Alternative facts: what we can learn from Holocaust denial
I recently came across a TED talk from historian Deborah Lipstadt, in which she relayed her insights from a study of Holocaust deniers. She focused especially on David Irving, unquestionably the most prominent of this bunch. He produced extensively footnoted scholarship that on the surface looked like any other academic research. However, when she traced some of his footnotes, importantly not the majority of them, back to their source, there were distortions, mis-contextualizations, half-truths, etc. And they always led in one direction: toward questioning of the Holocaust. In Lipstadt’s opinion, the underlying motive was bigotry, the underlying goal was to take a lie and make it look like an opinion worthy of debate, and the underlying technique was to distort facts, but to do it at a layer below the surface such that it was invisible to the untrained or casual eye.
Lipstadt ends her talk with a few-sentence indictment of global warming deniers. Having read papers written by the few old cranks trotted out by deniers online, I’d argue that in goals and technique, she’s correct; there are parallels to Holocaust denial. However, where the two sets of deniers differ is in underlying motive.
To make this argument, I’ll need you to follow me back to the 1980s, to those scientists denying that HIV was the cause of AIDS, rather, the one scientist widely quoted at the time: Peter Duesberg. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Duesberg was a bonafide expert in retroviruses. He was aging; he was no longer generating exciting new discoveries. He noted what he saw as discrepancies in the literature, claiming they indicated that it may have been a contaminant microbe in the HIV preparations used for study that was causing AIDS. In public talks and media releases at the time, he stressed that HIV had not been shown to fulfill Koch’s postulates, a classical approach to implicating a microbe in a disease. Sounds like a reasonable basis for doubt? Well, one of the requirements to satisfy this criterion was to isolate this virus from a sick individual, infect a new patient, and show that the new patient could express the disease. Volunteers, anyone? Here, we have Duesberg using one of the same fundamental techniques as Irving, miscontextualization, for the same purpose: to make a lie look like a valid opinion worthy of debate.
As for motive, he too was a bigot. In the early 80s, scientists noted the prevalence of HIV in San Francisco’s gay community and considered many possible explanations. The one later emerging as consensus—HIV passed in Africa to Haitian laborers employed by the Cubans to build roads (if you plot the earliest known cases of HIV on a map, you draw the highways built in the 60s and 70s), back to Haiti, which at the time was a popular tourist destination for San Francisco’s gay community—was not the only explanation offered. Duesberg and others claimed it must have been something about the “gay lifestyle” causing the disease. The disdain he held for gay men was clear from his public pronouncements.
However, I would argue homophobia wasn’t his only or even his major motivation. Duesberg’s outlandish claims made him a household name. Fame, for one whose star has faded, tempts. It tempts enough to convince even a scientist of falsehoods.
Fast forward to the early 90s. Consolidation is occurring in the agricultural sector. DuPont Corporation has bought Pioneer Seeds, the largest corn breeding company in the world. Monsanto counters by buying Holden Corporation’s Foundation Seeds, Inc., as well as two of Holden’s seed distributors. Holden’s business model had been contracting with mom-and-pop, small-scale corn breeders; most of their seed was now under control of Monsanto. Competition was disappearing. Monsanto’s stated goal at the time was to dominate the world food industry.
Monsanto had also been instrumental in the development of a technique to transfer foreign genes into plant genomes to make transgenic crops. They ultimately lost their court case over a patent on transformation technology (Japan Tobacco, Washington University scientists and others were also involved), but the case took seventeen years to settle.
Greenpeace saw an opportunity. They constructed a website full of nonsense that nonetheless looked scientific, demonizing GMO technology. Personal story: I debated the head of their anti-GMO campaign on national radio (ABC) in the year 2000, and then I followed up with email exchanges. They admitted to me that they lied and that they knew they were lying. They had an ulterior motive. Their goal was to prevent the world’s food supply from falling into a small number of hands.
They failed. Consolidation of the food industry happened anyway, and much of the benefits of GMO technology that could right now be preventing famine and helping the world adjust to global climate change are not being realized. But again, what we have is goals and techniques very similar to what Holocaust deniers used, albeit very different motives.
Now let’s jump to 2008. The US has committed $17 trillion to bailing out the financial system, but the number that appears most often in the press is solely the direct cost of the bailout of several large banks: $700 billion. We have a lie promulgated by only telling part of the story—a Holocaust denier technique. The goal: convincing Americans that socializing the chaos caused by lack of bank regulation was the only way to stave off total economic collapse, while simultaneously arguing that a return to the tight regulation of banking that emerged from the Great Depression was unnecessary. Sounds like a lie being passed off as a valid opinion worthy of debate to me.
But again, the motive differed in essence from that of the Holocaust deniers. Here, the motive was greed. The people who regulated the investment sector were generally people of this sector who had profited from this sector and wanted to continue profiting from this sector. These weren’t cartoon villains, holding bags of money and sneering in contempt of all but their circle of kleptocrats. Well, maybe some were, but the underlying goal wasn’t misanthropy; it was getting rich. Actually, staying rich.
These arguments are well developed in Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140. The publishers were sneaky. They sold it as a novel about climate change, focusing on Robinson’s hard SF credibility. It is, but it isn’t. The true villains are the investment class, making money on those in the “intertidal zone,” in much the same way Goldman Sachs and their ilk did in the first part of this millennium. And asides frequently reference the 2008 crash—Robinson’s has copped Neal Stephenson’s technique of the long info-dump that is interesting in content and presented in a cool voice so that the reader is happy to read thinly disguised lectures from the author. Or at least I was, I liked Robinson’s book quite a bit, but then again, I’m a huge Neal Stephenson fan.
So, back to today and climate change. I’ve listed several motives other than bigotry that can motivate the promulgation of alternative facts: Fame for the experts involved, desire for sociopolitical change, and greed. I’d argue that all play a role in climate change denial. Yes, a few older geologists who conjure memories of Duesberg have been the belles of the ball at conservative economic forums and right-wing political gatherings with their opinions spread across the Internet. Famously, Sasha Baron-Cohen attempted to create a character, Lord Moncton, who parodied such scientists, but he was too good: he spoke before Congress and the British Parliament in this guise and despite his being unfrocked, conservative websites continue to cite Lord Moncton.
Yes, there are certainly those who’d like to see even the modest strides toward social justice achieved during the Obama era rolled back, and keeping wealth in the hands of fossil fuel companies is consistent with that desire. The social conservatives and the ultra-wealthy live in symbiotic alliance. And yes, there are also those who would like to wring all possible money out of fossil fuel dependency, with motives of pure greed.
And that’s why climate change denial is harder to combat in the US than Holocaust denial: there’s more than one motive involved. There are also many moving pieces—finance, legislation, business practices, government policy, media.
Lipstadt is convinced vociferous public refutation is the key to combating denial. She may be correct with regard to Irving and company, but I strongly doubt she is right about combatting climate change. The motives are different; combatting facts with refutation doesn’t seem to be working.
Lipstadt argued that “historical revisionism,” what Irving likes to call his movement, is merely Nazism beneath thin veneer of concealment. Similar concealment enshrouds the climate denial of those who pass themselves off as pillars of society: bankers, businessmen, journalists and politicians. Most of them (not to mention most people who vote for politicians in the denial camp) don’t see themselves as doing anything wrong, merely supporting “free enterprise.” Nonetheless, it’s worth keeping in mind the words of Hannah Arendt: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
Make no mistake—these folks are evil. And if they prevail, they and their descendants will disclaim responsibility for the millions who will die from their actions. And they will own the publishing companies who write the history textbooks.