When Two Crises Meet –The COVID-19 Pandemic and Science Denialism

by Ernesto Perini-Santos, Philosophy Department, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil

1. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was facing another challenge of a different kind, also very harmful, science denialism. In this essay, I sketch a broad framework explaining the conflict leading to science denialism. I then argue that the pandemic alters both components of this conflict. This diagnosis has consequences to our dealings with science denial in a post-pandemic world.

2. Epistemic normativity enjoins us to adjust our beliefs to the available evidence. However, for any subject about which one is not an expert, the evidential basis cannot be assessed directly, and one has to defer to experts. Expert knowledge is also built cooperatively–in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, an epidemiologist might not have the competence of an immunologist, who might lack clinical expertise, and so on. And the general public counts on others to have information about the pandemic –its spread, its mortality rate, and its very existence. It is not only a matter of interpersonal trust, but also of trust in institutions, from the WHO and universities to governments and the media. All this goes a long way to show how much our knowledge is built on trust. It also shows a kind of vulnerability of science–many think that science denialism has its origin in a lack of trust in experts. This vulnerability has deep roots in human evolution. The asymmetric division of knowledge is part of the very fabric of human culture. We have evolved to learn from others, quite often things that we do not understand, and to track who is trustworthy on what matters (Csibra and Gergely 2011; Sperber et al. 2010). Evolution follows the benefits of the division of cognitive labour: a group as whole knows much more if epistemic competence is distributed, even if much of the resulting knowledge remains opaque to most of its members. Science takes to an extremely high level the asymmetric epistemic dependence and the benefits of knowledge, but both have always been features of our species. Epistemic asymmetric dependence has a long evolutionary history, and so does what enters in conflict with it. Large scale coordination requires the identification of groups, for which cues are required. Displaying beliefs is a way to show that one belongs to a group, and beliefs themselves are sensitive to coordination functions, being selected with the behavioural patterns they produce (Funkhouser 2017). The refusal of evolution theory is a case in point. Some think that for most people there are no practical consequences of accepting the theory of evolution or refusing it, and espousing creationism “can have significant social benefits, depending on whom one wishes to conform with.” (O’Connor and Wheaterall 2018: 90) However, as Dobzhansky famously said, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” There is no epistemic reason whatsoever to accept creationism, nor its pseudo-scientific counterpart, intelligent design theory. Such views are accepted as a way to signal the alignment with a group. Coordination pressures are so strong that some think that they always trump epistemic values. Harari, for instance, says that “we have always lived in the age of post-truth,” because we create fictions that “served to unite human collectives” in large-scale cooperation (Harari 2018: 195).

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