Let’s put the straw man of pandemic denial out of his misery

We must stop labelling every valid disagreement as denial, which tends to censor legitimate differences of opinion. In seeking to discourage bad-faith claims, we are also damaging good-faith discussion. It is possible to rationally disagree with many policy choices that have been made throughout the pandemic, based both on scientific uncertainty, and because many of the hardest choices rely on values and tradeoffs that do not have a singular answer. “Follow the science” just begs the question about how to balance conflicting considerations.

The relevant question in labeling someone a denialist isn’t “Do I agree with him?” The question should be, “Does the person have a good faith basis for his belief?” Many elites — journalists, academics, pundits, and the like — seem to believe their answer to the first question determines their answer to the second one. This is as unscientific as it is undemocratic. As philosopher Michael Sandel notes in his critique of meritocratic culture, it is an elite fantasy that dissenters are just misinformed about the facts. Debates over which facts matter, and how best to describe them, have always been central to political discourse.

Skepticism is not the same as denial. Misdiagnosing it encourages unhelpful blaming and shaming. Lockdown fatigue, for instance, is fundamentally distinct from denying the pandemic’s significance. It is instead a natural, if problematic, phenomenon that public health scholars have warned us to anticipate since the spring. The failure to incorporate predictable human behavior into pandemic policy is an error of policy design, not the moral failing of Americans.