Enlarge / Whether you trust this man will probably depend on whether you see news from the right.
The response of the American public to the pandemic has been chaotic. Some people have observed strict social distancing, happily being blocked as the number of cases increased, and receiving a vaccine as soon as it became available. Others were almost the opposite, protesting any public health measure and rejecting the vaccine. And a large part of the population ended up somewhere in between the two extremes.
Obviously, for a complex answer like that, multiple factors are probably at play, untangling them can be difficult. For example, conservatives in the US have received anti-vaccine messages from their political leaders, but that adds to a long-term trend of distrust of scientific information.
This week, however, a bit of information has come out that does a good job of unraveling those complications. One study indicates that skepticism towards scientific information appears to be related to whether people followed the blocking instructions of health authorities. And a survey indicates that people are more likely to try unproven “cures” for COVID-19 if they look at right-wing news sources.
We will cover the study first. It tracks the periods when many states implemented shelter-in-place orders early in the pandemic. The time frame in question here (March 1 to April 19 of last year) was largely before the issue of pandemic control became heavily politicized (then-President Donald Trump did not begin tweeting that states they should be “released” until April 17). To track compliance with these restrictions, the researchers obtained anonymous cell phone data. “Home” was defined as any location where the phone remained during the overnight period, allowing movement outside the home to be tracked.
While this is an imperfect measure, the data shows a clear trend: Over the course of March, around 10 percent of phones started staying at home for the entire day. This was defined as compliance with any local shelter-in-place order, which was tracked at the county level.
The researchers then compared that to a proxy for respect for science: accepting the evidence for climate change. Through the surveys, they also had access to that at the county level.
There was a clear gap. In counties where acceptance of climate change was above the national average, people were more likely to stay home than the average. In counties where that acceptance was below average, people were less likely to shelter-in-place than average. The effect was small but significant, as people in counties where climate change was mostly accepted were nearly 10 percent more likely to stay home.
Obviously, this is not an accurate measure of attitudes toward science in general, as acceptance of climate change became politicized long before the pandemic even began. The researchers behind the article adjusted for that by repeating the analysis only in the counties that voted Republican, and found that it held up (although the Democratic-leaning counties still had lower levels of skepticism toward science). There was also no connection to the severity of the pandemic in the county at the time. But there was a clear correlation between reported mask wear rates and acceptance of climate change, suggesting that shelter-in-place was not the only pandemic measure affected by skepticism toward science.
As external verification, the researchers also confirm that this relationship holds for a non-politicized public health measure: MMR vaccination rates. Those rates were also somewhat higher in counties with higher levels of climate change acceptance. So there seems to be a general relationship between acceptance of scientific information and willingness to follow public health measures, one that is partly driven by politics, but also exerts independent influence.
Politics and public health
The political side of that equation became clear when a recent YouGov / Economist poll That shows that Republicans have turned against vaccines in general. About a year earlier, before the availability of COVID-19 vaccines, a clear majority of self-described Republicans (59 percent) favored childhood vaccination mandates. But for this year, that number had dropped by 13 points; at 46 percent, this is no longer the majority opinion among Republicans. (Support for childhood vaccinations rose slightly among Democrats, but the change was within the poll’s margin of error.)
This is almost certainly due to an outpouring of constant riot messages among Republican politicians and media figures. So far, very few politicians have come out against childhood vaccines. But if the opposition (currently 35 percent) to these mandates among their base goes much further, the opportunists will undoubtedly start to do so.
The role of conservative media figures was presented by a second survey, conducted by Annenberg Public Policy of the University of Pennsylvania. He analyzed some questions that could be called related to the pandemic: opinions about Anthony Fauci and the use of ivermectin. The survey broke people down according to their chosen news sources, grouping them as follows: mainstream, social media, conservative, and very conservative. Examples of conservative media include sources such as Fox News and Breitbart; Very conservative sources include Newsmax and OAN.
Many conservative outlets have spent time attacking infectious disease expert Dr. Fauci in recent years, and that is clearly having an effect. When people were asked if they had confidence in Fauci, 87 percent of viewers of the mainstream news said yes. But that was cut to about half among conservative news viewers and was true for less than a third of very conservative sources.