What would it take for antivaxxers and climate science deniers to ‘wake up’?

Published by The Guardian, 13 September 2021

Facts are puny against the carapace of denial when people’s sense of self is at stake. However, in the case of Covid deniers, imminent death seems to do the trick

In 1927, an article in the venerable medical journal the Lancet commented on the opposition to smallpox vaccination in terms that have an eerie resonance today.

“We still meet the belief … that vaccination is a gigantic fraud deliberately perpetuated for the sake of gain … The opposition to vaccination … like many emotional reactions, is supported by a wealth of argument which the person reacting honestly believes to be the logical foundation of his behaviour.”

When I first read this, I was researching climate science denial. But it fits the fervent beliefs of Covid deniers and antivaxxers just as well.

Prone to “conspiracist ideation”, many anti-vaccination activists appear to believe Covid-19 is a hoax. They dismiss experts as frauds lining their pockets, refuse to accept any evidence that contradicts their beliefs, and create their own world of self-reinforcing truth.

Antivaxxers seize on an occasional dissenting study and exploit it for all it’s worth even after it has been discredited. A one in a million chance of an adverse effect is confirmation of everything they’ve been saying, even though many medical interventions (like taking the pill) have higher risks. A single anecdote is enough to invalidate a mountain of carefully collected scientific evidence.

In the same way, climate science deniers seize on an unseasonable snowstorm or a year that bucks the warming trend as vindication. One dissenting study, even if invalidated, is enough to disprove an entire IPCC report.

Antivaxxers spread theories about sinister cover-ups, information suppression and conspiracies among medical experts. They claim to be protecting our freedom and talk darkly about the government trying to take away our liberty, portraying themselves as Davids bravely fighting Goliath.

Climate deniers make comparable claims, and not just in the wilder recesses of the blogosphere. The Australian newspaper has for years published former Tony Abbott adviser and business council chief Maurice Newman. There is of course no claim Newman is an anti-vaxxer but he has repeated claims that climate scientists have falsified their data, the IPCC is engaged in “mass psychology”, the UN treaty process is a Marxist plot (yes, really), climate action will see us “descend into serfdom”, and so on.

When cornered, antivaxxers say they are just posing questions. In the same way, when the Australian is called out for giving a platform to climate change denialism, they say they are just contributing to debate.

While the paranoid mindset and arguments of antivaxxers and climate deniers can appear very similar, there are important differences between the politics of the two phenomena.

Firstly, while climate science denial is found mainly on the right of the political spectrum, antivaxxers can be found at both ends. On the alternative left, where pro-green sentiment is strong, antivaxxers thrive in places like the Byron Bay region and the “wellness” industry, while the far-right have been behind antivax and anti-lockdown rallies.

Second, while antivax activism is not respectable in the political mainstream, climate denial is rife, although thinly concealed. The influx of deniers into the Liberal and National parties has set the political agenda for years. As Malcolm Turnbull put it: “That rightwing populist climate-denying section of the Coalition is very influential.”

Craig Kelly, who says he is not an antivaxxer but who has repeatedly questioned the efficacy of Covid 19 vaccination, has fallen out with the Liberal party, yet his offence seems only to be one of disinhibition, expressing too openly his views on both climate and Covid.

Third, while the mainstream media treat Covid deniers and antivaxxers with disdain, sections of the media have for years actively promoted climate science denial. The Australian has published hundreds of news stories disparaging climate science and hundreds of opinion pieces packed with misinformation, and conspiracy.

Fourth, while Covid denial and antivax conspiracy theories have grown organically, climate science denial was manufactured and spread by powerful interests. It is well-documented that, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the fossil fuel industry and Republican party operatives developed the arguments and the political strategies to cast doubt on climate science, a campaign that took root in rightwing political culture around 2010.

I have documented how rightwing Australian thinktanks, funded by the mining industry, imported from the United States the arguments and the strategies of the doubt-mongers.

What would it take for antivaxxers and climate science deniers to “wake up”? Studies have shown that facts are puny against the carapace of denial when people’s sense of self is at stake.

However, in the case of antivaxxers, imminent death seems to do the trick. In the US, the death-bed conversions of a number of high-profile antivaxxers who caught the virus has attracted attention, and mockery.

Climate science deniers are less likely to experience such conversions. Even during the horror fires of Black Summer, deniers in towns ringed by inferno were still insisting the fires were a natural event.

A large majority of the public has always supported climate action, though mostly without much conviction. That is now changing, which may explain why Scott Morrison is trying to recalibrate and the Murdoch media are said to be changing their position on climate action.

If true, it only confirms that they pick and choose from the science to suit a political agenda.


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