From Forbes (Marshall Sheppard):
As an atmospheric scientist, I am familiar with the various myths and misperceptions about climate change that never go away even though experts have long refuted them. I call them “Zombie Theories.” Let’s explore five of the climate skepticism tactics emerging in the coronavirus narrative.
The claim of alarmism. I have definitely seen my share of statements like, “What’s the big deal the flu kills more people every year, this is just alarmism or media hype?” The suggestion is that there is an overreaction to the threat. This is something very common to the climate science. Climate scientists Scientists are often called “warmists” or “alarmists.” That “flu question” may demonstrate a real desire for clarification, but for others it reveals a misunderstanding or misuse of the scientific facts. This is also common in climate change contrarianism.
The Livescience article at this link does a nice job clarifying the facts concerning the flu and coronavirus. Dr. Anthony Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He told Rachael Rettner, “Despite the morbidity and mortality with influenza, there’s a certainty of seasonal flu….The issue now with [COVID-19] is that there’s a lot of unknowns.” The article also makes another key point:
“The death rate from seasonal flu is typically around 0.1% in the U.S., according to The New York Times. The death rate for COVID-19 appears to be higher than that of the flu.” — Rachael Rettner, Senior Writer, Livescience
Dunning-Kruger Effect. This effect is very common in how people consume science today. In a previous Forbes article I defined the Dunning-Kruger Effect as”a psychological concept that people believe they know more about a topic than they actually do (or conversely misjudge how much they do not know).” The term originates from a scholarly study by two Cornell psychologists. I see all kinds of claims about coronavirus that are counter to what public health and medical experts are saying. I often wonder, in this social media age, if there is someone out there willing to debate a fish about the best way to swim. Climate scientists also face all types of opinions, theories, and “long emails.”
Confirmation Bias. Confirmation bias is the process of consuming information from sources consistent with what you already believe. There is an awful lot of information on coronavirus available, however, I am monitoring sites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) FAQ site and the World Health Organization (WHO). As a scientist, I want information from experts on the topic rather than someone’s Facebook post opinion or analysis based on an hour of “Googling.”
Cherry-Picking. Another common tactic in the climate skepticism narrative is to cite a scientist or study counter to the consensus science. It is important to note that healthy skepticism is vital to science and results should always be questioned in the peer-reviewed literature. However, a few results or opinions do not automatically trump a larger body of work just because it aligns with your belief. This brings me back to coronavirus. A few people in social media have referenced personal doctors and noted that they don’t seem concerned about coronavirus. I suspect many doctors are trying to find the right balance between providing credible information and not inciting panic. There certainly are enough public health officials concerned about coronavirus that I am too.
Former Congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC), a very strong advocate for climate change action, once told me that it is good conservative principle to prepare for all risks even if some of them are less likely than others. Many of us do this every time we purchase car or homeowners insurance. My takeaway from that statement is that a healthy dose of diligence is required with coronavirus but not hysteria.
From The New York Times (Paul Krugman):
Let me summarize the Trump administration/right-wing media view on the coronavirus: It’s a hoax, or anyway no big deal. Besides, trying to do anything about it would destroy the economy. And it’s China’s fault, which is why we should call it the “Chinese virus.”
Oh, and epidemiologists who have been modeling the virus’s future spread have come under sustained attack, accused of being part of a “deep state” plot against Donald Trump, or maybe free markets.
Does all this give you a sense of déjà vu? It should. After all, it’s very similar to the Trump/right-wing line on climate change. Here’s what Trump tweeted back in 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” It’s all there: it’s a hoax, doing anything about it will destroy the economy, and let’s blame China.
And epidemiologists startled to find their best scientific efforts denounced as politically motivated fraud should have known what was coming. After all, exactly the same thing happened to climate scientists, who have faced constant harassment for decades.