Dr Owain Williams By: Dr Owain Williams
Lecturer in IR and Human Security
View profile and Diary

24 Apr 2020 : Post-Truth, Science Denialism and the Right

One of the major causes of inaction around COVID-19 has emerged from the relationship that has been closely forged between right wing leaders, thinkers, and their public supporters, and science denialism. This being the rejection of truth and scientific evidence in the face of overwhelming evidence. There has long been a debate in those involved in tracking science denialism in health and climate change as to whether it is attached to the left or right, or simply to both. For example, it is clear that those who reject childhood immunization for its purported dangers, are not always right wing.

Certainly, there are also cranks and tin foil hat people out there and the cognitive displacers, and many of these people are what they are, political allegiance is circumstantial to underlying psychological problems that shape their world views. But it is also clear that COVID-denialism has almost exclusively been a manifestly right-wing phenomenon. This has cost lives.

There seems to be a mixture of the Michael Gove dismissal of too many experts (and fear that expertise contradicts political decisions or makes them inconvenient to make); added with a hostility to state power over civil liberties and social control; and the primacy of the economy and market above and beyond other concerns. In many ways Public Health is only visible when we face a crisis, and in these times of emergency it is largely directed at restrictions by the state on population behaviours and markets, on surveillance, observation and containment. This for many on the right is deeply unpalatable, especially when it detracts from market imperatives or libertarian values.

We see this in some of the placards being carried in America, and there are clearly now some impacts on action on this virus in that country. Just as with climate change, there is a rejection of the truth, and the substitution of alternate facts – on a low level this is expressed by this is ‘just like the flu’, or ‘it will be over by the summer'. There also seems to be naked desire to assert the value of the economy over population health, again, found in we re-open for Easter or this Friday, or at some point soon.

Alternative facts are also offered as are remedies. We saw this in the HIV crisis in Africa only two decades ago. The South African Health Minister recommending a mixture of African garlic, lemon juice and beetroot, and other nonsense, to treat those HIV positive, while rejecting ARVs. One West African President actually laid hands on positive people offering his own brand curative oil. Now we have similar I know best remedies emerging from the POTUS, spreading both falsehoods, hope and doubt, all at the same time. We have moved from his hydroxychloroquine promotion to new lows yesterday. No doubt his denialist rat brain is trying to displace the inadequacy of his response with red herrings so typical of denialist argumentative strategies, but stamp his authority and expertise in the glib offering of alternative truths and treatments. He wants to be the authority on COVID even if it kills people.

Trump’s briefing on the 23rd is simply off the charts, bringing much of the above into sharp relief. He suggests the possibility of injecting those infected with disinfectant, right into the lungs:

"The disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning. It gets in the lungs"

Then he wants to explore the possibility of UV irradiation of people for much the same reason. Birx sits on the side on Camera, with Trump often addressing his comments directly to the scientist, as if expecting validation. She looks hunched and ashen and is silent. But then he draws on the new Department of Health study on the effects of sunlight on the virus. These are only initial findings mind you, but the idiot confidently asserts, "I think a lot of people are gonna go outside all of the sudden". Asked why he's stopped promoting hydroxychloroquine, Trump claims petulantly that he "hasn't at all."

Finally, on evidence and statistics, truth and fact go way out of the window. He’s doing a great job:

 "Statistically we are doing phenomenally, in terms of mortality ... when you look, Germany and ourselves are doing very well." (5,503 coronavirus deaths as compared 49,605 to date)

He then lays some specious blame on what passes for the left in the USA for higher mortality and infection rates, and the greater levels of economic fallout, in Democrat states. This is a point he has made before:

"It is interesting that the states are in trouble do happen to be blue. It is interesting".

"I'm the President and you're fake news” he shoots at Phil Rucker from CNN after asked whether it was wise to suggest all these new possible coronavirus treatments. His position is therefore enough to warrant him promoting what he wants to, and the fake news is any question that his truths are suspect. I wonder if he believes any of it, and this is just an example of cognitive dissonance playing out very publicly.

News from Africa continues to cause alarm. The lasts figures show a 43% jump in infections in a week. The worst hit countries are almost random now, the quintessence of pandemics. Algeria, Egypt, Cameroon, and South Africa all amongst the worst national caseloads. The Hill carries a sort piece which makes the now familiar statement that the lack of testing belies what is otherwise a far worse story across the continent. At the front of my mind is Imperial College study reporting a ‘best case scenario’ 300,000 deaths in Africa. Much reporting now on food crisis in South Africa, a combination of supplies, lockdown and lack of money, particularly in the townships. There have been a few food riots, which will get more challenging in coming weeks. There is no detergent being made available to clean the communal toilets.

There are no multiplying and just awful statistics on infections and deaths globally. The official figure is 2.7 million infected, but in LMICS the picture is surely worse, as it appears to have been in the US and UK. The US has 900,000 infections, and Spain added an incredible 4,636 cases in one day. The UK has 138,000 and now a staggering 18,000 deaths, with many unaccounted for deaths discussed some days ago. But Russia, Turkey and Brazil are all characterised by huge jumps in cases.

© 2020, All rights reserved. Views expressed are those of individual contributors. Privacy Policy