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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.

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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.

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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.

  • I don’t deny Covid 19 is an actual virus but I do deny we have to sacrifice so much in dealing with it.

  • It’s not denial for those of us who travel the country to all of the so called hot spots and I get paid well to do so. In over 150 hospital visits across the counties collected video and audio of empty hospital beds where media claims they’re over run with covid. Copies of non disclosure agreements and mandates from HHS. I’ve been in my line of work for 30+ years. Try getting evidence like mine into the main stream media.

  • ‘Misdiagnosing it encourages unhelpful blaming and shaming.’

    That is the whole point of misdiagnosing it. I don’t believe they use the term ‘denialist’ in good faith.

  • Epidemiologists and public health experts in the West–including the US–are poor communicators and poorly educated in synthesizing their knowledge with socially doable solutions. We need people like Ben Franklin, who was able to convince the entire world to use lightning rods after he deduced their benefit from figuring out that lightning was electricity. Instead, we get toddler-level insistence on conflicting commands that change hourly.

    Public schools never needed to be closed; many private schools did not close at all. Government refused to put the 100% fresh air exchange and ionized filtration into school ventilation systems. Refused to provide the generous amounts of PPE and basic instruction on how to stay safe. This is not rocket science.

    Public health education needs major restructuring. Politicians need to ignore their donors when an emergency arises. Simple stuff.

  • Probably important to mention WHY those scientists pointed out the libertarian funding though since it’s from the same groups that funded climate change denial… it’s really hard to believe that this article is into something when it didn’t even take into account modern political history. There’s not even one mention of the history of concerted efforts to muddy science by libertarian special interests like the Koch’s which seems crucial in understanding why people are so quick to ascribe denial. Also linking to a cite about how to identify misinformation isn’t evidence that Americans know how to do it.. nor is linking a study showing how many Americans are willing to take a vaccine indicative of how many Americans accept the virus as 1. Real and 2. A serious issue. Since your argument is built on a shaky set of facts, this reads more like moderate conservatives mad that they’re not being taken seriously because the extreme wing is the dominant one in their party.

    • The point is that it DOESN’T MATTER who pays for research. The research should stand on its own merits. Smearing research because it may be funded by someone you dislike simply means that you can find nothing fundamentally wrong with the research, but are looking for some unconnected reason to reject it…

  • “Third, the myth of denial deflects blame from the policy failures of politicians, who use it to claim they’ve done all they could”

    Also from the policy failures of epidemiologists and regulators at the CDC and FDA, who claim that they did all they could but ignore that their colleagues in Asia were much better at understanding the pandemic and offering policy recommendations based on understanding cost benefit ratios early on. Indeed, even the very real failures of politicians are used to distract from how poorly public health professionals have done in the US, Latin America, and Europe, compared to Asia.

    Even now they still think that at home instant testing shouldn’t be approved without a prescription. Slowness kills.

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