A pandemic of false dilemmas that polarize and confuse the population

Science

By CAPosts 02 December, 2020 - 05:30pm 101 views

Since the covid pandemic hit the planet, each new factor or measure that emerges in the public debate becomes the final discussion, the final decision. It cannot simply be an aspect to take into account that influences more or less, depending on the circumstance; or it is the silver bullet that ends the problem or a blunder that will cause a wave of deaths. Children went from being super- contagious to being non- contagious , the 8M demonstrations were to blame for everything or did not influence at all, Sweden was the example to follow or the biggest disaster in Europe, antigen tests are the miracle solution or a death trap , Barajas is a drain or the external borders do not matter. Every week, a different controversy, dog-faced, forced from high places. "Tribalization is being used very crudely," denounces Luis Miller, a sociologist at the CSIC.

A group of scientists has published an article criticizing this phenomenon. "False dichotomies are pervasive and attractive: they offer an escape from the disturbing complexity and enduring uncertainty," explains the article , signed by epidemiologist Eleanor Murray, of Boston University, and virologist Angela Rasmussen, of Columbia University , among others. They analyze six factors in which it is worth stopping to describe the nuances between white and black. Economy versus health, indefinite confinement versus unlimited opening, asymptomatic or symptomatic infections, transmission by aerosols or droplets, universal masks and the existence of reinfections. One of its conclusions is that political partisanship harms the efficient management of this knowledge: "The politicization of uncertainty and disagreement in science prevent debating the advantages of different positions and refuting spurious claims".

"The politicization of uncertainty and disagreement in science make it difficult to debate the advantages of different positions and refute spurious claims"

And that is the key, the politicization of the measures that, in principle, have a scientific motivation and are only intended to save lives. “It is polarized from the own struggles between governments; It seems that you have to position yourself in one or the other and perhaps you would not have to choose ”, criticizes sociologist Celia Díaz, from the Complutense University of Madrid. "There is too much noise, people are dragged to fight in the ring without information, to move between dualisms without a previous calm discussion, when in reality there is an amalgam of situations and factors," says Díaz, who regrets that the controversy causes that " Scientific knowledge does not always translate into measures. ”

There were no differences between party voters with the measures that were taken at the beginning of the pandemic, ”says Miller, who has studied how polarization and measures interact in the face of the pandemic . But over the months, this polarization has been forced with each new proposal, in a "tremendously crude and rudimentary way," according to Miller. The psychological and political mechanism behind it is well known: when we don't understand something, we tend to use a mental shortcut that consists of looking at what the people we trust or the parties we vote for think. “On many of the issues of the pandemic we have no idea. The parties already know that people are going to use this mental shortcut and they use it over and over again, because it is very easy to polarize, ”Miller denounces.

"It is a manipulation of identity, because we have known for a long time that identity can be created on anything, however insignificant it may be, fostering an unthinking polarization" Luis Miller, sociologist at the CSIC

Issues such as antigen testing instead of PCR do not have clear ideological connotations: in principle, it is neither good nor bad. “We do not have previous mental models and in the end it is good or bad because one or the other proposes it. It is a manipulation of identity, because we have known for a long time that identity can be created on anything, no matter how insignificant, fostering an unreflective polarization ”, explains the CSIC expert. "It's funny, because they have even evolved over time until they turned around, and now there are opposing opinions to the previous ones, as with confining more or less," recalls Miller .

Save Christmas, yes or no? Test in pharmacies, yes or no? Random screening, yes or no? In the end, the feeling is generated that each measure is decisive and exclusive, when the key is in the nuances, in the purpose, in its application. Elena Vanessa Martínez, president of the Spanish Epidemiology Society, gives as an example the dilemma about whether to open or close restaurants: “It is not black or white, it is not 'yes or no'. Many times you have to reinvent it: for example, restaurants have to be taken out onto the streets. You have to adapt the models to the environment ”. Martínez indicates that these dilemmas without nuances cause confusing situations for the population, because they take decisions to the extreme. “Sometimes it is a bit disconcerting, people do not understand that things are done differently in some circumstances, but the nuances must be explained, that an incidence of 500 [sick persons per 100,000 inhabitants] in a town is not the same as in a city with Metro and with a lot of movement between neighborhoods and with other territories ”, indicates the epidemiologist with respect to another of the controversies that were lived with more tension, to the point of confronting the Spanish central government with that of some autonomies. As social psychologists say, confusion about the logic of the measures is a factor that undermines compliance, because it is perceived as incongruous or unfair.

"It's not black or white, it's not 'yes or no.' Many times you have to reinvent it: for example, restaurants have to be taken out onto the streets. Models must be adapted to the environment ”Elena Vanessa Martínez, president of the Spanish Epidemiology Society

Another issue that is most often polarized are (supposedly) successful (or failed) measures abroad, which are polarized like silver bullets that should be imported. “We can learn from other countries, and I have always advocated learning from Asians, but the same measures cannot always be adopted because the culture and the political and social context also greatly affect effectiveness,” warns Helena Legido-Quigley, expert in health systems from the National University of Singapore. And remember: “Experts have the responsibility not to comment on areas where they do not have enough knowledge and avoid giving opinions of yes or no, or predicting the future, without explaining the evidence that exists or the lack of evidence in the opinions that are give. ”

But if there is a dichotomy that triumphed from day one, it was the economy or health, confine or open. “Save lives or save livelihoods. This is a false dilemma: having the virus under control is, in any case, a prerequisite to saving our way of making a living ”, published in April, in a joint article , the general director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization. In almost the same words, the Secretary General of the OECD, Ángel Gurría, insisted in June that “presenting the problem as a choice between lives and livelihood, between health and the economy, is a false dilemma”, and said that “if the pandemic is not controlled, there will not be a robust economic recovery ”. It was no use that the IMF, the OECD and the WHO said it was a false dilemma: eight months later, it is still posed as if there was a choice between heads or tails.

"Some countries that never introduced lockdowns have done poorly economically and some places that did introduce lockdowns have done very well" Helena Legido-Quigley, National University of Singapore

"Some countries that never introduced landfills have done poorly economically and some places that did introduce landfills have done very well," says Legido-Quigley. And he adds: "The economic indicators, according to a study in 45 countries, show that countries that have contained the virus also tend to have had less severe economic impacts than those that have not." And as an example of the nuances that should be introduced when confinements are considered, it indicates that these are really useful if they are used to prepare and invest in the health systems that will contain the new cases when they open the doors again.

In their article, Rasmussen, Murray and the rest of the signers warn that the different factors of the pandemic “are found in a gradient of gray tones between the extremes of black and white; they are hardly binary, simple, established or uniform, and should not be framed as such "because" uncertainties and complexities are an integral part of science. " And they conclude: “Public health thrives by accepting uncertainty and participating in balanced debates about nuances and complexity.”

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