3. The Persistence of Personality and Belief
I wasn’t surprised by the range of pandemic explanations that I uncovered in my research. In a past blog post, I lamented the realization that consensus reality was a myth. I had observed that people expressed distinct belief systems or narratives about the world to which they maintained loyalty even in the face of what other people might consider incontrovertible contrary evidence.
My views of the world, including the current pandemic, have been influenced by my father, whose work was centered on the statistical analysis of health data. In school I studied probability and statistics, essential tools for the attempted practice of an analytical way of understanding the world sometimes called critical thinking or scientific method. In the attempt to think critically, I’ve tried to recognize the cognitive biases in my thought processes as well as to stay aware of both my past wrong conclusions and my ongoing areas of ignorance. However, I’ve observed that it’s ultimately impossible to evaluate one’s own thought processes objectively.
So, like other people I’ve brought my personal beliefs and narratives, along with the rest of my personality, to the current crisis. I have not believed that the pandemic arrived as a sign of coming judgment, the end of days, or God’s wrath, a nefarious lab project, a Bill Gates-headed conspiracy, a 5G wireless side effect, or an astrological alignment. I have believed, among other things, that:
a. epidemics or pandemics of pathogens of various sorts (both new and reappearing) have affected humanity periodically over thousands of years;
b. the onsets of epidemics or pandemics have been somewhat random, although what has happened with them may have been influenced by patterns of living conditions and travel at the time the pathogen appeared; and
c. societal choices made both before and during epidemics or pandemics has sometimes been a major influence on how they played out.
I’ve been disappointed but not surprised that so many people have stuck with narratives where the pandemic was a consequence of some other thing that they considered more important. I could understand that buying into a narrative where the disease itself is the major agent has been hard, as the group of so-called experts attempting to explain it to us laypeople have disagreed with one another and steadily changed their stories. Even some believers in critical thinking and the scientific method must be have been having a hard time dealing with how much the “experts” disagreed with each other. I’ve been following a series of weekly reports surveying projections of numbers of Covid-19 cases and fatalities by university public health faculty and other knowledgeable people compiled by a couple of biostatisticians at the University of Massachusetts, and every week the numbers have been all over the place, with many of the participants making it clear that they didn’t have a well-defined idea of what was going to happen weeks or months out. People don’t turn to experts wanting to hear that the experts have no clear idea of the answer. I’ve thought that this disconnect has been one reason for so many people sticking with non-science-supported narratives. (On the other hand, I’ve seen multiple plausible analyses that suggested that people have been in better agreement and anti-pandemic campaigns have gone more smoothly in places where politicians have let scientists be the spokespeople.)
I’ve also noted people’s inclination to reject as wrong explanations that they couldn’t understand. The patriarch of one of our neighboring households assured me confidently that the disease was just a form of the flu. He and the rest of his household have been strongly anti-mask and have teased me when they’ve seen me wearing one. Perhaps I’ve envied them in their certainty that they know the answers. I became accustomed to listening to people speak with authority about things they knew nothing about years ago. Since the advent of the pandemic, many of those people have continued to embrace the opportunity, but now the stakes have become higher.