Coronavirus is consuming much of the attention of the world right now. The disease, coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19, is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As I watch social media and broader responses, it appears that many people are taking the threat seriously. However, it is also interesting to watch some familiar tactics being injected into the discussion.
As an atmospheric scientist, I am familiar with the various myths and misperceptions about climate change that never go away even though experts have long refuted them. I call them “Zombie Theories.” Let’s explore five of the climate skepticism tactics emerging in the coronavirus narrative.
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – MARCH 10: Medical staff, wearing protective gear, take samples from people at a … [+]
The claim of alarmism. I have definitely seen my share of statements like, “What’s the big deal the flu kills more people every year, this is just alarmism or media hype?” The suggestion is that there is an overreaction to the threat. This is something very common to the climate science. Climate scientists Scientists are often called “warmists” or “alarmists.” That “flu question” may demonstrate a real desire for clarification, but for others it reveals a misunderstanding or misuse of the scientific facts. This is also common in climate change contrarianism.
The Livescience article at this link does a nice job clarifying the facts concerning the flu and coronavirus. Dr. Anthony Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He told Rachael Rettner, “Despite the morbidity and mortality with influenza, there’s a certainty of seasonal flu….The issue now with [COVID-19] is that there’s a lot of unknowns.” The article also makes another key point:
The death rate from seasonal flu is typically around 0.1% in the U.S., according to The New York Times. The death rate for COVID-19 appears to be higher than that of the flu.
I have noticed confusion within the public about “fatality rate” and “number of fatalities.” The aforementioned article discusses current death rates, but it is possible that those rates may decline as more cases are screened. However, I will defer to the experts on that conjecture. Another difference worth noting is that unlike influenza A and influenza B, there is no known vaccine for coronavirus. This fact alone is a sufficient answer to the “What’s the big deal?” question mentioned earlier.
Dunning-Kruger Effect. This effect is very common in how people consume science today. In a previous Forbes article I defined the Dunning-Kruger Effect as”a psychological concept that people believe they know more about a topic than they actually do (or conversely misjudge how much they do not know).” The term originates from a scholarly study by two Cornell psychologists. I see all kinds of claims about coronavirus that are counter to what public health and medical experts are saying. I often wonder, in this social media age, if there is someone out there willing to debate a fish about the best way to swim. Climate scientists also face all types of opinions, theories, and “long emails.”
CDC is a credible source of information on coronavirus in the midst of misinformation.
Confirmation Bias. Confirmation bias is the process of consuming information from sources consistent with what you already believe. There is an awful lot of information on coronavirus available, however, I am monitoring sites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) FAQ site and the World Health Organization (WHO). As a scientist, I want information from experts on the topic rather than someone’s Facebook post opinion or analysis based on an hour of “Googling.”
Cherry-Picking. Another common tactic in the climate skepticism narrative is to cite a scientist or study counter to the consensus science. It is important to note that healthy skepticism is vital to science and results should always be questioned in the peer-reviewed literature. However, a few results or opinions do not automatically trump a larger body of work just because it aligns with your belief. This brings me back to coronavirus. A few people in social media have referenced personal doctors and noted that they don’t seem concerned about coronavirus. I suspect many doctors are trying to find the right balance between providing credible information and not inciting panic. There certainly are enough public health officials concerned about coronavirus that I am too.
Former Congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC), a very strong advocate for climate change action, once told me that it is good conservative principle to prepare for all risks even if some of them are less likely than others. Many of us do this every time we purchase car or homeowners insurance. My takeaway from that statement is that a healthy dose of diligence is required with coronavirus but not hysteria.