The Roots of Denial
In my last post I stressed that Galieo’s telescope produced new evidence on Reality that challenged the Status Quo, and it was so disruptive that the Church denied the new truth and locked Galileo away in his room. But Facts are stubborn things and gradually this new Reality became irrefutable. Denial faded. In modern times, better and better telescopes pushed out our knowledge of universal reality, all the way to Black Holes, also mentioned in that post, which became the only way to explain the evidence from celestial observations, what our telescopes told us and how we could make the laws of Physics fit those observations. Crazy as they are, black holes have since become accepted as the conclusion of available evidence. But black holes have also introduced new concepts of alternative reality, where an entire new set of rules apply. I connected the dots between Denial and a slippery path to Alternative Reality, where policy begins to be made on a set of lies, wishes and beliefs.
The Risks of Denial
Denial is a natural human reaction to disruptive change, and it won’t go away, so its worth understanding it better as it concerns how we deal with problems, find solutions and move ahead. Accepting one Comfortable Lie pushes the truth away temporarily, rejecting a fact because it’s too uncomfortable to face reality, because of the difficulty in adjusting our comfortable paradigm. But deliberate and consistent choices for an Alternative Reality in the face of new evidence and facts grows to become a collective threat to progress, as Denial turns into Delay and ultimately, more Denial. Consider these examples of Historic Denial and the revealed truths that make some of us squirm.
- The South just had a competing vision of government. In fact, The US Civil War was about the right of one human being to own another as property – slavery, a declining and corrupting institution – not states’ rights. The lives of white property owners – their dominant paradigm – would be irrevocably changed by abolition of slavery, so southern states denied this truth all the way up to the undeniable tragedy of the Civil War. In its wake, The Lost Cause mythology emerged, a form of institutional denial, as Southerners made a myth out of plantation life and honor, erected statues to honor the heroes of the War Between the States and hoisted the Confederate battle flag. This new Reality, starting with the KKK and Jim Crow laws, became tribal symbols of Racism and Racists.
- The Holocaust was made up. In fact, Nazis systematically and scientifically murdered massive numbers of Jews and other “undesirables” in concentration camps. In fact, German society was complicit. The horror that a modern society produced industrialized slaughter based on prejudice is too much for some to bear. Out of ignorance, out of another form of racism, out of fear of facing the truth, Holocaust Deniers arose to craft an alternative reality. With denial and historic revisionism that is remarkably oblivious to facts, Holocaust Denial is recognized as a continuance of pogroms and passion plays, a further extension of the age old prejudices of AntiSemitism held by AntiSemites.
- The Bible explains literal History. In fact, the body of modern Geology estimates the Earth to be 4.5 Billion years old. Incredibly, the scientific consensus only 100 years ago was about 1 Million years old – scientists in the early 1900s weren’t in denial, they just hadn’t gathered sufficient evidence yet. Now that they have, we’ve come a long way, we understand more, and that’s called progress. But some still believe that the Earth can only be 5,000 years old, citing the story of creation in the Book of Genesis. To hold to that belief in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, these Deniers explain dinosaur bones as planted by God – some kind of celestial game – or explain that dinosaurs and humans must have co-existed. There’s plenty of wisdom in the Bible if you read between the lines, understanding that old texts are limited by general knowledge of the writers of that age. Creationism is an attempt to force the Bible to be literal truth against the evidence, rather than understanding that this is what people believed before they had better evidence from modern science.
- Evolution is not possible. In fact, Evolution has moved from Theory to the closest thing we can call Fact, an hypothesis that is widely accepted and proved over and over again in the past 200 years by innumerable scientists in a variety of circumstances. Not sure how to reconcile this science and your beliefs? Try this simple test: would you consciously choose an antibiotic from the 1950s over one just developed? Would you accept a flu vaccine from 1963 rather than one from last year? Evolution is quite real, so you go with the modern version. But Denial crafts “alternative realities” like Intelligent Design and Irreducible Complexity in an attempt to prove that humans could not have evolved from lower life forms. This version of Creationism denies Evolution in addition to Geology.
- Vaccines cause Autism. In fact, vaccines created great historic good and transformed our lives and society by obliterating the scourge of decimating diseases. But Childhood Autism is on the rise and it causes great pain, so disoriented and distraught parents cast about looking for a reason, and landed on vaccines, at best a tragic misunderstanding of causality. Now, parents face measles outbreaks in US schools because other parents did not vaccinate their kids, fearing Autism. In the 21st Century. Autism deserves a cure, but blaming vaccines only delays the efforts to find that cure and causes greater harm. But AntiVaxxers won’t listen to fact-based arguments supporting vaccination, certain in their beliefs.
As we move next into Modern Denial, things grow more political and things get increasingly uncomfortable. But we’ll forge ahead, chasing the facts and drawing conclusions from the evidence. Only by facing Denial with a thorough examination can we understand it and devise solutions to enable progress.
By John Cooper