COVIDiots and Cogency: Heuristic Dynamics of Defying Pandemic Health Measures

COVIDiots and Cogency: Heuristic Dynamics of Defying Pandemic Health Measures

Roy Schwartzman (University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA) and Jenni M. Simon (University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA)
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 24
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7439-3.ch004
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Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States spawns a perplexing polemic. Intransigent coronavirus skeptics who defy public health recommendations often get cast as ideological zealots or as perniciously ignorant. Both characterizations overlook a more fundamental epistemic opposition. The authors recast the conflict between COVID-19 skeptics and public health advocates as the rhetorical incompatibility between the deliberative, scientifically grounded public health experts and the intuitive, emotion-driven mental heuristics of the non-compliant. This study examines the discourse of COVID-19 misinformation purveyors on broadcast media and online. Their main contentions rely on heuristics and biases that collectively not only undermine trust in particular medical experts, but also undercut trust in the institutions and reasoning processes of science itself. The findings suggest ways that public health campaigns can become more effective by leveraging some of the intuitive drivers of attitudes and behaviors that scientists and argumentation theorists routinely dismiss as fallacious.
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Introduction

“Told you!” Laura Ingraham (2020c) tweeted triumphantly in response to an article questioning the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Rush Limbaugh (2020e) proclaimed on his eponymously titled satellite radio show that “Once again, the panic mongers and the fearmongers were wrong” in shutting down schools to stop the spread of the virus. Ingraham and Limbaugh, along with a cabal of largely politically conservative pundits like Alex Jones of Infowars, Tucker Carlson of Fox News and other media personalities composed of intransigent coronavirus minimizers/deniers, have stormed their respective platforms to defy public health and safety recommendations and to denounce what they believe is a “hoax” of a pandemic. Their vociferous arguments reverberate through “the self-reinforcing nature of online communities and a content-starved, cash-poor journalistic culture that gravitates toward neat narratives at the expense of messy truths” (Mnookin, 2011, p. 8) to minimize the dangers of COVID-19 while amplifying the motivation to defy public health protocols.

Confusion, ineptitude, and denial spurred online media and broadcast debate over the coronavirus, its severity, and appropriate responses. Discord quickly reached a fever pitch as United States institutions and the public at large quarreled over pandemic procedures. Deniers, minimizers, and distorters took to their keyboards and the airwaves in what became a collective attempt to undermine institutional trust in government, medicine, and science. Public disputes over coronavirus measures, how to implement them, and when to do so eventually boiled over into civil liberty disputes. Over 4,800 court cases have been filed against local and state governments since March of 2020. Almost 40 cases have been filed against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for “issues ranging from business and church closures to the use of sign language interpreters at press briefings and voter access during the presidential primary” (Roos, 2020).

Counterarguments to coronavirus misinformation have created a perplexing polemic that casts opponents of public health measures as ideological zealots who politicize public health, or as perniciously ignorant. Both characterizations overlook a more fundamental epistemic opposition. The conflict between COVID-19 minimizers/deniers and public health advocates can be recast as the rhetorical incompatibility between the deliberative, scientifically grounded public health experts and the intuitive, emotion-driven mental heuristics of the non-compliant. COVID-19 skepticism could easily be disregarded as prima facie illegitimate, based on irrational objections correctible through more widespread, accurate dissemination of scientifically grounded facts and logically grounded evidence. Yet, resistance has persisted as the observable effects of the pandemic have become more apparent and public information about it has become more widespread.

This study examines the discourse of COVID-19 misinformation purveyors on television, radio, and social media. Their main contentions rely on heuristics and biases that collectively attempt to undermine institutional trust not only in particular medical experts, but to undercut trust in the institution of science itself and its reasoning process. More broadly, the findings suggest ways that public health campaigns can become more effective by leveraging some of the intuitive drivers of attitudes and behaviors that scientists and argumentation theorists routinely dismiss as logical fallacies.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Availability Heuristic: The tendency to treat whatever information comes to mind most easily as the most important when making decisions.

Nature Heuristic: The belief that whatever is natural or “the will of nature” must be preferable.

Minimal Group Paradigm: The criteria that group members use to determine who counts as part of the group and who counts as an outsider. These conditions defining group membership can be incidental, trivial, or fictitious but still carry weight in setting boundaries between groups.

Social Identity Theory: The tendency for people to readily classify themselves and others into groups, finding ways to distinguish between their own preferred group members (in-group) and less desirable non-members (out-group).

Falsifiability: The capability of a claim to be disproven. Constant subjection to testing that leads to disproof is a hallmark of scientific theories.

Loss Framing: Presentation of a prospective action as taking away something that one values or already has. Perceived negative consequences generally have more persuasive impact than potential gains.

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