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Columns, Opinions

Schmidt ’21: Distrusting COVID-19 science is a disease in itself

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The immediate and negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are innumerable: serious illness, worsening mental health, economic downturn and more. But one of the most disastrous effects of the pandemic must not be overlooked: it has exacerbated already prevalent distrust in science and research. Tracing the devastating effects of this distrust reveals that we must consider its deeper causes and reverse course to restore faith in science and scientists for the sake of our society.

The pandemic is yet another example of making arguably the most objective, fact-based industry, the field of science, the source of ideological debate. Central political figures, like sitting President Donald Trump, have ignored science and turned indisputable facts, like the existence of the coronavirus, into matters of opinion. The virus was, at first, the Democrats’ “new hoax” according to President Trump. Then, when its existence could no longer be disputed and the coronavirus was accepted as a real threat, its severity was brushed aside by government officials. This downplaying of the virus by a political leader can almost certainly explain not only the delay in action on the part of the United States, but also the confusion and polarization of the general public.

It is very likely that the denial of scientific research’s validity has led to a higher number of cases in the United States than we would have seen otherwise. As many as 36,000 lives could have been saved had social distancing guidelines been mandated one week earlier in March, according to research from Columbia University. At this time, Trump was prioritizing campaign rallies and vilification of the Democratic party over the safety of the country. In fact, Trump likened the virus’s severity to seasonal influenza. A considerable portion of the general public aligned their opinions with those of the president. In March, a poll conducted by National Public Radio (NPR) found that only 56 percent of Americans found the coronavirus to be a “real threat,” echoing rhetoric from Trump.

The fear, distrust or complete dismissal of science exists, in part, because sources of “scientific” information are now coming from major media personalities and political parties rather than actual industry researchers. This is hardly the first time a topic in science has been the subject of political debate — the denial of climate change and global warming by conservatives is another key example. But in the context of the virus, the most glaring example of this fear of science itself is the anti-vaccination — colloquially known as the “anti-vax” — movement.

This movement is not a new phenomenon; fear of vaccination dates back to as early as the late 18th century. This fear has endured in modern times and is passed on mainly via hearsay. One of the largest pieces of anti-vax propaganda came from a former British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, and incorrectly linked the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine with autism development in youth. Despite his unethical research methods being criticized and the fact that his claims were almost universally debunked, this objectively untrue belief is still widely held. While the circumstances are different, there are parallels between the misinformation spread of the broader anti-vax movement and that which has occurred throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Outdated, incorrect ideology continues to plague the public’s current thinking about scientific topics — from research on the effects of vaccination that has since been disproven to early rhetoric on the benign nature of COVID-19 that is now known to be completely false.

The danger that comes with deliberately foregoing immunizations speaks volumes about the intensity with which anti-vaxxers distrust science. Specifically, this evolving movement has implications for the safety of a post-COVID-19 world — people that refuse to receive a vaccine have the potential to start outbreaks. In May, as many as three in 10 Americans were undecided or would have refused the vaccine, according to a Washington Post-ABC News survey. This number is already concerning, but it has grown even higher since: according to a CNN poll conducted last month, nearly half of Americans would not get vaccinated even if the vaccine were made widely available. The anti-vax movement is not limited to the U.S. — a survey conducted by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a British organization, found that one in six U.K. citizens would not receive the vaccine when it became available.

With such a large proportion of the population unwilling to be vaccinated, the chances of achieving herd immunity are bleak. In June, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the Trump administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force, predicted that the chances of herd immunity for the U.S. were slim due to a “general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling.” One case of serious illness that occurred during a vaccine trial has not helped to alleviate anti-vax sentiment.

But this entrenched opposition to a COVID-19 vaccine is not only caused by the general anti-vax movement: another major source of skepticism is that COVID-19 guidelines are ever-changing. Head U.S. epidemiology officials, like Dr. Fauci and Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, as well as the World Health Organization and other official groups, have altered guidance provided earlier in the pandemic as they have gained new information. This is especially the case for guidance on mask-wearing. While in March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that the general public reserve masks for healthcare workers and sick people, by July they had reversed course and affirmed the fundamental importance of mask-wearing.

Unfortunately, once individuals accept and adapt to initial guidance, there is often a reluctance to transition to newer practices. And Trump’s blatant denial, refusal and belittlement of science only instilled greater confusion and suspicion in changing health guidelines. The science does not change: only our own understanding of it does. But, when national health guidance, already subjected to the interplay of objective fact and political ideology, is changed, the general public can believe the change is a sign that the guidelines are fake when the opposite is true: changing guidelines show the virus and the science behind it are real.

Beyond the context of vaccines, distrust in science may have even more fundamental root causes. Science tends to be inaccessible to the general public: research often remains behind paywalls and the language used to speak about new scientific research and discoveries can be hard to grasp if one is not in the field.

Separately, previous negative experiences with sources of scientific information can have a profound impact on people’s opinions of science. For example, unfavorable experiences with doctors and surgeons can produce a lifelong mistrust of these medical and scientific sources. The mistreatment of African Americans in research studies, for example, is rooted in identifiable instances of medical racism such as the Tuskegee syphilis study, which is widely criticized for its abuse and exploitation of African American communities. Overall, the field of science has a long way to go in terms of regaining the trust of the general public.

Misinformation and unethical studies mean that scientists and researchers need to be understanding of those who mistrust sources of scientific information. Scientists need to do more work to recognize and unpack why the average citizen is more likely to trust Trump over a researcher. What does a white lab coat mean to them? What negative lived experiences do people have with scientists?

Recognition of the history of inequitable interactions researchers and medical practitioners have had with the general public is the first step to understanding distrust of science and medicine. But politicians must also leave science to the actual scientists and refrain from spreading misinformation, weaponizing research for ulterior goals and vilifying the scientific process. Only then will we be able to combat the issue of widespread suspicion of science that the pandemic has only exacerbated. If left untreated, this skepticism of science can in itself be its own disease with ramifications that we will certainly continue to feel down the road.

Rachael Schmidt ’21 can be reached at rachael_schmidt@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. alum commenter says:

    > But politicians must also leave science to the actual scientists and refrain from spreading misinformation.

    I think this is exactly backwards. Really, scientists need to leave politics to the politicians. Too many “scientists” (and non-scientists) are volunteering their political analyses disguised as “science.” Unsurprisingly, this damages the authority of science.

    The popular perception of the authority of “science” can’t be separated from a popular conception of scientists as competent and fundamentally apolitical (and financially disinterested.) Nobody has lost faith in the abstract scientific method. To the extent that we’ve lost faith in “science,” it’s more like we’ve lost faith in our institutions (government, academic, and industry) to actually do good science. Much of this loss-of-faith seems completely justified in the current cultural moment. (I see a lot of parallels to the replication disaster in the social sciences, but that’s another story.)

    Consider the competence side of Covid science. We’re approaching a year now, and we’ve devoted many billions of dollars to research efforts. But we still don’t know how effective masks are in limiting afferent and efferent contagion; we still don’t know whether non-symptomatic patients are a significant vector for disease transmission; we still have major gaps in our understanding of why certain patients develop severe outcomes and other, similar-seeming patients, clear the virus straightforwardly; we still don’t know the first-order implications for seasonal changes in transmission (as distinct from season-mediated behavioral changes); we still don’t understand the significance of the tissue pathologies that surface in imaging studies (or indeed whether this is genuine pathology rather than just statistical artifact); we still don’t understand whether certain patients are genuinely shedding more of the virus than others over the course of the disease (so-called “super-spreaders”); we still don’t know why children seem less likely to contract Covid under similar levels of exposure (or indeed how strong this effect is); etc.

    Now let’s shift to the neutrality side. One thing science has established as an absolute law of physics – and since day one! – is that Covid’s emergence was unrelated to the Coronavirus research facilities in Wuhan. (I’m joking about this, of course – the total dismissal of the possibility that Covid escaped a research lab is yet another black eye for science.) In the absence of real science breakthroughs, we’ve had scientists irresponsibly volunteering their political analyses disguised as science analyses. There are plenty of examples, but the most fatuous surrounded the start of the major BLM events, when scientists hurriedly decided that protest gatherings (as distinct from religious gatherings) were fine, presumably because the real health threat is actually systemic racism.

    Another point, separate from my point about science being responsible for its own perception problems. The article assumes that a Covid response should be led by scientists. Honestly, this position seems crazy to me. It’s mostly just an expression of tribalism (an excuse to celebrate one system of political values while dismissing another.) Should a middle-aged man lose his business so that an 85-year old can live an extra 5 years? That’s not a question for science to answer; it’s a question that politics needs to answer.

    • Comment of the year. WHO no longer recommends lockdowns, yet the governors of NY CA and MN are competing on which will be the most fascistic draconian tyrant. Trust the science is yet another hollow slogan regurgitated by fragile, unscrupulous, sanctimonious sycophants who are happy to condemn their fellow citizens to the gulags for wrong-think. Sadly most of our “best and brightest” Brown students fall into this category. Think rationally!

    • This comment is as articulate as it is dismaying.

      Yes, let’s talk about neutrality. I will not dispute your position that scientists are political animals, but who isn’t? Economists are political, law enforcement officers are political, social workers are political, even civil engineers are probably political. (Ironically, I suspect many politicians are actually opportunist rather than truly political.) As a physician myself, however, I can comfortably state that those politics are both wildly heterogeneous and frequently inconsequential to our work. We sometimes have to swallow a bitter pill when the conclusions of our research clash with our politics, yet that is a fundamental tenet of science: the data matters more than our beliefs. Perhaps you are a scientist yourself (a jaded one), or perhaps not. I’m sorry you’ve lost confidence in the discipline, but I have to point out how egregiously cynical it is to suggest that scientists’ politics render their expertise null. One can be political and still do work (or suggest policy) motivated by something other than politics — say, a genuine desire to improve the health of society, or reduce the economic burden of disease. Because when I look at my colleagues, that’s what I see. And when I see them on television, or on twitter, full of bile and opinions, I know most of all that they are not political — they are simply tired of seeing death and suffering (and its economic fallout) that could have been prevented by proven epidemiological measures. Perhaps the issue is not scientists’ politics at all — a self-inflicted “perception” problem as you put it. Perhaps it is that the public, swaddled in their own politics, simply don’t like the realities that scientists feel obligated to present.

      And let’s talk about competence. The specificity of your critique again suggests that you are not a lay person, or at least well read. But to impugn the slow advances in our understanding of COVID-19, after less than a year of research, under the conditions of a global pandemic? I will state it bluntly: your standards of competence are ridiculous. The issue is not so much the competence of physicians as it is lay people’s seemingly unalterable perception of medicine as a far more certain science than it’s ever been. There are conditions we’ve studied for over 100 years the pathophysiology of which remains beyond comprehension. That says more about the complexity of disease than it does the aptitude of physicians. And yet, we strive to improve our knowledge and hone our treatments, and we do make progress. My great grandfather died of bacteremia from a shaving cut, the sort of fate many humans probably suffered for thousands of years. Decades later, modern medicine has made such a death unthinkable. Perhaps someday we will say the same of COVID-19, but someday does not arrive within a year, not in your wildest dreams. My prescription for you, and for the public, is a dose of humility.

      I do think the question you pose — about the relative value of a middle-aged man’s business compared to 5 years of geriatric life — is an interesting one, if laughably reductionist when contextualized. Is the question really so simple as that? What’s more, if a scientist isn’t qualified to suggest an answer to that dilemma, who is? Philosophers have debated it for millennia in one form or another, and I see no consensus on that matter. What makes you think politicians are qualified do it? Because the job description says so? Because they won elections? Has it occurred to you that having the mandate of the people doesn’t exempt one from idiocy? In fact, having met a number of politicians on both sides of the aisle, I’d say it gives one a 50/50 chance of being a bigger idiot than usual, albeit more charismatic. Sorry, now my own cynicism is showing.

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