Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory: Law, Politics, and Science Denialism in the Era of COVID-19
With COVID-19, we are facing the most serious public health threat of our lifetime. Now, more than ever, we need experts and sound scientific advice to guide critical decision-making during the pandemic. With conspiracy theories and other similar rhetorical weapons being used to discredit our scientific experts, we face a myriad of misinformation, mistruths, and all-out attacks on our experts, breeding distrust between the public and the policymakers leading the fight against the pandemic. As President Trump took office, scientists were routinely denigrated and isolated. Furthermore, science denialism has permeated its way up to the highest levels of government, resulting in disastrous public policy decisions that have been detrimental to environmental and public health. Funding was cut for much-needed research on zoonotic-borne diseases, the U.S. government pulled its support from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, and well-respected scientists were removed from various advisory roles in agencies. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these decisions went unnoticed by the general public. But, in courtrooms over the past thirty years, judges have recognized the danger of fake experts and acted as gatekeepers to ensure that experts are credible and that science is reliable. The use of Daubert in the courtroom has provided judges with a tool for allowing expert testimony that has met certain indicia of reliability, so jurors can focus on making factual determinations instead of judging whether the sources of the expertise should be trusted. Without a similar gatekeeping function in society, citizens must make those determinations on their own. Scientists and advocates of science should employ their own rhetorical methods to restore the credibility and importance of science in protecting our environment and now our health. Change can only truly come from the ground up. Citizens must actually believe that the climate is changing; they must believe that the health advice they are receiving from public health experts is accurate and trustworthy enough to follow. It is time to put science first-we can only do that if we stop science denialism in its tracks and restore resources and trust in our scientific community.