The American public’s response to the pandemic has been chaotic. Some have followed strict social distancing, happily went into lockdown when the number of cases was high, and got a vaccine as soon as it became available. Others were almost the opposite, opposing any public health measures and refusing vaccines. And a lot of the population ended up somewhere between the two extremes.
Obviously, for such a complex reaction, so many factors are probably at play, they can be difficult to sort out. For example, conservatives in the US have received anti-vaccination messages from their political leaders, but this is coming on top of a long-standing trend of distrust of scientific information.
However, a little bit of data has emerged this week that does a pretty good job of sorting out those complexities. A study indicates that skepticism of scientific information appears to be linked to whether people followed health authorities’ lockdown instructions. And a survey indicates that people are more likely to attempt an untested “cure” for COVID-19 if they look at right-wing news sources.
We’ll cover the study first. It tracks the periods when several states implemented shelter-in-place orders at the start of the pandemic. The deadline for the issue here (last year’s March 1 to April 19) was largely before the issue of pandemic control was badly politicized (then President Donald Trump didn’t start tweeting that states had to be “till April 17″ free”). To track compliance with these restrictions, the researchers obtained anonymized cell phone data. “Home” was defined as any location where the phone remained during an overnight period, allowing movement outside the home to be tracked.
While this is an incomplete measurement, the data shows a clear trend: During March, about 10 percent of phones remained at home throughout the day. This was defined as compliance with any local shelter-in-place orders, which were tracked at the county level.
The researchers then compared it to a proxy for respect for science: acceptance of evidence for climate change. They also had access at the county level, through voting.
There was a clear difference. In countries where climate change acceptance was above the national average, people were more likely to stay at home than average. In counties where that acceptance was below average, people were less likely to shelter in place than average. The effect was small but significant, with people in counties where climate change was mostly accepted, about 10 percent more likely to stay at home.
Clearly, this is not an accurate measure of attitudes towards science in general, as acceptance of climate change was politicized even before the pandemic began. The researchers behind the paper adjusted for this by repeating the analysis only in counties that voted Republican, and they found that it held up (though Democratic-leaning counties still had lower levels of skepticism towards the science). The county had nothing to do with the severity of the pandemic at the time. But there was a clear correlation between reported face-mask use and rates of acceptance of climate change, suggesting it was not the only pandemic measure fueled by skepticism of science.
As an external investigation, the researchers also confirm that this relationship holds for a nonverbal public health measure: rates of MMR vaccination. Those rates were also slightly higher in counties with higher levels of climate change acceptance. Therefore, there appears to be a general relationship between acceptance of scientific information and willingness to comply with public health measures—one that is partly driven by politics, but also exerts an independent influence.
politics and public health
The political side of that equation was clarified by Recent YouGov/Economist Survey This suggests that Republicans have generally turned against vaccines. About a year ago, before the availability of COVID-19 vaccines, a clear majority of self-labeled Republicans (59 percent) supported the childhood vaccination mandate. But by this year the number had dropped to 13 points; At 46 percent, it is no longer a majority opinion among Republicans. (Support for childhood vaccinations rose slightly among Democrats, but the change was within the poll’s margin of error.)
This is almost certainly due to the bleed-over of relentless antimandate messaging between Republican politicians and media figures. So far very few politicians have agitated against childhood vaccines. But if opposition to these mandates (currently at 35 percent) extends far beyond their base, doubtless opportunists will begin to do so.
The role of conservative media figures was brought forward a second vote, by Annenberg Public Policy of the University of Pennsylvania. It addressed some of the issues you might call pandemic related: Anthony Fauci and Opinion on the Use of Ivermectin. The polls divided people based on their chosen news sources, grouping them as: mainstream, social media, conservative, and very conservative. Examples of conservative media include sources such as Fox News and Breitbart; Very conservative sources include Newsmax and OAN.
Much of the conservative media has spent the past few years attacking infectious disease specialist Dr. Fauci, and it is clearly having an impact. When people were asked if they trusted Fauci, 87 percent of mainstream news viewers said he did. But it fell to about half that among conservative news audiences and was true for less than a third of very conservative sources.