The Weekend Wonk: Considering Science Denier’s Feelings

July 17, 2021

National Review has a piece arguing that “Vaccine resisters can’t be persuaded if they feel disrespected.”

The “Review” has of course been a major vector for anti-science messaging for decades. (did they ever back off their climate denial? I don’t think so..)

If you read it, just substitute “climate denier” for “anti-vaxxer”, and do the math.
Excerpted below. By all means read the whole thing at the link if you can stand it.

National Review:

These statements reflect a real problem of vaccine advocacy. Proponents of the vaccine are unwilling or unable to understand the thinking of vaccine skeptics — or even admit that skeptics may be thinking at all. Their attempts to answer skepticism or understand it end up poisoned by condescension, and end up reinforcing it.

Now first, it’s important for streets to run both ways, so I’ll offer that proponents have trouble doing this because many of the most prominent anti-vaxxers do indulge in conspiratorial thinking. Some of it is politically motivated; people may remember that while Trump was president, prominent Democrats expressed their fears about the corruption of the research process based on nothing more than their intuition.

Many people who have taken the vaccine have done so without the slightest sign of serious side effects and strongly associate doing it with the abatement of their fear and the justified relaxation of strictures on their life. They associate lack of vaccine take-up with the possibility of more restrictions. For vaccine proponents, it feels like lowering themselves to answer people they believe to be less intelligent. They will also likely have experience of running into people who use any and every argument against vaccination — whether or not the arguments cohere or are contradictory. So the idea of doing more intellectual work to answer people you think are morons, or are arguing in bad faith, is simply beyond them.

To understand vaccine skeptics, proponents need to understand that the skeptics typically don’t fear COVID. They may fear that taking the vaccine is, in some way, to consent to the view that their freedoms are dependent on compliance with public health. Arguing that the vax is the path back to normality and fewer public-health restrictions backfires with skeptics, in my experience. They see consent to this view as a promise to willingly go under house arrest once a new variant hits the front-page headlines again. For them, excessive fear of COVID is the primary cause of public-health restrictions, and their refusal to take the vaccine is, in some small way, an attempt to model a life unruled by this fear.

Some proponents of vaccines, especially among conservatives, are willing to grant that public health has occasionally wasted the trust of the public on interventions. John Podhoretz and Noah Rothman on Commentary’s daily podcast have often pointed this out, but they don’t quite grasp how sinister things can look to a skeptic.

The National Review piece looks at a Public Interest spot urging vaccinations, and finds threads that their hypothetical rational anti-vaxxer would take as a dark agenda.

National Review (again):

The messenger offers a few reasons to get vaxxed now. (1) The Delta variant is a “more contagious strain” of the virus. (2) Life-threatening complications and long-term effects on brain and body can occur in young people. (3) It’s available for free. (4) It’s about joy; getting the vaccine helps you travel more safely, visiting the people and places you love.

An attentive listener will note that the ad doesn’t claim the Delta variant is actually more dangerous — just more contagious. The last reason isn’t even strictly true. Most vaccine skeptics are seeing their family regularly already. States no longer impose mandatory quarantines between them and certainly don’t govern travel by vaccine passport. And international travel is currently governed by a rapid-testing regime, not vaccine status.

Public-health messaging that is constant but doesn’t address your actual concerns will, quite understandably, feel sinister and propagandistic. That’s doubly true when public-health authorities and major corporations have become so much more interested in censoring “misinformation” about COVID-19. Skeptics could already point to the lame attempts to suppress conversation about the lab-leak hypothesis.


We are going to hand over a big chunk of the weekender here at the shebeen to Friend of the Blog Dr. Ken Starnes. Ken works in emergency medicine down in Winters Bone country on the border between Missouri and Arkansas, and we have checked in with him from time to time for reports on how the pandemic is hitting the people in that particularly tough part of the country. The answer, often, was “very hard.” But now, with the Delta Variant on the loose, the answer for both Arkansas and Missouri now would be “like a freight-train pulling a bulldozer chained to a steamroller.”

According to the CDC, Arkansas’s rate of new cases is up by 35 percent from last week, and 34.8 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. Missouri’s new cases also are up 35 percent from last week and nearly 40 percent are fully vaccinated. If there is an epicenter of this latest outbreak, and if it’s not in this part of the country, it’s close. I’ve been texting back and forth with Dr. Starnes over the last couple of weeks as the new wave of the pandemic builds, and I think I’m going to let him tell you himself what it’s like on the ground there.

The last day I worked wasn’t too bad. Had several people come in with symptoms or just to be tested. Mostly younger than 40. Of course zero vaccinations, and when I asked why, I don’t get the “cause the internet, cause screw the libs, I think it’s dangerous” excuses. I don’t get any excuses at all. They just shrug their shoulders and say they didn’t need it. It’s just part of their psyche now. Sun rises in the east, Jesus will return to judge the quick and the dead, you just don’t get vaccinated. 

The ones that were negative, when I ask them if they are going to get vaccinated they look at me like I have three heads. 

The positive ones sometimes have some regrets, one in particular started crying after we talked about intubation, CPR, and ECMO. The ones I send home often get mad when I tell them there’s not anything I can do for them. 

I’ve resisted the temptation to put on their discharge instructions: “You didn’t listen to me about how not to get this, why would you listen now. Ask the internet when to return to the ED.”

When I was in college I did telemarketing for a while. In those jobs they give you a sheet of things to say to overcome objections when people don’t want to buy from you. But how do you overcome an objection when they don’t give you one? They just look at you [and] shrug [their] shoulders. I tried giving them the science. I tried mild anger and looking at everybody over my glasses like their disappointed father. They are just not gonna do it and nothing I say is going to change that so it makes me wonder whether I even need to keep trying.

I’ve gotten updates from lots of people in Missouri and Arkansas. Things are absolutely at their capacity. They’re talking about field hospitals again in Springfield and we are very close to running out of capacity for ECMO in Arkansas and Missouri. Last week a paramedic posted a whiteboard showing that every ICU in Arkansas was on divert. That means they are not accepting any transfers and critically ill patients will stay in the emergency department for the foreseeable future. None of which is safe for anybody.

Dr Rob Davidson for NBC News:

A patient walks in, struggling to breathe, complaining of pains and symptoms consistent with Covid-19. We recommend a test. Sometimes the patient declines, saying they don’t care whether they have a disease that not too long ago was the leading cause of death in the United States. When we suggest patients isolate themselves to prevent Covid-19 from spreading, sometimes they refuse. When we tell some patients and their family of a positive Covid-19 diagnosis, the response we get too many times is anger, outrage or denial. Just a few days ago, an older woman came into our emergency department, refusing to follow hospital policy to wear a mask and flatly refusing — like too many people in our community — to get vaccinated.

I don’t blame my patients for their refusal. What breaks my heart, as someone who took an oath to prevent harm, is that my patients choose to abandon the science and evidence that can save their lives. I do blame Fox News and other right-wing media outlets for poisoning the minds of millions of Americans with the deceptive propaganda they spray into living rooms 24/7.

Covid-19 came to my rural western Michigan community relatively later than more populated areas. When the news showed packed emergency departments in New York and Detroit in spring 2020 and refrigerated trucks to hold bodies that morgues no longer could, Covid-19 had yet to fully impact our community. Fox News, meanwhile, spent those early months of the pandemic downplayingits seriousness and amplifying former President Donald Trump’s confusing denials.

When the pandemic finally reached us, my small hospital with limited resources and beds was packed for weeks on end with a flood of very sick people. On some days, we had nowhere to put patients and nowhere to send them, because other hospitals were also full. I remember frantically communicating with EMT drivers who crisscrossed Michigan for hours trying to find a hospital with an unoccupied bed.

Then vaccines were authorized for emergency use. My hospital set up community clinics. Our health department offered — and still offers — drive-through vaccinations at fairgrounds and farmers markets. Our community partners, from schools to food banks, spread the word: Get vaccinated. Protect yourself. Protect your loved ones.

Yet our regional vaccination rate is discouraging, with only half of the population fully vaccinated. One predictor of vaccine refusal is Fox News viewership, which is heavily Republican and conservative. Indeed, Fox News is lurching increasingly to the right to win back the Trump voters it has lost to upstart right-wing outlets like Newsmax and One America News Network. Fox hosts’ current line on Covid-19 and vaccines includes wrongly equating vaccine outreach efforts with forced vaccinations and accusing community campaigns — also wrongly — of harvesting private medical information.

So expect to see this as the years roll by and horrors like we have seen this summer become more and more the normal, average weather events. There will be high motivation on the part of science denial community to blame the scientists for not telling us, or for telling us in the wrong way, that made us feel bad.

Lastly, I missed the part where National Review apologizes for their continued support of climate denial and misinformation, and agrees that the very same people behind climate denial have been pushing covid denial.

12 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Considering Science Denier’s Feelings”

  1. jimbills Says:

    Huertas: “Scientific misinformation is a propaganda problem, not a persuasion problem.”

    Really, it’s both. The propaganda goes out by vested interests to spin doctors using podcasts, video, and traditional media and then filters into social media. The spin is the first step, but once it hits social media, the argument for many of these folks is over. They’ve decided what they believe, and they’re parroting the same stuff back and forth in social confirmation.

    The spin doctors – these are the obvious ones like Hannity and Tucker Carlson, but also the multitude of lesser known Youtubers with cult followings, as well as the corporate-funded PR firms putting out ads – are an absolute blight to democracy. I’m leaning towards thinking they are going to spell the end of our current form of democracy. Once you don’t have a reliably informed public, democracy falls apart.

    Their core job is to foster division – and wow, they are successful at it. A bunch of them are rich from it.

    Social media ramps the level up several notches further, though – because now it’s individuals convincing themselves of the same things and sending out their own validation to the spin.

    Convincing someone they’re wrong at that point is practically impossible. They risk losing the social support of their circle, and they risk the blow to the ego in admitting they are wrong to themselves.

    What’s worse is that the majority are getting their news now from social media and non-traditional sources, where editors are a foreign concept – if they exist at all. I saw this today, and it explains a lot:

    And here’s the thing about it, too – the spin doctors know they can’t go too far or tell narratives their target audience wouldn’t want to hear in the first place. It’s a lot more palatable for them to tell someone who doesn’t like the gubmint stepping on their toes fear-inducing tales of vaccines than to tell them they should listed to Fauci. So, it becomes a positive feedback situation. Tucker Carlson knows his audience wants to hear something, he’s getting paid a ridiculous amount to do it, he says it, it gets parroted in his audience, they want more of it – rinse and repeat.

    I talked with an old friend a few days ago who was visiting in town after moving away several years ago (to a rural area), and it’s sad because we live in such a reality-separated world these days. We never talked politics in the past, but he was saying how he can’t stand even listening to Biden. It makes his blood boil. You can’t reason with someone in that state – their emotions block out rational thought. He had gotten Covid in November, it was a lingering case with some symptoms remaining like ‘Covid fog’, and he refuses the vaccine. I told him he should reconsider, but dropped the subject after that. What are you going to do? He’s heard something on a Joe Rogan podcast that convinces him he’s right.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      “the spin doctors know they can’t go too far or tell narratives their target audience wouldn’t want to hear in the first place.”

      That’s how Trump went wrong and why so many Republican politicians were against him—until the red tide of twitter tools went against them. Except of course for his mental illness, Texas-sized ego, lack of patience, and zero subtlety, Trump has the same agenda. He just pushed it too fast. There’s a schedule to be followed on these things, and he’s pushed it too fast.

      Here are people being more strategic about taking the US into fascism:

      There’s a new tactic for exposing you to radical content online: the ‘slow red-pill’

      • jimbills Says:

        Thanks for the link. Very depressing stuff, but it is what is happening.

        I’m horrified by the author’s end suggestion, though, that the answer to far-right redpilling is far-left redpilling. That already does take place to a limited degree, but far-left redpilling will never be as popular or as effective as the far-right stuff. That’s because there is no morality in the far-right guys – they’ll go way further and with much more enthusiasm than a leftist, who would constantly question whether all the lying and manipulation was worth it. Secondly, the right has ‘easier’ answers – it’s the fault of immigrants, for instance – instead of the left’s answers of systemic racism and unfettered capitalism. Easier answers draw a larger audience. Thirdly, as a nation, we’re founded on political philosophies that have more appeal (personal, individual freedoms) to the right than the left’s philosophies (efforts for the communal good).

        The author’s answer wouldn’t work. It would just further divide the country, eroding the little democracy we do have, it would provide the right with a clear enemy to use for their own propaganda (as they do with antifa now), and in the end I think we’d get some uglier and very likely far-right replacement to what we have now.

        So, what is the answer? Woof. Ban all social media? I doubt that would ever fly, if it’s even possible, and I’m not sure it is. I have a strong feeling we’re on the downslope of the roller coaster as a country and only now realizing it.

        • al mar Says:

          Another problem the Left has is that they really do want to save the Right from themselves while the Right is willing to hurt themselves to hurt the Left.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      What’s worse is that the majority are getting their news now from social media and non-traditional sources, where editors are a foreign concept….

      Even many editors of mainstream media are lagging in their efforts. They think they’re being unbiased by repeating the misinformation of known liars or running clips of them doing it. I can imagine them quoting Josef Goebbels verbatim in the 1930s (because what we’re hearing now from the Insane Clown Posse is pretty much Goebbels-speak).

  2. jimbills Says:

    Related article from today:

    As the Bootleg Fire burns, locals are faced with the realities of climate change — and remain skeptical
    In a row of small conservative towns, the flames are unlike anything they’ve seen before. Instead of concerns over global warming, though, there is blame directed at environmentalists, marijuana farmers and potential looters.

  3. jimbills Says:

    I’m kind of having a conversation with myself in this post, but it’s a really interesting and important topic to me.

    He’s an article today in Salon:
    Salon: Why it’s (almost) impossible to argue with the right.

    • ubrew12 Says:

      From your article: “[rightwing] pundits…create their own version of many… liberal… views, and then they fight with their version. There is no real debate… because the entire game is to offer up a distorted version of a position, then freak out about it.” Also known as a ‘strawman’. I’m calling ‘strawman’ on people almost daily, because they are trained to make these arguments reflexively: they really don’t see that they are doing anything wrong. Their media is rife with such examples, so they accept them as normal. Rightwing pundits know what they are doing. They also know that while we’re exhausting ourselves beating to death a stuffed shirt, like ‘Critical Race Theory’, we’ll have little energy left to deal with an actual problem, like ‘Climate Change’.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Sloppy brain, sloppy fingers—-please ignore the similar reply to the wrong person (and the typo that may have come from the subconscious).

        “…while we’re exhausting ourselves beating to death a stuffed shirt, like ‘Critical Race Theory’, we’ll have little energy left to deal with an actual problem, like ‘Climate Change’….”

        What exactly are you saying here? Please define “stuffed shirt” for us.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      I recognize all of this. We on dealt with the most mindless “arguments” in favor of both Young-Earth Creationism and the slightly less insane Old-Earth Creationism. Scientists were lying, cheating evilutionist meanyheads who hid the truth about the Floode and Adam and Eve for their own nefarious reasons. We have this scientific-sounding gobbledygook that refutes your “science” because reasons.

      After t.o, I recognized the same type of human denialism in the alt-med and vaccine denial tribes (cf. and after that it was painful watching the then-naive climate scientists like Michael Mann trying to convince people with facts and logic.

  4. dumboldguy Says:

    “…while we’re exhausting ourselves beating to death a stuffed shirt, like ‘Critical Race Theory’, we’ll have little energy left to deal with an actual problem, like ‘Climate Change’….”

    What exactly are you saying here? Please define “stuffed shit” for us.

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