“I’m not losing,” said US President Donald Trump at a recent press conference. “Because those are fake polls.” Trump seemingly denied that all the polls suggest he could lose the election, refusing to say whether he will accept the results of the election.
It was a weird and unsettling set of statements, but not a surprising one. Denial has been a common tool in Trump’s arsenal, as he denied everything from the pandemic (“it will go away”) to climate change (“I don’t believe it”).
A few minutes before that statement, Trump said he gets along well with Dr. Fauci, the de-facto pandemic expert. Fauci is “a little bit of an alarmist”, Trump said. This too was not surprising.
‘Alarmist, hoax, hysteria’ — the deniers’ playbook
Calling scientists alarmists and calling the problem a hoax is far from a new trend. Leading climatologist Michael Mann likened the attacks on epidemiologists to those endured by climate scientists.
“Those of us on the front lines of the climate wars know how it feels. For decades, we’ve been under assault by politicians and fossil fuel attack dogs because of the inconvenient nature of our science—science that demonstrates the reality of climate change,” Mann writes in an op-ed on Newsweek.
Even before that, those who claimed that smoking is bad for you were often dismissed as alarmists by those wanting to deny the problem or just cover it up (as highlighted in the excellent book Merchants of Doubt).
It’s a common playbook: there’s no problem, just deny it and it will go away. Then, maybe, you admit there’s a problem, but still say it’s blown out of proportion. Outright denying science can be done, but it can be challenging and it can backfire. Rejecting scientists, however, has turned out to be much more fruitful for deniers — if you can make people question their motives and their accuracy, your denial strategy is back on track.
For those in the public who are not paying much attention or are just fatigued by the constant bombardment of information, it’s easy to fall into this trap. If experts are portrayed as out-of-touch, biased, and exaggerating, people are much less inclined to actually take note of what experts are saying. Again, we only need to look at the climate denial campaign to see how this has been done.
This is where words like ‘alarmist’ or ‘hysteria’ are very useful for deniers. First, you bluff your way and deny the problem. Then, if that doesn’t work and scientists contradict you, discredit the scientists and go back to step one.
The scientific process itself is vulnerable to this type of manipulation. Science is always a work in progress, and researchers are always finding ways to improve both the data and the conclusions we can draw from the data. New parameters are added to initial models, or we find another mechanism at work, one of the assumptions proves to be false — it all happens routinely in scientific research; science is not a body of facts, it’s a process, and oftentimes, not a linear process.
That’s why scientists often like to talk about degrees of confidence and certainty. Scientists are reluctant to assert things like “mankind is causing climate change”, instead preferring to say that “we’re 95% certain mankind is causing climate change”. This is once again something that deniers are working to exploit. If we don’t have absolute certainty, then scientists don’t know much and they’re just trying to scare us. Alarmists, eh?
In truth, scientists are anything but alarmist. Studies often tend to underestimate rather than overestimate problems. The climate models have been consistently more optimistic than what we’re already seeing. At the same time, society generally tends to underestimate risks, which is why to this day, after decades of clear research, we’re underestimating the effects of things like smoking and drinking alcohol.
‘Hoax’ serves a similar, but more aggressive role. The word implies willful deceit — it’s not just that the scientists are trying to scare us, they’re even trying to manipulate us.
Scientists, those obscure people in lab coats, are telling us there’s a problem, but they’re probably exaggerating, right? Or maybe they’re even trying to trick us.
For decades, the denial bluff worked with climate, and it worked with smoking. But the virus is calling the chips.
The problem is that the pandemic works on a different timeline from climate change or smoking. It can take decades for the climate to heat up or for smoking-induced cancer to creep in — but the pandemic works in weeks rather than years. We’ve seen deniers opt for the same tricks, but when your argument is exposed by hospitals in just a couple of weeks, it doesn’t really have the same impact.
This is not to say that scientists know everything there is to know about the pandemic, or about climate change. But they have a pretty good idea, and they’re getting closer and closer to the truth. It’s the scientific process that sent people to the moon, eradicated polio, and powers instantaneous global communication. Calling them ‘alarmists’ or ‘hysterical’ is nothing more than an attempt to undermine all that.
“I consider myself a realist,” Fauci countered Trump’s statements, and given his track record and accomplishments, it’s hard to disagree with this.