Studies Show We Need More Than Science Education to Stop the Pandemic

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So it’s now July, month four of sheltering in place here in the US because people can’t get their shit together and follow the advice of epidemiologists. And by “people” I mean the average person walking around without a mask, state governments that continue to open up businesses against the advice of experts, and the federal government that is actually literally just hoping Americans get used to the idea of hundreds of people dying every single day from a preventable virus. That’s not a joke: Washington Post reporters found a whistleblower who said “They’re of the belief that people will get over it or if we stop highlighting it, the base will move on and the public will learn to accept 50,000 to 100,000 new cases a day.”

Personally I’ve been putting a lot of blame on the lack of decent science education in this country and our huge population of people who aren’t just scientifically illiterate but who are actively antagonistic toward science. But there are other hypotheses out there that might explain why people are so eager to contribute to the destruction of the human race. Today, I want to talk about conspiracy theories, collectivists, and individualists.

This actually involves two different studies that were both published last week by the British Psychological Society: Looking out for myself: Exploring the relationship between conspiracy mentality, perceived personal risk, and COVID?19 prevention measures and Cultural orientation, power, belief in conspiracy theories, and intentions to reduce the spread of COVID?19.

In the first study, researchers surveyed a total of 991 French people before and after the government enacted measures requiring actions that would limit the spread of COVID-19, such as avoiding public places and washing hands. What they found was that before the government enacted those measures, very conspiracy-minded people — the people who tend to be suspicious of the government and think that there’s always a larger shadowy figure pulling the strings — tended to actually do the things that would help stop the spread of the virus. But once the government caught up and said, “Okay, please shelter in place and wear masks and wash your hands,” conspiracy theorists changed their minds and decided that they would NOT do those things. Like an angry toddler might. “Oh, you want me to do it? FORGET IT THEN.”

I wasn’t shocked to read about that result as it happens to support my own anecdotal observation. Back in February, I saw people on social media (let’s be honest, it’s always Facebook) completely freaking out over the “Wuhan virus,” and using it as an excuse to stockpile goods and to also be really super racist. That’s why I made a video about coronavirus, pointing out that yes it’s a big deal that people should be prepared for but it’s not a death sentence, hoarding goods won’t help because this isn’t actually the apocalypse, and for god’s sake it’s no reason to be really super racist. Or regular racist. And sure enough, once the virus hit the US and our unprepared government let it run rampant, those same stockpiling racists did a 180 and decided that it was all a big hoax to steal our freedom. This French study shows that it wasn’t just Americans on Facebook flipping their behaviors. It was conspiracy theorists the world ‘round.

Amusingly, the researchers noted that one way to combat that reaction in conspiracy theorists would be to hide the fact that it’s the government enacting the safety standards. I’m not exactly sure how one would do that but it’s very funny to imagine government officials actually engaging in a conspiracy to hide their involvement in stopping a pandemic just to get conspiracy theorists to comply, because otherwise the conspiracy theorists will think the plan to stop the pandemic is actually a conspiracy.

The researchers found that the only way to alleviate the anti-safety reaction in a conspiracy theorist is if they personally felt that their life was threatened by the virus — if they believed that they were more likely to catch it, and more likely to die from it, they were more likely to follow the rules, regardless of how conspiracy-minded they were. Otherwise, despite the fact that thousands of people were dying, they didn’t give a shit if they didn’t think it was going to negatively affect them.

And that’s where the second study comes into play. Psychologists at University of Kent surveyed about 700 people from around the world (with the majority being in either the US or the UK). They looked at COVID-19 conspiracy theories, whether or not people were following the government recommendations, and interestingly whether the subjects tended to skew towards collectivism or individualism.

Collectivism and individualism are philosophical concepts that, like “love” and “hate” are often thought of as being crisp, mutually exclusive opposites but are in fact muddy, sometimes overlapping concepts that humanity has been trying to fully understand for quite some time now. But to put it simply, “individualism” is the idea that one’s personal rights and responsibilities should take precedence over the greater good, like Ayn Rand before she started collecting social security payments and got Medicare coverage. “Collectivism” is the idea that we’re all in this together, that each person’s actions affect their neighbors, and so we must sacrifice some individual freedoms for the greater good, like Lenin before he accidentally set up a dictatorship and the eventual crushing of Marxist thought.

You see? Sure, there are probably better idols of individualism and collectivism, but the point is that blind adherence to either one is exceptionally difficult, if not impossible and also very poorly considered. Ooh, yikes, did I just pull a “both sides”? You can also think of entire cultures as individualistic or collectivist — the US is more the former, South Korea is more the latter.

Anyway, the researchers at University of Kent found that individualists were more likely to believe COVID-19 conspiracy theories and not take actions to mitigate the spread of the virus. Collectivists were more likely to socially distance themselves, wash their hands, and trust the expertise of doctors over Facebook conspiracy theorists. The scientists point out that while individualism has its benefits in certain situations, during large-scale disasters like the plague, or climate change, for example, individualists tend to lose their feeling of control. When people feel powerless, past research has shown that they tend to reach for superstition and conspiracy theories. This study backs that up, showing that collectivists found empowerment in banding together against a common foe, even when the common foe was a virus.

As I mentioned, this study had a majority of respondents — about 65% — from the US and UK, which are both considered to be individualistic cultures. The researchers point out that future research could expand upon their work by focusing on cultures that are more collectivist to see how their attitudes towards the coronavirus differed. But from this preliminary study, they see some compelling evidence that part of the secret towards getting people like Americans to comply with life-saving recommendations would be to enhance their feelings of cohesion and to boost their empowerment through collectivism.

That’s a tough sell when “socialism” is seen as a dirty word here, but it is something really fascinating to think about. Sometimes I fall into the trap of over simplifying — if only we had better science education, the US wouldn’t be in the position of having 131,000 deaths and 3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19. But it’s not quite that simple: you can understand the science all you want and still not care about your community. So we also need to do a better job of encouraging empathy, and if we can’t do that we at least have to stress to people how a collectivist attitude can benefit them individually (or at least as “individualism” relates to both an individual and the people they directly care about). You might not be worried about getting COVID, but if you have half a heart you probably don’t want your parents or grandparents to get it, or your diabetic brother or your best friend with the heart condition.

There are a lot of ways to get people to do the right thing, and it does seem like here in the US we’ve failed in, well, pretty much all of those ways. But it’s helpful to remember that if we want a smarter, more scientifically minded society then we can’t just focus on science, technology, engineering, and math education. We also need empathy and a desire to support and uplift others in that society.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. “…you can understand the science all you want and still not care about your community.”

    Or, why I keep screaming THE DEFICIT MODEL OF EDUCATION ISN’T ENOUGH, PEOPLE, at every science educator/communicator event ever.

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