Denialism – How you can deny anything!

The following is a guest post from Jeffrey Olsson, former Anglican priest and current president of the Humanist Association of Manitoba. Jeff can be found at the Leave Faith Behind blog (from which this entry is cross-posted), and his book is available on

I honestly do not care where President Barack Hussein Obama II was born. It’s his political platform that is interesting to me, including his track record as a president. I am not an American and frankly I could care less if ‘mericans were to elect a president born in another country regardless of their election laws. What does interest me is the manner in which people deny facts even when they are placed right in front of them.

Obama was most certainly born in the United States of America on August 4th 1961, at 7:24 PM. End of story.

Barack Obama has always claimed he is an American and states very clearly that he is a Christian. Born in Hawaii and educated in Indonesia, Hawaii, Los Angeles, New York and Cambridge (Harvard), he has a long, traceable history that includes where he has worked, his role as a politician, where he has lived and more. And still, he has been forced to prove that he is an authentic American over and over again to satisfy deniers. Anyone who cares (including me) has already seen his live birth record, his long form birth record, the birth notice that was originally published in an American newspaper announcing his birth, family photos of him growing up in Honolulu and more. Things we would never care (or expect) to see from any other president. All of this because of “Birthers”, people who challenge where Obama was born and the legitimacy of President Obama’s claim to the oval office.

But this little piece isn’t about the veracity of the “Birthers” claims; it’s about denialism in general. It’s about the all too human ability to insulate oneself from reality in spite of mounds of evidence to the contrary.

Choose any particular belief that you may have; the earth is round, man has landed on the moon, evolution is a proven theory, climate is changing, the earth goes around the sun or that, the holocaust happened and you can easily find someone who will deny that it is/was true. Do a Google search for: “Flat earth society”, “Moon landing hoax”, “Evolution not true”, “Climate change Hoax”, “Heliocentric hoax” or “Holocaust Hoax” and you will get the point very quickly.

There are many forms of denialism, perhaps as many as there are things to deny, but denial does have patterns that are discernable, predictable and surprisingly consistent.

Wikipedia defines denialism as “choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid an uncomfortable truth: “[it] is the refusal to accept an empirically verifiable reality. It is an essentially irrational action that withholds validation of a historical experience or event”.

What’s even more interesting is how denialism works when employed in a systematic way. Yes, people actually have “how to deny something” down to an art. It’s the art of the polemic. That’s what happens when you mix denialism with politics.

Here is how you can become a denier too:

  1. First things first, you need to create a conspiracy theory. Some people come by this honestly, they don’t necessarily do it on purpose. Someone must have been the first to come up with the idea that Barrack Obama isn’t an American, or that he is a Muslim pretending to be a Christian. (There are numerous reasons why this conspiracy theory is important to the Birthers movement, foremost is the idea that Obama’s Presidency is illegitimate.)

    I do find it odd that his track record as a politician, which is readily accessible and can easily be debated, is not chosen as a point of attack instead. It seems that deniers assume the rest of their ideas about what a president should be will naturally fall into place once Obama has been thoroughly discredited. “Once people see that Obama is a Muslim, they are bound to agree with the rest of what we think.”

  2. Cherry pick some data that supports your ideas even if it is out of context or based on an illogical assertion. The internet and the news are full of these ideas. Look for creative ideas like Obama visiting a mosque, or standing with “middle east looking” people in a photo (all of which have other rational explanations, since he IS a politician.) Create colorful stories around each of those pieces of evidence.

  3. If you can find a false expert (or create one) that helps too! Don’t forget some people are perfectly willing to tell a boldface lie in order to score political points. Other potential candidates are those who are genuinely mislead or gullible and who just happen to be in a position of authority or respect in society. Rock stars and preachers work well as false experts because of the “glow effect”, thanks to the in group bias that comes from their fans or those who hold similar beliefs.

    To date, those who have denied Barack Obama’s legitimacy include, Richard Shelby, Roy Blunt, Jean Schmidt, Nathan Deal, Sarah Palin, Ken Buck, Tracey Mann, David Vitter, Newt Gingrich, Andy Martin, Mike Huckabee, Michelle Bachman and surprisingly, Donald Trump. When I heard Donald Trump was on board I knew it was going to get interesting, not because he has any expertise on this matter at all, but because people like him so much.

  4. After the other party starts to provide evidence showing your conspiracy theory is false, you simply move the goal post. The objective of the moving goal post is to “Dismiss evidence presented in response to a specific claim by continually demanding some other (often unfulfillable) piece of evidence.” First they asked for a live birth record, next was the long for record, but that was not enough, “they were all fakes” etc.

  5. Use other logical fallacies to throw them completely off track:

    • Use False Analogies – “He is an illegitimate president therefore he must also have an ulterior “Muslim” agenda.
    • Appeal to consequences rather than the truth – This type of argument concludes that something is either true or false based on the consequences rather than on the reality of truthfulness. “If Barrack Obama is really a legitimate president, it means Al Qaeda is not trying to take over our country.”
    • Attack the Straw Man – First you build a false “caricature” of a person or concept and then attack it showing how the person or idea could never have worked in the first place. This approach has been used on everything from evolution to Obama.
    • Use a “Red Herring” argument – wave a red flag, cause a distraction, just about anything will do, so long as it distracts listeners long enough to forget that you have no evidence what-so-ever.
    • Use an ad hominem attack, yes, attack the person who says you are wrong. As soon as the other person tries to introduce new or reliable evidence, claim that they are biased. Or ask who funded their study and attack that group. Make the claim that they are biased, self serving or corrupt, but whatever you do, do not let the introduction of new and reliable evidence go unchallenged. Just by asking who funded a study you can create huge amounts of doubt in the minds of those who are not acquainted with the subject at hand.
  6. Repeat your claims endlessly, through as many venues as possible.

And that’s just about it! You too can successfully become a denier!



One thought on “Denialism – How you can deny anything!

  1. One thing that has to be mentioned every time birtherism is discussed is that the attacks on Obama about his legitimacy are grounded in racism. If he was white, they would find something else to attack and deny, but the particular denialism going on with Obama would not exist if it were not for the colour of his skin.

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