A couple of days ago, I retweeted an article with the title [t]he trouble with ‘Covid denialism’. I thought the article was reasonable, but some objected to the use of ‘denialism’. There are a number of very credible scientists who have promoted some of the scientific ideas being highlighted in this article and we should, ideally, treat these alternative scientific ideas with some respect and should engage in constructive discussions, rather than suggesting such people are in denial.
However, having been engaged in the public climate debate for quite some time, I’m somewhat inured to the use of denial, or denialism. On the other hand, this may be an opportunity to discourage its use at an early stage of a topic so that we can maybe encourage more constructive dialogue. I would certainly be in favour.
Unfortunately, my experiences in the public climate debate has also made me rather cynical. Certainly, in the climate context, the use of denial, or denialism often seems entirely justified and the complaints are typically more related to people trying to deligitimise their critics, than a genuine desire to improve the dialogue. It can be a way to try and get the freedom to promote contentious scientific views in public without being criticised. Similarly, in my experience in the climate debate, those who complain most about tone are often people who are quite comfortable being pretty blunt when it suits them.
I also tend to think that scientists shouldn’t expect the same level of engagement in the public sphere as they might in a more formal scientific setting. Scientists shouldn’t expect some kind of special treatment in the public sphere just because they’re scientists. They should, of course, get the same level of legal protection as anyone else who is engaging publicly, but they shouldn’t expect to not be judged for the views they choose to express, or the groups with which they choose to associate.
Of course, our understanding of Covid-19 is not nearly as mature as our understanding of anthropogenically-driven climate change. Hence, maybe we should avoid throwing around labels at this stage and maybe we can still engage in constructive dialogue with those who promote scientific ideas with which we disagree. You’ll excuse me, though, if I’m not confident that we’ll actually do either.
Guest post : Label the behaviour, not the person – Guest post by Richard Betts.