20 May 2020

Some people will literally die rather than change their minds

I have been thinking a lot about the craziness of “re-opening” and how some people refuse to take any precautions. Just a day or two ago, I was imagining asking these people, “What would it take to get you to change your mind, short of you getting hooked up to a ventilator because of COVID-19?”

Then today I saw this. Physician Ryan Morino tweeted (lightly edited):

I’ve been called a lot of names and accused of a lot of things by emergency patients but it’s surreal to have a patient accuse me of falsifying their COVID result – because they don’t believe the virus is real – as I’m actively trying to keep them from dying from multi-organ failure from COVID.

My “short of you getting COVID-19” qualifier turned out to be an unreasonable assumption. I thought that the personal first-hand experience of getting so sick that you are hospitalized would be something would force people to reconsider their views. How wrong I was.

(Aside: Hospitalization is bad, but this description of being on a ventilator proved to me that I had not idea how bad things could while trying to keep you alive from COVID-19.) 

From my experiences trying to talk about evolutionary biology, I know lots of people are intransigent. They not going to change their minds in front of you. People have values and beliefs and community ties that matter to them more than evidence. For a long time, I’d been okay with that.

But these sorts of reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic have shaken me. I’ve never felt so depressed and pessimistic about the prospects for science communication. This is the fight of our lives, and we’re losing.

Another piece that hit me hard was this article by Adrienne LaFrance about conspiracy beliefs, and how one in particular has gained so much traction over the space of three years. For someone like me who had never heard of this much before, the conspiracy stories (I refuse to call them “theories”) are unbelievable. They are inconsistent, and they have consistently failed to say anything meaningful. Edited excerpt:

I asked for examples of predictions that had come true. They could not provide specifics and instead encouraged me to do the research myself. When I asked them how they explained the events (that had been) predicted that never happened(,) they said that deception is part of (the) plan.

It brought to mind this from Jessica Price (emphasis added):

I guess it’s time to repeat the main thing I learned from reading a fuckton of Holocaust memoirs again: propaganda does not need to be persuasive, only pervasive. Its secondary purpose is to convince. Its primary purpose is to exhaust.

LaFrance arrives at a point that I had independently been thinking about before I read her article. People often talk about the “politicization” of events in the US now, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

This moment in American history is better understood as being driven by a new religious movement rather than existing political movements.

I don’t mean “religion” in the usual sense of the major Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) – although those are often intertwined with the new zeitgeist.

Like LaFrance, I mean that people are describing and responding to events in ways that you normally see in religious communities rather than political parties. Such as the unshakable beliefs in things unseen (“COVID-19 isn’t real,” says the one about to die from organ failure from it), belief in prophecies, communities springing up around practices not held by everyone.

And certainly, some political leaders act more like old school gods than traditional politician. They demand tribute, sacrifice, and threaten those who oppose them. A thunderbolt or two aimed at demigods who aren’t “respectful” or grateful enough. They sure aren’t above lying (you know, turning into a swan to get laid).

And they sure as hell don’t care about puny mortals. “So a few humans die. So what?”

It’s a radically different vision than one I have for politics, which is more about negotiation and compromise and trying to make most people’s live better. But probably my view was skewed from living most of my life in a relatively peaceful few decades, and mistaking that as normal.

From my point of view as a scientist who wants to do science communication, I think that treating opposition to COVID19 information as being based in religious opposition (in a secular, non-tradition sense) rather than political opposition changes the dynamic and changes the approach that you take.

It makes it clear that the task ahead of us is far, far harder than we ever could have expected.

Ultimately, I have to believe that at some point, reality will sink in. I hope that many people who aren’t wearing masks today, for instance, will one day look back at their actions and think, “Maybe I should have worn that mask.”

I hoped that we might have gotten to that point by now.

Additional: Just after I posted this, Andrew Thaler wrote:

The mistake we're making is thinking we have a science communication problem when what we have is a terror management problem.

Not sure I agree, but I think we both agree that “science communication” is not what the moment calls for. Science communication is a default mode. We need a crisis mode, and we don’t have one.

More additional: Emily G also has a thread that makes a similar point:

Here’s the thing no one wants to hear: you fight propaganda with propaganda. Unless SciComm can fundamentally scale to address the propaganda machine in sum and substance – and it can’t – then it’s doomed to ineffectiveness.

Even more additional: And just to show that some elements of this problem are widespread and not just an American thing, a new report shows a lot of Canadians have false beliefs about some aspect of COVID-19.

More than a quarter think the virus was made in a Chinese lab.

Almost a quarter thought there were drugs that could treat the disease, notably hydroxychloroquine.

More than one in ten think the virus is a cover-up for 5G wireless.

And just to top it off, there’s a lot of overconfidence to go with the misinformation.

Sarah Everts, a Carleton journalism professor and co-researcher in the study, said she was “floored by the overconfidence Canadians have in their own ability to distinguish conspiracy theories and misinformation.”

For example, 58 per cent of respondents who believe the 5G conspiracy theory also said they could “easily distinguish” between COVID-19 facts and misinformation.

External links

The prophecies of Q

The hard truth about ventilators

Nearly half of Canadians can’t tell coronavirus fact from conspiracy theory: survey

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