The pandemic, epidemiology, and the importance of historical knowledge

I have written about this several times and thought I would revisit it briefly.

MY FASCINATION WITH EPIDEMIOLOGY

Since childhood, I have been fascinated by epidemiology. I read articles and books about it growing up, I learned about it in school, and it’s one of the topics I studied at university.

I found the history of it fascinating: How people have understood diseases throughout history and in different cultures. How people have tried to prevent or lessen the impact of spreading diseases. How ships were quarantined, even centuries before we had an understanding of germs. The early modern investigations into the spread of diseases, for instance, the infected well in London spreading cholera. The initial treatment of Semmelweis and others who argued for hygiene. How simple things like clean water, hygiene, and a better diet are responsible for most of the improvements in health we have seen over the last century.

And when it comes to pandemics: What has historically worked and not worked in times of pandemics. (Limiting travel and contact, quarantine, and good hygiene.) And how people tend to react in times of pandemics. (Some groups will react by fueling blame, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories.)

EXPECTED PANDEMIC AND RESPONSES

When the pandemic came a few years ago, I was not surprised. Pandemics typically come once a century, and this came just on schedule. (About one hundred years after the last major one, the Spanish Flu.)

I was also not surprised by the measures put in place by governments around the world. These are the typical measures put in place in times of pandemics, and the ones we know work based on what we have learned from history. Most governments followed established best practices. (WIth China and Brazil as notable exceptions.)

And I was not really surprised by the surge in conspiracy theories. That’s how some people react in times of pandemics. They want to find a scapegoat. They distrust the government. They oppose common-sense measures to prevent the impact of the pandemic. Even if these are temporary, protect vulnerable groups, and we know from history that these measures work. (I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed when people I personally know chose this way of reacting to the pandemic.) (1)

WHY DO SOME GO INTO CONSPIRACY THEORIES?

I also have some guesses about why some went into conspiracy theories.

They may not know much about the history of pandemics or of epidemiology. They may not know or understand – or want to understand – how and why the standard pandemic measures work.

They may not understand science and scientific methods very well. They may not know how to evaluate scientific articles and research. They may not know much about valid reasoning or how to avoid logical fallacies. (Most of the conspiracy folks I have seen use both bad data and bad logic.) (2)

Some may prioritize other things over being intellectually honest.

They may have a pre-existing distrust in governments, authority, and possibly science. (Even if just about everything that works in their lives is made possible by governments and science.)

They may want to reinforce an existing identity as an outsider and rebel. They may want to boost their self-esteem by telling themselves they know something most others don’t.

They may just have discovered something disturbing about how society works and draw exaggerated and hasty conclusions because they are not very familiar with the topic.

They may be naturally gullible. They may have heard things from people they think they should trust, and believe it.

Because of the pandemic, some found time to go into internet rabbit holes and spend time in virtual echo chambers.

Some intentionally took on the roles of trolls and fueled conspiracy theories they personally saw as ludicrous. (Some were paid to do this, others did it for more personal reasons.)

And most probably saw themselves as being on the side of truth and the good. (Even if it, in most cases, was misguided.)

WHEN WE DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY

This is an example of why knowledge of history is important. It’s important for the decisions we make today.

These situations – that have to do with science and public policy – tend to look very different depending on how familiar we are with history and science. Knowing a bit about history and science vaccinates us against being misled by paranoia, weak data, and weak logic.

THE VALIDITY IN THE CRITICISM

There is, of course, a grain of truth to a lot of the criticism and the essence of some of the conspiracy theories.

Most governments winged it, with some guidance from doctors and epidemiologists. They made mistakes. They over-reacted and under-reacted at different times and in different situations. They would have done some things differently if they had more time to prepare or had known more than they did at the time. That’s to be expected. We live in an imperfect world. We all wing it, to some extent.

The medical industry is in it for the money. Medical research is often funded by big pharma. Multi-national corporations own a wide range of companies, including medical and media companies. There is a lot of money influence in politics. That’s also to be expected. It’s not news.

And, at the same time, it doesn’t mean that the measures put in place by most governments did not make sense. They did, based on history and what we know works in times of pandemics.

(1) Why did some resist taking simple common-sense measures to slow down the spread of the virus? To me, this didn’t make sense. The main purpose was to prevent hospitals from being overloaded and we saw the consequence of overloaded hospitals in certain areas of the world. Did they want hospitals to get to the point where they had to turn people away? (Including, possibly you or your close family.) Did they assume the measures didn’t work? (Even if they obviously do. None of them are perfect, but they are not meant to the perfect. They are just meant to reduce the rate of transmission. And to reduce the viral load when someone gets infected, which is one of the main predictors of how serious the illness will get.) Did they act out of ignorance, reactivity, and lack of compassion for their fellow humans? Did they allow their reactivity to override their compassion?

(2) For instance, some refer to articles published on less-than-reputable websites, often written by people with no training or expertise in the field, and present it as if it’s solid science. Or they refer to an outlier article that goes against the mainstream view and presents it as if it means something. (Outlier articles and views are found in all fields of science. They need to be backed up with a lot more research to have any real weight or meaning.)

Some set up a false dichotomy and pretended that the measures had to be perfect or rejected. None of the measures are perfect. They are not meant to be. As I mentioned above, they were meant to slow down the spread of the virus so the hospitals wouldn’t get overloaded and had to turn people away. (Including people ill for other reasons.) And they were meant to reduce the viral load when we get infected, which is one of the main predictors of how sick someone gets. (Masks, for instance, hold back the spit that naturally comes out when we talk, this reduces the viral load when someone gets infected, and that can make all the difference for some people.)

Or they pretended that common temporary measures in a pandemic were going to be permanent. Or they presented themselves as victims just because they were asked to take a few common-sense measures to help prevent the hospitals from being overloaded. (This reaction was especially weird to me since we all already take a lot of measures to help society as a whole, including paying taxes, wearing a seat belt, driving on the correct side of the road, washing our hands, and so on.)

Some talk about “rights” when they seem to conveniently forget that we also have duties. In a time of crisis, duty comes into the foreground. In this case, our duty is to be responsible citizens and do our small part in keeping the hospitals functional and reducing the risk of serious illness for other people.

The conspiracy theory crowd seemed naive to me for several reasons. Not the least because they actively fueled distractions from the major and real crisis we are in: our ecological crisis. This is the one we need to focus on and do something about. So why allow yourself to get distracted in that way?


DRAFT FRAGMENTS

And, as mentioned above, they may be misled by someone they think they should trust. And they may be motivated by other things than logic. (They may want to join a community. They may want to feel they are right. They may want to fuel an identity as an outsider and anti-mainstream.)

In this case, the people going into conspiracy theories may not have known enough history

They may not know enough history to know what has worked and not worked in past pandemics. (And that the mainstream approach to this pandemic is based on history and research into what works.)

They may not know enough history to realize that pandemics often lead to an upsurge in scapegoating and conspiracy theories.

They may not have the background in science, logic, or epidemiology to recognize bad data and see through false arguments.

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