Summary: Researchers say those who create and spread conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are using the provisional nature of science to paint scientists as “malignant actors” and discredit findings.
Source: University of Pennsylvania
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, conspiracy theorists have exploited the conditional nature of science and questioned the trustworthiness and motives of federal agencies and officials to depict scientists and health authorities as malign actors.
In a commentary published today in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, science communication scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson analyzes the ways in which conspiracists do this and proposes steps health authorities, journalists, and scientists can take to minimize the likelihood that their work will be used to fuel new conspiracy theories.
Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and a professor of communication at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, argues that:
“By exploiting the provisional nature of scientific knowledge, its inevitable updating and the realities of scientific funding structures, conspiracists eroded the trust of some susceptible individuals in the recommendations of public health authorities about lifesaving behaviours including mask wearing and vaccination. Their success in doing so made community immunity, and with it an end to the pandemic, more elusive.”
How conspiracists exploited COVID-19 science
During the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theorists have exploited the provisional nature of scientific consensus and the realities of how science is conducted to paint scientists and public health leaders as malign actors.
Instead of envisioning an untidy world filled with randomness, unintended consequences, innocent action gone awry and new evidence, conspiracists envision one that is inhabited by powerful individuals who conceal malign activities and intent. The fluid nature of emergent science provides fuel for conspiracy theorists who offer certainty in place of the provisional, sometimes-updated statements of health experts. At the same time, conspiracy proponents question the trustworthiness and motives of those in the federal agencies, philanthropic institutions and pharmaceutical companies who fund basic research and develop, deliver and, in the case of some of the federal agencies, regulate public access to medical treatments, including vaccines.
Filtering the world through these lenses, during the pandemic conspiracists have drawn on and manipulated statements and actions by public health experts, such as Dr Anthony Fauci (director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), on topics that range from mask wearing and COVID-19 treatments to vaccine safety and the funding of coronavirus research. Understanding the susceptibilities that conspiracists exploit should help us to identify ways to better safeguard both the trustworthiness of health science and public trust in it.
About this psychology research news
Original Research: Open access.
“How conspiracists exploited COVID-19 science” by Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Nature Human Behavior