Reading between science lines

There’s a large disconnect between the world of science and the world outside of science. We’ve known this for a long time, and there’s polling to support it (more details about that later), but it’s become incredibly clear in the COVID pandemic. I’ve used this blog as a way to talk about things that aren’t related to my professional life, but as my hobby of being a political junkie mixes with the world of science, it’s sometimes hard to take off that hat that I wear while I’m working. And thinking about things as a scientist and as a non-scientist makes us see things differently, and makes us talk about things differently.

Let’s explore the 2015 pew poll just to get the juices flowing (it’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, and I want to get back into the habit).

There’s a rather large disconnect between the way that scientists (at least American scientists) and the general public (at least the American public) see things. In some cases, this leads scientists to have opinions that differentiate them from the political party they’re most likely to align with otherwise, and in some cases it seems like it would look the same if you substituted “liberals” for “AAAS scientists.” Look at some (most) of the questions about climate, energy, and space sciences. “Climate change is mostly due to human activity.” About 50% of Americans in the survey agreed with this statement, but 87% of the scientists agreed with it. That doesn’t seem much different from other polls that compare All Americans to Democrats or Liberals. But there are example where that doesn’t seem to hold up. “Favor building more nuclear power plants” has agreement from 45% of the general public (and is more of a republican idea than a democrat idea), but has 65% agreement from scientists. That’s the one I find the most interesting.

This disconnect between scientists and the general population has become even more clear during the ongoing pandemic. Partly, I think, because of where our focus lies when we hear certain words. On the one hand, this doesn’t surprise me. When I hear, “airborne transmission might be a problem,” I think that it might or might not be a problem, and that it’s something to think about, but we need more information. When others hear this, they seem to think either airborne transmission IS a problem (or ISN’T a problem). When scientists hear statements like these from other scientists, I think we’re inclined to take a lawyer-like approach and parse the words very carefully. This makes me wonder if polling on the understanding and perception of COVID (and other science issues) would look different if we separated lawyers from the general public also. Maybe it’s just how we treat language that we feel is “inside” our world or “outside.” Maybe a lawyer doesn’t fall into lawyer mode when listening to Fauci as much as a scientist falls into science mode. It’s hard to say.

But this disconnect seems to be the root of lots of misperceptions about COVID. This falls on both sides of the political spectrum. The New York Times morning newsletter had a piece about this last week. The basic takeaway is that republicans are more likely to underestimate risk and democrats are more likely to overestimate risk.

This was true for lots of things related to COVID, risk of death, risk of hospitalization, the chances of young people getting infected…you name it. I’m super curious to know how this would look if you broke it down, like the 2015 Pew Survey on AAAS Scientists did. I’d like to think that scientists would fall in the middle (closer to the correct answer), but I also can easily imagine scientists looking a lot like democrats. It’s notable, however, that despite the crux of the article (that democrats overestimate the risk and republicans underestimate it), the correct answer, at least to the question shown in the clip on the right (“what are the chances somebody with Covid must be hospitalized”) wasn’t hit on by a majority, or even a plurality of members of any of the groups. More republicans and independents got it right, but it was still only 26% of republicans that answered it correctly. That’s not particularly good.

And all of this affects our perception of how we’re handling things, because it seems to relate to our personal level of comfort. I have family members who live in Florida, for instance, who are conservative, almost certainly voted for Trump, and who believe that the COVID scare is overblown by the media. They are very happy with the way their state has handled things, and one of them repeatedly points to statistics about hospitalizations and deaths to show that Florida, in spite of being more open, has fared about the same as New York and California, which have been more closed. This comparison isn’t the right one as far as I’m concerned (the question for me is whether or not the number dead would be lower if Florida shut more things down or if the number would be higher if New York opened more things…unfortunately, a question that we really can’t answer with certainty), but that aside, I think it’s more likely that he’s happy with how Florida is handling things because it fits his personal risk tolerance. He’s comfortable being with people outside of his “bubble” without a mask, so he’s happy that there isn’t a mask mandate. I know others in Florida who are less risk tolerant, and who think that Florida is doing a horrible job and that the governor is making awful decisions. Likewise, there are people in New York who think the restrictions are out of control and unnecessary, but people like me, with lower risk tolerance, think New York has found a reasonable balance (although I see some serious inconsistencies that don’t make much sense to me).

All of this will start to matter less as we move forward, but I think the biggest relevant challenge we face is vaccination. And this is subject to all the baggage we carry about all the other things. Do we trust the FDA to prevent things that aren’t safe from being injected into us, or do we think they’re bought by the companies that are selling these things? Do we think that the only thing that matters is that we protect those around us who are highest risk, or do we see the collective view and recognize that we need to vaccinate everybody to prevent mutations that would render the vaccine useless? Do we keep all the vaccine for Americans, or do we make efforts to provide vaccines to the world (for the same reasons that we don’t just vaccinate those who are at high risk)?

I suspect that scientists will hear one thing, and non-scientists will hear another.


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