I was doing some research for a class I’m preparing on Holocaust literature, and I came across a review of Holocaust films on Netflix that read in part, “It’s time for new facts and real research into [the Holocaust], not the old propaganda.” I was struck by this statement for a number of reasons, not least because it so resembled the complaints you hear from climate change deniers. To many, it seems, the accumulation of fact and research, the growth of scientific consensus on the subject, cast doubt on its validity; where most people agree that a preponderance of fact increases the likelihood of something being true, the deniers argue, paradoxically, that the more agreement there is among scientists, the more likely it is that the science is nothing but lies. I still remember the example that was used in high school to introduce us to scientific method: the statement “copper always burns with a green flame” was based on countless observations of copper burning with a green flame. This doesn’t prove beyond doubt that copper will always burn with a green flame. But it does render suspect the statement, “copper does not burn with a green flame” or, worse, “those who claim that copper burns with a green flame are trying to hoodwink an unsuspecting public with shameless, self-serving propaganda.”
Now, we all know the Holocaust occurred. The evidence is irrefutable. But there are still those who refute it, not only neo-Nazis but average people who insist that no matter how much evidence we amass--indeed, in direct relation to the increase of evidence--the whole thing must be a fabrication. And, without suggesting that climate change deniers are identical to Holocaust deniers, I’d like to explore the mentality that produces such an unwonted break from logic. In what follows, I’m going to avoid the most common explanation: that we deny climate change because acting to avert it would entail such monumental disruption in our way of life. That’s a big part of it, certainly, but I think there are other, perhaps even more fundamental psychological motivations at play.
The first of such motivations to come to mind is that people don’t readily accept bad news; this is why, as has been amply documented, denial is one of the predominant responses to terminal illness, whether one’s own or that of a friend or family member. The Holocaust, like global warming, is bad news; it sickens most people to confront what occurred there (as it sickens most to confront the scenarios for a post-climate-change planet), and some resort to denial, I suspect, as a means of softening the blow. Who wants to admit that the human race is so awful? Who wants to be a member of a species capable of such atrocities? It’s far more congenial to one’s self-image to believe that really bad things, even those that were produced by others and that happened to others (much less those that are produced by ourselves and will happen to ourselves), didn’t really happen. If the Holocaust did occur, it means, hypothetically, that it could occur again, or even more personally, that the people you think you know, the people you love, even the person you are, might be led to participate in it. Far better to deny, and in so doing to restore one’s faith in the essential goodness of friends, family, and self.
Then there’s the distrust of authorities or, at its most extreme, anti-intellectualism that’s been such a prominent part of America’s collective mentality for so long (and that’s been exploited so successfully by certain political parties to score points and win elections). Looked at not from a cultural but from an individual perspective, this aspect of the denier’s mentality makes perfect sense. Who wants to feel stupid? Who wants to be put in the position of a three-year-old having grown-ups explain the nature of reality to you? But that’s precisely where climate science puts the vast majority of us (I include myself): it’s so damn complicated, no matter how many analogies they try to use (greenhouses, blankets, etc.), we find ourselves being preached to by smarty-pants eggheads who think they know so much more than the rest of us. That’s a real blow to the ego, and it’s preferable for many to conclude that the eggheads don’t really know more than we do, in fact that they know less, and that in reality they’re only trying to confuse us to gain publicity, grant money, fame, and power.
Finally--and this is the most subtle and, in some ways, least explicable factor--there simply seems to be an information threshold or saturation point in the human mind, beyond which fact turns to falsehood, truth to lie. We can observe this in everyday life when we begin to doubt the professions of love from our partner, or the sincerity of our boss or congressperson, or the validity of our most deeply held religious beliefs. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” Hamlet’s mother remarks of the drama her son has staged to expose his uncle’s (her current husband’s) treachery; leaving aside her obvious desire to reject this all-too-true representation of events, her distrust of the performer’s words, her assumption that when “too much” is said in one direction the opposite must actually be true (and what is said mere performance), is familiar to all of us. Tell a person about climate change once, or a hundred times, and she might believe you. Tell the same person a thousand times, and she might begin to doubt.
Understanding the mentality of climate denial as I’ve tried to do here does not, perhaps, get us any closer to a solution. Polls show that in increasing numbers, Americans are denying the reality of climate change; their native capacity for doubt, enhanced by institutional provocateurs with considerable cash, clout, and interest, has undone much of what science managed to do in the past decade. And so we have no climate legislation, no international climate agreement, precious little money for alternative energies, and the chorus of “drill, baby, drill” continuing to mount despite the disaster in the Gulf. Far from overcoming denial, we have succeeded largely in augmenting it.
And should global holocaust actually ensue, I’m sure we will have people on the other side of that catastrophe insisting that it never happened.