the question: can individuals learn to control the symptoms of science denial?

31% of Americans, it’s said, believe global warming is a hoax. Why would hundreds of thousands of scientists worldwide, in hundreds of different disciplines developed over the last several centuries, conspire to lie to us all over the same findings our NASA observations and measurements so plainly confirm?

Well, media influence is often cited, and it’ll get cited again. From another expertly authoritative source, Fox News, comes their report without hint of sarcasm about “Greenhouse gas emissions hitting record highs” — June 05, 2011

On the other hand, we must reckon with the conspiracy theorists, also on Fox: “Four Dirty Secrets about Clean Energy

  • Dirty Secret #2: Clean energy advocates want to force us to use solar, wind, and biofuels, even though there is no evidence these can power modern civilization. Read more
  • Dirty Secret #4: The environmentalists behind clean energy policy are anti-energy. Read more

I did not believe practitioners of science denial could be “cured” of their disease or even trained to control its symptoms. Until, that is, I read the Chris Mooney article in Mother Jones:

In certain conservative communities, explains Yale’s Kahan, “People who say, ‘I think there’s something to climate change,’ that’s going to mark them out as a certain kind of person, and their life is going to go less well.”

This may help explain a curious pattern Nyhan and his colleagues found when they tried to test the fallacy (PDF) that President Obama is a Muslim. When a nonwhite researcher was administering their study, research subjects were amenable to changing their minds about the president’s religion and updating incorrect views. But when only white researchers were present, GOP survey subjects in particular were more likely to believe the Obama Muslim myth than before. The subjects were using “social desirability” to tailor their beliefs (or stated beliefs, anyway) to whoever was listening.

What about the media? Mooney reports a study that Fox watchers were more likely to believe the most bizarre conspiracy rumors about the Ground Zero mosque flap, and to believe them more strongly, than non-Fox watchers.

What about educational levels? “So perhaps it should come as no surprise that more education doesn’t budge Republican views.”

What about partisan political affiliations? Liberals aren’t immune either: “So is there a case study of science denial that largely occupies the political left? Yes: the claim that childhood vaccines are causing an epidemic of autism. Its most famous proponents are an environmentalist (Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) and numerous Hollywood celebrities (most notably Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey). The Huffington Post gives a very large megaphone to denialists. And Seth Mnookin, author of the new book The Panic Virus, notes that if you want to find vaccine deniers, all you need to do is go hang out at Whole Foods.” — Mother Jones

Mooney concludes that there seem to be some differences between deniers on the left and right: he reports researcher suggestions that “that conservatives are more rigid and authoritarian, and liberals more tolerant of ambiguity.”

Maybe so, but we all catch ourselves reacting inflexibly to ideas new and old, when they don’t mesh with our own (don’t we?), and it’s always easy to recognize in others when we see it. But it’s somewhat like alcoholism: we think everybody else is laughing with us. Whatever else we can say about science denial, there’s an underlying element of psychology to it. And scholars invoke a scarier name: epistemology, the science of what we know and how we know it. Not everyone uses the same methods and standards to establish what they accept as “knowledge.”

What about the theological conservative who goes postal when the word “evolution” is used respectfully? What about the liberal who goes ballistic at the mere mention of the phrase “free economy.” Is there any hope for us?

In my observation, hostility and resistance to the opinion of others is often based on a deep-seated conviction that if we indicate an understanding, even as we express disagreement to it, we risk lending an unacceptable appearance of sanction to the other’s underlying point of view. That’s why people with the ability to listen to both sides are often tarred with the ‘wishy-washy’ label. Once I sanction your right to an independent opinion, I have to listen to anything you say, don’t I?

But sometimes inflexibility is also based on a rational fear of extinction: your support of Aryan supremacist theories threatens my existence as a member of any other group not fitting in with your norms.

Perhaps my hasty disagreement or agreement with you that the melting of the polar ice caps is a serious concern implies an equally serious deficiency in my ability to do my own homework. In that case, I may also fear drilling down through that overwhelming mass of data to form my own independent conclusions, so I am more likely to actually resent the obvious implication that I need to research this further.

“They Wouldn’t Make It if it Wasn’t Safe!”

Responsible leaders wouldn’t discount global warming as just so much politically motivated BS if there was even one shred of evidence that climate change is really man-made. Would they? How irresponsible is that?

I, the lay citizen, may fear I lack the schooling and training to evaluate the data, or possibly, to read it at all: the terminology of modern science is intimidating. If I were suddenly informed that a working knowledge of quantum mechanics was required for me to keep that part-time job at 7-11 or McDonalds, who could blame me for feeling resentful?

The data is all there, on the web, in plain, easy-to-read lay technology. It’s been there all along. No one gets to let others do their homework.

Emotional Data Filtering

Which gets us to my final connection: Faith. Exactly how do we establish “what we know,” anyway? At some level most of us are trained almost from birth to accept certain things without question. “Your data is just cherry-picked to justify government intervention into MY marketplace.” Or: “No, YOUR data is just cherry-picked to justify choking the planet while you turn us all into virtual serfs.”

Sometimes we need to step back and realize that these are real-life dialogs between ordinary human beings who all raise families or contribute to households, cherish loved ones, and work hard for a living. Demonizing the opposition is becoming so commonplace it’s starting to become passe, meaning, it’s losing its punch appeal. Or is it?

The faith element here is the card almost NEVER put on the table, unless one is also pushing a personal theology. By “faith” I don’t ordinarily mean organized religion, though that plays a role in some controversies like abortion rights, contraception, gay rights, First Amendment rights, evolution, academic freedom and the right to an education, for example.

Actually, we may accept a lot on faith besides religious doctrine. Reliance on experts and authority figures has something to do with it. Peer group pressure has a lot to do with it. Resistance to re-thinking or even grasping conventional teachings and theories, i.e. mental laziness, may explain even more.

Let’s say I may already believe in a completely unfettered free-market economy where what I do is none of your damn business unless you in turn have invested heavily in it. Or perhaps I may already believe in no-refund enforced government altruism where you damned well get to do what I say so long as I’m not comfortable at my current income level.

Both of these extremes, of course, are picked here for their celebrated inflammatory content. Underneath all this is the insidious inference that both sides adopted their basic premises early on, are unwilling to put their trump cards on the table by revealing premises openly, and freely endorse the reality-filtering and culling practices that allow us to selectively harvest just the facts that best support our own predispositions.

Let me be the first to remind us that scientists get pilloried when doing this, but they occasionally do it too. Getting caught is the professional equivalent of performing lewd private acts in darkened movie theaters. It still happens, and when it does, it’s highly and most unfavorably publicized – as it should be.

No wonder so many of the rest of us  are unwilling to reveal our hidden premises. My private beliefs are a sacred trust, but God save me from having to explain and defend them! Underneath all those layers of defense lurks the nagging knowledge that if I have been wrong in this all these years, what else have I been wrong in? Who wants to go there?

Stripped of all the tech talk, support infrastructure and ideological authority figures, science denial is nothing more than a twenty-first century Scopes Monkey Trial. It’s “evolution” all over again, with a new mask.

That’s not to suggest that we aren’t also motivated to perceive the world accurately—we are. Or that we never change our minds—we do. It’s just that we have other important goals besides accuracy—including identity affirmation and protecting one’s sense of self—and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.” — Chris Mooney, quoted in Mother Jones

Kids with Tourette’s can be trained to control their symptoms without resorting to increasing dosages of untested medications. The literature says they can have happy, successful, productive lives. If science denial is really just a predisposition to “convenient truthes” (ingrained prejudice), can it be controlled? As a form of learned behavior, can it be un-learned? Maybe we should just hope for “controlled.”


1. Tourette syndrome – Mayo Clinic
2. Tourette syndrome – Wikipedia
3. Coprolalia (an occasional characteristic of Tourette syndrome associated with outbursts) – Wikipedia
4. Gaining control over Tourette’s syndrome (PBS ‘Need To Know’ special article and video)
5. Why you can’t handle the truth: the psychology of belief (PBS Need To Know special article and video)
6. The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science – Chris Mooney, in Mother Jones
7. GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE, NASA: key indicators, evidence, causes, effects, uncertainties, Interactives, NASA’s role, missions, key websites, Climate Kids
8. El Niño and Global Warming: What’s Happening to Our Weather? Andrew P. Ingersoll, California Institute of Technology (CalTech) – a more technical summary [PDF]

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