The draw—and deadliness—of American denial

From vaccines to elections to climate change, denial is doing lasting damage to the country.

Americans have learned a lot about the concept of denial in recent years.


  • COVID-19 denial, where the horrible facts of a global body count of three million, including an American COVID death toll that's nearly twice the U. S. combat toll from World War II. That fact hasn't impressed some who think the pandemic is a hoax;
  • Vaccine denial, an offshoot of the widespread anti-vaccine movement, runs the risk of the U.S. never achieving herd immunity. Many public health experts consider that the dividing line between COVID-19 being a rare disaster and a permanent one;
  • Mask denial, when a public health essential is outweighed by a perception that mask mandates are a violation of individual rights;
  • Election denial, where a mass delusion championed by former President Trump becomes a national distraction at the worst possible time;
  • Gun denial, now a hardy paranoidal in American politics, pits an outlandishly outsized proportion of U.S. gun deaths compared to the rest of the world—from suicides to mass murders;
  • Insurrection denial, on Wednesday, Congressman Andrew Clyde (R-GA) likened the January 6 Capitol riot to "a normal tourist visit" and his colleague Ralph Norman (R-SC) said he hadn't "seen a poll" proving that Trump supporters were among the rioters;
  • Fake News denial, when all of the above draw skeptical reviews, blame it all on the Mainstream Media.

Climate change denial playbook 

If you follow the science and politics of climate change closely you'll recognize the pattern of motivated reasoning. Against a flood of scientific evidence, deniers have released barrel after barrel of red herrings.

Here are but a few:

  • Sunspots, not increasing CO2, are responsible for rising temperatures and extreme weather;
  • Climate scientists are only in it for the money -- unending torrents of research grants, not to mention the gravy train of fame and glory;
  • Activists have a tool to upend the world order — so do "leftist" politicians and governments.

History repeating itself 

Of course, climate denial itself has many fathers.

Merchants of Doubt is the groundbreaking 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. The authors performed political archaeology, tracing climate denial back through its ancestors—often credentialed scientists who deployed specious arguments to deny the impacts of secondhand smoke, ozone-depleting chemicals, and more.

Bottom line: History is repeating itself.

Before our very eyes. Denying the results of a presidential election threatens our democracy. Denying the ways to conquer COVID-19 threatens our health. Denying the ways to combat climate change threatens our future.

Pick your poison.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at pdykstra@ehn.org or @pdykstra.

His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.

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