Welcome to the web version of Need to Know: Science & Insight, a new form of personal journalism.
Hello Friends. A special Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends and readers. In this issue some ideas on how to have a reasonable conversation with family and friends about the pandemic. But first let’s imagine an airline pilot making this announcement as your flight is about to take off:
“Hello everyone, this is the captain speaking.
On behalf of the entire crew welcome aboard Flight COVID19 with only a 2% chance of crashing.
Make sure your seat belt is correctly fastened. Now site back and enjoy your flight.”
Would you get on a flight with a 2% chance it will crash?
No? I didn’t think so. And yet there are those who argue that since 98% of people infected with the coronavirus survive it means the virus isn’t that dangerous and that masks and lockdowns are unnecessary. I’m sure you’ve come across people who downplay the seriousness of the pandemic. Next time ask them if they’d get on flight COVID19.
The coronavirus fatality rate varies considerably from country to country. In the US it’s 2.3%; 4.0% in the United Kingdom; and 3.8% in Canada as of mid November. Health care systems aside, a big reason in the variation is who gets infected. In Canada, nearly all the deaths have been in long term care homes. That brings me to another favourite covid-risk-denying tactic.
There is a wide spread claim that nearly all the deaths attributed to coronavirus were due to underlying conditions, not the coronavirus. Here’s a Need-to-Know: This is based on misuse of a CDC stat that 6% of deaths had no underlying health conditions (also known as comorbidity) such as diabetes. However, despite those underlying conditions, the other 94% would not have died otherwise. It’s like saying a person with asthma who dies in car crash that asthma was the cause of death. Obviously it was the car crash. People live for decades with asthma.
This is also true for people with underlying health conditions like diabetes or high-blood pressure or a dozen other underlying conditions. It’s quite likely more than half the adult population in many countries have some form of underlying condition.
"And even if you don’t have a comorbidity yourself, someone you love almost certainly does."
— Dr. William Hanage, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University’s School of Public Health
Coconutarianism alive and well today
Yes, it’s that simple and clear and yet….coconutarianism lives on. A previous Need to Know issue described the bizarre colony of Germans living in Papua New Guinea in the 1920s who attempted to live solely on coconuts and sunshine. Despite their beliefs that this was the cleanest and purest way to live, pretty soon everyone was suffering from malnutrition and infections. And, even as people began dying, they persisted in their belief in coconutarianism.
Why was that? Three Need-to-Know reasons:
1. It’s hard to change your beliefs when everyone else in your community shares them.
2. It’s hard to change your beliefs when there is a trusted, charismatic leader championing those beliefs
3. It’s hard to change your beliefs when your personal identity is wrapped up in that belief: “I am a coconutarian”; “I am a conservative”; “I am a liberal”.
Based on recent research, I’ll add a 4th reason: Heavy social media use.
Studies show that people who spend hours everyday on YouTube, WhatsApp and Facebook are far more likely to believe in conspiracies: That climate change is a hoax; the coronavirus was developed in a lab; COVID deaths are exaggerated; George Soros/Bill Gates are to blame for pretty well everything.
Those four reasons explain why it’s so difficult to help someone see that a particular belief they hold is mistaken. I’m not claiming a huge amount of success but I’ve had plenty of practice with climate change deniers. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Generally, a personal encounter is best. It requires active listening to understand their underlying concerns. Those concerns are often unrelated or without real evidence but that doesn’t matter. Treat their views respectfully, after all those views are part of their identity. A direct challenge will be felt as an attack on who they are as a person. And be empathetic. Few people like to admit they’re wrong, particularly about things they want to believe in.
Only when a solid level of trust is built can facts be worked into the conversation.
Lee McIntyre, a researcher at Boston University and author of a forthcoming new book “How To Talk To A Science Denier” has a similar approach and suggests trying this:
Perhaps start by letting the COVID-19 denier try to convince you, and see what happens. The antidote to doubt is trust. And the most important way to build trust is to start talking to one another again.
People’s beliefs are based not just on evidence but identity, so it’s crucial to approach them with as much empathy and respect as possible. What changes minds is trust, not argument.
I hope you’ve found some of this is helpful in navigating those difficult conversations.
Until next time, stay safe.