Link and Comments: Covid skeptics and critical thinking

Slate, 11 March, Rebecca Onion: COVID Skeptics Don’t Just Need More Critical Thinking, subtitled, Without a shared approach to scientific expertise, “trusting the data” won’t lead us to the same conclusions.

This entails the question, What is science? Not everyone understands what it is.

The diverse and ever-evolving community of skeptics they tracked across half a million tweets and 41,000 visualizations should give anyone convinced that anti-maskers and COVID deniers are just uneducated, and in need a good dose of data literacy, some serious pause. In these groups, there was plenty of education going on. But what kind? “It’s certainly tempting to characterize COVID skeptics as simply ‘anti-science,’ ” the MIT group writes, reminding us that this is what people like Anthony Fauci have chosen to do, over the course of the pandemic. “But this would make it impossible to meaningfully understand what they mean when they say ‘science.’”

And this:

And another major thing is people feel that data doesn’t match their lived experience. So we know a lot of health departments now have websites and data portals and such, but especially in smaller communities, the statistics they have are from the state, and there’s some unevenness between the city or town level and then the state. And so the state might be really bad, and the numbers are scary, but the rate might be lower in a specific town. So they’ll say, “Look, we don’t know anybody who has it, and our hospitals are fine.” So there’s a disconnect that is underlying the skepticism that leads them to try to reapproach the data, reanalyze and represent the data in a way that makes more sense to them.

This aligns with my observation a while back that there are people for whom anything that’s not in plain site, in everyday experience, is presumed not to exist. There’s a spectrum of examples that include flat earthers and creationists.

And, bottom line, people use the term “critical thinking” in various ways. (For me it entails, to a significant degree, understanding psychological biases and therefor why certain people would think certain ways about certain things. Thus, e.g., some people challenge the covid statistics because they want to believe the problem is not as serious as claimed because they’re offended by public health orders because they want to hang out on beach and in bars. It’s called motivated thinking.) Here’s how the article concludes:

“Critical thinking” has so many different valences in different communities. For these anti-maskers, thinking critically about science means not being a sheep and accepting what the scientific establishment says. For other people, thinking critically means accepting science, and then thinking about how it applies to our daily lives, how it informs public policy.

There are a lot of people who agree with us that these kinds of empty calls for critical thinking don’t amount to anything, simply because people are working in fundamentally different epistemological frameworks. We don’t have a shared reality would be a way to put it. So it’s very difficult to talk about critical thinking in ways that bridge these different realities.

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