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Political ideologies predict denial of science in COVID vaccine war

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Politically motivated denial traces of the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine with a dramatic politicization of trust in science itself. In a survey conducted in June and July, Gallup found that the percentage of Republicans expressing a “great” or “a lot” of confidence in science has fallen, shockingly, from 72% in 1975 to just 45% today. During the same period, trust in science among Democrats has increased from 67% to 79%.

Scientific institutions have never been perfect, but overall they have a huge track record of success, both in basic research and in applied sciences like epidemiology and immunology. The general public accepts without much complaint the opinion of experts on, for example, antibiotics, radio waves, orbital mechanics or electrical conductivity. Obviously, people are happy with applied science in almost every area of ​​life.

So why is confidence in science so malleable, and what does a person’s political orientation have to do with it?

The rejection of scientific expertise when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines seems to substitute for something else. As a philosopher who studied the denial of science, I suggest that this “other thing” includes factors like distrust of public institutions and perceived threats to one’s cultural identity.

Ideologies that merge with the denial of science

Identifying yourself as a republican is very strongly associated with adherence to the central principles of conservative ideology. A Opinion survey 2021 confirms that endorsement of conservative political ideology is currently the dominant predictor of anti-science attitudes.

Another recent study of anti-science attitudes identifies several trends particularly associated with conservative ideology. People who hold anti-science beliefs tend to be sympathetic towards right-wing authoritarianism– that is, they are conformists who rely on selected authority figures and are prepared to act aggressively on behalf of those figures.

They also tend to support the group-based hierarchy, with “higher” groups dominating “lower” groups. Political psychologists call it “social dominance orientationAnd see it, for example, in attitudes towards racial or gender equality.

Indeed, social scientists who examine the causes of denial of science have increasingly focused on two contributing causes. Certain Personality traits, including comfort with existing social and cultural hierarchies and a predilection for authoritarianism, go hand in hand with a skepticism for science. The same is true of closely related aspects of identity, such as identification with a dominant social group such as white evangelical Christians.

Conservative traditionalists from the historically dominant white Christian population in the United States have had the most reason to feel threatened by science. Evolution by natural selection is a threat to many doctrinal religious traditionalists. Climate science threatens the economic status quo that the conservatives seek to maintain. The whole concept of a public health mandate runs counter to the individualism of the “small government” of political conservatives.

Moreover, because COVID-19 has been heavily politicized since the start of the pandemic, public health measures have become directly associated with the political left. The rejection of such measures has therefore become a signal of political and cultural identity.

U.S. counties that leaned more on Trump in the 2020 election tend to have lower vaccination rates than those that leaned on Biden. Charles Gaba / ACASignups.net, CC BY-ND

Other recent studies on the denial of science have shown that people who don’t have much faith in the honesty and trustworthiness of others, as well as in social institutions like government, academia, and the media, tend to deny the dangers of COVID-19. Low social trust tends to follow a conservative political orientation, especially with support for Trump. His supporters are many more likely to say that scientific research is politically motivated.

Grab for a sense of control

Growing economic inequalities and racial and ethnic diversification are also part of the scientific negationism mix.

A school of thought in psychology, called compensatory control theory, argues that many social phenomena – including the denial of ideological science –stem from the basic human need for a sense of control on his environment and the results of his life. According to this theory, perceived threats to the sense of personal control can motivate the denial of scientific consensus. The idea is that due to a combination of economic insecurity, demographic shifts, and the perceived erosion of whites-favoring cultural norms, some people feel an existential threat to white supremacy that they have long enjoyed. which in turn urges them to deny government warnings about the dangers of COVID-19.

I believe that this compulsive defensive plays a big part in the phenomenon of denial of science, once trusted elites like politicians or media presenters trigger the tendency to oppose a particular science-based public policy. . You can’t control the coronavirus – or the inequalities, or a changing culture – but you can control whether you take the vaccine or wear a mask. This sense of control is implicitly, but powerfully appealing on a deep emotional level.

The need for control may also explain an attraction to politicians or media figures who promise to give you back your power by endorsing alternative residence remedies, like ivermectin.

man in USA cap with American flag mask and another flag around shoulders
In the United States, attitudes towards public health recommendations are linked to political beliefs and identity. Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Denial fuels political polarization

As I say in my book, “The truth about denial“I think denial of science, including denial of the COVID-19 vaccine, is probably best viewed as the result of vicious feedback loops. Factors such as economic pain, white Christian identity, and low social trust play out in populations facing relative social and informational isolation. This denial can more easily set in among people who have chosen to limit their experiences to geographic areas, social contexts and backgrounds. news media environments.

In the short term, a company’s failure to immunize enough people to bring COVID-19 under control will dramatically change everyone’s lives for years to come. The biggest problem is how science itself has become politicized in ways never seen before. This development endangers the ability of organized society to respond effectively to pandemics and other existential threats, including climate change.

Is there any hope of depolarizing the issue of COVID-19 vaccination, or confidence in the science itself? I probably wouldn’t, unless the conservative leaders in politics, media, and religion make a concerted effort to change the narrative.

This article was published in collaboration with The conversation, an independent, non-profit editor of commentary and analysis, written by academics on hot topics related to their research.

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