How Identity—Not Ignorance—Leads to Science Denial
Changing the minds of Covid-19 deniers may require a lot more than sound reasoning
During the first months of the novel coronavirus outbreak, many rural parts of the U.S. did not experience the swell in caseloads or hospital admissions that threatened to overwhelm cities like New York, Detroit, and New Orleans. West Texas was one of these comparatively fortunate places. And considering the Lone Star State’s long-running antipathy toward government oversight, it made sense that some there would choose to ignore or downplay warnings from federal and local health officials.
But elements of the script have since flipped, and Covid-19 case numbers are now spiking in many counties across West Texas. One might assume that, in the face of rising caseloads, many there would abandon their prior insouciance and embrace masks and other common-sense measures recommended by the nation’s top public health officials. But that doesn’t seem to be happening; if anything, the resolve of many Covid-19 skeptics appears to be stiffening. Even state officials who can no longer ignore the virus continue to lash out at public health authorities. (Last week, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick criticized Dr. Anthony Fauci, saying that Fauci “has been wrong every time on every issue” and “I don’t need his advice anymore.”)
Anyone who has ever butted heads with a friend, a family member, or a colleague about one of science’s hot button issues — be it global warming, the safety of vaccines, or the gravity of the current pandemic — has likely walked away from the experience frustrated and exasperated at the other person’s stubborn and apparently nonsensical refusal to consider the facts.
But psychologists say that the denial of facts is often rooted in identity and belonging, not in ignorance and that changing minds may require a lot more than sound reasoning.
“The people who deny science are often trying to uphold membership in something that they find meaningful,” says Nina Eliasoph, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. That meaningful thing could be a political or religious affiliation or some other group that prizes certain ideas or ideals…