I should start by saying I don’t necessarily mean you, the reader. I hope, and the fact you are reading CFI stuff indicates this is likely, you don’t fall into this category. But we all know some, and probably way too many of them. There’s your uncle or cousin who causes embarrassment every year at the Thanksgiving dinner table with his pronouncements that Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya with a fake birth certificate. Or your friend down at the bar who loudly announces that aliens were responsible for the pyramids and all technological advances. Or your colleague from a past job that you still are friends with on Facebook who decries vaccines and thinks the CDC is part of a plot to tag all Americans with bar codes so the true patriots can be interned in concentration camps.
These are the people whose latest cry is “why we can’t be Sweden?” It’s amusing in one sense, because Scandinavia is usually to them the home of “socialism” and the place where liberty goes to die, but they have more recently become obsessed with Sweden as proof that the shut-down policies in response to COVID-19 are excessive and should be reversed. Evangelical preacher (and Donald Trump superfan) Franklin Graham has pointed somewhat disingenuously to the lower infection rate in Sweden to justify re-opening the American economy.
Sweden’s policy has been to rely on voluntary social distancing and the hope of developing herd immunity. I don’t know if it’ll work for Sweden. Damn it, Jim, I’m a lawyer, not an infectious disease specialist. There do seem to be some potentially bad signs—Sweden’s death rate from COVID-19 is higher than that of comparable countries, running 9 times that of Finland and 5 times that of Norway. Infection rates (or more accurately known infection rates) may be lower than the US, the UK, and Italy, but they are higher than Greece and Portugal. And medical experts are unclear as to what degree herd immunity would work in this situation.
Even if it does work, however, and even if it is successful in Sweden, I don’t see it as possible in the United States. These countries and their populations are very different. And what kills any hope of a policy based on voluntary compliance here is the large group of science-denying, expert-doubting, conspiracy theory-spouting clowns that have become such a major part of national life.
The danger that these chuckleheads pose to society at large has never been so apparent. The current pandemic is a problem that quintessentially must be addressed by science. Our response, from the development of a vaccine, to the treatment of the disease, to social distancing, is rooted in science. In Sweden it appears that people are taking the call for voluntary social distancing extremely seriously. Bars and restaurants, while open, are not crowded. Churches are not packed with worshippers. The policy choices of the Swedish government may be mistaken, but the population’s trust in science at least gives it a chance of working.
Not so here. The level of science denial built over the years in the United States renders any voluntary action utterly infeasible. Almost 1 in 5 American adults (and almost 2 in 5 white evangelical Christians) deny evolution, insisting that humans have always existed in their present form. Only 84% of Americans (and only 2 out of 3 millennials) have “always believed the earth is round.” And, despite overwhelming scientific consensus, the US leads the Western world in the percentage of its population that denies humanity’s role in climate change—nearly 1 in 5. And, in what has the most chilling parallels for the current pandemic, communities have seen a return of measles because of vaccine denial.
Across America, person after person has become convinced that they, their pastor, or Alex Jones has it right, and the scientists who have spent their lives developing expertise in a relevant subject have it wrong. That hubris is already killing people, and it has the potential to kill many, many more. What’s perhaps even more disturbing is how science denial has become a mark of political affiliation. And it’s not just at the (carefully choreographed) protests to re-open the various states where denial of science has become a necessary indicator to show one’s support for President Trump. Personal politics has become dominated by trolling—by the determination that something, whatever it is, should be supported because it “triggers the snowflakes,” regardless of any other impact.
We’re seeing this in our daily lives. As my fiancée waited in a well spaced-out line to be allowed into Trader Joe’s, a guy drove slowly past yelling out the window at the “sheeple” who are being “conned” into taking measures to protect themselves and those around them. I’ve witnessed gatherings of red-capped folk with MAGA bumper stickers in our supermarket parking lot, laughing at and disparaging those wearing masks and gloves. And even in stores themselves, people are not just ignoring the requirements to cover their faces and remain 6 feet apart, they are actively seeking to stand adjacent to and interact with people who are actually trying to follow the guidelines.
Science denial has become a badge of honor among some. And that’s really, really dangerous. Neil deGrasse Tyson accurately commented that “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe in it or not,” launching tens of thousands of t-shirts proudly worn at atheist and skeptic conferences. But it does matter if people “believe” scientists. Because if they don’t, however true the science is, there are still going to be those out there spreading this virus. And there doesn’t need to be many of them for this to be a complete catastrophe. We’ve certainly got enough of them to make any attempt at following Sweden’s lead completely irresponsible.