COVID, science, and emotion


COVID conspiracy theories were as contagious as they were predictable, and like most such theories, they depend on gaps in scientific literacy as much as ignorance and lies.

I see people most commonly dismiss evidence-driven refinements to theories as a weakness, not the system working exactly as it should. They grab sound bites from scientists and doctors, compare it to what they’ve said before, and use it as proof that they’re wrong. Last time I checked we don’t have the ability to pluck the perfect answer from the start, so an informed—being the operative word—view based on the best information available is the best shot we have.

Another self-defeating angle I’ve been seeing appeals to simple logic, or lack thereof. If two positions are true but incompatible in practice, they argue that one of them must be a lie, or should be immediately discounted.

Take masks: they reduce exhaled aerosol spread which may carry COVID, and they make breathing more difficult. Both are true, because masks are a mitigation. Nobody wears them because they want to, they’re necessary in a toxic environment. A deep-sea diver doesn’t refuse to wear oxygen tanks because they’re too heavy, or a racing car driver doesn’t tut tut the idea of a seatbelt harness. It’s an issue of mental maturity, like the kid not wanting to brush their teeth or clean their room.

Which gets us to the core issue. We’re not dealing with people in a rational state of mind here, and therefore they won’t be swayed by logical arguments. Conspiracy theories of this ilk are borne of fear, which is among the most basic of our human emotions. Addressing that in this current climate is much harder than facts.

Maybe we need to be more aggressive at coaching these positions as a net positive, instead of a burden. Show people the good they’re doing for themselves, their families, and their communities. Demonstrate that masks and social isolation are protecting and ensuring our freedoms for the long-term, not taking them away. They have the narrative that they should be free to infect people, but what about the freedoms of those they’re infecting against their will?

Rusted-on conspiracy theorists won’t change, they’re too mentally and emotionally invested in their bubbles. But it might be enough to sway people at the edge.

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Ruben Schade is a technical writer and infrastructure architect in Sydney, Australia who refers to himself in the third person. Hi!

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