Institute of Historical Studies
Institute of Historical Studies

Institute's new lecture series “Notwithstanding the Evidence” examines practices of denialism in historical perspective

Fri, September 22, 2017
Institute's new lecture series “Notwithstanding the Evidence” examines practices of denialism in historical perspective
Counter clockwise from top left: Profs. Raby, Li, Hunt, and Wynn

Denialism - people’s refusal to accept empirically grounded, research-based information - is not a new phenomenon. As IHS Director Miriam Bodian explains, “now as in the past, people are capable of denying facts that are supported by a mountain of evidence, often in matters of the most urgent concern.”

“Notwithstanding the Evidence: Historians on Denialism” series will explore various historical episodes in which individuals and groups denied not only undisputed science, but also well-documented events.  Presenters will examine how and why individuals, governments, religious, and scientific groups engaged in denialism, as well as the role historians have played in confronting controversies of denial. By bringing together historians from different fields and periods, “Notwithstanding the Evidence” hopes to elucidate not only how denialists have worked in the past—psychologically, rhetorically, and sociologically—but also the conditions and mechanisms that allowed denialism to emerge.

In the series’ first talk, Megan Raby will add historical depth to the present-day debate on climate change. “Climate Change Denial: Why History Matters” will draw on the work of historians of science and environment to consider the long history of climate research, the far-reaching social effects of past climate events, and how they may foreshadow humanity’s future. After historicizing climate science and climate denial, the series will move on to tackle historical rejections of atrocities, exploring the Soviet Union’s denial of an unprecedented famine in the Ukraine. Between 1932 and 1933, six to eight million people died from mass famine and associated disease, a result of Stalin’s program of forced collectivization.

In “On Stalinist Denial of the Holodomor,” Charters Wynn will examine how various actors—from government officials to Western award-winning correspondents—falsified findings and distorted testimonies to deny the existence of the famine, thus playing a significant role in forging one of the most successful cover-ups in history.  Next the series will consider the role of denialism in the interplay between scientific evidence and peoples’ most cherished beliefs.

Bruce J. Hunt will explore how people dealt with the wealth of evidence indicating that humans were not created wholly formed by a single act of God, but instead emerged from a long evolutionary process of natural selection. His talk, “Denying Darwin: The Evolution of Creationism since 1859,” will focus on Creationism, whose followers very often simply denied the evidence. Since Creationism has taken many forms since the late 19th century, its own evolution provides instructive and sometimes surprising examples of denialism in action. Finally, the series will conclude with another episode of mass famine, in Maoist China.

Concluding the series will be Huaiyin Li, whose talk “Why Did We Starve? The Great Leap Forward as Propaganda and Collective Memory in Maoist China,” will draw on interviews with villagers who experienced a nationwide famine during China’s Great Leap Forward, which claimed tens of millions of lives. Comparing the villagers’ shared memories of the catastrophe with the propaganda imposed by the Maoist regime, the talk will illuminate how historical work can both debunk states’ efforts to deny the existence of food crises and recover personal narratives that serve to correct denialist accounts.

Inculcating respect for evidence and honing the tools to help us see beyond preconceptions, deceptions, and wishful thinking are at the very heart of the university’s mission. This series will highlight the importance of the historical enterprise at a time when it is needed more than ever.

Story by Eyal Weinberg, Ph.D Candidate of History, University of Texas at Austin

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