During the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theorists have exploited the provisional nature of scientific consensus and the realities of how science is conducted to paint scientists and public health leaders as malign actors.
Instead of envisioning an untidy world filled with randomness, unintended consequences, innocent action gone awry and new evidence, conspiracists envision one that is inhabited by powerful individuals who conceal malign activities and intent. The fluid nature of emergent science provides fuel for conspiracy theorists who offer certainty in place of the provisional, sometimes-updated statements of health experts. At the same time, conspiracy proponents question the trustworthiness and motives of those in the federal agencies, philanthropic institutions and pharmaceutical companies who fund basic research and develop, deliver and, in the case of some of the federal agencies, regulate public access to medical treatments, including vaccines.
Filtering the world through these lenses, during the pandemic conspiracists have drawn on and manipulated statements and actions by public health experts, such as Dr Anthony Fauci (director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), on topics that range from mask wearing and COVID-19 treatments to vaccine safety and the funding of coronavirus research. Understanding the susceptibilities that conspiracists exploit should help us to identify ways to better safeguard both the trustworthiness of health science and public trust in it.