Losing my religion – or how I learned to start worrying and distrust the news…

 As the waves of Covid19 have ebbed and flowed over the past 10 months, I have become more and more fixated on the data that chart their course. Every afternoon, I check if the daily case, hospitalisation, death, and now vaccination numbers have been updated. I look at the curves, at regional patterns, at the maps that enable me to zoom in to my neighbourhood, and those where family and friends live. Every week I look out for the ONS infection survey, and for other surveys like the Imperial REACT study and the Kings College London’s ZOE symptom tracker.

Why am I doing this? I’m not sure it’s healthy behaviour. I am not an expert in interpreting epidemiological data; and much of the time I learn very little. The problem is that I find myself believing less and less what the government or most media outlets are telling me. I see a headline proclaiming that the lockdown is having no impact, even as cases are falling across the country, then another telling me the opposite 48 hours later. The next day a paper tells me that a new strain of coronavirus is more deadly (albeit with sly quote marks), while another news outlet tells me the question is still open.  The government cautiously suggests there is some evidence that lockdown is having an impact, when their own data show that case numbers have fallen by a third since the beginning of January.

At one level, this is not really surprising. The pandemic is a complex phenomenon, and its progress is the product of imperfectly understood pathology and the unpredictable behaviour of wearied humans, which is further complicated by delays of weeks between actions and effects. Different data may point in different directions, and reasonable people may disagree on interpretation.

But I worry that a lot of disagreement is not reasonable, but partisan. Online, the debate is polarised between presumed ‘covid deniers’ and alleged ‘lockdown lovers’. Passionate intensity reigns, and good faith arguments seem thin on the ground. When in early January I pointedto some limited evidence that case numbers seemed to be falling in the parts of the south east England that had been locked down since mid-December, I was corrected (rightly) for looking at case numbers rather than positivity rates (though the trend was sustained, so I was right even if accidentally), but I got the feeling that my real error was being on the wrong side of the argument, that I was suspected of trivialising the illness, or making a point for or against lockdowns.

So far, so Twitter. But the mass media are not much better. Rather than trying to offer level-headed analysis, some papers seem wilfully optimistic, others determined to find the clouds behind every silver lining. And Government, along with a BBC that has increasingly operated as state broadcaster during the crisis, seems to issue statements and information based primarily on their likely effect on behaviours, rather than on their accuracy.

I have mixed feelings about all this. I can actually understand and to some extent support the ‘behavioural’ approach taken by the government and the BBC. The last thing we need now is irrational optimism leading to reduced compliance with government restrictions. Even George Orwell saw the value of propaganda in war time; and if the enemy today is complacency and lockdown fatigue, then we cannot be surprised if the government uses every means to keep it at bay. 

But this approach has shaken or even corroded my faith in institutions (a faith that may have been too blindly given in the first place). I have always listened to politicians through a sceptical filter, but that filter is now applied to scientific advisors, academics and BBC journalists. Hearing them, I no longer simply expect to become better informed, but at some level suspect that I am being played, that the aim of the communication is behaviour modification (“a call to action” – or more likely inaction, these days) not enlightenment. 

Scepticism may be healthy, but when faith in institutions is eroded, all sorts of wild flights of fantasy can take its place. To paraphrase a quote attributed to GK Chesterton, when people stop believing in institutions, they don’t believe in nothing, but can believe in anything. Behaviour change communication may be entirely benign in intention, but it also risks fuelling conspiracy theories and sweeping distrust of experts. 

Meanwhile, I go back to the data, clicking on the charts every afternoon, trying to keep both optimism and pessimism in check as the pandemic rolls grimly on.

 

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