Trust doubt?

Paper man surrounded by Corona Virus and economic news headlines

Is there anyone more gullible than a COVID denier?

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead and deniers are still not sure the disease is dangerous. Mask use prevented million of cases but they wouldn’t wear them. New vaccines are dramatically effective with few reported side effects but they won’t take them.

Why are they so gullible?

Ironically COVID deniers are even more passive than the believers in experts whom they despise.

Because instead of trusting government, public health experts or pharmaceutical companies, they place their trust in … DOUBT. In other words, they fall for a technique formulated by Big Tobacco back when it was lying about the fact that tobacco smoking causes cancer.

In the late 1960’s, a tobacco company executive circulated a memo among his colleagues. He was attempting to counter the large and growing body of research that demonstrated that smoking caused lung cancer and other serious illnesses.

Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy. Within the business we recognize that a controversy exists. However, with the general public the consensus is that cigarettes are in some way harmful to the health. If we are successful in establishing a controversy at the public level, then there is an opportunity to put across the real facts about smoking and health.

The memo is startling for its insight. Simply put, tobacco companies did not have to refute the scientific evidence about smoking and cancer; merely creating doubt in the mind of the American consumer was all that was necessary to maintain or increase demand for cigarettes.

COVID deniers don’t have to refute the scientific evidence about the disease; merely creating doubt among others makes it possible to undermine scientists, public health authorities and the pharmaceutical industry.

Indeed the technique of promoting doubt has become so successful that many individuals refuse to trust science, government or industry but have no problem trusting random strangers on social media who encourage doubt.

‘Trusting blindly can be the biggest risk of all’: organised resistance to childhood vaccination in the UK (Hobson-West, Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 29 No. 2 2007, pp. 198–215) explains how it is accomplished.

A primary way this is achieved … is to construct risk as unknowns… In the realist account, uncertainty and unknowns may be recognised but are usually framed as temporary phases that are overcome by more research. For the [antivaxxers], there is a more fundamental ignorance about the body and health and disease that will not necessarily be overcome by more research. Interestingly, this ignorance is constructed as a collective – ‘we’ as a society do not know the true impact of mass vaccination or the causes of health and disease.

Agreement with doctors (or any expert) is constructed as a negative and refusal to trust is constructed as a positive cultural attribute:

Clear dichotomies are constructed between blind faith and active resistance and uncritical following and critical thinking. Non-vaccinators or those who question aspects of vaccination policy are not described in terms of class, gender, location or politics, but are ‘free thinkers’ who have escaped from the disempowerment that is seen to characterise vaccination…

Anyone who trust experts is imagined as gullible, while those who trust doubt are lauded.

…[Antivaxxers] construct trust in others as passive and the easy option. Rather than trust in experts, the alternative scenario is of a [person] who becomes the expert themselves, through a difficult process of personal education and empowerment …

The truth, of course, is the opposite. Those who trust experts avoid death, disease and longterm disability while those who trust random people on social media become ill and may even die.

Ironically COVID deniers are even more passive than the believers in experts whom they despise. They don’t trust experts who offer empirical evidence but they will trust doubt even when there’s no empirical evidence to support it.

Trusting experts blindly isn’t the biggest risk of all. Trusting doubt is a far bigger risk and a far more dangerous choice.