We’ve all got one: that relative, friend, or social media acquaintance who thinks the danger from Covid-19 is overhyped and the real danger is to the economy. I’m less bothered by this than the response: endless grieving about the inability of people to respect the experts and listen to the facts. “If only people recognized epidemiological truths when they saw them!” seems to be a growing cadence among my friends and numerous media pundits. Really people should quit acting as if sharing videos of handwashing techniques and flattening incidence curves will bring everyone else on board. Actually achieving greater compliance with social distancing and lock-downs will require taking a far different tack.
When we misunderstand disagreement as a product of a deficit in truth, we miss all the ways that it is really rooted in matters of trust. When people fail to accept what we ourselves might see as an obvious fact, we are more likely to denigrate them as ignorant or brainwashed. There’s no shortage of handwringing on Twitter about the MAGA-hat-wearing fools who are less concerned the need to take precautions. But in understanding the issue as a battle between fools and those of us ostensibly enlightened enough to hang on to the CDC director’s every word, we lose the ability to actually understand and sway skeptics. If anything, we push them further away.
In framing skepticism as a matter of scientific literacy, we forget that the risk is actually very uncertain, distant, intangible for most people, a challenge that the pandemic shares with challenges like climate change. Even epidemiological experts have been at odds in face of the considerable complexities and uncertainties of the novel disease; some even debate whether we actually know that the mortality rate is significantly worse than the flu and question the practicality of a long-term social lock-down.
Furthermore, most of us are not seeing the harms in front of our faces, and demands that we pursue social distancing can seem irrational when much of the rest of everyday life appears unchanged. It won’t be clear for years if our actions were too precautious, just right, or not stringent enough—if ever. Health officials are really asking quite a lot from people: ignore what you see, trust us and our models to know what’s best…even if this goes on for months.
That some people more readily trust health officials and the exhortations of heads of state says more about their underlying moral framework than their intelligence. As Jonathan Haidt’s work uncovers, most liberals’ politics is guided by a single principle: care for the least advantaged. Calls to social distance are steeped in this morality, asking people to take precautionary action to preserve precious medical resources for the elderly, immunocompromised, etc. So, it comes as no surprise that liberals are the most convinced that the pandemic is worrisome, the problem already fits neatly into their preferred moral universe.
It isn’t so much that the people who do take Covid-19 more seriously are more scientifically literate. Rather the vast majority of them had likely already bought in before they had ever seen a meme about “flattening the curve.” Although there are likely exceptions, most people’s concerns precedes their scientific literacy: if the more precautionary are more scientifically literate it’s because they already accepted the crisis as a legitimate one in the first place and then sought out scientific counsel. Do you know anyone who waited for high school biology or earth science to have an opinion about abortion or climate change, and do you know very many people whose opinion has actually been significantly altered in the short-term by taking in new scientific information? I don’t, and I know a lot of very well-educated people.
The idea that simply listening to the epidemiologists (or climates scientists or…) will end petty politicking and lead to objectively correct actions and policies just doesn’t jive with people’s thinking. I think it is embraced more for relieving our anxieties than accomplishing anything productive. Yet the belief that science can swoop in to establish order in a chaotic and conflictual world is a comforting one. I don’t necessary begrudge anyone who seeks out its comforts, but the belief drives ill-conceived political communication regardless.
The lesson for coronavirus is the same for other scientific crises: Don’t expect people to not only accept your advice but also your moral framework. And even better, leverage already trusted authority figures, like pastors and conservative television hosts.
I won’t pretend to know exactly what is going through the mind of coronavirus skeptics, but there are a few already visible threads that we should follow. Many skeptics argue that the prospect of a global economic crisis is more salient and important to them than the actual deaths that might manifest—rightly or wrongly. That some people still venture out, despite mandated social distancing, is not so much carelessness per se but caring about different things than the rest of us.
Smart pandemic policy would seek to limit the extent to which these economic worries undo social precautions. Apart from the massive proposed economic stimuli on the table, states would be wise to pair limitations on pubs and cafes with a relaxing of laws on the delivery of alcoholic beverages. And many restaurants are surrounded by so much parking that they could function as drive-in’s without too much difficulty, if made legally permissible. Similar temporary changes to regulations could enable other brick-and-mortar institutions to still do some business rather than none at all.
Discovering the right moral intuition to evoke could be done right now, using the same research techniques that marketers already use to fashion more persuasive ads. We should not just appeal to the moral intuition of care but also loyalty, sanctity, and other ideals. Abstract calls to mind the country’s limited infrastructure of intubation machines and intensive care beds would be more fruitful if supplemented by other messages: respecting social distancing is an act of loyalty to one’s older relatives, it is an exercise in patriotic togetherness against an invading disease (hopefully without also evoking xenophobia), or it reflects the truism that cleanliness is next to godliness.
Just because we are working to prevent the worst-case scenario of an epidemiological model doesn’t mean we have to also embrace the epidemiologist’s stripped-down moral accounting. Realizing the best possible outcome from this pandemic may rely on us doing anything but.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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