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Magic Meets Its Match

Covid-19 and the Denial of Science

President Trump has been notorious for his flat refusal to wear a mask even when he recommends it for everyone else and requires it for his White House staff. But his defiance reached new heights on May 14, when he visited a Pennsylvania factory that makes personal protective equipment, including masks. He was alone among those present in not wearing a mask.

You’d think, since he was promoting what the factory makes, that he’d make an exception. But this mask thing seems to be fundamental to the image he wants to project: that he is uniquely invulnerable. We’ll see how that works out for him, but his defiance is part of a larger cultural pattern of denying the authority of science when it leads to inconvenient conclusions. We call it magical thinking.

Whereas with science denial on climate change, it will take decades for the science to prove correct; with the virus, it will take weeks.

We are already familiar with right-wing science denial in the case of climate change, where the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activities are a major cause has been stubbornly resisted. Now we see it in resisting scientific analysis of how to confront the coronavirus. The major push by right-wing elements—with strong encouragement from President Trump—to reopen the economy regardless of the risk of a new surge of infections and deaths, illustrates the point. The basic message is, “We don’t want your shutdown anymore!!” The science is a liberal hoax designed to take away our freedoms. “I don’t like the science, and I have a right to my opinion!”

Whereas with science denial on climate change, it will take decades for the science to prove correct; with the virus, it will take weeks.

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By June or July, if the science is right, we should see major spikes in cases and deaths in states that have heretofore had few. Most of these states will be Republican-dominated, with a history of resisting the lockdown and pushing early reopening. The whole swath of the Great Plains, from North Dakota to Texas, can expect to be affected, along with Florida, Georgia and some other Southern states.

In his 2016 campaign and throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has catered exclusively to his base, with no effort to reach beyond it. We see that here as well. While he has at times been constrained to render unenthusiastic support for the scientists on his team (Doctors Fauci and Birx, et al.) he has typically found ways to undermine their advice by encouraging the defiance of the base (e.g., tweeting “Liberate Michigan!” to support armed protesters in the state capitol). The mask-free incident mentioned above fits this pattern.

It is striking, though, that in pandering to his base here, he is leading them to their own destruction. The behaviors that the base insists upon and that Trump encourages will disproportionately come back to bite them, and soon. And ironically, the economic revival that they expect to result from rapid reopening can only be anemic as long as there is a real risk of contracting the disease by going to a restaurant. Getting the virus under control is prerequisite to economic revival.

The deniers and skeptics are banking on an essential feature of the scientific process: no conclusion is ever final. New data and revised interpretations can change the conclusions. They’re betting that Fauci and Birx will prove wrong.

impeachment unavoidable

I wouldn’t bet the farm on that, but they are.

John Peeler

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