Listen to the chorus and you’d come to think that our biggest problem in responding to the pandemic comes from Americans who think Covid-19 is a hoax — the so-called Covid denialists.
But the claim is a straw man: there is no epidemic of pandemic denial. Polls since March have shown that Americans overwhelmingly aren’t in denial: They believe the threat of Covid-19 is real, they are reasonably good at identifying medical misinformation, and they are largely complying with public health recommendations. Compared to their peers in Europe, Americans are more willing to get vaccinated against Covid-19, similarly likely to wear masks, and no more prone to believe common conspiracy theories about the pandemic’s origins.
The U.S.’s response to Covid-19 has been bungled in many respects, but widespread public denial doesn’t explain why.
The obsession with denialism isn’t just inaccurate. It’s corrosive for at least three reasons. First, it needlessly alienates the interested public with false accusations. Second, by conflating reasonable dissent with unreasonable misinformation, it stifles debate, even about issues that genuinely warrant discussion. Third, the myth of denial deflects blame from the policy failures of politicians, who use it to claim they’ve done all they could, leaving only the denialists (and cheesecake eaters) to blame.
Mislabeling dissent over serious policy disagreements as denial has contributed to the extended closure of public schools, which could ultimately be viewed as the single biggest policy blunder in the pandemic. Early advocates of reopening schools were routinely accused of Covid-19 denial — or worse. Today, public health advice increasingly favors keeping schools open whenever possible, in part because the consequences of closed schools are serious. But it is a hard message to get across now that the issue has been so badly politicized.
We must stop labelling every valid disagreement as denial, which tends to censor legitimate differences of opinion. In seeking to discourage bad-faith claims, we are also damaging good-faith discussion. It is possible to rationally disagree with many policy choices that have been made throughout the pandemic, based both on scientific uncertainty, and because many of the hardest choices rely on values and tradeoffs that do not have a singular answer. “Follow the science” just begs the question about how to balance conflicting considerations.
The relevant question in labeling someone a denialist isn’t “Do I agree with him?” The question should be, “Does the person have a good faith basis for his belief?” Many elites — journalists, academics, pundits, and the like — seem to believe their answer to the first question determines their answer to the second one. This is as unscientific as it is undemocratic. As philosopher Michael Sandel notes in his critique of meritocratic culture, it is an elite fantasy that dissenters are just misinformed about the facts. Debates over which facts matter, and how best to describe them, have always been central to political discourse.
Skepticism is not the same as denial. Misdiagnosing it encourages unhelpful blaming and shaming. Lockdown fatigue, for instance, is fundamentally distinct from denying the pandemic’s significance. It is instead a natural, if problematic, phenomenon that public health scholars have warned us to anticipate since the spring. The failure to incorporate predictable human behavior into pandemic policy is an error of policy design, not the moral failing of Americans.
In a similar fashion, vaccine hesitancy is better overcome by sincere engagement instead of name calling. Consistent with the rational evaluation of information, more Americans are expressing confidence in Covid-19 vaccines as more data become available about them.
The accusation of denial rarely wins debates. Much of the skepticism toward lockdowns is grounded in genuine concerns about the relative costs and benefits. Many of the most strident opponents of lockdowns, such as businesses who have refused to close, have consistently acknowledged the seriousness of the pandemic. Their pushback has focused instead on the failure of politicians to provide needed economic support or to justify the logic behind inconsistent measures. How likely are skeptics to be convinced of the value of strategic lockdowns if their views are alleged to amount to a denial of the pandemic’s existence, or of science itself?
As an example, many scientists unhelpfully focused their replies to the Great Barrington Declaration, which criticized lockdowns, on ancillary questions about the authors’ potential ties to libertarian funding. Not only does that fail to articulate a substantive objection, it fails to explain the motivation behind the document. After all, the authors of the document have expressed similar views since the beginning of the pandemic, and the foundation of their views is more easily found in the authors’ past writing than in the possibility of funding-induced bias. Alleging shadowy links to science denial is neither effective or honest as a response.
Those who proclaim an epidemic of pandemic denial routinely misrepresent evidence. Those who called the economy the most important issue in November exit polls were tendentiously termed “Covid-19 deniers” by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a sentiment echoed by other public health elites. A JAMA essay on denialism last month claimed as its central evidence for the problem that most Americans refused to wear masks in public, citing an article that contained no such statistic. In fact, almost all evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of Americans have routinely worn masks since spring.
Another story, about patients calling the disease a hoax with their final gasps, failed to hold up to mild scrutiny — but only after it had already gone viral. Other stories on denial rest on inapt statistics about Americans who have questions about the pandemic’s origins. However poorly founded, those views hardly demonstrate a denial of the public health crisis.
Some may say this is just an issue of semantics, or that we are being unfairly literal in interpreting the rhetorical use of “denial.” Its usage certainly sounds literal: Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said that his biggest obstacle is the “group of people who don’t even believe that this is a phenomenon … They think it’s fake news. They don’t believe it’s real.” Even if it is just a rhetorical flourish, denial is a serious charge.
Accuracy is essential, and we applaud those who check facts and call out inaccuracies, especially when amplified by prominent figures — be they President Donald Trump or Governor Andrew Cuomo. But the charge of denialism should not be casually levied against a wide swath of Americans, most of whom have spent this year diligently complying with confusing, changing, and occasionally irrational guidance.
Jacob Hale Russell is associate professor of law at Rutgers. Dennis Patterson is professor of law and philosophy at Rutgers. They are writing a book on skepticism, expertise, and elites in American politics.