Our Science Denial is Killing Us
A perspective from Julia Soplop
And yet only a scientifically based approach can steer us to pandemic recovery
We’re experts in science denial when it suits us. We drive too fast. We don’t exercise enough. We eat the wrong things.
And when we happen across studies that say coffee, red wine, and chocolate are good for us, we read only the headlines, which make us feel justified in our unadulterated consumption of these items. Who cares which organization funded the studies? Who cares what quantity might actually be beneficial? Who cares that the sample size might have only been three people?
We also have a habit of pretending something isn’t true if it doesn’t affect us personally or, at least, doesn’t affect us negatively. How many interviews have you read with people who say they didn’t “believe” in climate change until their houses washed away, or a hurricane that seemed run-of-the mill rapidly intensified over too-warm waters, then slowed down and sat over their farms, causing disastrous, career-ending flooding? Now they understand that climate change is happening—not because of decades of data, but because they personally lost their homes or livelihoods. (In North Carolina, we now read these stories annually.)
Many of us prefer to navigate the world based on how we feel or what we believe to be true rather than based on scientific evidence that shows us what is likely or not likely to be true. We close our eyes to what is in front of us when scientific evidence grows inconvenient. We dismiss the process of science itself as “political” when it doesn’t produce the results we feel it should or want it to. We refuse to acknowledge evidence that challenges our core beliefs and, when this happens, tend to hold more tightly to those beliefs despite the evidence before us. We look the other way and dig in our heels when we can’t admit we just don’t understand it.
But science is separate from belief. Belief is about what is unseen, whereas science is about what we can see and measure and test. Science and belief operate on different planes and serve different purposes. Solid scientists base their opinions on mounting evidence, not on the unseen or what they desire to be true.
The process of good science is also apolitical. The goal of scientists who are practicing stringent science is to try to get closer to the truth rather than to support a particular political agenda.
Sure, science is filled with limitations. It takes time to build enough evidence to enrich our understanding of how something works—a luxury we don’t feel we have in the middle of a pandemic. Science often involves missteps, too. But these missteps are actually an essential part of the process itself. Rarely does the scientific method result in certainty, either. Instead, the process can provide us a specific level of confidence about how something does or doesn’t work, which can feel unsatisfactory when we’d prefer definitive answers. Science isn’t perfect, but it’s the best tool—the only tool—we have to try to make decisions informed by data instead of by our feelings.
Aside from climate change denial and the anti-vaccination movement, much of the science denial we exercise in our personal daily lives only serves to harm ourselves, or the family members footing the bills for our medical care. But we can’t afford to deny science in the face of COVID-19. We can’t afford to operate by how we feel or what we want to be true or what we would prefer to ignore. Science denial has already cost us too much.
The science denial of the Trump administration and some state governments has likely already led to thousands of needless deaths and unfathomable economic loss. Consider the following sequence of events:
On January 3, the National Security Council received U.S. intelligence reports predicting the virus would spread in the U.S. (Some news outlets have asserted that the military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence issued a report several weeks earlier.)
On January 22, Trump said: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming from China.”
On January 29, Peter Navarro, Trumps’ trade advisor, circulated a memo that estimated the virus could kill half a million people in the U.S. and result in trillions of dollars of economic damage. The next day, Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, warned Trump in a phone call, for the second time in two weeks, that the virus could become a pandemic. Trump called him an alarmist.
Travel restrictions from China—with a lengthy list of exemptions—were announced January 31.
On February 2, Trump said: “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China. It’s going to be fine.”
By the third week of February, the administration’s top public health officials thought it was time to inform the public of the true risks of the pandemic and encourage social distancing and working from home.
On February 24, Trump tweeted: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA…Stock market starting to look very good to me!”
On February 25, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, issued a warning to the American public, discussing community spread of the virus and the drastic measures, including social distancing and school closures, the country could face. She did so without permission from the president. The stock market tanked. Trump was purportedly furious.
He stewed and avoided immediately issuing the social distancing guidelines, instead saying at a press conference on February 26: “We’re going very substantially down, not up,” in reference to the country’s case count.
On February 27, Trump said: “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
Despite months of specific warnings about the COVID-19 threat and a draft report released five months ago following a government pandemic simulation that declared the U.S. was vastly underprepared to handle a pandemic, it was not until mid-March that the administration began to place bulk orders for N95 masks, ventilators, and other essential medical supplies.
On March 16, Trump finally announced the new social distancing guidelines public health experts had been pushing for three weeks. Some states enacted stay-at-home policies as a result. Others did not.
This pattern of science denial by Trump and others has resulted in disastrous public health consequences. Last week, two Harvard epidemiologists released models estimating that if social distancing had begun two weeks earlier, on March 2—at least a week after top public health experts began to push for it—90 percent of U.S. deaths from this first wave of COVID-19 might have been prevented. If social distancing had begun just one week earlier, on March 9, 60 percent of U.S. COVID-19 deaths might have been prevented. These estimates align with those of other public health experts.
Science denial has resulted in economic carnage, as well. Robert Shapiro, senior fellow at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, estimates that if the government had heeded warnings of health officials in January and acted as the officials had recommended to contain and manage the spread of COVID-19, the U.S. could have averted at least 40 percent and as much as 86 percent of the economic damages associated with the virus.
As our economy languishes, public health experts have begun to piece together a plan to reopen the country. We must listen to them, even if we don’t like what we hear. They largely agree that in the absence of a vaccine, treatment, or herd immunity from the virus (too few people have had it and recovered to protect the rest of us), the next year or two will be precarious until one or more of those conditions exists. We have to be extremely careful about when we reemerge from our homes and how we interact with each other when we do. (Here’s a rather devastating piece about what we can expect life to look like in the near future.)
The idea behind the weeks or months of social distancing we’re doing now is to slow the spread of COVID-19 so as not to overwhelm hospitals. When hospitals are overwhelmed and can’t provide adequate treatment, the fatality rate of the virus climbs. It also climbs for people who can’t access essential care for unrelated illnesses. When it’s declared safe by public health experts to begin opening up the country, it doesn’t mean those of us who have not yet been infected by COVID-19 are no longer at risk for getting infected. It just means it’s more likely there will be ventilators waiting with our names on them should we require them.
As public health experts discuss the conditions under which it would be safe to reopen the country, insufficient testing remains a major roadblock. We can only contain the spread of the virus and avoid large resurgences by quickly identifying and isolating new cases and exposures. Harvard researchers estimate that to reopen in mid-May, the country would need to be able to perform a minimum of 500,000 tests per day, which is three times as many tests as we’re currently administering across the U.S. (States would have to meet additional criteria on top of adequate testing to safely reopen, as well.) Testing rates vary dramatically by state, which means some states may need to perform six times their current testing, while others states might need to double theirs.
The day these estimates were published, Trump tweeted, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
By the researchers’ estimates, Minnesota would need to perform about six times the tests it’s currently performing to safely open. Michigan would need to perform four or five times as many tests as it’s currently performing. And Virginia would need to perform more than six times as many tests as it’s currently performing.
The governor of Texas wants to reopen the state immediately. But Texas needs to perform more than five times the number of tests it’s currently performing to open safely, according to these estimates.
Meanwhile, protests are raging across the country, demanding states to reopen despite the dire risks that could put us right back to where we are now—sequestered away with a plummeting economy—over and over again for years. Pitting health against the economy may be a simply way to gain followers, but it creates a false dichotomy. It’s not one or the other; many economists have cautioned that prematurely reopening the country and then having to completely shut it down again numerous times, when the virus inevitably resurges, would be worse for the economy in the long run than opening it cautiously and under the evidence-based recommendations of public health experts.
Up to 90 percent of the people in the U.S. who have died of COVID-19 may have lost their lives due to science denial. We don’t get to open the country when we feel like it. We don’t get to open the country because it would be convenient or because we want to or because it could win or lose someone an election. COVID-19 doesn’t care how we feel. It doesn’t care what our unprofessional opinions are on how it will behave. It’s going to do what it’s going to do. Moving forward, our only hope of mitigating the results of the pandemic is to listen to the public health experts who are working to collect and interpret evidence on how the virus spreads and what actions give us the best chance to contain it.
I hate to write these words while most of us are just trying to take it a day at a time, but this won’t be the world’s last pandemic. And it probably won’t be the deadliest one, either. There could be another virus leaping from an animal to a human as we speak. It’s not too late to learn from the disastrous consequences of our mistakes and adapt our responses accordingly, which is, after all, what the scientific method is all about.
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