Denialism: The Sheltering-In-Place That Could Get Us Killed

Dig heels, circle wagons, close eyes, fly away on wings of self-rationalization.

Posted Mar 25, 2020

When the going gets tough, some asexual organisms get jiggy. It’s called facultative sexuality. When unstressed, they simply clone. When stressed by changing environmental conditions, they get sexual, recombining their DNA with conspecifics, shuffling the deck, throwing the apple of their offspring further from the tree, maybe with a better chance of survival. 

Why? Because when things aren’t working, you try new things. 

When the going gets tough, tough humans are brave enough to try new things: for example, sheltering in place during a pandemic.

Staying home doesn’t feel tough compared to getting out there and doing stuff, but that’s yesterday's standards for toughness. The standards have changed, and the tough are wise enough to respond. Now the brave, smart, tough thing is huddling inside until this pandemic blows over. 

There’s a different kind of sheltering-in-place that humans can do that is neither tough nor smart. Denialism is sheltering-in-place psychologically. When the going gets tough, we can dig in our heels, circle our wagons, close our eyes, and fly away on the wings of self-rationalization.

Dig in our heels: “We’ve got our habits. They worked fine a minute ago. Don’t tell us we have to change them. Changing habits is too much work.” 

Circle our wagons: Whoever threw this new burden at us is the enemy. This is war! A war to defend our way of life!

Close our eyes: If we don’t know who threw us this new burden, it doesn’t matter. We’ll close our eyes and imagine a scapegoat or just flail blindly at whatever. 

Fly away on the wings of self-rationalization: We’ll be fine. Nothing to worry about. We’re the heroes of our own lives, which means we always win in the end. Don’t believe us? There you go, threatening us again! We deny digging in our heels, circling our wagons, and closing our eyes. We’re the ones being tough and rational here. We just know that there’s a more reasonable explanation for why we don’t ever have to change. We’re the tough, smart ones, and we’ll believe anything to prove it.

Denialism is a flexible rationalization to defend inflexible responses. It’s often presented as tough: for example, the bravado of demanding for freedom when it’s really just a demand for freedom from learning, changing, adjusting.  

There are plenty of other organisms that dig in their heels, circle their wagons, and even a few that close their eyes. 

But flying away on the wings of self-rationalization? That’s a human thing. You can’t do it without language. In a pinch, we can convince ourselves of anything. With the power of words, rationalization becomes the low-hanging fruit, the easiest way to respond to anything that threatens our sense of well-being. 

With language, it becomes easier to close our eyes. We have someplace else to go, wherever the magical thinking feels safer than the reality we’d see if we opened our eyes. Get millions of people doing that through different cults of self-rationalization, and you end up with a lot more threats to deny. We can end up in a dissociation death spiral, people denying reality, which left unattended wreaks more havoc for people to deny.

In us, as in other organisms, the instinct to survive is strong. The difference in us is that with the power of language, the instinct to deny threats through self-rationalization is often stronger—so strong that it enables large swaths of the population to deny our greatest threats for long enough that they might do us in as a species.

Here's a short video presented as a quick-start guide for new language users, showing how to use it safely. 


Bardon, Adrian (2019) The Truth About Denial: Bias and Self-Deception in Science, Politics, and Religion (Cambridge MA: Oxford University Press.