How can it be that there are coronavirus deniers?

Mistrust in administrations and the possibility of creating bubbles in social networks are some of the reasons for this.

3 min
How can it be that there are coronavirus denialists ?

A few weeks ago conspiracy theorists released one of the best-kept secrets of the entire pandemic: the design of the microchip that is injected with the coronavirus vaccine. The bombshell, however, did not gain much traction. A few retweets later it was confirmed that the diagram in question had nothing to do with microchips, 5G technology or any global conspiracy, but was the internal circuitry of an electric guitar pedal.

Despite the blowback, the conspiracists are not letting go, and maintain that SARS-CoV-2 does not exist and that the whole thing is a global setup with very dark intentions. Thousands of reports, expert interviews and patient testimonies are of no use. There is a small but not negligible proportion of the population that considers that the most plausible explanation for the situation we are experiencing is not an epidemic, but a global conspiracy in which, among many others, all health professionals, all the media and all the political parties (from Vox to the CUP, in our country) in all the countries of the world are in cahoots.

This phenomenon has several causes, which are similar to those that explain why there are people who claim that the Earth is flat or who still believe that Trump won the elections in the United States. To begin with, distrust in administrations and in everything that smells official. If politicians have lied to me so many times, why should I believe them now? I give more credibility to any explanation, no matter how outlandish, just because it is not the one offered by the system.

In the field of health, this reality has been palpable for years. Pharmaceutical companies have earned a bad reputation that has given wings to many charlatans. They criticise pharmaceutical companies, sometimes justifiably, while trying to become our pharmaceutical of reference and, amidst criticisms, they offer us fantastic remedies without any scientific evidence behind them.

Sharpening confirmation bias

If we are among those who seek alternative explanations for the epidemic, we are in luck. The Internet makes it easy. With one click we can find the option that seems most attractive to us, and not only that: we can create an information bubble and follow only those pages and social media accounts that reinforce our view and, just as easily, avoid those who offer a dissenting opinion. We construct a tailor-made reality for ourselves, which does not necessarily coincide with the facts. Confirmation bias, i.e. the tendency to consider more truthful whatever agrees with our beliefs, becomes more acute and we become impervious to arguments that do not fit. We quickly forget the saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and we trust a supposed scientist who, without providing any proof, assures us in a YouTube video that the coronavirus is an invention to implement a new world order, rather than dozens of experts with names and surnames.

All this while our self-esteem rises, since we are part of a group of chosen ones, those who do have the truth, far from the gullible and indoctrinated herd that follows the official version. To top it all off, with so much information that we have consumed, we are convinced that we are already scholars and that we can argue on an equal footing with any virologist with thirty years of experience. As the physicist Stephen Hawking said, the great enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.

Breaking this vicious circle is complex. It will be difficult to convince anybody who at this stage still believes that the epidemic is an invention that it is not. George Lakoff, linguist, cognitive scientist and professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, has it clear: to think that people will abandon irrational beliefs in the face of solid evidence is an irrational belief, not an evidence-based one.

However, we can work to ensure that the conspiracy collective does not expand in the future. One way to do this is to improve the scientific literacy of the public and encourage critical thinking. This does not mean memorising what year Darwin was born in or how many pistils a particular flower has, but understanding how science works, how new knowledge is generated. Understanding that science is based on data, on evidence, not on unproven assertions; that opinions matter little, that we must surrender to the evidence, to the results; that science is shared knowledge, it is a collaborative work between dozens, hundreds, even thousands of experts, who contrast, who doubt, who discuss. Experts who can be wrong, obviously, but, given the choice, it is more likely that they are right than a stranger who launches invectives in the networks, however shocking they may be.

We have to be critical of those in power, of the system, we don't have to believe everything the official version tells us with our eyes closed, but without being blinded, without turning our backs on reality. As the Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman reminded us, we have to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains fall to the ground.

Daniel Arbós is a science journalist