The United States has one of the highest numbers of daily COVID-19 deaths in the world. There are many underlying causes, like poor healthcare in many populations, the lack of social safety nets, and low pandemic readiness. Perhaps most frustrating of all? The way our government’s partisanization of science has broken our trust in the science of COVID-19.
We’re still learning about this virus, but scientists do know a few things for sure—we can slow the spread of COVID-19 by wearing a mask in public, washing our hands often, not gathering indoors, and staying at least six feet away from people who are not part of our household.
Yet too many Americans still don’t trust even these most basic facts about coronavirus, leading them to engage in behaviors that endanger themselves and their communities. Even worse, acceptance of evidence about the virus is split along party lines. If we want to end the pandemic, to stem the preventable loss of lives, and return to some semblance of normalcy, then our leaders must start with the same set of evidence and data.
Unfortunately, there’s little sign of that happening anytime soon. As science-minded parents and members of communities across America, we’ve had to figure out how to distinguish accurate information from partisan spin. Here’s what we’ve learned.
COVID-19 misinformation is split along partisan lines
We understand that practically everything is political, and science is no exception. Science impacts policy and guides decision-making. But there is a danger in making science partisan.
The partisanization of science in the United States isn’t new—it happens with everything from climate change to reproductive health. With COVID-19, however, we’re talking about something far more basic—partisan rejection of fundamental facts. Even the fact that this pandemic is very real has become a matter of opinion split along party lines.
For instance, Democrats view the spread of infection as the cause of more COVID-19 cases, yet Republicans view more testing as its cause. As we explain in our COVID-19 FAQ series, the science is clear—more testing is not the reason for the spread of the virus. Democrats are also more likely to view COVID-19 as a major threat to public health and to support and participate in the measures necessary to contain the pandemic. In contrast, Republicans are less likely to view the premature reopening of businesses as a major cause of the surge in COVID-19 cases. And more Republicans feel comfortable resuming regular activities and are much less likely to wear a mask in public places.
The Trump administration destroys trust in its own scientific institutions
Communication about best practices, statistics, research, and policy changes has been contradictory since the pandemic reached the U.S. The administration has undermined trust in the evidence about COVID-19 by overriding the advice of government agency scientists. Instead of a coordinated plan, there’s a patchwork of regulations and efforts at the state level, leaving people confused at best and ignorant at worst about how to protect their families and communities.
Instead of leading with facts and recommendations, the executive branch has obfuscated the science and touted unproven solutions and treatments. Some of these solutions are driven by lobbyists seeking to reopen our economy or sell unproven cures. The President spreads misinformation in apparent attempts to offer false hope and hide the growing number of COVID-19 cases to bolster his re-election campaign.
In April, President Trump suggested that ingesting household disinfectants could destroy COVID-19 in the human body, which is in clear disagreement with safety guidelines and common sense. As a result, there has been a spike in people using bleach to treat COVID.
The White House has also regularly contradicted expert guidance on large gatherings and the opening of schools and churches. In August, under pressure from the White House, the CDC revised testing guidance to recommend against testing asymptomatic individuals. This change clearly goes against the recommendations from scientific agencies worldwide and ignores the finding that individuals with no symptoms can also spread the virus.
Finally, the administration announced that a vaccine would be available early November before the completion of Phase III clinical trials. This suggests the administration is willing to bypass the FDA, CDC, and ACIP requirements for ensuring the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Most vaccine candidates for COVID-19 have only recently started testing, and there is not enough time for these trials to be completed by the beginning of November. Bypassing these critical processes will undoubtedly destroy trust in vaccines, and for good reason—it would override the protocols we have in place to ensure safety and would likely flout ethical considerations.
All of this has forced scientists and government agencies into the highly troubling position of publicly contradicting the President and his Secretaries to protect public health.
The deadly consequences of the partisanization of science
The partisanization of science and evidence is not merely an academic discussion—the consequences are severe and deadly.
Preventable deaths. Early in the pandemic, most COVID-19 cases were in Democrat-led states. Yet the federal government refused to take action to protect people in those states, brushing this off as a blue-state problem. However, by early summer, the fastest growth in COVID-19 cases was suddenly in GOP-led states. Months of the Federal government downplaying the severity of COVID and ridiculing necessary public health measures backfired for the very states that most ardently support the President. The premature reopening of GOP-led states and the lack of adherence to mask and social distancing guidelines played a considerable role in driving the increase in case numbers and deaths.
Interference in our scientific institutions. During the pandemic, the FDA and the CDC have become mouthpieces of the Trump administration, which has interfered with the independent work of these institutions. In the past month alone, the FDA oversold and miscommunicated the benefits of plasma from COVID-19 patients, and the CDC changed its testing guidelines to exclude asymptomatic individuals who have come into contact with known COVID-19 cases. These policies do not align with the body of evidence or policies in other countries.
Wasted resources: Arguing over evidence and policies that are widely accepted in the scientific communities and by health agencies in the rest of the world has cost Americans dearly. The delays in taking action as we argue about the basics translate to more illness and more death. We waste resources as scientists are forced to continue clinical studies on potential treatments based on unfounded claims long after the evidence is clear, and public health agencies respond to ever more outrageous claims. This takes up time and financial resources of people who are already spread thin and takes them away from doing the work of protecting public health.
The United States finds itself in unfamiliar territory, where it is no longer a leader in public health during a global disaster. The administration’s actions have broken trust in current and future guidelines from government institutions, compounded the toll on vulnerable populations, and widened racial and economic disparities in this country.
How do we separate facts from partisan spin?
As the consequences of this pandemic have unfolded, the five of us and our friends, family, and colleagues have wondered who and what to trust as we question the accuracy of information from government officials. With each press conference or new guideline, we ask ourselves whom to trust and what to believe. Since we were all either born with or have earned the right to vote, we think it’s critical to be informed as we watch debates and vote for officials at every level of government.
Here are some strategies that we use and links to resources to help make sense of the latest information:
- Verify new information by comparing it to official statements from professional societies or organizations of relevant experts such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Cancer Institute, and the National Academy of Sciences. Approach information that deviates from messaging from other expert groups with a high degree of caution. For example, the American Medical Association opposed recent CDC recommendations against testing asymptomatic individuals.
- Compare information to guidelines and recommendations from other countries’ health departments, like Health Canada, National Health Services (UK), and the World Health Organization.
- Head to reputable fact-checking sites to see if they already covered the story. These include Snopes and Factcheck.org, or fact-checking services from media outlets like NPR and Washington Post. If they all point to the same conclusion, it’s probably a safe bet to believe them.
- Be wary of analyzing and interpreting data yourself. Epidemiology, virology, infectious disease medicine, immunology, and other fields relevant to COVID-19 are highly specialized. Be very careful about drawing your own conclusions, especially if experts are saying something different.
- Beware of partisanization on social media, which feeds off of click-bait headlines and alarmist or dismissive news stories.
- Assessing the quality of scientific information means remembering the basic concepts of the scientific process—our knowledge on a topic grows incrementally and relies on replication. New data should be largely consistent with what we already know. It is highly unlikely that any single publication will invalidate all knowledge to date.
- Be especially wary of posts based on single studies or preprints (which have not yet been peer-reviewed), and articles reproduced nearly verbatim from a press release.
Given the active role that we all play in creating the social media landscape, we also believe it is critical to recognize how our online behavior influences what others see. Each of us can help prevent the spread of misinformation by verifying facts before sharing or interacting with a post.
Where do we go from here?
The government’s blatant mismanagement of the pandemic is enough to lead some people to believe that all science is flawed or that critical life-saving medicines, such as vaccines, are harmful. But it is worth highlighting that, throughout this pandemic, the scientific and medical communities have been vocal in pointing out falsehoods, stressing the gaps that need to be addressed, and even getting policies corrected.
This growing mistrust has led public health agencies and even pharmaceutical companies to demand transparency and a thorough process in assessing the safety and efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine. Government agency scientists continue to do meaningful work, even as the administration undermines them.
From individuals to professional societies and groups, we can all do our part to ensure accurate research and information isn’t lost in partisan spin.
It is frankly depressing to look at the pandemic, at the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, at the resources mismanaged, and to think that figuring out who and what to trust might be one of the only ways we can control our own fates. Yet here we are.
The current administration has detached its actions and policies from reality and manipulated information for its own benefit, and it’s corroded our country. If there’s any good news, however, it’s that at least some of the power to contain the death and destruction is in our hands.
Resources to learn to be an empowered media consumer
How to Find Reliable Health Information Online
A Fake News Survival Guide – Today, Explained: Vox
Fake News Survival Guide: Resources and Tips for Staying InformedCalling Bullshit.