On Corporate Denial in the Age of the Pandemic
Barbara Freese in Conversation with Andrew Keen on
the Keen On Podcast
The coronavirus pandemic is dramatically disrupting not only our daily lives but society itself. This show features conversations with some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the deeper economic, political, and technological consequences of the pandemic. It’s our new daily podcast trying to make longterm sense out of the chaos of today’s global crisis.
On today’s episode, Barbara Freese, environmental attorney, a former Minnesota assistant attorney general, and author of Industrial-Strength Denial: Eight Stories of Corporations Defending the Indefensible, from the Slave Trade to Climate Change, discusses why denial is convenient for industrial companies.
From the episode:
Barbara Freese: There is certainly denial, and it is certainly very powerful. It’s not, I think, the classic kind of industrial-strength denial that I write about where you have a particular industry that is worried about regulation and then spreading through society, which is what we’ve seen with something like climate. I think what’s happened is after years and years of that kind of industrial-strength denial that has contributed to a level of skepticism and cynicism and distrust of science generally and of government regulation, certainly among a big chunk of the American population, and that then sets the stage for some very unscientific claims about this pandemic. Of course, in this case, if you’re more inclined to worry about the economy than public health, there is definitely a profit motive that can get wrapped into it and and can make that denial deeper and stronger.
Andrew Keen: In your book, you talk about ways in which sometimes denial is convenient, obviously, for industrial companies whose interests of denial benefits them, but also for individuals. Do you think that’s going on in the coronavirus world, that we’re conveniently denying its impact because we simply don’t want to stay at home?
Barbara Freese: Well, I tend to see denial in a lot of what we think. I mean, there is a somewhat an old-fashioned view that our default position is objective and that we sometimes that gets corrupted by bias. I think it’s much more likely the case that our attitude toward all kinds of things, and particularly uncertain things, is very much shaped by our self-interest and by our tribalism. So when something like this comes along, first of all, it’s scary, so we have an incentive to deny it. It is uncertain. We prefer certainty, and we are trying to find a way to make sense of it. But I think it triggers our preexisting tribalism and biases, so if you don’t believe in the warnings that the government gives you, then you’re going to think this is overblown. In fact, if you are inclined to accept those kinds of warnings, then you will accept these and might even see them as as more extreme than they are.
Barbara Freese is the author of Coal: A Human History, a New York Times Notable Book. She is an environmental attorney and a former Minnesota assistant attorney general. Her interest in corporate denial was sparked by cross-examining coal industry witnesses disputing the science of climate change. She lives in St. Paul.