Culture & Society

One Cheer for COVID Cranks, Two Cheers for the Dissenters

Coming to a clear understanding of the nature of the pandemic requires a certain amount of eccentricity

Image credit: John Stuart Mill/Getty Images

That the novel coronavirus is a worldwide pandemic, with almost 25 million identified cases and over 800,000 deaths—almost a quarter of which are in the United States—is not much in doubt at this point.

As the virus spread from its origin in China, there was great divergence in how countries and cultures responded. China’s way of containing the virus strikes most Westerners as unconscionably illiberal, ripping people from their homes involuntarily, sealing remaining residents into apartments that would in some cases become their tombs. We should not expect much more of a state that has millions of its citizens in concentration camps and keeps its entire population in a nationwide panopticon.

Other Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea, balanced rights and freedoms against the necessity of the situation, to varying degrees of success. And much ado has been made about the varying performance of the Nordic countries, which pursued very different policies but seem to be basically converging toward broadly similar health and economic outcomes.

Brazilian strongman Jair Bolsonaro generally pretended that COVID didn’t exist (despite the fact that both he and his wife suffered from it), and Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán used the pandemic as an excuse to seize still more power from a compliant National Assembly.

Eccentrics and Cranks

Meanwhile, the American response to COVID is best characterized as . . . eccentric. At least at first, America relied primarily on voluntary measures. People voluntarily started wearing masks, and businesses that could move to remote work did so largely before any government orders came out. There are millions of stories of people rising to the occasion: distilleries making hand sanitizer, people sewing masks for healthcare workers, and the like.

Relative to other countries, America seemed to have a disproportionate number of dissenters. Many were skeptical of government-ordered lockdowns, for instance pointing out that the economic costs were high and disproportionately fell on lower-income families and small businesses. Many also pointed out the seemingly political nature of so many directives given under the aegis of public health. Both criticisms are legitimate and defensible, and to a significant degree correct.

In addition, there were also the COVID cranks. They were the ones insisting, typically with poor or no evidence, that COVID was “just the flu,” or that the virus was a Chinese bioweapon, or that tens of millions of people had recovered from asymptomatic infection by early April. On the other side were the Chicken Littles who saw COVID as the beginning of the end, an unmanageable crisis that could never be contained or mitigated.

Establishment America stood aghast. Many were unable to differentiate the thoughtful dissenters from the cranks; by the end of March, Paul Krugman had seen enough to label America “the land of denial and death,” and by July declared the war against the pandemic “lost.”

Deviation from bien-pensant thought was treated as anti-scientific nuttery. Let the experts handle it, we were told. This isn’t a matter for the public to engage on.

This was wrong, both as a matter of principle and consequentially. The public response to COVID is inherently a matter of public interest. In a liberal society, such matters must be resolved in a spirit of openness and debate—and resolution of significant epistemic claims relies on a certain amount of eccentricity.

The Benefits of Dissent

In that way, those who sought to silence dissenters and even cranks could have ended up causing more harm to the liberal order than the nuttiest conspiracy theorist.

Over the last six months, the public discourse has moved in exactly the way that liberal theory would predict. Take the issue of masks. In the early days of the pandemic, there was a great degree of skepticism about whether homemade or cloth masks could do much to block the transmission of the virus. Some people, occasionally with great vigor, made their displeasure with mask norms or mandates—whether from governments or from business owners—vocally known.

Indeed, I was among the skeptical, noting that many of the claims made about “masks qua masks” were really about respirator masks in clinically controlled settings. In short, we knew basically nothing about whether fabric masks sewn in living rooms and kitchens throughout the country could do much—or if they could even be counterproductive due to risk compensation. And having been deceived by the public health establishment previously (when “masks don’t work” turns out to have just been a Straussian lie), I remained skeptical.

But then two things happened. First, new research came out looking at masks as actually manufactured and worn—and found that some types of masks worked relatively well for blocking droplets. (This research was further nuanced by additional follow-on studies.)

Then as a consequence, people began to change their minds and their behaviors. According to Pew Research Center data, between June and August, the percentage of Americans wearing masks all or most of the time increased by 20 percentage points. This increase was particularly notable in Republicans and GOP-leaning voters, who increased their mask wearing by about 50 percent (from 53 to 76 percent).

People also stopped doing things that were not effective. As scientists’ concern about fomite transmission decreased, the percentage of Americans wearing gloves when leaving the house fell by half, from 37 to 17 percent. Meanwhile, people reported moving from strict at-home lockdowns to responsibly gathering outside for social engagements, recreation, and religious activities—a position consonant with the evolving scientific knowledge.

A yes-mask, no-glove, do-things-outside consensus thus emerged, not primarily because of mandates but because of new knowledge and better data—driven in no small part by dissenters’ willingness to challenge the prevailing wisdom.

The move amongst the public from error to truth took place in other areas. What of the cranks’ favorite refrain, “It’s just the flu?” Harris Poll data show that as of mid-March a majority of Americans (54 percent) thought the fear of COVID was irrational. By early April, that number had dropped roughly in half, where it’s remained for five months. Ipsos data show that 82 percent of Americans remain concerned about COVID, a number that’s stayed largely flat throughout the summer and down only slightly from a high of 92 percent in late March.

The various conspiracy theories floating around regarding COVID have received widespread attention, but little purchase in the minds of the public. Seven in ten Americans report hearing “a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus outbreak was intentionally planned by powerful people,” yet only about a third of those who reported hearing the story believe it (with just eight percent saying it’s “definitely true.”) Given that this is about the same percentage of voters who believed in 2016 that it was possible that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac killer, it doesn’t seem like tremendous cause for concern.

Trust but Verify

So, what happened? Well, the COVID cranks made their case—and they lost. In the main, their predictions, ideas, and suggestions were not borne out by events. The claims of the dissenters, meanwhile, received a hearing and were in many cases vital to pushing back when scientific experts ventured into the realm of social planners. At the margin, Americans moved away from error and toward truth.

We got to see it play out in real time. Unfounded predictions and claims were subject to Twitter fiskings by those with greater knowledge and wisdom. Confident predictions of the future, both by trained experts and by amateurs, were evaluated against reality; some predictions were vindicated, others invalidated almost as soon as authors hit the “Publish” button.

To the benefit of all who cared to watch, this exercise forced the experts not to make proclamations based just on an appeal to authority; they had to “show their work,” as Tyler Cowen recently put it, in a way that laymen could understand, responding to cranks and thoughtful dissenters alike. They had to convince an American public with its inbuilt skepticism of being told what to do not only that there was a pandemic afoot, but that it required a dramatic and sudden response.

On social media, on Zoom calls, and at socially distanced picnics, Americans did what we do best—argued. How did we comprehend the data about testing, hospitalization, and deaths that came at us constantly? Could we safely reopen schools in the fall? How much could we bank on t-cell immunity? What was the real seroprevalence rate in New York City, and why the variance between boroughs?

All of this is a feature, not a bug. The COVID pandemic is (hopefully) a once-in-a-generation event. No aspect of life has remained untouched by the virus and our response. The sacrifices being demanded of us (again, particularly those least able to afford them) are great. They may be necessary to prevent even greater sacrifices, but this argument must be supported by persuasive evidence.

Wouldn’t it have been better for people to simply have shut up and done what they were told? Wasn’t time spent by experts doing media interviews or correcting misapprehensions on Twitter time that could have been better spent doing research?

To the contrary. First, a society that obeys its experts unthinkingly is a society that has diminished its critical faculties. One need not personally study up on every disputation, whether real or contrived; to do so would leave time for little else. Many such controversies are irrelevant to our lives; in other cases no real controversy exists, only an unsustainable conspiracy theory.

Second, as we have seen time and time again, experts are not infallible. And indeed, throughout the entire pandemic, we’ve seen experts change their advice—and disagree with other experts—repeatedly. In a liberal democracy, scientific knowledge and domain expertise play an important role in public debates, but the natural sciences say precious little about trade-offs, policy implementation, and individual preferences. As Daniel Sarewitz has shown, the idea that scientific knowledge stands aloof and above the messy world of politics is a fantasy.

From the early days of the pandemic, when Americans started social distancing and sewing masks, to today, when businesses and schools are figuring out how to reopen safely, Americans didn’t see COVID response as something that was just for others to do: it was something we are all part of. It wasn’t something that was done to us; it’s something we did.

The utility of a social institution isn’t best judged by where it is at any moment in time, but by whether it has internal systems that correct toward truth and away from falsity. It’s only through a robust clash of ideas—including those that may be mistaken, or even offered in bad faith—that we can arrive at truth over error.

Throughout the COVID pandemic, biologists, physicians, engineers, chemists, economists, epidemiologists, entrepreneurs, and countless other have struggled mightily to learn about the new coronavirus, how to prevent its spread, and ultimately how to vanquish it. There have been many blind alleys, and contentious debate remains on important issues from aerosol transmissions to reinfection.

But science is, as Jonathan Rauch writes, “a social process. . . . Science is not a machine; it is a society, an ecology.” It is, in other words, a spontaneous order that derives from liberal rules, norms, and values.

This should be true of our public discourse as well. We owe the dissenters a great deal of gratitude for sharpening our social discourse and forcing a real contestation of ideas, models, and data in the public square. The dissenters were upholding the debate that’s necessary for a healthy liberal society. Those who dismissed them out of hand, or lumped them in with the cranks, placed the perceived exigency of the situation ahead of liberal values.

Relative to almost every other fissure in American opinion, where insulated epistemic communities and deep-seated confirmation bias prevent significant changes in belief no matter how much evidence mounts, the public debate around COVID has been a welcome change.

A liberal society needs more of this intellectual eccentricity all around.

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