Coronavirus Chronicles — Information and Belief

Jennifer Hu, Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley-UCSF Bioengineering, writes about a concept called “risk compensation.” While people may not be familiar with the term, there is no need, because it concerns the kinds of existential questions raised in conversations a lot of us have had, very late at night, in a dorm room or a tent.

It is always important to consider who sends a message — if the media, then what subdivision of the media? Or does it come from one of the government agencies that Americans agree to fund for our mutual benefit?

When a politician says, “I didn’t want to start a panic,” this is what they are probably, though clumsily, trying to express — a belief that when the public is worried, it will inevitably react with noise, violence, and/or hoarding. The government feels the responsibility to do something to prevent people from killing each other over the store’s last 32-pack of toilet paper. If that can be accomplished through the judicious distribution or withholding of information, so much the better.

The point of quoting this author in this context is that the coronavirus pandemic affects children, and evidence mounts every day pointing to how very much it hurts them. Obesity as a co-morbidity is, as we have seen, only one part of the big and ugly story. It matters, what people believe about COVID-19. Hu says,

The most vivid example of this backfiring is the early messaging telling people not to wear masks, out of fears that people would 1) panic-buy and hoard high-quality masks, 2) touch their faces more often to adjust ill-fitting masks, and 3) engage in riskier behaviors because they felt protected. It was common to see a well-meaning tendency to argue that partial receiver protection was basically useless, or worse than useless.

But, as it turns out, we should all be wearing masks a large part of the time, even after being vaccinated. Even when 6 feet away from others in an enclosed space because, as it turns out, the frequent and vigorous exchange of indoor air is of paramount importance.

So, risk compensation does not always perform as intended. This mask debacle is a prime illustration of the public’s tendency to demand to be told everything, right now, and then to freely misinterpret news in 99 different ways and get everybody all riled up. This is so deleterious because while the public is eager for access to the first whisper of evidence about anything, at the same time the public also adds the proviso, “And whatever you say right now, we will hold you to it forever. So make sure it’s a hill you are willing to die on.”

Like many other issues, that particular one grew into a massive problem. The crazy part is that scientists are the first to advise against jumping to conclusions. An astonishing number of peer-reviewed, published scientific papers close by affirming that more research needs to be done. As Wu says,

Scientists do not like to claim that the data shows any more than precisely what it shows, even though any scientist worth their salt can go on to discuss likely implications and draw inferences from other data points. But when a scientist says “We don’t have evidence X is true”, they could easily be thinking “X is probably true but we don’t have the slam-dunk data yet and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions”. Meanwhile, the media and the general public can misinterpret it as “X is false”.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What is it that they don’t want to tell us about the COVID-19 vaccine?,”, 03/08/21
Image by Mesaj/CC BY 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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