Cover Photo, of the Stark County, Ohio Courthouse Bell Tower, by Anthony McCune.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Scientists Have Been Right About The Coronavirus. Why Are People Still Not Listening?

Scientists Have Been Right About The Coronavirus. Why Are People Still Not Listening?

Posted by Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Dir., Atmospheric Sciences Program/GA Athletic Assoc. Distinguished Professor (Univ of Georgia), Host, Weather Channel's Popular Podcast, Weather Geeks, 2013 AMS President

I am an atmospheric scientist who studies weather and climate. From that lens, I am well versed in the experience of delivering forecasts or warnings that are often dismissed by the public. It is extremely frustrating to see people ignore the threat of an approaching hurricane or emerging impacts of climate change. Within the pages of Forbes, I have previously explored several reasons that people ignore expert warnings or advice including motivated reasoning, optimism bias, belief bias, Dunning-Kruger effect, and other cognitive biases.

From a broad perspective, it is pretty clear to me that scientists have generally been correct about the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, some people (and policymakers) are dismissive and even hostile towards them. Recently, I discovered another concept from the field of psychology that may help explain why some people push back on expertise.

So what’s your evidence that scientists have been correct? Early in the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and other scientists who have devoted much of their careers to studying infectious diseases warned of the significant threat of COVID-19 and urged social distancing practices and “lockdowns.” It was a difficult pill to swallow and caused significant pain to our economy. If you review the graphic above, it is evident that the “curve” was flattened. A Time magazine article originally posted on April 27th, 2020 declared that the U.S. had flattened the curve.

Given significant economic pressure to “reopen” the economy, policymakers jumped on the opportunity presented by the flattened curve. However, scientists were urging caution. Yasemin Saplakoglu wrote an excellent piece in Livescience about the concerns of the infectious disease community. She quoted Dr. Fauci from his testimony before the U.S. Senate Health Committee. At one point he said, “prematurely open(ing) up without having the capability of being able to respond effectively and efficiently, my concern is that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks.” States forged ahead with phased reopening plans anyhow.

For a brief period of time, some policymakers boasted about progress as “normalization” continued, and certain media outlets or politicians demanded apologies to people that were critical of early reopening. People started bashing the coronavirus models that were predicting resurgent numbers in the summer. It turns out that the surge is fully upon us, and the models were right. The graph below shows new total hospitalizations in Florida and other states. I use this metric because it better characterizes the COVID-19 health situation without the bias of sheer testing numbers. Once again, the scientists were right.

Finally, the narrative shifted in some circles to “well not as many people are dying.” From what I have gathered from experts, this is likely related to younger people testing positive. While the likelihood of death in that demographic is lower, they also become potential super-spreaders to more vulnerable members of the population. My Forbes and University of Georgia colleague John Drake breaks down four reasons why deaths are lagging cases right now. He also urged caution for an impending surge in deaths too. At the time of writing, there are signs that Drake and other colleagues are right about this too.

Whew, that was a long-winded defense of the declaration that scientists have been right. Let’s deal with why some people aren’t listening. I stumbled across something called psychological reactance, a concept put forth by Jack Brehm in 1966. The basic definition of reactance theory is that people try to establish or regain a freedom after losing or perceiving it to be lost or threatened, which causes them to resist. When I read this, my first reaction was that this seems exactly like what we are seeing with all of the whining, protests, and pushback “in the name of freedom and personal rights” concerning masks and social distancing policies.

As a parent, I immediately recognized that most of us experience reactance in our homes all of the time. Virtually every parent has experienced “No” or “Why” after asking a child to clean their room, eat their vegetables or reads books during summer. Ok, that last one about the book was a digression to my current experiences with my son. Scholars have used reactance theory to explain political movements or the rise of certain politicians.

Circling back to John Drake’s latest contribution in Forbes, he makes the case for universal face masks. I didn’t feel the slightest twinge of threat to my personal freedoms while reading his article. Candidly, I value everything this great country has afforded me and have never felt that my personal rights have been violated by common sense recommendations like mask wearing or social distancing.

Wear those masks because the virus is not going to “poof” and go away.

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