How did COVID-19 skeptics become such an influential force in society? A new paper attempts to explain how they did it and what scientists can do about it. Unfortunately, the study's analysis is plagued by the same set of assumptions that caused the problem in the first place.
When we look back on the COVID-19 pandemic, we'll be forced to address a number of vexing questions. Perhaps the most interesting and essential of these goes as follows: why did infectious disease experts, with the backing of every reputable scientific institution and mainstream media outlet, struggle to earn the trust of the American public?
There are dozens of contributing factors. But according to a recent study conducted by researchers at MIT and Wellesley College, one of the more overlooked issues is the fact that “coronavirus skeptics,” to use the authors' phrasing, proved adept at analyzing and communicating epidemiological data (cases, hospitalizations, deaths etc.) related to the pandemic. Instead of ignoring evidence, commentators opposed to mask mandates, social distancing, and lockdowns dove headfirst into the peer-reviewed literature and state public health department data, utilizing them to spur opposition to the mitigation measures implemented by most governments. According to the authors,
Far from ignoring scientific evidence to argue for individual freedom, antimaskers often engage deeply with public datasets and make what we call “counter-visualizations”—visualizations using orthodox methods to make unorthodox arguments—to challenge mainstream narratives that the pandemic is urgent and ongoing. By asking community members to 'follow the data,' these groups mobilize data visualizations to support significant local changes.
The study gathered a lot of useful data and confirmed several valuable insights from previous studies that will help science communicators better engage the public moving forward. That said, several of the conclusions the researchers drew from their study are misguided and risk amplifying the public's skepticism of mainstream science instead of reducing it.
The researchers studied the circulation of COVID-related data visualizations on social media. They conducted “a quantitative analysis” of almost 500,000 tweets related to the pandemic. They then tried to identify user communities online that shared this content and interacted with each other; their examples were “maskers” and “anti-maskers.” Finally, they performed a six-month observational study of anti-mask Facebook groups to better understand how they “leverage the language of scientific rigor … in order to support ending public health restrictions despite the consensus of the scientific establishment.”
An epistemological conflict
Among their more interesting conclusions, the researchers challenged the idea that giving people better information is the key to combating “misinformation.” This “study finds that anti-mask groups practice a form of data literacy in spades,” they wrote. Giving such people more data would presumably only further incentivize them to strengthen their counter-consensus arguments. The bigger issue, the researchers added, is “that there is a fundamental epistemological conflict between maskers and anti-maskers," an ideological battle in which numbers are the weapon of choice on both sides:
This story is about how a public health crisis—refracted through seemingly objective numbers and data visualizations—is part of a broader battleground about scientific epistemology and democracy in modern American life.
So, what do we do about this epistemological conflict? The researchers argued that minimizing uncertainty in the initial stages of the pandemic nuked the public's trust in the scientific establishment:
[T]he CDC’s initial public messaging that masks were ineffective—followed by a quick public reversal— seriously hindered the organization’s ability to effectively communicate as the pandemic progressed. As we have seen, people are not simply passive consumers of media: anti-mask users in particular were predisposed to digging through the scientific literature and highlighting the uncertainty in academic publications that media organizations elide.
They then recommended that scientists make a concerted effort to communicate the uncertainty inherent in their research as a means of regaining the public's trust, a suggestion supported by plenty of evidence. This is a good first step to re-engaging people who feel alienated by the establishment. But the authors seem to think the ultimate problem is skeptics deftly using data to mislead social media users. "Well-calibrated, well-funded systems of coordinated disinformation can be particularly dangerous when they are designed to appeal to skeptical people," they noted. This is indeed a problem today—for example, the network of anti-vaccine groups that sows doubt about immunization—but it's not the problem.
Popular COVID skeptics like former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson appeal to people who already distrust the establishment. The authors' example of the CDC's confused masking guidelines helps explain why distrust initially took root. But there were other problems. As I wrote recently,
For more than a year, Americans have been bombarded with contradictory, sometimes hostile messages about how to respond to the virus.
Masks were unnecessary until they were essential, though the government later admitted its justification for the initial no-masking policy was misleading. The idea that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a lab was once a conspiracy theory; now, it's a valid hypothesis worth investigating. Let's also not forget that the press has consistently demanded that anyone who expresses a contrary opinion on social media be silenced.
It's no wonder why so many Americans distrust the public health establishment after a year of that. At no point, they were told, was it acceptable to doubt the mainstream understanding of the pandemic, even though that understanding evolved almost weekly over the course of 2020.
The study authors clearly didn't grasp this important point because they tried to frame COVID skepticism as just another partisan phenomenon. They compared anti-masking advocates to critics of evolution, arguing that "their simultaneous appropriation of scientific rhetoric and rejection of scientific authority also reflects longstanding strategies of Christian fundamentalists seeking to challenge the secularist threat of evolutionary biology." They also likened anti-maskers to Tea Party activists angry at “a federal system ruled by liberal elites who pander to the interests of ethnic and religious minorities ...”
Whatever you think about the pandemic response, there is a case to be made based on peer-reviewed research and publicly available data that business closures and stay-at-home orders carried real consequences, and that a more targeted approach may have sufficiently minimized viral transmission with fewer harmful effects. Reducing that argument to a partisan effort "beyond the pale of the scientific establishment" doesn't add anything to the conversation, especially when Americans across the political spectrum expressed skepticism during the pandemic.
Summed up, this is an interesting study that contains some helpful insights. But it won't have its intended effect because the authors refused to follow their analysis to its logical conclusion: Americans were misled by their leaders. To win back their trust, we need to treat them as fellow citizens to be convinced, not subjects in need of prodding.