First brush with denialism

By September 29, 2017Australian Politics, Science, Society

When fresh out of university, I got a job as a geologist, and one day it was my turn to be ‘on duty’ in my organisation. This meant answering questions from members of the general public, if they happened to walk into reception in need of some information.

One day a weatherbeaten old geezer walked into the place in his daggy old work strides, his khaki shirt with the sleeves rolled up revealing arms that looked like sausages blistered from being fried too long. He was a prospector and had come in from the bush with what he thought was some gold. He showed me a piece of rock about the size of a golf-ball. It was a piece of coarse-grained rock, and on it was a dark gold- to copper-coloured mineral. He asked me, after looking over both his shoulders, almost in a whisper: “Is that gold?”

Having just finished university, my mineralogy was still fresh in my mind, and I suspected almost immediately what I was looking at. So, I got out my hand-lens to have a closer look, just to make sure, and I replied: “No, this piece of rock is a granite1 which is a bit weathered and the coppery coloured mineral is biotite2 mica. When it’s fresh, biotite is black, but as it weathers it goes a coppery colour.”

He simply said: “No, it isn’t” and walked out of the building. That was my first introduction to what is broadly called denialism3. It is the tendency to only accept data that confirms one’s pre-existing belief, because to believe otherwise would lead to an uncomfortable truth. In this case, the old prospector thought he had hit the big time, and for me to disabuse him of that, was unacceptable to him. He wanted confirmation, not information. Many of our parliamentarians4 are similar to the old prospector, in that admitting the reality of human induced climate change, which science knows to be true, would be very inconvenient for them. Accepting it would not be palatable to the fossil fuel companies who help fund their election campaigns. Like the old prospector, they just say ‘no, it isn’t’ and walk away from reality, safe in the knowledge that the donations will continue.

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