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“Believe Science” Is a Bad Response to Denialism

Liberals’ glorification of expertise amid the coronavirus and climate crises reveals their own distrust of democracy.

Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images
A protest against the shutdown in Madison, Wisconsin

Scientists saw it coming well in advance: a crisis that, left unaddressed, could kill hundreds of thousands of people. The White House ignored it, telling the public the problem was already contained. Maybe, senior officials speculated, it wasn’t a problem at all but another hoax cooked up by the president’s enemies in Congress, or by the Chinese government. Once the crisis grew and could no longer be ignored, the right changed its tune, insisting that a full-throated response to the problem could be worse than the problem itself and send the country unnecessarily into economic ruin; if tens of thousands of lives had to be sacrificed at the altar of the S&P 500, so be it. Quacks boasting about their shaky subject expertise claimed to know what the bona fide experts didn’t, questioning official models with their own contrived ones. Contrarians called the people implementing established authorities’ recommendations hysterical alarmists trying to press their socialist agenda onto an unwitting public. Then came the protests: overwhelmingly white, seemingly homegrown expressions of outrage, which—it turns out—had gotten a helping hand from a Koch brother and the Mercer family, as well as fawning coverage from Fox News.

For those who follow climate politics, the past few months of coronavirus news have felt eerily familiar. For years, well-meaning people calling for climate action have pleaded with American voters and policymakers to trust the experts. The hope was that if enough people simply learned about global warming they would come around to the right side of things. If they didn’t, there must be something pathologically wrong with them. Or maybe they were just stupid. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth embodied that logic: a calm, authoritative voice presenting slide after slide of dispiriting facts about what concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would do to our planet. Climate deniers—or “skeptics,” as they like to call themselves—would be fact-checked into oblivion by experts cooly dismantling deniers’ favorite fringe theories. After Trump’s election, calls to “believe science” became a rallying cry. Of course, the experts were right. But that didn’t make appealing to expertise any more potent a political strategy, as America’s current lack of comprehensive climate policy can attest.

The Covid-19 parallels are numerous. The Trump administration’s bungled pandemic response has almost certainly been responsible for tens of thousands of preventable deaths, just as the administration has likely irreparably damaged the climate in its nearly four years of regulatory rollbacks and fossil-fuel boosterism. Upward of 50,000 U.S. casualties from the coronavirus made the issue too big to denyunlike the threats from environmental degradation and severe weather, which at least to well-off Americans are more indirect. GOP denial of Covid-19, instead, has morphed into disputing what’s needed to deal with the virus and its fallout. So far, it has offered generous handouts to corporations, while expecting struggling families to get by on a $1,200 check for 10 weeks. Cash-strapped state and local governments, Senator Mitch McConnell has argued, should tighten their belts instead of asking Uncle Sam for help. The president seemed, last Thursday, to be suggesting people’s lungs could be cleaned with disinfectant. (Please do not do this.) Republican governors in Georgia and South Carolina have begun reopening their economies without adequate testing protocols in place, giving at-risk constituents the freedom to die. And protests against shutdown orders have cropped up in Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, with some attendees creatively likening self-isolation measures to communism.

In recent weeks, as casualties and increasingly shrill GOP backlash have mounted, White House Coronavirus Task Force head Anthony Fauci has become an unlikely #Resistance hero in the mold of Robert Mueller or James Comey and spawned an exceedingly thirsty genre of homemade Etsy kitsch. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—overseeing the country’s worst crisis—has won similar praise with his stern nightly briefings, despite the governors of California and Washington having responded more ably. “Cuomosexual,” God help us, was trending a few weeks back. Abroad, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s background in the sciences has become the subject of #girlboss adoration, even as the tight-fisted status quo she’s crafted for the Eurozone is hamstringing the bloc’s response and putting its future in jeopardy. Cringe aside, these upstart fandoms may be a window into the kinds of leadership at least some segment of the population craves in chaos. What if all people want, in a time of crisis, is a strong, expert manager-type telling them what to do? Call it the tyranny of low expectations.

Appeals to “capital-s science,” as the theorist Donna Haraway has put it, tap into a basic mistrust of democratic institutions’ ability to navigate uncertain times: trust the experts, and give them whatever they need to get things back to normal. “Both the constructive disagreement intrinsic to science and the adversarial scrutiny necessary to politics disappear in this invocation of science as the ultimate authority—this trick will become familiar in the coming months,” James Butler wrote for the London Review of Books recently. “An extraordinary emergency requires extraordinary powers; no one disagrees with that. But it is politics, not science, which grants these powers legitimacy.”

Coronavirus denialism and climate denialism aren’t the product of skeptical masses but disingenuous elites. Investigative journalist Lisa Graves pointed out recently in The New York Times that the anti-shutdown protests—like the Tea Party, and like much of the Koch-funded climate denialism—embody a mix of genuine outrage and dark money astroturf funneling that rages toward politically advantageous targets. The protests’ benefactors are dutifully social distancing for fear of getting sick themselves but want everyone else back to work to appease the stock market. Fossil fuel companies lobbied Congress and paid climate deniers in places like the Heartland Institute and Heritage Foundation to spew junk science on cable news, clouding the conversation enough to delay any meaningful action. It’s a similar tactic to that deployed by the Koch brothers in 2009, fearing that a climate bill would be passed: To head it off, they trained Americans for Prosperity’s guns on so-called RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) who thought about supporting it, clouding town halls, congressional offices, and airwaves with doubts about whether the earth was warming at all. If you were a Republican politician at some point in the last decade, it very literally paid to be a climate denier.

However steady and reassuring their tone of voice, the technocrats-in-chief liberals are now lusting after don’t offer a path away from right-wing plutocracy. Besting the likes of Mitch McConnell and the Koch apparatus—whether on Covid-19 or the climate—won’t come down to proving them wrong with enough science. It’ll mean calling out and taking on the corporations whose best interests are served by spreading doubt and disinformation—a task the Andrew Cuomos and Angela Merkels of the world have never seemed up to.