Over the past few weeks, my family has struggled to decide whether to change our behavior due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. My wife and I have spoken with many people who are encountering similar difficulties parsing what advice to follow.
One reason for this issue is it’s hard to find objective information. The data on Omicron is very new, and many people either selectively share information that validates their viewpoints, or misinformation that supports a preferred narrative.
This weekend, my wife found a podcast from Peter Attia, a well-known physician, who sat down for a thoughtful discussion with two other well-respected doctors to discuss the current state of COVID affairs. They particularly focused on what has changed due to the rise of Omicron, what has stayed the same, and the new treatment options that are available.
The conversation was engaging and informative, and it addressed much of the data and narratives—from both sides—in the debate on how to balance managing COVID and returning to our normal lives. In particular, Attia and his guests considered the extraordinary toll the pandemic has taken on the global economy, our healthcare systems and mental health, especially for children.
The episode was the most enlightening and straightforward discussion I have heard on the topic, devoid of any political agenda and dedicated to the complicated nuances of the issue. I left the discussion with some of my current viewpoints reinforced, but others substantially changed, and the conversation will definitely inform my decision-making going forward.
Beyond the facts shared, Attia and his guests also addressed some key narrative frames that apply beyond the Omicron conversation.
Opinion Versus Fact: Each participant clearly distinguished when they were presenting an opinion, rather than citing a fact. The doctors also shared nuances about their factual statements, referencing the source, sample size and quality of the data or underlying study. They also pointed out the key difference between correlation and causation and the importance of well-designed, peer-reviewed studies.
Tribalism: While once an important primitive survival mechanism, tribalism has become dangerous today, forcing too many people to tie their sense of belonging to their ideas and opinions. This is especially problematic for those living in an echo chamber, who only listen to people with whom they agree. That narrow viewpoint results in blind spots and can cause us to make critical mistakes. In my podcast interview with author and thinker Derek Sivers, Sivers shared that changing his mind is one of his favorite things to do. More of us need to adopt this mindset to counter the negative effects of tribalism.
Science Versus Advocacy: The doctors drew attention to the fact that there is a difference between scientific data and the policies that are advocated based on that data. The doctors shared that scientific consensus often takes time to crystallize and is subject to both interpretation and change as new information becomes available. Advocacy occurs when politicians or public officials implement policies and guidelines based on the data. When a policy is formed, public officials advocate for that initiative to get support from the population, often using scientific data as justification. But this advocacy often ignores changes in the underlying science, and public officials are often too slow to update their policies to reflect changes in the underlying premise or environment.
What the doctors lamented most about the current pandemic is that confusing policy advocacy has caused a distrust in the underlying science. The global scientific community has worked tirelessly to gather data, analyze it and create solutions at unprecedented speeds. It should have been expected that scientific conclusions underpinning pandemic response measures would change, but instead those changes have often been framed as a scientific failure, rather than a policy failure to adapt to better data.
The damage of this framing is both short- and long-term; it’s made people distrustful of COVID mitigation measures, such as masking, and may also make people less willing to “trust the science” in future pandemics or problems.
At the end of the day, in both the pandemic and outside it, what we likely need is to have strong convictions, loosely held. I have always found that the truth is usually somewhere in between two competing or opposing narratives.
I highly recommend listening to the podcast for yourself.
Quote of The Week
“For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
– John F. Kennedy