Bemoaning unequal individual and state compliance with public health guidelines, U.S. top advisor Anthony Fauci recently criticized the country’s inadequate pandemic response for an American “anti-science bias.” He called this bias “inconceivable” because “science is the truth.” Fauci attributed the importance of masks and social distancing to “anti-vaxxers” in their “amazing” refusal to listen to science.
It is Fauci ‘s profession of amazement that amazes me. As well-versed, as he is in coronavirus science, he overlooks the well-established concept of “anti-science bias” or science denial. Americans increasingly live in highly polarized, informationally isolated ideological communities forming their own information universes. Within segments of the political blogosphere, global warming is ignored as either a hoax or as ambiguous as if unworthy of response.
Among other regional or online communities, the science of vaccines, fluoridated drinking water, and genetically modified food is misunderstood or ignored. There is a marked gap in the stated concern regarding coronavirus, depending on political party affiliation, obviously based in part on ideological differences about factual issues such as the efficacy of social distancing or the actual death rate of COVID-19.
Theoretically, the resolution of factual disputes should be relatively easy: either have clear proof or evidence of a strong expert consensus. This method works most of the time, when the problem is, say, the atomic weight of hydrogen. But things don’t work that way when scientific opinion provides an image of someone’s perceived interests or ideological worldview.
In practice, it turns out that one’s political, religious, or ethnic identity determines very effectively one’s willingness to accept expertise on any given politicized issue. “Motivated reasoning” is what social scientists call the method of choosing what evidence to accept based on the conclusion that one prefers. As explained in this book, The Truth About Denial, this very human propensity extends to all sorts of evidence about the physical world, economic history, and current affairs.
Denial doesn’t stem from ignorance
The interdisciplinary research of this phenomenon has made one thing clear: the willingness of various groups to accept the truth about, say, climate change is not explained by the lack of knowledge on the scientific consensus on the topic. Instead, what strongly influences the rejection of knowledge on certain controversial issues is actually one’s political persuasion.
A 2015 metastudy has shown that ideological polarization over the reality of climate change is actually increasing with respondents’ knowledge of policy, science and/or energy policy. The chances of a conservative being a climate science denier are significantly higher if he or she is educated in college-educated.
Denialism is not just a conservative issue. Studies also found that liberals are less likely to support a hypothetical expert consensus on the likelihood of safe storage of nuclear waste or on the implications of concealed-carry gun laws.
Denial is natural
Human rationalization talent is the result of several hundreds of thousands of years of adaptation. Our ancestors evolved into small groups, where co-operation and persuasion had at least as much to do with reproductive success as with the holding of accurate facts about the world. Assimilation into one tribe involved assimilation into the group’s ideological belief system— whether based on science or superstition. The instinctive prejudice in favor of one’s “in-group” and its ideology is profoundly rooted in human psychology.
The very sense of self of a human being is closely connected to the status and values of his or her identity group. Unsurprisingly, then, people respond instinctively and defensively to information that undermines the identity of the groups they associate with. We respond with rationalization and selective evaluation of the evidence — we indulge in “confirmation bias,” giving credit to the expert testimony we want while seeking reasons to reject the others.
Unwelcome knowledge may also be compromised in many ways. “System justification” researchers like the psychologist John Jost have shown how circumstances that are viewed as a challenge to established systems cause inflexible thinking. For example, people experiencing economic distress or external threat have often resorted to authoritarian leaders who guarantee security and stability.
In ideologically charged cases, one’s prejudices end up influencing one ‘s factual beliefs. Insofar as you identify yourself in terms of your cultural affiliations, your allegiance to the social or economic status quo, or a combination of knowledge that threatens your belief system — say, the negative effects of industrial development on the environment — may threaten your own sense of identity.
If credible political leaders or partisan media tell you that the COVID-19 issue is overblown, accurate facts about a scientific consensus, on the contrary, may sound like a personal attack.
Denial is natural
This kind of affect-laden, motivated thinking explains a wide variety of examples of extreme, evidence-resistant rejection of historical facts and of scientific consensus. Have the tax cuts been shown to pay for themselves in terms of economic growth? Do communities with a high number of immigrants have higher rates of violent crime?
Did Russia interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election? Unsurprisingly, the expert opinion on such issues is treated by partisan media as if the evidence itself is inherently partisan. Denialist manifestations are numerous and varied, but the story behind them is, in the end, very simple.
Human cognition is indistinguishable from the unconscious emotional responses that go with it. Under the right circumstances, universal human traits such as in-group favoritism, existential anxiety, and a desire for stability and control combine into a toxic, system-justifying identity politics.
Science denial is notoriously immune to evidence since it is not a matter of truth in the first place. Science denial is an expression of identity — usually in the face of perceived challenges to the social and economic status quo— and generally presents itself in reaction to elite messaging.
I would be quite shocked if Anthony Fauci is, in fact, unaware of the major effect of politics on COVID-19 behaviors, or of the messages sent by Republican State Government leaders, a political mask denial in Congress, or the recent Trump rally in Tulsa. Proper science communication is vitally important because of the significant effect partisan messaging can have on public attitudes. Vaccination, resource depletion, climate, and COVID-19 are all life-and-death problems. To counter them effectively, we must not ignore what evidence tells us about the denial of science reality.