We are halfway through April, and the coronavirus pandemic is still crippling the world. Even as signs of curve flattening emerge, the number of death rates continue to rise. According to CNN, the death toll just surpassed 150,000 people worldwide. At the same time, people (including me) are getting tired of sheltering in place, and the economy is suffering. Some policymakers and protesters are calling for normalization even as experts point to recent case surges in places like South Dakota, which has less restrictive “stay at home”measures in place, as reported by NBC News. During the Spanish Flu of 1918 pandemic, the second wave was actually more deadly than the first wave. Policymakers must intelligently and meticulously work to “normalize” the country. As a climate scientist, I am quite used to people cherry-picking data to make points to support their claims, desires, or ideologies. The same tendencies are evident with COVID-19 coronavirus. Let’s explore this in further detail.
I should probably define “cherry-picking” because I am not talking about gathering fruit. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online, cherry-picking is defined in the following manner: “to select as being the best or most desirable.” It may be helpful to define a few additional words at this point because everyone is not trained as a scientist. The same dictionary defines consensus as “general agreement.” The last word in my “trio of C’s” is consilience. Consilience is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the linking together of principles from different disciplines especially when forming a comprehensive theory.”
Ok, let’s pull it all together. One of the common things that I observe as a climate scientist is dismissal of consensus findings or overemphasis on an isolated paper or idea. While all ideas should be considered or vetted with proper science methodology, the consensus understanding is the logical baseline rather than the outlier. It is always amusing to see someone dismiss peer-reviewed, scientific literature as untrustworthy or biased, but then cite the peer-reviewed, scientific literature when a random paper appears that supports their position.
Several years ago, I wrote a piece in Forbes about bias and skepticism. Skepticism is actually a good thing generally. However, I often wonder if a person is skeptical in the same sense all of the time, is it actually a bias? We probably know a person that is skeptical and dismissive of everything, but I promise you the lemon is yellow. As an example of our biases, I cheer for the Florida State Seminoles (3-time Alumni) and the Georgia Bulldogs (in my 15th year as a professor there) in collegiate sports. As sports fans, we make arguments for why our team is going to win the game. Candidly, there is usually as much bias in those arguments as objectivity. “Noles” or “Dawgs” fans want them to win so may see the scouting report, injury report, or matchups with a biased eye (and heart).
Now, let’s circle back to the coronavirus pandemic. Multiple data sources using different approaches and models continue to send up red flags about the virus. Through consilience, the infectious disease experts (not TV doctors) continue to warn that we are not out of the woods even though there are promising signs about testing, the cure trends, and so forth. However, people are tired, depressed, and in some cases, economically struggling. It is tempting to “cherry-pick” an isolated study, Facebook post, or Tweet that supports your desires or logic to normalize activities, leave the house or start your child’s sports league. This is a fundamental tenet of a fourth “C word” called confirmation bias. As I argued in my TED talk, confirmation bias is one of three biases that shape a person’s perceptions about science. People often seek information that aligns with what they believe or hope to happen. I see it here in the South every year as people seek information that supports their “wishcast” for snow even if the meteorological data doesn’t support it.
A 2017 paper in the journal Nature Scientific Reports actually modeled confirmation bias and polarization. From the lens of online activity like social media, they made the point that people have a tendency to “cherry-pick” arguments or claims that align with their system of beliefs while ignoring information that counters their position, even if it is consensus information. If you spend any significant amount of time on Facebook or Twitter, you probably didn’t need that scholarly journal to reveal that fact.
We should all be cognizant of our biases, fears, desires, and ideologies. They fundamentally shape us. However, we should not let them override the fundamentals of sound science analysis and data assessment. Stay safe everyone.