How Polarization Ate Our Brains

Part One Of The Misinformation Trifecta

There’s been a lot of focus on misinformation over there—often focusing on the outright COVID denialism. Indeed some of that misinformation has been outright deliberate  falsehoods and lies. Some of it—the polarization around masks or the obsession with hydroxychloroquine—is complicated by events early in the pandemic. Some of it, like claims around vaccines changing your DNA or the wild rumors around 5G chips, are clearly outright false, though the former is also complicated (as it is related to the furor around genetically-modified foods as well).

But then there is the misinformation over here which is also quite persistent and also wildly wrong. This misinformation has its own cast of characters, ranging from the outright grifters to the misleading alarmists to, yes, large swaths of respectable opinion leaders and even officials spreading falsehoods. A few days ago, I noticed an article that seemed to hit the trifecta, both content-wise and visually (a no less important form of misinformation).

What’s the trifecta here? It’s polarization (eating our brains), bad science (causing terrible policies) and puritanism and moralizing (masquerading as public health).

First, here’s the Orlando Weekly article (note the correction up top, but that was added later, obviously).

For this post, I want to focus on the first (and do the other two next in individual posts as they deserve their own posts!)

First, it is an example of how polarization has eaten a lot of our brains. Lots of people are angry, very angry with Florida, and willing to quickly believe the worst. In reality, it’s… middling. Compared with the rest of the country, Florida’s record is neither stellar nor terrible. How much of this is its middling guidelines, how much of this is the weather advantage, how much of this just luck? It’s not yet fully clear. There’s a bunch of theories going around, and this New Yorker article by Sid Mukherjee seems to be one of the better attempts to outline some of the ongoing puzzles. He concludes that the culprits for the obvious unknowns may be many. Perhaps. But we used to think so for many other diseases too, until we found the single, overwhelming culprit. This will be an important study for the future. 

But the polarized climate means that Andrew Cuomo—who is implicated in a large number of terrible policies—can sell a book about his pandemic leadership for $4 million dollars (even before the pandemic was over!) while people are readily willing to believe that Florida—which, from what I can tell, actually has one of the better reporting systems—must be lying and covering up its terrible numbers. Note the motivated reasoning in this Orlando Weekly article: DeSantis is terrible, therefore his policies must be terrible, and therefore there must be a high number of deaths in Florida. If that’s not the case, the reasoning goes, then they must be hiding their numbers.

Wait a minute, you might say. There is a study published about Florida mentioned in the article. Indeed, there are a lot of studies published, and not a lot of them are good. That one was decidedly not so good. 

First, all states have some excess deaths, and Florida seems no big exception. Some of those are COVID, some not. Again, Florida is no exception. The numbers in Florida do not appear out of line with the numbers in other states. Further, even the reporting itself wasn’t correct: the original article claimed there were 19,000 unaccounted deaths, instead of 4,924—again the latter number not that different than most states.

I’m quoting Dr. Dean here a lot, because she’s at a Florida university and an excellent biostatistician. But other respected scientists, too, have been trying, to little to no avail, to correct this misconception.

Take this Yahoo! News example, too. It’s the same storyline: big claim, bold headline, picture of beach, prediction of catastrophe.

The Yahoo! article is slightly better because at least buried in it are a few interviews which make the problem clear: 

Tatar’s findings have not been universally accepted. Lauren Rossen, a statistician at the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who has analyzed excess deaths, told Yahoo News that she saw nothing exceptionally suspicious in the state’s excess death numbers.

“Florida doesn’t stand out to me,” she said.

Other critics of Tatar’s findings described Florida as neither a glowing success nor an unmitigated disaster but rather a state that has handled the pandemic with some successes and some failures, with the excess death data reflecting that mixed record.

Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida, told Yahoo News that it was wrong to assume that every excess death during the period in question should be attributed directly to those who contracted the coronavirus, especially since people who were never infected may still have been fearful of seeking care for other conditions while the pandemic surged and hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients.

“You could’ve never gotten the coronavirus, delayed needed health care, and died from diabetes-related complications. That’s still indirectly tied to the pandemic,” Salemi told Yahoo News, describing Florida’s statistics regarding all-cause excess deaths and the coronavirus as “kind of middle-of-the-pack.”

Excess deaths were at 21 percent nationwide for 2020, according to the CDC; Florida saw a 15.5 percent rate of excess deaths for the period that Tatar studied. California’s excess death rate was also 15 percent, despite that state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, having enacted much more stringent restrictions than did DeSantis in Florida.

You see this polarization play out again and again. 

For example, for a while, it seemed that Europe could do no wrong, and the United Kingdom nothing right, and that got reflected in coverage in the United States, whenever the polices of Europe and the U.K. diverged. (Here’s an example from a previous newsletter). Of course, it is increasingly clear that Europe lately has gotten something really wrong: vaccination.  The United Kingdom really looks like they got vaccination right (though, again it’s a complicated story which I will return to). 

Another striking example is, how, in the early days, there were a few Republicans (including senators) who became advocates of masks (when the whole public health establishment was denying their usefulness and roles), perhaps because it fit their more individualistic ideology: something that people could do voluntarily, as individuals, to avoid more collective public health actions such as closures. As a very early advocate of mask-wearing, that sometimes put me in unusual company. 

Now, even if I write an article about vaccine surges, I get emails like this:

I continue to believe that masks, including high-filtration masks, are an important tool, especially for the unvaccinated who must work or be indoors with other people. But it’s pretty clear that they have also become a talisman of sorts, essentially signaling belonging in a tribe, rather than a public health tool that’s quite useful under certain circumstances. It’s weird to see the mask debate come full circle. Now I get lectured for not talking about masks, even if the article is about vaccination, and people openly declare that they will continue to double-mask for a year even after being fully vaccinated--and for saying that on social media, they receive many likes and retweets (I’m not linking to examples because I’m not trying to focus on individuals). Meanwhile, those who deny the importance of the pandemic will often obsessively focus on masks, as if they are the greatest threat to liberty and individual expression rather than, yep, a public health tool that’s quite useful under certain circumstances. The talisman works both ways as a tribal signifier.

Of course, articles about Florida allegedly covering up excess COVID deaths immediately got shared widely on social media, and most people will never see either a correction or a follow-up article. It’s just the way it works, now.

This isn’t an easy position to dig oneself out of because we all are part of such political groups. I am not even trying to conduct false equivalence here: some falsehoods are worse than others, and at least in the United States, the damage done by the political parties to fighting the pandemic is clearly not equal. But it also seems important to understand how, and why, misinformation, bad science and policy and terrible attitudes are not just a problem over there.