America’s Collective Action Problem Requires Solutions, Not Insults

Covidiot. Plague rat. Mask slacker.

These are just a few of the many terms that I’ve seen people on social media use to describe the millions of Americans who reject wearing masks and oppose taking other collective actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On a personal level, I understand the appeal of these terms. I’ve used them myself in private and occasionally on social media. People who go out in public and willfully disregard masking and distancing guidelines are placing everyone around them in mortal danger. It’s reasonable for the rest of us to feel outraged by their behavior. It’s important for us to condemn their behavior in some way. It’s also helpful to have specific terms for such people so that we can discuss how to avoid them and curtail their destructive behavior.

However, the growing reliance on these insults in pro-mask discourse concerns me — not because I’m worried about the feelings of “plague rats,” but because I get the distinct impression that many people hurling such insults have failed to identify the underlying source of the problem. And if those of us who support collective action in response to the pandemic fail to identify the source of the problem, we won’t be able to solve it.

America’s Collective Action Problem

America has a collective action problem.

Millions of Americans are rejecting evidence-based responses to the COVID-19 pandemic because these responses involve taking collective action. Someone they trust — a media outlet, a politician, a faith leader — has told them that taking collective action in response to the pandemic would constitute surrendering their freedom. They don’t want to surrender their freedom, so they don’t participate in collective action. Some anti-maskers even become violent in response to anyone asking them to wear a mask to enter a store or public building.

This is why arguing with anti-maskers about specific points of evidence related to the pandemic — whether it’s evidence about the pandemic itself or the economic consequences of shelter-at-home orders versus reopening  — is largely ineffective. For the most adamant anti-maskers and pandemic deniers, the actual evidence is secondary. They’ve been sold a compelling narrative about the authoritarian nature of collective responses to the pandemic by a trusted authority figure. They’ve also probably been fed cherry-picked or falsified evidence in support of that narrative, thus leading them to believe that they’re already taking an evidence-based approach. No amount of reliable evidence or rational discussion from less trusted sources will convince them otherwise.

Fortunately, most Americans still support evidence-based mask mandates and shelter-at-home orders. But a small percentage of Americans who adamantly oppose such policies are actively interfering with their effectiveness and political viability. This interference is making many evidence-based policy responses to the pandemic hard to pass and even harder to implement.

Some opponents of collective action in response to the pandemic say that they only object to the mandatory nature of such action. They claim that they would participate in collective action if it were purely voluntary. For some individuals, that may even be true. But it doesn’t seem to be the case for the majority of those who currently reject collective action in response to the pandemic. Even in cities and states where masks and distancing are presented as voluntary guidelines, there are still many anti-maskers rejecting such guidelines. These anti-maskers either don’t believe the pandemic is real at all, or don’t want to be inconvenienced by participating in collective action, or don’t understand or appreciate the fact that their choice to reject masks and distancing is risking other people’s health along with their own. They would rather make a masked versus unmasked choice based on their assessment of their own personal risk without participating in a broader effort to respond to the pandemic collectively.

Why are so many Americans so averse to collective action in support of the common good?

COVID-19 has unmasked America’s collective action problem, but it existed long before the pandemic. The problem’s roots arguably extend back to the colonial origins of American society. Some of the “rugged individualist” cultural narratives that emerged during the European colonization of this continent have evolved over time and persist in present-day American colonialist thinking. This is particularly true among more privileged Americans — those who are white, male, wealthy, etc. This individualist attitude is at the core of right-wing American opposition to taxes in general, regulations in general, and often any form of collective action that is mediated in any way by any level of government, especially the federal government.

In direct opposition to this “rugged individualist” narrative, there has also been a strong and long-standing cultural narrative of “solidarity” and “mutual aid” in American society. This is particularly true among marginalized groups — communities of color, the indigenous, women, workers, the LGBT community, etc. These groups have been oppressed and attacked in American society since the first European colonists began their ongoing war of conquest, colonization, and genocide against the indigenous. Engaging in collective action to resist this colonial oppression, and to meet basic needs in the face of said oppression, has strengthened the role of collective action in marginalized communities.

People in marginalized communities often understand and appreciate the value of collective action because it’s been one of the driving forces carrying them through decades and even centuries of oppression by people of privilege. One of the great hypocrisies of American society is that the financial and political success of the self-identified “rugged individualists” was in fact made possible through their systemic exploitation of marginalized communities. These “rugged individualists” are, in essence, claiming to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps while actually benefitting materially from the collective action of the marginalized communities they exploit.

In this sense, America’s attitudes toward collective action have always been contested. A privileged few Americans have always tended to oppose collective action and exploit those who engage in collective action, while the marginalized majority of Americans have tended to support collective action in the service of the common good.

For decades, though, a relatively new group of political actors has been engaging in an ongoing series of coordinated campaigns to interfere with any and all forms of collective action that challenge the profits or political power of their privileged clients. This interference is largely accomplished by spreading doubt about the fact that there is any problem in need of collective action to begin with, while simultaneously spreading the idea that any collective response to the problem would require heavy-handed government intervention and must therefore be rejected. These campaigns to deny the existence of serious public problems, and reject collective action to solve those problems, have often been successful, leading them to become models for similar denial and rejection campaigns in the future.

Collective Action and the Climate Crisis

Before the current pandemic, one of the most striking examples of a failure of American society to take collective action was the climate crisis. Even in the midst of the pandemic, the climate crisis still stands out as a stark example of the American failure to engage in collective action for the common good.

American society, including many policymakers and much of the general public, has known about the climate crisis for decades. Throughout that time, there have been various grassroots and institutional responses to the crisis. But for the most part, those responses haven’t gained enough traction to be effective. State and federal agencies have either failed to act at all or failed to act in ways that actually result in the dramatic emissions reductions required to avert the catastrophic consequences of climate change that have already begun to take hold.

For the most part, emission levels continue to rise at a time when they need to be falling sharply to keep warming below the 1.5 degree Celsius warming threshold that every other nation in the world agrees should be a global target. America’s institutional failure to mount a remotely adequate or just response to the climate crisis was driven primarily by a concerted campaign by the fossil fuel industry and its allies to promote climate denial and create a prolonged delay in climate action.

When examining this industry-led disinformation campaign about the climate crisis, it’s important to note that nothing about the physics involved in climate science makes it an inherently partisan issue. The Earth is warming in response to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. If we decrease or eliminate these emissions, the Earth will warm less. If we sustain or increase these emissions, the Earth will warm more. For decades, there have been a broad range of left-wing and right-wing proposals for how to reduce those emissions, thereby averting considerable climate disruption and the tremendous damage to human society that is resulting from such disruption. Both major parties in the United States, and all of the larger third parties such as the Green Party and Libertarian Party, have multiple climate policy options to choose from that are compatible with their core philosophy and principles. The existence of the climate crisis, and the need to solve it to avert great public harm, isn’t an inherently partisan issue.

In fact, there was a relatively brief window of time prior to the present day when climate action was seen by many as a bipartisan issue. Around the time of James Hansen’s landmark global warming congressional testimony, bipartisan climate action seemed politically plausible. There were some signs of progress in that direction. President George H. W. Bush expressed support for climate action on multiple occasions, but his administration did not follow through on this support, instead delaying climate action in various ways. In the 1990s and early 2000s, support for climate action fluctuated as a political tug-of-war ensued between various environmental groups and the monied lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry.

During this time, the fossil fuel industry and its allies were already pushing disinformation campaigns about the climate crisis, but they had not yet gained complete control of the narrative in public discourse or policy circles. Climate action was considered contentious by some, but it was still an option on the table. At times, it received bipartisan consideration and support. For example, in 2008, Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi starred together in a bipartisan TV commercial about the importance of climate action.

But this emerging bipartisan support for collective action in response to the climate crisis was systematically dismantled by the fossil fuel industry and its allies. Concerted and malicious action by an alliance of fossil fuel industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute (API), and conservative thinktanks such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and many others, delayed climate action for decades. Republican support for climate action all but disappeared as climate policy was increasingly framed by Republicans and Democrats alike as a partisan Democratic issue. During this time, the number of Americans concerned about the climate crisis and supportive of climate action also took a corresponding dip.

This disinformation campaign about the climate crisis intensified over the course of a ten-year span from the late 2000s to the late 2010s. Eventually, through tremendous grassroots organizing and significant progress in the climate justice movement’s understanding and application of climate communication, the movement was successful in reversing this trend in American public opinion about the climate crisis. Currently, the majority of Americans are now either alarmed or concerned about the climate crisis, and there is broad bipartisan support for some emissions reductions policies.

This rebound in the American public’s concern about the climate crisis may eventually translate into collective action in response to that crisis. But in the meantime, during that extended period of climate denial and delay, American society missed a critical window of opportunity for climate action. Almost half of America’s cumulative CO2 emissions, and more than half of humanity’s cumulative CO2 emissions, have occurred since James Hansen’s landmark speech in 1988. If American institutions and the American public had started taking concerted collective action in response to the climate crisis back then, a sizeable portion of these emissions and their associated harms could have been averted.

The Merchants of Doubt

This brings us back to the pandemic and its deniers.

Decades of climate science denial have paved the way for science denial in general as a tool to disrupt collective action on other problems facing the nation and world today.

Most of the people who reject masks are are the same people rejecting climate action. Many of the individuals and groups that push organized climate denial are also pushing pandemic denial.

In other words, a relatively small but powerful alliance of disinformation peddlers is having a pivotal negative affect on America’s collective response to two of the most critical crises currently facing the nation and world.

The primary source of the current American collective action problem, then, is the “merchants of doubt.” These malicious political actors keep pushing various forms of science denial because they’re opposed to the very concept of collective action as mediated by the government. Their disinformation campaigns have been largely successful in disrupting collective action, especially in the short term. This success has secured great economic and political gains for the merchants of doubt and their clients, but caused tremendous harm to the American public and the entire world.

Collective action often poses complex challenges in any society. Even without any malicious intervention, attempting to organize collective action in a society consisting of hundreds of millions of people spread across vast geographic, economic, and political terrains can be a monumental undertaking. But this catastrophic, consistent, ongoing failure of collective action in the United States has been manufactured — and continues to be manufactured — by a relatively small alliance of merchants of doubt.

Who are these merchants of doubt?

In 2010, two American historians of science, Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes, published a book titled Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. This groundbreaking work exposed some of the scientists and thinktanks involved in promoting science denial as a strategy for delaying collective action in response to pressing public problems.

Since the publishing of Merchants of Doubt, there have also been numerous other groundbreaking exposés on related subjects, especially in regards to climate denial. These include the Exxon: The Road Not Taken investigative series by Inside Climate News; the Drilled podcast and Drilled News by Amy Westervelt; and DeSmog‘s ongoing reporting on climate disinformation campaigns and climate disinformation database.

Some of these “merchants of doubt” are motivated by ideology. They often embrace “libertarian” philosophies (specifically right-libertarian, not left-libertarian) which argue that any form of collective action which is mediated by any government body is a form of governmental intervention that must be rejected and resisted. They often argue that such interventions are a slippery slope to authoritarianism, or in fact the early stages of a transition to openly authoritarian forms of government.

Several prominent Cold War era physicists such as Fred Singer, who is referenced in Merchants of Doubt and widely known for his climate science denialism, fell into this category. These scientists used their positive reputation in their fields and scientific training to attack any scientific evidence and evidence-based arguments that they feared would lead politicians to adopt authoritarian policies. Their pioneering strategy of raising exaggerated or misleading doubts about well-established scientific evidence in order to advance their anti-regulation political agenda was later followed by their ideological successors inside and outside of the scientific community. Many modern individuals and organizations that spread exaggerated or unfounded doubt about scientific evidence in this manner, however, are political operatives with little or no relevant scientific training. Involving someone like Singer with substantial scientific credentials and reputation lends additional credibility and nuance to science denial campaigns. But the same basic strategy of raising specious doubts about well-established scientific evidence can be followed by almost anyone regardless of their credentials. All it takes is a willingness to call well-established evidence into question and a basic understanding of persuasive communication and public relations.

In the case of climate action, these merchants of doubt either attempt to discredit climate science itself, or argue that various policies proposed in response to the climate crisis would violate property rights or other individual rights, and thus the whole climate justice movement must be rejected. In the case of pandemic response, they argue that the pandemic doesn’t exist at all, or isn’t very serious, or is a conspiracy to force Americans to give up their personal freedoms. In both cases, their arguments often ignore or actively deny crucial scientific evidence indicating the very real threat of the problem. They also often overlook the possibility for courses of collective action that would be compatible to varying degrees with their stated philosophies. They assume that “the problem exists” equals “authoritarian solutions,” so they deny that the problem exists.

Other merchants of doubt are motivated purely by the profit motive. Arguably, most of the aforementioned “libertarian” merchants of doubt are also primarily motivated by the profit motive, or at least funded by people who are cynically advancing libertarian rhetoric for the sake of securing their own profits, regardless of any ideology or the costs to the general public. But there are also clear-cut cases, such as fossil fuel corporations funding libertarian groups that oppose regulating the fossil fuel industry, where there should be no serious argument about the fact that the primary motive involved is profit.

Whether motivated by ideology, profit, or some combination of the two, these merchants of doubt have successfully used science denial, fear-mongering about government intervention, and related tactics to delay action on the climate crisis, the pandemic, and many other problems along the way. In many cases, the general public initially had an inclination toward collective action. But these merchants of doubt used unethical and deceptive tactics to mobilize a vocal minority to oppose such action, thus resulting in significant delays in collective action, or a total failure to take collective action.

Attributing this failure of collective action to the selfishness and/or idiocy of particular American individuals is not only inaccurate, but also profoundly counterproductive. It fails to explain why the United States in particular is handling the pandemic (and climate crisis) so poorly relative to other nations. It also leads us to pursue ineffective solutions to the destructive behavior of Americans who reject collective action to solve these problems. It drives us to shame individual Americans for behaving in an anti-social manner when we ought to be asking ourselves why they believe what they believe and do what they do.

Yes, we need more individuals to wear masks and practice distancing. And yes, we need more individuals to cut their individual carbon footprints. Deploying effective communication strategies to persuade these individuals to change their personal behavior is an important and necessary part of the solution. But it’s not sufficient. Focusing on individualistic solutions alone without recognizing and responding to what the merchants of doubt are doing is like bailing water out of a leaking boat without first patching the leak. We must instead work on both fixing the leak itself and bailing out the water that has already flooded the boat. We must do both, otherwise the boat will sink.

If we believe that the main problem is individual bad actors who are just irredeemably selfish and stupid, then all that we can do is lament their existence or lecture them (usually quite ineffectually) about how harmful their behavior is and how much better it would be if they participated in collective action for the common good. However, if we identify the source of the problem as the merchants of doubt who are engaging in a systemic attack on America’s capacity for collective action, then we can direct our energy toward understanding and counteracting their influence.

Solving America’s Collective Action Problem

How do we solve America’s collective action problem?

The world is waiting with bated breath as people across America and beyond grapple with this question.

The first step is recognizing the underlying source of the problem. As long as we’re stuck in the rut of attributing this collective action problem primarily to individual stupidity or selfishness, the merchants of doubt will be free to continue sabotaging both the American understanding of “inconvenient science” and the American inclination toward collective action in response to threats to public health and safety. If we instead recognize what the merchants of doubt are doing, we can take more effective action to stop them.

This doesn’t mean that we can never use terms like “covidiot” in private or social situations where we’re not actually trying to persuade any “covidiots.” But it does mean that in contexts where we’re trying to dissuade anti-mask or pandemic-denying behavior, hurling insults will probably just make things worse, while also leading us to fail to recognize the underlying systemic problems.

For some people, use of such terms to describe anti-maskers may just be about venting while trying to survive in a traumatic environment. The pandemic and the climate crisis are traumatic overlapping crises that make it harder just to survive, especially for marginalized communities. Some people’s goal will simply be to survive the crisis. They may just want to vent about the people most immediately responsible for causing them harm for the sake of catharsis and warning people not to go maskless around them, rather than putting time and energy into advancing particular solutions for any broader societal problems.

But for those of us who want to put significant time and energy into solutions, we may find it helpful to redirect our outrage at “covidiots” into other responses that are more effective at confronting the science-denying campaigns and institutions that inspire such destructive anti-social behavior. The root problem is not the individuals who have been tricked into doing harm — it’s the people and powerful institutions that are doing the tricking.

Once we’ve recognized the underlying problem of systemic interference with collective action, and decided to confront that problem, what do we actually do to solve the problem?

There probably isn’t any single magic-bullet solution. However, there are several broadly-defined courses of action that should ameliorate the problem in the short term and hopefully resolve it in the long run. These include teaching science literacy and science curiosity, teaching media literacy and critical thinking, and the all-important work of directly challenging these merchants of doubt and their messaging in every way possible.

1. Teach scientific literacy — and encourage scientific curiosity.

One of the chief strategies of the merchants of doubt is to take advantage of the limited scientific literacy and science curiosity of their target audiences by presenting false evidence or exaggerating the level of doubt or uncertainty in scientific findings.

To some extent, teaching scientific literacy can help people recognize when an argument related to public policy is based on blatantly false information or misleading representations of scientific evidence. However, one limit of this approach is that science denialist arguments are often based on complicated distortions or denials of the evidence that aren’t easily recognized or addressed by people with little or no education in that specific field. To properly interpret such scientific evidence, laypeople must rely on input from experts in that specific field. This often leads to disagreement and debate over which “experts” to believe.

Science denial campaigns often enlist the support of people with some scientific credentials, often in tangential or unrelated fields, to bolster problematic or blatantly misleading interpretations of a body of scientific evidence. For example, they may enlist an ideologically-motivated physicist like Fred Singer to attack well-established climate science, or a shady team of doctors to deny the effectiveness of masks, promote quack cures, and advocate immediate reopening of all schools and businesses.

When presented with divergent messages from conflicting “experts,” different audiences must decide whether to listen to the interpretations of the experts who have relevant credentials, or the less-qualified “experts” who come recommended by a trusted source such as a favorite media outlet or politician. If they choose the later, they will end up embracing a growing amount of false evidence and misleading interpretations of otherwise credible scientific evidence.

This leads to an unusual but documented phenomenon: scientific literacy can actually increase polarization on controversial questions of science. That may seem counterintuitive, but the problem is that greater scientific literacy makes it easier for people to cherry-pick particular facts and arguments to justify whatever conclusions match the beliefs of the political and cultural groups they most identify with. Scientific literacy helps them to “connect the dots” between various points of information — even if they’re connecting those dots in the wrong order.

The merchants of doubt design persuasive messaging that takes advantage of their audience’s “identity-protective cognition” tendency by feeding them cherry-picked and misinterpreted scientific findings that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs. This leaves scientifically literate audiences believing that their position is actually based on solid evidence, when in fact the opposite is true.

One proposed way to counteract this tendency toward “identity-protective cognition” is by encouraging “science curiosity” — a desire to seek out and consume scientific information purely for the pleasure of doing so. This may make audiences more likely to take in new information when forming their opinions of the world, rather than basing their opinions entirely on the input of peers and questionable authority figures within their cultural or political identity group.

Teaching scientific literacy is important for many reasons. But in order for scientific literacy to be an effective tool in responding to disinformation campaigns, it must be combined with a curious attitude about new scientific findings and a conscious awareness of the social and cultural contexts that shape how we apply our understanding of those findings. Otherwise, scientific literacy may be misapplied to bolster flawed arguments and interpretations of scientific findings simply to justify existing partisan biases.

2. Teach media literacy and critical thinking. 

The communication strategies used by merchants of doubt can be highly effective at persuading their target audiences. However, that effectiveness is largely dependent on the audience being unaware of the fact that they’re being manipulated.

Education in media literacy and critical thinking can help audiences to recognize misleading or deceptive media strategies. This increases the chance that they will reject disinformation on their own, even if it’s coming from a previously trusted source.

When it comes to communicating about collective actions such as mask mandates, shelter-at-home orders, and climate justice policy, advocates of such actions should be sure not to rely too heavily on the information deficit model of science communication. This model assumes that all that is required to persuade a given audience to take individual or collective action is for them to receive more information about the problem and its proposed solutions.

While the information deficit model can be productive in some circumstances, it more often becomes ineffective or even counterproductive in instances where the scientific evidence in question has become highly politicized and associated with differing political or cultural identities. In such cases, communication strategies must be developed that take into consideration the target audience’s beliefs, values, and narratives about the issue in question rather than simply blasting the audience with more charts and graphs and hoping this will lead to acceptance of scientific findings.

3. Challenge merchants of doubt and their messaging.

The third and most important solution to America’s collective action problem is directly challenging the merchants of doubt and their messaging.

It’s not enough to simply engage in effective communication on politicized questions of science and public policy and hope for the best. As long as the merchants of doubt are spending untold millions of dollars pushing messages that deny science and reject collective action to a broad audience, there will always be a significant percentage of the population that takes their messaging to heart.

In many cases, such as the need for collective action in response to the pandemic or the climate crisis, a small but vocal audience of delayers and denialists can stop, delay, or otherwise diminish collective action for months, years, or even decades. In the meantime, the merchant of doubt profit from this delay while the general public suffers needless harm. To stop or prevent this avoidable public harm, we must challenge both the messaging and the operations of these merchants of doubt.

Challenging the messaging can take the form of either “inoculating” the public against scientific misinformation before it fully takes hold, or responding effectively in real time to misinformation that has already been presented and absorbed, or both.

Challenging the operations of the merchants of doubt would take the form of creating negative consequences (social, economic, legal, etc.) for any individual or institution that deploys science denial or other fraudulent tactics as a tool to dissuade people from supporting collective action for the common good. This would involve demonstrations, boycotts, divestment, and legal action such as the tobacco settlement and climate lawsuits.

This is arguably the most essential component of solving America’s collective action problem. As long as these bad actors continue to operate, they will continue to find new and inventive ways to spread disinformation for the sake of profit and political gain. Responding before and after the fact to the specific messaging they’re pushing is important, but it’s not enough. If we want to end these disinformation campaigns once and for all, we must challenge the very existence of the businesses and thinktanks that organize them.

Corporations, whether for-profit or non-profit, should be held accountable for their actions that willfully and knowingly harm the public or defraud the public for profit.

Legally, their corporate charters should be dissolved; their boards and executives should be held civilly and criminally responsible where possible; their assets should be seized and liquidated to pay reparations to those harmed by their bad behavior.

If no such legal action is taken against the merchants of doubt, it will be up to advocates of social and environmental justice to hold them accountable for the tremendous public harm they’ve caused. Demonstrations, boycotts, divestment campaigns, and similar actions make it increasingly difficult for the merchants of doubt to continue deceiving the public or engaging in business practices that harm the public.

The Importance of Ongoing Vigilance

These three approaches to challenging the merchants of doubt and their messaging won’t render American society fully immune to succumbing to false narratives about scientific evidence and public policy. There are limits to humanity’s individual and collective abilities to understand and act effectively in the world. There will likely always be individuals and institutions that seek to exploit those limits. But there can — and must — also be individuals and institutions who are actively seeking to improve and protect the general public’s ability to understand science, to communicate truthfully and effectively about important topics, and to formulate opinions on public policies related to those topics.

If American society improves its approach to science literacy and media literacy, and actively counteracts the influence of science-denying communicators such as the merchants of doubt, then our collective action problem will be greatly reduced. It won’t disappear entirely, but it will diminish to the levels seen in other places that aren’t actively under attack by sophisticated and pervasive disinformation campaigns. When we finally stop the merchants of doubt from spreading disinformation and opposition to collective action, we will be able to respond more effectively to the pandemic, the climate crisis, and the many other challenges we face.


My name is Treesong. I'm a father, husband, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. I live in Carbondale, Southern Illinois where I write books and volunteer for the Illinois Initiative. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon to stay up-to-date on my latest cli-fi releases and Real Life Superhero adventures. Sign up for my newsletter to receive free cli-fi in your inbox.

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