From anti-vaxxers to climate deniers to a general simmering scepticism of science, denialism in all its forms is everywhere. Crikey is presenting a multi-part series on how the seeds of doubt are planted and how they blossom through media and politics. Read the second, third and fourth parts.
But first, let’s break down some of the main denialist theories and examine the people who believe them.
Wind farm opposition
What they believe: Opposition to wind farms is often couched in NIMBY-ish concerns about farmers, noise pollution and, most prominently, the health effects of the turbines. “Wind turbine syndrome” was first coined in 2009 by New York paediatrician Nina Pierpont, and has gained considerable traction among anti-wind groups.
What the science says: Pierpont’s initial study was methodologically questionable, leaning heavily on anecdotal evidence. Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney calls “wind turbine syndrome” a “communicated disease” which spreads by being talked about, even though there is no evidence indicating it is a legitimate condition.
Who believes it: Many conservative politicians irrationally hate wind farms. Joe Hockey called them “utterly offensive” and “a blight on the landscape”. Nick Xenophon has long peddled the health argument, while absentee Energy Minister Angus Taylor has regularly spoken at rallies held by Stop These Things, an anti-wind group.
Climate change denial
What they believe: Climate change denial comes in many shapes and sizes. Some denialists argue weather variation is natural, particularly in Australia with its droughts and heatwaves. Linked to this is the belief that the climate is actually cooling. Others, particularly in the Liberal Party, highlight the economic importance of fossil fuels, and the high costs of renewable energy.
What the science says: Numerous peer-reviewed studies indicate that 97% of publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is human-induced. Meanwhile, denialists are almost never published in peer-reviewed journals. The CSIRO warns droughts, bushfires and heatwaves will likely continue, and according to a recent IPCC report, we have just 12 years to avoid a catastrophic 1.5 degree rise in temperature.
Who believes it: While a majority of Australians are now worried about climate change (a number that keeps increasing), denialists have a huge amount of influence, both in the media and in politics. Influential sceptics include former prime minister Tony Abbott, conservative media figures such as Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, and mining magnate Gina Rinehart.
What they believe: The science around vaping is unsettled. Advocates cite studies showing vaping is 95% less harmful than smoking, and point to pronouncements by public health bodies in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, where vaping has been endorsed as a tool to quit smoking. But in Australia, vaping regulations are something of a minefield — in some states sale of devices is illegal, while in others the nicotine in the vape is banned.
What the science says: It depends on who does the science. Many of the claims commonly touted by vaping activists — that vaping is vastly less harmful than smoking, and that it has led over 6 million smokers to quit in the EU — have their roots in research by scientists with deep historic ties to the e-cigarette industry, which is increasingly controlled by big tobacco. Meanwhile, studies which are independent of vested interests have outlined far more health risks.
Who believes it: While there is a widespread push to legalise vaping, many of the big players have ties to the tobacco lobby. In Australia, a charity created by doctors to lobby for legalisation of vaping was discovered to have been initially bankrolled by e-cigarette manufacturers. A group of UK MPs who called for a softening of e-cigarette regulations were also found to have been repeatedly schmoozed by lobbyists.
What they believe: Anti-vaccination activists believe that the risks of vaccines — particularly childhood vaccines — outweigh any benefits of herd immunity. This includes a belief by some anti-vaccination advocates that there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism.
What the science says: The accepted science is that immunisation for a variety of diseases vastly reduces the risk of children and adults getting serious or deadly diseases.
Who believes it: The World Health Organisation has declared the anti-vaccination movement one of the top health threats of 2019. Though Australian experts believe we are a particularly pro-vaccination country, there are still pockets of activists around the country who maintain that vaccinations are not safe.
A public and media backlash often follows any statements from high-profile anti-vaxxers in Australia. Even Pete Evans, known for non-mainstream views on health topics including his paleo diet and the dangers of sunscreen and fluoride, has generally stayed away from vaccination. He faced a strong backlash when he hosted American holistic doctor Kelly Brogan on his podcast last year, who has anti-vaccination views.
The Australian Vaccination-Risks Association, headed by Meryl Dorey, is the most prominent group advocating the anti-vaccination line in Australia. Overseas, there are quite a few celebrity anti-vaxxers.
What they believe: One of the more fringe denialist theories is that Earth is flat, and that evidence to the contrary is part of a conspiracy by NASA and government agencies. The leading flat Earth theory holds that Earth is a disc, with the Arctic Circle in the middle and Antarctica as the outer rim. They’ve also “discovered” that Australia doesn’t exist.
What the science says: Earth is round. This is a fact humans have known for more than 2000 years.
Who believes it: A growing number of people reportedly subscribe to the flat Earth theory, primarily driven by YouTube stars. The Flat Earth Society held its first convention in the United Kingdom in 2018, hosting speakers from around the world, and the society says its numbers have grown by 200 since 2009. Celebrity believers include cricketer Andrew Flintoff and American rapper BoB.
What they believe: AIDS denialists believe that there is no proven connection between the HIV and AIDS viruses, or that HIV and AIDS don’t exist.
Who believes it: In the ’80s and ’90s, when fear of HIV and AIDS was at its highest, there were far more sceptics than today about the relationship between HIV and AIDS and their causes. But the belief lingers on in some circles, with real-life effects. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki took on this theory while he was in office, and it’s believed that his reluctance to fund anti-retroviral medication could have cost 330,000 people’s lives.