Coronavirus Chronicles — Listening to the Science

In discussing a broad area of psychology known as “risk compensation,” which a lot of writers have tackled from many different angles, we considered how the public reacts to news from scientists. The public’s interpretation of, and feelings about, such news will change the public’s behavior — thus generating even more news, to which it will then react, and so on, ad infinitum.

The underlying problem can be that all this information, whatever its quality, goes off on its own separate tangents that might have very little to do with the objective truth of the situation. If “signal” is the righteous unvarnished truth, risk compensation is one of the human foibles that add obstructive and counterproductive “noise” to the discourse.

A mere bagatelle

Currently, many Americans believe that COVID-19 is no big deal. Deniers constantly quote the overall death rate, which sounds low, and may or may not be as low as it sounds, after several important details about the recording and reporting of statistics are factored in. Deniers insist that the same bug causes the common cold and garden-variety flu, so it’s no big deal. They refuse to be duped by what they characterize as propaganda designed to instill fear. They shame their family members and neighbors as sheep, brainwashed into wearing muzzles.

They start to feel confident — and this is where the risk compensation mindset becomes truly dangerous — because the number of the new cases goes down for a few days, or because some flashy politician announces that it’s all nonsense. Or word goes around that maybe we don’t need to worry so much about fomite transmission (catching it from unsanitized surfaces).

Listen to the science! But which science?

In essence, the whole risk compensation problem can be summarized as two groups of people with megaphones, angrily taunting each other: “Listen to the science!” But which science? Aye, there’s the rub. A lot of energy is expended on defending the credentials of various individuals and institutions. People, as they also tend to do with holy scriptures, will cherry-pick from scientific publications and put the nicest polish on the theories they can benefit from selling at the moment.

Conversely, risk compensation expert Jennifer Hu of UC Berkeley’s Bioengineering department reminds us of the habits of scientists:

Out of an abundance of caution, “they” don’t want to tell “us” too much good news about the COVID vaccines, even when that good news is scientifically reasonable.

The public has no tolerance for nuance or uncertainty. The public, which under other circumstances often says to the government, “How dare you tell us what to do!,” now says, “Tell us what to do! If you don’t issue precise and effective instructions right now, that proves you must be a fraud.”

There is often the possibility that a prediction will turn out not to be true. A lot of experts feel that it is better to say nothing, than to say something that proves to be wrong, and destroys public trust. The Atlantic‘s Zeynep Tufekci reminds us,

Some outlets emphasize the worst or misinterpret the research. Some public-health officials are wary of encouraging the relaxation of any precautions. Some prominent experts on social media — even those with seemingly solid credentials — tend to respond to everything with alarm and sirens.

A reputable practitioner of science wants to avoid misleading the public either one way or the other. If people are not frightened enough of a legitimate threat, they throw caution to the winds and endanger themselves and others. If they are too frightened, next thing you know they are out rounding up witches to burn at the stake.

For those who are not fazed by uncertainty and have a tolerance for speculation, there is a way to find out what experts talk about with each other, when they are not being pressured to issue statements and make definitive declarations. The Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine offers a resource called AMDA COVID-19 Grand Rounds.

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
Source: “5 Pandemic Mistakes We Keep Repeating,”, 02/26/21
Image by AJC1/CC BY-SA 2.0

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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.
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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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