• Robb G. Best

Dead Certain: The Dangers of Skepticism in a COVID-19 World

By now, all our lives have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Events have been canceled. Movie theaters and restaurants stand empty. In an effort to slow the spread enough to keep hospitals from overflowing, many of us have heeded the pleas of nurses and/or the orders of governors to stay at home.

However, not everyone is listening. Notoriously, some college students continued on with their spring break plans, or even hosted "coronavirus parties," further spreading the sickness. But the problem doesn't stop there. As late as March 23, President Trump was publicly stating that he wanted to open up the country again, very soon. Some religious leaders, pundits, and politicians have implied the virus, which has already killed over 50,000 people worldwide, is a mere hoax.

How could people deny the mountains of evidence that COVID-19 is deadly serious? Berkeley News talked with Celeste Kidd, a UC Berkeley computational cognitive scientist whose areas of study include false beliefs, curiosity and learning.

We are a social species, Kidd said, which biases us towards believing the stated opinions of people we like. "People in positions of authority have a special duty to be careful with their words for this reason. Their words, by nature of their position and stature, are more likely to be adopted as beliefs by people, and at a larger scale, than the words of everyone else. They can use that power to do a lot of good if they are careful or do a lot of damage if they are not."

Kidd also explained that in an effort to understand a vast and often unknowable world, we have a tendency to engage in "sampling," in which we pick and choose what information to take in. "The problem arises," she says, "when we believe that we know everything there is to know, but we are wrong. When this happens, we are less open to changing our minds based on new information because we don’t seek out new information, and we are more inclined to ignore it when we do encounter it."

"We all need to be more intellectually humble," Kidd told Berkeley News. "We all need to recognize that how certain we feel is irrelevant to how certain we should be. We need to recognize that there are scientists and medical experts out there who have the knowledge and expertise we need to make smart decisions, and they are willing and able to share that information with us."

Is there hope that people might change their minds? Kidd said it is "possible." She knows it's discouraging to watch people take in the wrong information and double down on it. "But I see hope in the fact that people are fundamentally social and that they seek to engage with one another," she adds. "People are sensitive to the beliefs of those around them. When those beliefs change, people may reconsider their positions. That’s why talking about what is happening is important, and informed people who know the most should be talking the loudest.

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