10 Jul 2020

Health officials blame poor US Covid-19 response on anti-science bias

12:59 pm on 10 July 2020

Health officials in the United States are increasingly blaming the country's poor response to the pandemic on an anti-science bias.

 Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases,  prepares to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, prepares to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labour and Pensions Committee. Photo: AFP

Cases continue to rise in the country, which has now surpassed 3 million total infections.

A new Reuters analysis has found new cases are rising in 42 of the 50 states, while the country's death rate is also on the up.

Last month, America's top infectious diseases expert, Anthony Fauci, said he was shocked by how many people were wilfully ignoring the threat of Covid-19.

"One of the problems we face in the United States is that unfortunately, there is a combination of an anti-science bias that people are - for reasons that sometimes are ... inconceivable and not understandable - they just don't believe science and they don't believe authority," Dr Fauci said.

He added that should a vaccine for Covid-19 be developed, it may not be effective in the US as not enough people would voluntarily take it, preventing herd immunity.

Wake Forest University professor Adrian Bardon told RNZ it was not so much an anti-science bias that is endangering the country, but an "anti-bad news" feeling.

Wake Forest University professor, Adrian Bardon.

Adrian Bardon. Photo: Supplied

His book, The Truth About Denial: Bias and Self-Deception in Science, Politics, and Religion, was published late last year.

"It's the same thing as when your friends present you with evidence that you're an alcoholic - you will deny and deflect and come up with any kind of rationalisation that makes that not true."

He said scientific evidence could become the subject of debate when it was politicised.

"Denial, in general, is never about facts in the first place. It's more of an emotional response.

"Just as how we have a fight or flight response when we're under attack ... we often have a very similar response when it comes to threats to our identities, our ideologies, or our status quo."

In the US, President Donald Trump has spoken in equivocal language about the wearing of masks, despite health officials for some time urging people to wear them.

"I talked to the president before coming out here. It's his choice to wear a mask. It's the personal choice of any individual as to whether to wear a mask or not," his press secretary said on 30 June.

Two days later the president said: "I'm all for masks."

Trump is one of the most influential figures in the US, and he is yet to wear a mask in public.

Social distancing has also been wilfully ignored at times across the country, whether at massive parties at lakes or on beaches, or people protesting against lockdowns.

But that was not necessarily because they were unaware of the dangers of Covid-19, said Professor Bardon.

"It's not about being stupid or uneducated - it's not about what you know, but what you feel.

"These people feel like they're doing the right thing - that their behaviour is fine - because they've been getting signals from their peers, from social media, and even their president, who have made them feel comfortable."

Another commonly cited reason for people turning to conspiracy theories or hoaxes is that they feel a lack of control in their lives - that they deeply fear the influence of authorities like governments or police.

"The feeling of a lack of control is simply, in a lot of ways, the feeling of anxiety," Professor Bardon said. "And anxiety can lead to denial."

So what would his advice be for the best way to speak to someone who might be an anti-vaxxer, or in climate-change denial, or even a flat-earther?

"There's a notorious lack of effectiveness in trying to cite facts and information - that person probably already knows what the scientific advice is - what is much more effective are appeals to people's emotions," he said.

"For instance, you could show someone who doesn't believe the pandemic is serious a photo of someone in the last stages of dying of Covid."

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