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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.

  • This column focuses far too little on a crucial point: that our president himself, and many of his allies in Congress, have literally called COVID a hoax, significantly downplayed its seriousness, or told outright falsehoods about its characteristics. While I agree we should end the habit of making these blanket statements that label every good-faith COVID questioner a COVID denier, we also should ask ourselves why so many of us seem quick to make accusations of COVID denial in the first place. The torrent of accusations is the result of the deliberate politicization of this pandemic and the embrace of COVID denial by our leaders in DC. We should spend more time criticizing them and less time criticizing our fellow Americans who are merely reacting, logically, to the divisive and spurious political messaging they’re hearing from different corners of the White House and Capitol Hill.

    • Andrew K – the President made a statement about the level of the pandemic in the US which was not well thought out and turned out to be extremely erroneous, but that was very, very early on. It is a gross distortion to say he “called Covid a hoax” – about the same time, Dr. Fauci was telling people not to freak out or wear masks – and, in the context of the time , this was a reasonable, though also extremely erroneous statement.
      I am not trying to defend Trump, because he did give out some misinformation, but this claims made are generally excessive.
      What we have seen with Trump is, his policies, which are good for the citizens of the US, and supported by the majority of people, but vehemently opposed by many in the upper class, are never the object of criticism – it is always personal attacks – illegal immigration is opposed by the majority of Americans, who realize it is bad for them – Trump is against it – so we get nothing but personal attacks on him not on his policy which most Americans support.
      This relates to the Wuhan coronavirus as follows:
      Trump will be out in less than a month, but the medical establishment and Federal officials who managed the response to this epidemic will still be in, with their policies, for the most part, never really challenged – you do not see the media analyzing the mistakes made by long term officials, only repeating what Trump did wrong.
      So, i respect Dr. Fauci, who until recently, was risking his life by simply continuing to work, as a 79 year old man (80 today per reports) who had not had vaccine – but, early on, the CDC was double talking, not recommending masks for the public while trying to keep them for front line medical workers – I understand they felt they needed to do that, but if Dr. Fauci had gone on TV and said “Find a mask, anything you can and use it” very early on, that might have set the importance of them in the public mind and really slowed down the epidemic .
      And there was debate over vaccination development – which was going to progress at a greatly speeded up, but nowhere near “Warp Speed” pace, under FDA plans – without knowing all the details, it appears right now that Trump got them to REALLY speed up – and so far, it appears this will be a HUGE benefit to the world. Despite the supply problems, it is looking like Trump’s constant pushing got the world a vaccine maybe a year earlier than FDA would have allowed without him. Fauci was saying two years back in Spring 2020 IIRC.
      But again, Trump will be gone – so we need to somehow design a system where, in true emergencies, like another epidemic this bad, or worse, FDA does not get in the way. I realize hindsight is 20/20, but it is good to keep in mind, the Moderna vaccine was first given in March 2020 – if there had been an agency which would have forced an immediate Phase 3 trial at that time, the data would have been in by the Summer, and most of us would already be vaccinated. We can not afford to let the medical establishment stand in the way next time.

  • This is exactly how I have felt about this issue for a long time – one can see a lot of denial, or maybe more precisely, misunderstanding of statistics, in some of the vaccine resisters- but generally people are scared by the epidemic and want to protect themselves. Some very vocal true deniers are very visible, but they are in a small minority I think. I am in an area, the SF Bay Area, which has had low numbers so far, but now, I suspect due to lockdown fatigue, has a rapid huge rise in the
    epidemic.
    We do not get much more than “NO” from the politicians and public health people.
    There may be some situations where “NO” is the only answer – I do not think you can make bars “safe” for example, or gyms.
    In my county, the death rate, case fatality rate, for known cases in people 40 and under is about 1 in 1,600 – and we had a CDC study showing only 1/3 of cases were being detected this past summer – so maybe more like 1 in 5,000 – how long did they expect to keep young people who know their odds of dying, or getting very seriously ill, are very low, locked down? It is failing, to no one’s surprise who remembers being young.
    To name a few examples – the beaches and state parks are closed – there may have been good reason to limit admittance and make people maintain distance, or even wear masks at the beach – but a total shutdown of something which can be made very low risk by simple precautions?
    Camping is forbidden now – but camping, again done with social distancing – is not high risk at all. Rules may need to be enforced for some – but instead, we get “No nonessential travel” – local of long distance – and yet, somehow, the roads and certain big box stores are packed – the rules forbidding more than 25% capacity are simply ignored.
    Thank you for the article.

  • I agree with one of the comments that stated even a minority of deniers can become a critical mass if supported by the leadership. Herein, I believe lies the problem. If the President, and a good number of members of his party, is at best inconsistent with their views regarding COVID, than it becomes harder to separate those who have legitimate questions regarding how the nation should respond from those who as early as April ( i.e. President Trump) said to open up everything because in short order it would be fine. With that as the base line from the top, it became very difficult to have any reasonable discussion from there on out.

  • Maybe it depends on where you look. I’d say 25-30% of the people where I live think that it is either “just the flu” or completely non-existent.

  • Why does it not surprise me this was written by lawyers? Very useful people in their way, but completely incapable of dealing with Black Swan events.

  • I have some serious issues with your claims that “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.” Why is it then that at virtually all of the anti-lockdown protests nobody is wearing masks? An economic issue, closures, could be debated on its merits, but tying that in to being anti-mask reveals that this is not solely an economic issue. Why are these anti-lockdown protests accompanied by folks holding up signs against the COVID-19 vaccines BEFORE they had even been tested and shown to be highly effective? Why is it that so many of these lockdown protests tie into crazy conspiracy theories about Bill Gates, 5G, and plans to reset a new world order? This all comes from denial and a lack of critical thinking skills. Skepticism that does not give way to changing ones thinking in the face of large amounts of additional evidence is the same as denial. That’s why anti-vaxxers (not those who are simply vaccine hesitant) can never name ANY vaccine that they approve of, and why they will never accept the COVID-19 vaccines no matter than they are demonstrated to be safe and effective. It’s denial.

  • The authors write that people “are largely complying with public health recommendations.” This is a matter of opinion, but boy when I click on the link, I don’t feel that way. About 60% of younger people are avoiding restaurants and crowded places. That means 40% them are not doing so. I urge people to click on the links in this article to see if the data matches the authors’ statements.

  • you don’t need a majority to destroy something. All you need is a critical mass. Even a relatively small one if its ranting is echoed and amplified by the country’s leadership

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