Science Denialism: The Tale of an Old Enemy

Written by Gabrielle Suleida Felongco

Illustrated by Jay Kieffer Abarro

In the early 2000s, then-South African President Thambo Mbeki sent a letter to world leaders expressing his doubts about the link between HIV and AIDS. Despite numerous scientific evidence suggesting that HIV exclusively caused AIDS, he continued to say that AIDS was a disease caused by poverty, poor health, and malnourishment. Due to his doubt, policies he instituted denied thousands of AIDS patients of the antiretroviral drugs. The use of these drugs could have suppressed the spread of HIV in his country as an estimated 330,000 deaths could have been prevented.1 

Science denialism is not a new or uncommon thing. It may even exist as far as the memory of man. There are many people out there who stand by their firm rhetorics and who are skeptical of every shed of evidence science produces. President Mbeki stands as a testament to this, the denialism shown by leaders like him gives a glimpse of the dangerous outcomes these opinions may have on a greater sphere. 

This case of denialism may have affected one region of the world in particular, but the COVID-19 pandemic showed the entire world the widespread dangers science denialism can impose. It highlighted the gaps these opinions continue to make in the understanding of the true nature of the virus and has become a main issue in the vaccination. The anti-vaccination movements and other science denial groups have caused problems for public health in numerous countries. 

Though, more than denial groups, the digital age has further exacerbated the problem of science denialism as claims become more accessible to a vast spectrum of people. Science is being increasingly challenged by beliefs based on emotions and personal experiences. With that, we could say that science’s old enemy keeps finding ways to be innovative these days. 

The Science Behind the Denial

Science denialism has a clear-cut definition: it occurs when people argue the validity of an established scientific theory. The argument is not based on scientific merit but rather a subjective way of thinking. Organization and people deny scientific ideas as a rhetorical argument against issues that they greatly oppose. Most may be familiar with the “Flat Earth Society” and their seemingly incredible beliefs to the centuries old abandoned idea of the Earth being a flat disk shape. The internet has found such theories amusing, but there continues to be opinions that hinder the proper proliferation of evidence-based conclusions. Science denialism extends from opposing lessons about evolution in public schools to doubting the link between anthropogenic activities and climate change. To understand where these opinions form, the three pillars of science denial were established.

There are three arguments that are generally used for every wild claim. The first argument attempts to discredit the evidence by saying that the research methods employed are flawed. The idea that scientific conclusions are not “absolute truths” creates doubt for non-members of the scientific community. Although, the absence of universal truths should not be equated with scientific uncertainty, equating them omits the fact that science is based on falsifiability; so scientists avoid imposing “universal truths” and use a language that involves uncertainty because they are aware that these ideas may evolve and change. 

The second argument claims that scientists are not objective with their investigations and are generally motivated by an ideology. The argument is considered to be an ad hominem–targeting a person’s character rather than the merit of the scientific claim. For doubters, there is always a hidden agenda behind a scientific conclusion. 

Lastly, the third argument demands an equal view of “two-sides of the coin.” Science deniers want to achieve the same coverage scientific theories experience to provide an equal treatment for all types of claims.2 

No Balancing Act

There is no room for the saying “respect my opinion” when it comes to dealing with scientific ideas because opinions are immediately left out when making evidence-based conclusions. The arguments made by deniers are obviously rooted on isolated experiences and false notions derived from their ideologies. Motives other than purely epistemic ones can definitely influence the way we interpret evidence, eventually leading to the rejection of scientific claims. Despite these, those who are firm in believing science should not simply remain passive with deniers. 

An article by Schmid and Betsch looks into the effectiveness of different strategies rejecting denialist claims in discussions about issues like vaccination and climate change. A key finding of their study is that remaining passive to false claims does harm more than any good.3 When a science advocate rebuts a denialist argument and presents factual flaws in their arguments, the effects of denialism significantly decrease, even amongst those whose beliefs or ideologies are being threatened by the advocate. 

Although traditionally, pseudoscience is a niche within science denialism, we are seeing a change of public opinion, where denialist claims may be entirely autonomous from a semblance of evidence or logic. Claims of pseudoscience and the politicization of climate change are only a few examples of the influence of science denialism on various spheres of society. 

A Step Forward 

Allowing false claims to proliferate is worse than participating in them. This issue only highlights how it is important to invest in creating a strong body of science-advocacy strategies that holistically exposes logical flaws of absurd denialist claims. The public needs to accept essential scientific knowledge for society to continue to progress and thrive. Thus, the call for developing stronger Science, Technology, and Mathematics (STEM) institutions has become stronger than ever. It starts with a higher allocation for STEM institutions and training more STEM-educated workers. Though more than this, it is important to recognize that in order for these solutions to be effective, STEM education needs to be available to all, not just in developed countries. 

In order to address this gap, scientists need to work with policymakers; a step in their open engagement with the public.

Scientists need to be taught effective techniques when it comes to communicating their ideas to the general public. They may have a better grasp of the scientific principles and methods they are studying, but one cannot exactly expect the same mastery to be shown by a layperson. Evidence-based ideas need to be accessible and understandable for all. In this era of mixed opinions, we need to embrace and face the challenges posed by science deniers and do our part in mitigating the dangerous consequences they may inflict. 


[1] Debunking science denialism. Nature Human Behaviour. 2019;3(9):887–887. doi:10.1038/s41562-019-0746-8

[2] Johnson C, Affolter MD, Inkenbrandt P, Mosher C. 1.6: Science denial and evaluating sources. Geosciences LibreTexts. 2021 Jul 26 [accessed 2023 Apr 1].

[3] Schmid P, Betsch C. Effective strategies for rebutting science denialism in public discussions. Nature Human Behaviour. 2019;3(9):931–939. doi:10.1038/s41562-019-0632-4 


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