Skepticism versus Denial in Science

Hello Everyone,

Before the year is out I wanted to make one last post on a topic I feel is becoming increasingly more important in today’s academic climate.  That point is about the difference between skepticism and denial.  We hear a lot in the news (fake or real) about how different people are either “deniers” or “skeptics” of various ideas.  The utility of vaccines, climate change, AIDS, are just a few topics that come up with these labels on them.  Perhaps it would be best to have a discussion of the topic with, instead of politically charged rhetoric, a view towards science itself.

The reason that I’ve been thinking about this topic recently stems from a book I got as part of a Secret Santa gift: “Dancing Naked in the Minefield” by Kerry Mullis.  Kerry Mullis won a Nobel Prize for his part in developing Polymerase Chain Reaction synthesis of DNA.  He’s a man I deeply disagree with but whom I think has a good point nonetheless.  Mullis, in the early 1990’s challenged the prevailing wisdom that Autoimmune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was caused by infection with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).  By the mid-1990’s, however, there were several cases of isolated HIV accidentally being introduced to healthy individuals and these individuals eventually developing AIDS. These cases established a link between HIV and AIDS(1).    For his part, Mullis would describe himself as a “consummate skeptic” always questioning whether or not the scientific community has sufficiently tested and evaluated a hypothesis.  In a sense he’s right; as scientists we should always be skeptics, no matter how established the dogma in our field has become.  We can go back to Copernicus (and earlier Greeks) challenging the idea that everything revolved around the Earth or Louis Pasteur and others challenging the idea of Spontaneous Generation as examples.    There comes a point, however, where to make progress in a field we have to accept that our data point towards a scientific consensus on a topic. From this consensus we can test new hypotheses and create new ideas.

Then we reach what we would call “denial”.  Denial, in as non-political of terms as I can put it, is ignoring the scientific consensus and the data that support it and instead interpreting results based on your own biases and beliefs.  The correct way to do science is to make as objective observation as possible, create a hypothesis objectively, and then evaluate that hypothesis without presuming any specific outcome.  Contrary to popular belief, scientists actually really love to prove things wrong, especially well, established ideas.  You have to approach it though as if you don’t already know what is going to happen.  A really good scientist will know how to ask new questions regardless of the answer they get.  This then gets us into another discussion about transparency in science and the perils of a “results-driven scientific culture” but I’ll get back to that another day.  Overall there’s an important difference to highlight:  Not all skeptics are deniers but all deniers are bad skeptics.

Finally something to think about for 2017 for both scientists and non-scientists is how we view those in academia and who we look to for authority on a subject.  The best defense of the Liberal Arts I ever heard was from a man I greatly admire and respect: Dr. Phil Nichols a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who said (and I’m paraphrasing), “People who study history, language, culture, are the people we turn to when the world is in moral crisis”.  People who’ve studied an area very intensely are in unique position to help others understand the world around them.  Education is not something to lord over other people like some kind of medieval sale of Indulgences.  Rather, it’s a calling and a responsibility; it’s service to humanity at large.  Therefore, scientists have a responsibility very clearly communicate what we mean by skepticism and what we mean by scientific consensus.

On that note thank you for reading and have a Happy New Year!




(1) O’Brien SJ, Goedert JJ, “HIV causes AIDS: Koch’s Postulates Fulfilled” Current Opinions in Immunology: 1996, 8(5) 613-618.