SCIENTIFIC DENIALISM: Debating Personal Freedom During a Public Health Crisis

Arushi Dogra • 2021 Issue


From The Editors:

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the many dangers of scientific denialism in the realm of public health and safety. It is clear that this was not a result of some isolated anti-vaxxer movement efforts, but evolved as a full-fledged political credo. In SCIENTIFIC DENIALISM, Dogra discusses the various social, political, and psychological factors that lead to such denialism, even in the face of overwhelming evidence on the contrary, and highlights key approaches to establish social consensus on public health issues.


That Saturday, the Dreamland Rink in San Francisco, CA, was packed with over 4,500 people. They had gathered, in the midst of a global pandemic, due to the San Francisco Chronicle advertising an “Anti-Mask Meeting” to “protest against the unhealthy mask ordinance.” The crowd shared grievances that the masks recently declared mandatory in public were “insanitary” and “useless,” one woman complaining that her “nose went to sleep” with it on, and many alleging that there was no evidence of their efficiency in slowing the disease. Some even proposed that the entire quarantine was without cause, disregarding the consensus of numerous healthcare authorities, including the American Red Cross and the U.S. Public Health Service. They argued that the mayor’s law, passed after pleas for voluntary mask-wearing fell on deaf ears, was “autocratic and unconstitutional,” encroaching on their personal freedoms. Despite the familiarity of this scene in view of recent events, it took place not in 2020, but in 1919, at the height of the second wave of the Spanish Flu [1].

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Over the last year, the world has wrestled with COVID-19, or the Coronavirus, now one of the largest global health crises in history. The SARS-CoV-2 virus was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China and spread rapidly across the globe. By January 30th, the World Health Organization declared the disease a public health emergency of international concern, recommending people stay six feet apart, limit social contact, and cover their nose and mouth with a mask to limit transmission [2, 3]. The following months saw countries frantically mandating quarantines and passing masking laws [4].

Of them all, the United States took the longest after its first case to acknowledge the crisis [5]. It was also one of few not to impose a national lockdown, surrendering this responsibility to states—four of which never passed any viral control measures at all [5, 6]. A contributor to this sluggishness has been scientific denialism, or “doubt, denial, and rejection of the scientific community's consensus on central scientific principles,” a phenomenon that has long been documented in the United States, influencing society and politics alike [7, 8]. It showed itself in the form of pandemic-deniers who labeled the disease a “hoax,” hosted “Covid Parties,” and organized anti-mask protests, with 69% of U.S. citizens stating they had no intention to wear masks in the July of 2020 [9-11]. Although a study tracking cellular devices found that voluntary isolation in the country increased every month, with over 70% of citizens being regular maskers by the time vaccine candidates were confirmed in early December, significant damage had already been done: the U.S. had over 23 million cases and almost 400,000 deaths, making it the country with the highest COVID-19 numbers in the world [12-14]. According to modeling by Arizona State University, a widespread usage of masks in New York, once the global epicenter of the disease, could have reduced deaths in the city by up to 45% [15].

Scientific Denial Through History

This isn’t the first incident of people persistently denying science, especially in the United States. In fact, the country’s first official anti-mask league, the “Sanitary Sparticans,” formed as a result of the aforementioned events surrounding the Spanish Flu [16]. Other instances of science denial have included the flat earth theory, the 1920s opposition to Einstein’s theory of relativity, pushback over the polio vaccine, defiance against HIV as the cause of AIDS, controversy over tobacco’s correlation with lung cancer, the 2012 movement against whooping cough shots (leading to the largest whooping cough outbreak in 50 years), and the ongoing resistance to climate change [7]. Even now, as COVID-19 vaccines are administered globally, skeptics question their validity, discounting results from clinical trials and explanations by professional educators [17]. In an October 2020 survey, nearly a quarter of U.S. citizens disagreed with the statement “If a COVID-19 vaccine is proven safe and effective and is available, I will take it” [18]. While other sociological circumstances contribute to this perspective, including previous relations with the government and pharmaceutical industry, it often builds substantially off a gross misunderstanding of how science is conducted [7, 8]. It is important here not to conflate cases rejecting unethical science such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study [19] with cases where the scientific method itself is misrepresented to substantiate inherent biases. The latter not only undermines the scientific process, but can and has led to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths, time after time [20]. This prompts us to investigate the motivations fueling scientific denial, with psychologists debating how to counter this pseudoscience before it becomes an inescapable threat to human sustainability [21].

The latter not only undermines the scientific process, but can and has led to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths, time after time

The Psychology of Denialism

In studying historical cases of scientific denial, psychologists have noticed a repetitive arsenal of limited strategies utilized to propagate the denialist narrative, much of which can also be recognized with COVID-19. The overlying pattern in these is not the total rejection of science, but instead an exploitation of it. For example, denialist movements take advantage of normal aspects of the scientific process, including skepticism, variability, and uncertainty, to cast doubt on science. This involves misinterpreting phrases such as “there is no evidence to suggest that...” to mean “incorrect” rather than “untested,” and labeling revised research as “flip-flopping.” People also pervert science by cherry-picking evidence, the abundance of which almost guarantees that at least one study will be contradictory, and citing scientists with irrelevant specialties, such as the anti-vaccine movement quoting Dr. Viera Scheibner, a geologist [8]. They fall into the common heuristic of confirmation bias, by which people look only for evidence that supports what they already believe [7]. Additionally, denialist organizations attempt to create full intellectual infrastructures paralleling those of normative scientific research, with journals, institutions, and conferences, such as the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, after being barricaded from established science journals through the peer review process [22]. In general, many frame opposition to the majority as “intellectual courage,” deeming themselves the modern equivalent of Galileo’s heliocentric rebellion four centuries ago, and attack the integrity of scientists that contradict them, claiming financial or personal conflicts of interest. Finally, when all else fails, nearly every such group in history has unfailingly latched onto the argument of breached “personal freedoms,” including freedom of speech, religion, or choice, despite rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court discounting this [8].

Instead, the answer lies in empathy—the offer of compromise for compromise in return.

On an individual level, scientific denialism arises as an attempt to protect one’s core identity, to evade the stressful cognitive dissonance from conflating opposing ideologies. Dr. Naomi Oreskes, a history of science professor at Harvard University, labels this “implicatory denial,” when someone denies a truth because it’s easier to believe in evidence fabrication than to accept its implications [22]. As society-centric beings, this effect is then enforced by mob mentality and isolated affirmation; once an idea is adopted by a social, political, or religious group that embodies a pillar of our identity, the threat of ostracization overpowers logic or reason [7]. Psychologists conducted behavioral studies on two polar value domains—hierarchical/individualistic and egalitarian/communitarian—and found that people perceived scientific credibility based on preconceived notions reinforcing personal lifestyle and beliefs, an idea branded as the “cultural cognition of science” [23]. Due to these complex psychological underpinnings fueling denialism, it’s not surprising that deniers more readily trust their lived experiences than the words of a stranger. As climate scientist Dr. Per Espen Stoknes sympathetically stated, “my identity trumps truth any day” [8].

Moreover, studies have proven that education and information dumping are counterproductive solutions, only further polarizing the stubborn denial mindset. Instead, the answer lies in empathy—the offer of compromise for compromise in return [22]. Professor Dan Kahan of Yale Law School discusses ways to accomplish this. One is identity affirmation; rather than invalidating the perspective of denialists, information should be presented to remain consistent with their identity, bridging the cognitive gap. Another is pluralist advocacy, science-positive testimonies from influential individuals in leadership positions within the same socio-politico-economic groups as denialists. Finally, a third tool is narrative framing, the use of traditional literary schemes to shed a positive or negative light on specific subjects in public view. Examples include a protagonist-antagonist relationship or a hero-villain-victim structure. Through precise manipulation of the image of science projected to the public, people may be persuaded to see scientific consensus as the “hero” protecting them from harm [23].

The Politics of Safety vs. Freedom

Still, these strategies can only do so much. Denialist perspectives will likely continue to exist in the future. A difficult question pertaining to the balance of public safety and personal freedom then arises: at what point should legal actions be taken to curtail the harmful effects of scientific denialism?

Part of democracy’s beauty lies in the expectation that the electoral relationship between citizens and political institutions fosters high social trust and open communication. Hypothetically, this should persuade citizens to comply with public safety measures voluntarily [24]. This was discernible in Finland, Norway, New Zealand, and South Korea, all of which handled the pandemic exceptionally well with little to no legal restrictions [25]. However, Dr. Natasha Zaretsky from the University of Alabama at Birmingham emphasizes that this is distorted in the U.S., where sensationalist journalism representing extreme perspectives and an increasingly polarized political spectrum divide people against administration [26]. Additionally, compliance is eroded by the ignorance of powerful elected executives, an aspect of the U.S. and Brazil that demonstrated its impact via jarringly similar COVID-19 narratives. Both President Trump and President Bolsonaro disrupted public opinion by promoting denialism, contending with national health officials, suggesting dangerous “cures,” and adopting faux-authoritarian leadership. Both countries resultantly suffered drastic consequences, taking the bare minimum actions and facing overwhelming case numbers [24]. An analogous circumstance resulted from President Reagan’s long silence over the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s [27]. In cases such as these, when democracy fails to yield cooperation, it seems reasonable to turn toward legal action; this is supported by the decision of 1905 Supreme Court case Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which declared that states may mandate vaccines “for the common good” and that restrictions can be necessary in a democratic society for the “safety of its members” [28].

A difficult question pertaining to the balance of public safety and personal freedom then arises: at what point should legal actions be taken to curtail the harmful effects of scientific denialism?

Nonetheless, concerns over abuse of power remain valid. Authoritarian governments, sharing this low citizen trust, necessarily turn to forceful legislative action to handle situations such as the Coronavirus. For instance, China successfully implemented brutal quarantines and strict distancing laws, swiftly resolving the second wave of the pandemic [24]. However, this force can easily become dangerous, as with nations using the pandemic to excessively strip away rights. China is among them, having detained human rights activists in “quarantines” without outside communication, even after the recommended 14 days and negative testing [29]. In addition, the Hungarian president used emergency powers to suspend elections, indefinitely extending his position, and India cited “fake news” as an excuse to attack and arrest dissenting journalists [25, 26, 30].

This not only highlights the importance of carefully monitoring regulations on freedom, but also pushes us to seek solutions outside the realm of legislature. While some laws mandating safety are necessary in the meantime, the empathetic framing techniques discussed prior, a careful management of scientific sensationalism, and other large-scale transparency efforts to increase public trust in government could lead the U.S. towards a more sound democracy, in which people reliably act in favor of public health [31]. As suggested by Swedish philosopher Dr. Sven Hansson, we must effectively communicate “what science really is, why it should not be politicized, and how it can provide humanity with a better common understanding of the world we are living in” [20].



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