Book Review: 'Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us'
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.
Review by ClimateDenierRoundup(nom de plume)
For some strange and totally unknowable reason, lately the interest in various forms of denial seems to have grown quite bigly. Moving on from Denial (which you absolutely need to see), let’s continue expanding our denial horizons.
To that end, the father-daughter duo Jack and Sara Gorman’s book, Denying to the Grave, Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us is a fascinating exploration of the psychological and social underpinnings of denial. With Jack providing the psychiatric expertise and Sara the public health angle, they make for a great writing team, approaching this contentious topic with a personal flair and embodying the empathy they highlight as vital to overcoming denial.
For those of us that follow denial research closely, there are probably not many surprises in the book, which uses examples from anti-vaxxers and pro-gun communities most frequently, though also touching on GMOs and nuclear power at times.
Overall, the problems they identify are generally pretty well-understood among climate communications professionals. It’s not that people are dumb, it’s that we make decisions based on emotions and heuristics (Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is a recurring reference). It’s not that deniers are simply ignorant (the information-deficit model) but that they’re drawn into a community of denial by charismatic leaders with ulterior motives. These leaders know how to make the most of the fact that people don’t intuitively get probability, statistics and risk by playing to our emotions and ignoring the scientific establishment’s inability to ever be totally 100% certain about anything.
The Gormans dive into some of the science behind these facts in ways that are interesting and untold elsewhere. For example, according to brain scans, we react to changing our minds with pain and fear, while hearing things that reinforce our preexisting beliefs activates our reward center in the same way that eating chocolate or hugging a loved one does.
To get around this problem, which they assure us is not a lack of information, they recommend...more information. Specifically, that scientists respond to misleading information quickly (i.e. Climate Feedback) and take into account the cognitive psychology around the need for community (i.e. Facebook groups). They recommend kids get better education in statistics, probability and the scientific method (i.e. NCSE) and that public health professionals learn more about motivational interviewing (i.e. therapy).
This might be the most interesting and novel suggestion of the book, the idea that by using more of a Socratic dialogue than a one-sided lecture, we can help move deniers closer to accepting reality. By starting with the question of what motivates the denier (protecting their child, home, country, food) and engaging in an ongoing conversation around that topic, it seems possible to gradually move someone out of their state of denial by bringing to light the cognitive dissonance that comes from, for example, trying to protect your children from harm by avoiding a potentially life-saving vaccination. And yes, they admit that this takes multiple interactions, each a substantial time commitment, making it too intensive for most applications beyond the therapist’s couch.
But it speaks to the larger point- that only compassion and real conversation can move the needle on the individual level.
Unfortunately, they don’t address head-on what can be done about those who are paid to deny reality. While they address the quirks of human nature that the deniers-for-hire exploit, we’re still left wanting for some strategy to undercut their influence. It’s starting to feel like the only way we’ll get that book is if we write it ourselves.