Apart, Together: The separate worlds of Covid-19 beliefs

8 May 2020, 1141 EDT

The following is a guest post by Dr. Leah Windsor. Dr. Windsor is a Research Assistant Professor in the Institute for Intelligent Systems at The University of Memphis where she directs the Languages Across Cultures and Languages Across Modalities labs. From 2014-2019 served as PI for a Department of Defense Minerva Initiative grant, using computational linguistics to analyze political communication in international relations.

Why are we seeing an uptick in discussions about non-mainstream theories about the origin and spread of Covid-19? In my recent social media feeds, I have noticed more skeptical discussions about the pandemic, and it’s a struggle to know how to respond. On the one hand, I know that emotions are strong – even predictive – influences on our choices. When we believe something, it is a part of us. Telling us that our facts are wrong is equivalent to telling us that we are wrong – that our reasoning, beliefs, and decision-making processes are wrong.

What we believe is a part of us, which helps explain why when confronted with contradictory evidence, people tend to double down on what they already believe rather than integrating the new information into their beliefs and thinking. So if I respond to a social media post with information that counters a friend or family member’s current beliefs, it’s more likely they will believe that I am wrong, or the outlier, than their current beliefs. It’s hard, even existentially dangerous, to question the beliefs we hold dear.

We create our own online “bubbles” where we mute, unfollow, or defriend people who believe differently from us. We curate our news feeds so that only the news we want to read gets filtered into our social media feeds or inboxes. There are no longer daily newspapers or broadcasts that everyone reads or listens to that create a common narrative. Remember when the only news channels were ABC, CBS, and NBC? Once we were all working from the same playbook, and now people are living in very different worlds.

And this description of updating information is essentially the basis of scientific progress: we gather information and analyze it, have our smart and critical peers review it, publish it (if it passes muster), and then release the information into the public domain. There are several things that I wish people knew about this process. First, that learning new things is how we make progress. When we learn new things, we update the old things we knew, and if they were wrong, we try to figure out why. We integrate the new information into an updated view. Second, scientists (both in hard/natural and social sciences) are terrible at translating their findings for the general public. As scientists, we desperately need to get better at this!

The notable successes in translating science can be seen in books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by my friend, Rebecca Skloot. Scientists like to tell all the nitty gritty details of their research – it’s what we do! But this isn’t useful. Statistical significance is important, but we need social significance. How does what we do matter? What does it mean?

I think I understand why there is an increase in discussions related to science outside the mainstream in recent days. The early days of the pandemic were pandemonium. People were too busy adjusting to the new normal to try to make sense of the new normal. Life changed radically, and people found new routines and coping mechanisms. Now, without much warning or preparation, our lives are again going to change radically again as the country prepares to reopen. Nobody really knows what life will be like, and what these changes will mean in practice. We have never dealt with such a big, disruptive event as the pandemic in modern human history, so we’re sort of making it up as we go along. Stress has accumulated over the past few weeks, and now we are being asked to integrate new stressors.

A smart social scientist named Geert Hofstede wrote about different facets of culture. One of these is the acceptance of uncertainty. People and cultures have different tolerances of uncertainty and are differently equipped to deal with unforeseen events. People talk about this in plain language as being “black or white” thinkers: some people are more okay with the gray than others. People also try to make sense out of the unknown. In unfamiliar times, people hang new information on old frameworks, even if they are not good representations of reality. The development of a Covid-19 vaccine gets hung on the current social divides over vaccines, which also is wrapped up in other beliefs. What’s more, it’s difficult to tell fact from fiction because fake news has permeated the political spectrum on the left and right.

People try to make sense of the world, but unfortunately everyone over-estimates the risk of rare events. It’s more likely that we will die from falling down the stairs, but we are more afraid of dying in an airplane crash or terrorist attack. We have not yet integrated the risks of Covid-19 into our daily lives, and there is still so much we have to learn about this new virus.  

This leads to my last point: there is no good metaphor for the pandemic – yet. People have made the analogies that it’s like the seasonal flu, a war, zombies, or an invisible enemy. It’s not like the ozone, where there is a “hole” that needs to be covered or plugged. The pandemic landscape is shifting under our feet. There are many symptoms – cough, fever, “covid toes,” lack of taste or smell – or no symptoms. It also affects people very differently, and it’s hard to know just yet who is most at risk, how contagious the virus is, and exactly how it is transmitted. Mobile health and advances in AI, however, can help connect people with accurate information.

Here’s what I wish my friends who are skeptical about the science and politics of Covid-19 understood, and what I wish fellow scientists would do to improve the situation:

  1. Scientific understanding of the pandemic is changing quickly. This does not mean that scientists are lying to the public or being wishy-washy. It means that the process of scientific discovery is transparent, and that more information is better. New findings are shared as they are learned.
  2. On the other hand, there is a huge rush to research and publish on this crisis. Many traditional news outlets are reporting on research that has not been through peer review, or that has been rushed through peer review. There is good reason to read the news and new research with a critical eye. Research that has not been through peer review, or through less rigorous peer review, is dangerous because it contributes to a lack of trust in science. Here’s a secret you might not know: scientists do not uncritically accept each others’ ideas and work. We are rigorous – vicious even – in how we evaluate scientific research.
  3. For scientists, translate your findings to a broad audience. Say how your findings matter, and make the accessibility of your research a priority.
  4. Trust your eyes and your experience. If something is too good to be true, it might be – even if your friend or family shared it and believes it. Some things are simple, like health through hand-washing, but other things like virology and epidemiology are more complex. One-size-fits-all answers often miss important nuances – and the devil is often in the details.
  5. Finally, friends from all political beliefs and perspectives, stop relying on the simplest and most extreme memes to communicate your point of view. If you want people to listen to you and take your seriously, then be thoughtful and generous in how you communicate with each other.