Anti-vaxxers and Anti-maskers: The Psychology of Science Denial

By Shivani Rajhansa

In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, most people are doing their best to maintain social distancing, regularly wash their hands and wear masks so that normalcy can be regained sooner rather than later. However, all around the world there have been resistant pockets of people that refuse to believe the precarious state of the world or choose to ignore the advice from experts in the field. From persistent protests to public meltdowns, these small but stubborn groups have become a public health threat. The tactics and thought -patterns are very much reminiscent of another infamous group: anti-vaxxers. The misunderstanding of science and misplaced importance of personal freedom is what fuels the anti-science rhetoric observed in these groups. Their beliefs are in short termed science denial, or “the rejection or diminution of a phenomenon that has a large — and sometimes overwhelming — body of supporting evidence” (Heid, 2020). Understanding the psychology that leads to these strong opinions and how misinformation is spread is the first step in tackling this issue. 

An insightful article on science denialism in the European Journal of Public Health outlines five characteristic elements deniers – from global-warming sceptics to anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers – employ in their thought process. The first is the strong belief that scientific consensus is not reached individually from discrete research, but rather that scientists are engaged in a secretive conspiracy. The peer review process is perceived as a means of silencing opposing evidence thus acting as a system to fuel the intricate conspiracy (Diethelm and McKee, 2009). More than a third of Americans believe that the coronavirus is a biological weapon developed by the Chinese government, while another third believes that public health authorities are exaggerating the state of the pandemic to undermine President Trump (Romer and Jamieson, 2020). The belief in conspiracy theories does sometimes stem from genuine fears. For example, the idea that AIDS was created as a government scheme to eradicate the African American population is one believed by a small but significant number of black people. This is a fear rooted in a deep mistrust based on past events rather than ignorance (Pebody, 2020). While conspiracies are not entirely fictional, scepticism of the entire scientific community poses a genuine public health threat. 

The second characteristic element of science deniers is employing the word of fake experts to justify one’s beliefs (Diethelm and McKee, 2009). The infamous example of this is Andrew Wakefield, the discredited ex-physician/researcher who is said to have fuelled the anti-vaccination movement. The Lancet published Wakefield’s study which involved 12 children and suggested a correlation between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, and autism. Although this study was retracted, Wakefield was discredited and his data was declared inaccurate, insufficient, and biased, people around the world are still sceptical of vaccines (Rao and Andrade, 2020). Ten years later Wakefield continues to lobby against vaccination and is now also undermining the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic (Carter, 2020).  Countless self-proclaimed experts such as Wakefield, whose views greatly differ from established scientific fact, propel an anti-science movement. 

The trust in isolated experts leads to the third characteristic which is the trust in isolated papers (Diethelm and McKee, 2009). Cherry-picking data is infamous in the science world. It is a tactic used by science deniers to discredit the dominant consensus on a particular subject. Such studies are often outdated, taken out of context, selectively portrayed or just poorly carried out. An anti-mask article (Huber, 2020) published on Technocracy.news, a popular conspiracy/ pseudoscience website, is a perfect example of how science deniers quote-mine research papers for conclusions supporting their beliefs. Many of the studies cited in this article that claim a mask is not particularly effective, also outline the limitations of their research saying that their results may not be applicable to the use of masks in the general public – something the author conveniently leaves out. At one point she writes that according to a particular study (MacIntyre et al., 2015) “Healthcare workers wearing cloth masks had significantly higher rates of influenza-like illness after four weeks of continuous on-the-job use, when compared to controls. The increased rate of infection in mask-wearers may be due to…”. The author makes it out to be  that the control group was not wearing masks, but a closer look at the cited study shows that the control group was actually wearing medical masks. This deceptive spin on the actual findings can convince a casual reader that there really are a number of studies that do not support the use of masks. Not only is this selectivity of isolated papers and quotes employed to fuel the deniers’ own beliefs, but also spread a movement based on misinformation. 

The fourth characteristic of denialism are logical fallacies (Diethelm and McKee, 2009). These are errors in reasoning that are often present in anti-science arguments. For example, the naturalistic fallacy, a view that what is natural must be good and unnatural must be bad, fuels the anti-vaccination idea that infectious diseases are not to be feared. Deniers make use of this fallacy by listing the chemical components of vaccines to make them sound unnatural and therefore harmful (Kaufman and Kaufman, 2018). The nirvana fallacy is a view that if a solution is not perfect then it is worthless (Kaufman and Kaufman, 2018). This is very much evident in anti-maskers, who believe that masks are not effective because authorities recommend combining them with other measures such as hand washing and social distancing. Science deniers’ arguments are riddled with these and other such fallacies that genuinely convince them of their beliefs.

The “creation of impossible expectations of what research can deliver” is the last characteristic of denialism (Diethelm and McKee, 2009). Especially after sufficient evidence has been presented to refute a specific claim, greater evidence is demanded (Kaufman and Kaufman, 2018). This raising of the bar is evident when it comes to the safety of vaccines. Anti-vaxxers claim that the thousands of studies proving the effectiveness and safety of vaccines are invalid because the vaccine schedule has not been tested all together for an entire human lifespan. Such experiments would be impossible to achieve logistically. When science does not support their claims, the anti-vaccine movement, similarly to the anti-mask movement, turns to a discussion of freedom (Kaufman and Kaufman, 2018). They argue that their rights or freedom of individual thought are being infringed upon when their beliefs are attacked. While individuality and personal freedom is of utmost importance in most democratic nations, the decisions of some people, may it be anti-vaxxers or anti-maskers, are posing a threat to public health. This raises the question: to what extent can authorities allow liberties of the citizens while trying to prevent the further spread of the virus?

In the midst of a world-wide pandemic, when individual choices can lead to catastrophe, this question is the critical one.  Many experts are recommending government authorities to make public mask-wearing compulsory. Such regulations, however, may contribute towards growing contempt for the government in the general public, which in the long-term might just worsen the situation. Dealing with this issue at the grassroots by working to deconstruct the anti-science mentality would be ideal, but it would take a long time. Through thorough analysis of the science- denying groups, the scientific community and government authorities must collaborate to find a systematic method to address the root of this issue.

References:

Carter, H., 2020. Disgraced MMR Scandal Doc Andrew Wakefield Claiming Coronavirus Is HOAX. [online] The Sun. Available at: <https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/12149075/andrew-wakefield-claiming-coronavirus-is-a-hoax/&gt; [Accessed 30 September 2020].

Diethelm, P. and McKee, M., 2009. Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?. European Journal of Public Health, [online] 19(1), pp.2-4. Available at: <https://academic.oup.com/eurpub/article/19/1/2/463780&gt; [Accessed 30 September 2020].

Heid, M., 2020. How Identity—Not Ignorance—Leads To Science Denial. [online] Elemental. Available at: <https://elemental.medium.com/&gt; [Accessed 30 September 2020].

Huber, C., 2020. Masks Are Neither Effective Nor Safe: A Summary Of The Science. [online] Technocracy.news. Available at: <https://www.technocracy.news/masks-are-neither-effective-nor-safe-a-summary-of-the-science/&gt; [Accessed 30 September 2020].

Kaufman, A. and Kaufman, J., 2018. Pseudoscience: The Conspiracy Against Science.

MacIntyre CR, Seale H, Dung TC, et alA cluster randomised trial of cloth masks compared with medical masks in healthcare workersBMJ Open 2015;5:e006577. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-006577

Pebody, R., 2020. African American People’S AIDS Conspiracy Beliefs Best Understood In Terms Of Social Anxiety And Distrust, Not Ignorance. [online] NAM Aidsmap. Available at: <https://www.aidsmap.com/news/jan-2015/african-american-peoples-aids-conspiracy-beliefs-best-understood-terms-social-anxiety&gt; [Accessed 30 September 2020].

Rao, T. and Andrade, C., 2020. The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3136032/&gt; [Accessed 30 September 2020].

Romer, D. and Jamieson, K., 2020. Conspiracy theories as barriers to controlling the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. Social Science & Medicine, [online] Available at: <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S027795362030575X?via%3Dihub&gt; [Accessed 30 September 2020].

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