Tribalism Comes for Pandemic Science

Can our polarized country act on provisional knowledge?
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The Covid-19 pandemic has tested our society in countless ways. From the health system to the school system, the economy, government, and family life, we have confronted some enormous and unfamiliar challenges. But many of these stresses are united by the need to constantly adapt to new information and evidence and accept that any knowledge we might have is only provisional. This demands a kind of humble restraint — on the part of public health experts, political leaders, and the public at large — that our society now finds very hard to muster.

The Coronavirus Pandemic
From the Special Series:

The Coronavirus Pandemic

The virus is novel, so our understanding of what responding to it might require of us has had to be built on the fly. But the polarized culture war that pervades so much of our national life has made this kind of learning very difficult. Views developed in response to provisional assessments of incomplete evidence quickly rigidify as they are transformed into tribal markers and then cultural weapons. Soon there are left-wing and right-wing views on whether to wear masks, whether particular drugs are effective, or how to think about social distancing.

New evidence is taken as an assault on these tribal commitments, and policy adjustments in response are seen as forms of surrender to the enemy. Every new piece of information gets filtered through partisan sieves, implicitly examined to see whose interest it serves, and then embraced or rejected on that basis. We all do this. You’re probably doing it right now — skimming quickly to the end of this piece to see if I’m criticizing you or only those other people who behave so irresponsibly.

Some very basic assumptions have had to be adjusted in the course of this spring, in all directions, and everyone has found it difficult. Early on, some argued that we would see nothing more than the equivalent of a bad flu season, and the virus quickly proved them wrong. In early March, Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke for many public health experts when he told an interviewer that “people should not be walking around with masks,” which would only really be of use to health workers. Within a few weeks, the same experts (including Fauci) were recommending that we all wear masks in many settings.

At first, it seemed that many tens of thousands of ventilators would be needed to save the lives of the most severely ill Covid-19 patients. But that expectation now seems to have been rooted in a misperception of the physiology of the disease, and we are likely to end up with a huge surplus of unused machines. Expectations about the age distribution of serious Covid-19 cases and guidance about how the virus might spread on surfaces have needed to be revised. Even the basic question of whether lockdowns have been effective remains contested, with serious evidence on both sides.

It is not surprising that our understanding of such basic questions has shifted over time, as the relevant communities of experts have gotten to know a new pathogen, tested hypotheses, and learned from unprecedented economic and social circumstances. But that process of learning has interacted very poorly with some deeply ingrained habits of our political culture.

In this century, we have become accustomed to heated political debates that somehow avoid contact with reality. They involve genuine and important problems, but they are fought largely as posturing contests. Some are arguments over projected medium-term crises (like the federal debt, or climate change) which one party laments and the other ignores or denies — allowing each to assert its moral superiority while treating the other with contempt without paying any immediate price. Some are struggles over cultural or national identity (like the immigration or gun control debates) and so often aren’t really about what partisans argue on the surface. Many are fabricated outrages that serve as pure tests of tribal loyalty. President Trump is particularly adept at manufacturing these to demonstrate his prowess at bending our politics to his ego by generating weeks of intense arguments over some ephemeral insult or violated taboo.

Our polarized political culture has reflexively approached the pandemic as just another culture-war drama of this sort — demanding that we each prove our loyalty to our team and express exasperated outrage at the other. This has left us clinging to various strategies rooted in provisional hypotheses (about re-opening the economy, for instance, or enforcing lockdowns, or using hydroxychloroquine), insisting that evidence against our view does not exist, and unwilling to change our minds when new facts emerge.

Worse yet, the very communities of experts we rely on to assess provisional knowledge and provide us their best judgment have failed the test of professional restraint in key moments, giving in to political tribalism themselves. The latest example has involved the protests (and at times riots) that have broken out across the country after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Their cause is just, and when they remain peaceful these protests are surely a force for good. But even acknowledging the evidence that outdoor transmission is uncommon with normal activities, there is simply no doubt that hundreds or thousands of people marching in close proximity and yelling increases the risk of spreading the virus. Yet after months of their supporting lockdowns, scolding those who violate social-distancing rules, and even demanding that some elections be postponed, we now find not only progressive political leaders but even public health experts downplaying the risks.

This politicized hypocrisy was especially evident in an open letter published by more than a thousand public-health academics and practitioners this week. As noted in an excellent piece by Conor Friedersdorf, the group simply asserted its willingness to put political considerations above professional obligations. Acknowledging that large public gatherings increase the risk of transmitting Covid-19, they wrote:

However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States. We can show that support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators’ ability to gather and demand change. This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders. Those actions not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives. Protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on Black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported.

Even putting aside the bizarre claim that protests against stay-at-home orders are somehow rooted in white nationalism, this is an astonishingly discrediting statement. These public health professionals are simply admitting that their views on the health risks of large gatherings depend on the political valence of those gatherings.

Rather than compartmentalize their professional judgment from their political priorities — explaining the risks of large protests regardless of their political content and then separately and in a different context expressing whatever views they might have about that content — they openly deny not only the possibility but even the desirability of detached professional advice. This kind of attitude inevitably makes it much harder for the public to assess scientific claims about the pandemic through anything other than a political lens.

The cost of all this has not only been a further sharpening of partisan differences in this period but a rigidity that renders us less able to respond to the virus. It is essential in the midst of a crisis to remain flexible and to learn from new evidence. We are confronting reality, not just a set of partisan spectacles. The virus is what it is, regardless of what we think of it, what the president tweets about it, or what other priorities we might have. That means we need to conform our responses to the reality of the pandemic, even as our understanding of that reality changes.

We also need to give our leaders the space to adjust, and not hold it against them or try to score cheap points when new information causes them to change course. And we need to demand that the technical experts who advise both politicians and the public acknowledge the limits of their knowledge and try their best to separate their judgment of the available facts from their political preferences.

And what may be most challenging of all, we will have to acknowledge that the facts may not turn out to be convenient. We will need to consider the possibility that the unkempt cranks who dissent from the common wisdom may be right sometimes, and that the smug technocrats who pronounce that common wisdom might be too. We just don’t know for sure. So we will need to act prudentially on our convictions of the moment, but not immediately question the motives, the intelligence, or the sanity of people who come to different conclusions after an honest assessment of the facts. We will need to acknowledge that our knowledge is tentative, and could turn out to be wrong.

Such humility will be essential in the coming months, as we continue to confront a wily and unfamiliar virus. We all feel a powerful desire now to speak of the pandemic in the past tense and move on to something new. But the virus doesn’t care what we want, and the pandemic is not behind us. We are now beginning to get some sense of how the ad hoc strategies pursued this spring have worked and failed, and we will need to assess that evidence with open eyes. There is good reason to think we may confront another wave of outbreaks in the fall, and we must try to be ready for those too. Forcing the available evidence through partisan filters will only get in the way of our ability to learn from this harrowing experience, and to address the challenges ahead while minimizing the human cost, and the economic burden.

The virus has demanded a lot from our country, and Americans have been willing to make great sacrifices to address it. But to defeat it, we will also need to be willing to temper our powerful inclination to polarize and tribalize, and we will need to demand more of political leaders, of public health experts, and of ourselves. Success in the coming months depends on our ability to build up habits of humility — and those would serve us well far beyond this crisis too.

Yuval Levin, “Tribalism Comes for Pandemic Science,” TheNewAtlantis.com, June 5, 2020.
Header image by Pacific Press via Getty

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