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public health, psychology, covid, science denialism, bias, vaccine, identity, social group, cultural cognition, in-group bias, motivated reasoning


As it wreaked tragedy on the world, the outbreak of COVID-19 helped expose a pandemic of a different kind, one steeped in distrust and contrarianism. This movement, termed science denialism, has been lurking and undermining public health efforts for decades. Specifically, it is “the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists.” Unlike skepticism, which is “doubt as to the truth of something” and works to progress both science and society, denialism is characterized by individuals’ acceptance of only the evidence that confirms their prior beliefs. The battle cries of denialists are easily recognizable: “vaccines cause autism,” “climate change is a hoax,” and “the flu kills more people than COVID-19,” to name a few. The hallmarks of this thinking include seeing consensus as a conspiracy, using fake experts to give weight to their claims, cherry-picking data, holding impossibly high expectations for science, and relying on misrepresentation and logical fallacies to support their beliefs. With bold statements and calculated tactics, denialists pose a major problem for public health authorities as they undermine research-backed messaging and erode the public’s trust in these authorities’ leadership.

In response, authorities must seek to understand denialists’ thinking on both an individual and group level, using these lessons to better craft policies and outreach. On the individual psychological level, denialists form and maintain their beliefs based on motivated reasoning, cognitive dissonance, psychological reactance, heuristics, belief perseverance, and an array of cognitive biases. Similarly, interacting with their community of denialists further bolsters these beliefs through the mechanisms of cultural cognition, in-group bias, and group polarization. An understanding of these influences can help public health authorities institute a multi-pronged approach to counter denialism and its spread. Some techniques include appealing to denialists’ senses of identity, narrative framing, presenting guidance as permissive, showcasing public health measures as gains instead of losses, using pluralistic advocacy to ensure credible experts of diverse values and backgrounds are represented during debates, rebutting claims and logical fallacies, inoculating audiences against misinformation, and conducting motivational interviews rooted in respect and empathy. With these research-backed approaches in hand, public health authorities can better connect with denialists, rebuild the public’s trust, and fulfill their calling to safeguard society’s health and welfare.