Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Uncertainty in a Pandemic

David Harker

So much about COVID-19 seems uncertain. When will a vaccine be widely available and how many will refuse it? What’s the infection fatality rate? To what extent are we undercounting, or over-counting, the number of infections and deaths? Can the virus spread from contaminated surfaces? How risky is it to use public transportation or go back into the workplace or visit friends and family or go to the beach? Am I following best practices to avoid getting infected myself or to avoid passing it on to those who are more vulnerable? Does wearing a mask mitigate the risk of virus transmission? Should I be around people who aren’t wearing masks? Many places are seeing a decline in newly reported cases. Will these trends continue or will recent decisions to reopen produce a significant uptick? The pandemic has been economically disastrous. Do economic considerations justify opening up businesses and schools, despite the risks to public health? Are safer paths to reopening being ignored, for political expediency?

Some matters are largely settled: COVID-19 is more dangerous than the seasonal flu; social distancing and regular handwashing help reduce viral transmission; so far, over 350,000 people have died with COVID-19. Of even these claims, however, seemingly widely accepted by public health experts, it’s unclear whether the general public accepts them; the rate at which a recent conspiracy theory spread via social media suggests that many might be unconvinced.

Uncertainty inevitably surrounds complex, novel phenomena. The rise of COVID-related conspiracy theories, however, reminds us that uncertainty can be magnified or created by groups that, for whatever reason, hope to keep the public unconvinced of particular conclusions. In the 1950s, faced with growing scientific evidence that cigarettes caused lung cancer, tobacco companies began a decades-long battle to create the appearance that the science was far more doubtful, and health professionals far more divided, than was actually the case.

Whether or not they are artificially inflated, for political, corporate or ideological gain, uncertainties can be deeply unnerving. They can heighten our anxieties and make us feel that we lack an important kind of control over our lives. Uncertainty undermines our ability to plan effectively for the future and leaves us unsure of what‘s safe or beneficial and whom to believe. When significant changes are afoot, we might feel a need to understand better what caused them and how disaster might have been averted. Of COVID-19, many people are curious about where it originated and whether governments responded appropriately and quickly enough. The uncertainty that surrounds these issues frustrates our need for clear answers.

Because uncertainty can make us feel anxious, we have motives to replace it with mental attitudes that feel more certain and more comforting. If I’m concerned that my use of public transportation might put me at risk, I can attempt to alleviate the worry by convincing myself that social distancing, masks, and the transport operator’s policies will significantly reduce that risk. The uncertainty surrounding the actual risk creates opportunity for me to focus on what I hope is true and ignore the rest.

Selective focus enables us to rationalize not only attitudes that are more convenient for personal reasons, but also attitudes that enable us to defend the politicians or experts we admire and which better reflect the ideologies we identify with. Some people have confidence in public health professionals to understand the nature of new diseases, identify meaningful interventions, evaluate the efficacy of alternative preventions and cures, and so on. Others are less trustful of scientists in general, and other government officials, or are suspicious about the influence of major pharmaceutical companies. Some of us suppose that an important role of government is to protect the most vulnerable. Others think that individuals should take responsibility for their own well-being and that of their family. Some of us worry more than others; excessive handwringing can be detrimental and counterproductive, but complacency can be just as dangerous. If others seem overly or insufficiently alarmed by apparent threats, we should stop to consider why we think that our own level of concern is pitched at just the right level.

The general point is that, for a variety of reasons, we have different beliefs, tendencies and values, and these differences affect how we respond to reports, news, and testimony. The same uncertainties that create discomfort and unease, which we are consequently disposed to quash, also give us the excuse to adopt more confident attitudes towards those conclusions that we are independently inclined to favour, regardless of whether there’s supporting evidence. If it’s part of our worldview to regard scientists with suspicion, then every story about experts who disagree, or tests that didn’t function as they were supposed to, or projections that were inaccurate, is more evidence that scientists don’t know what they’re talking about and should be ignored. If it’s part of our worldview that too many prominent politicians and conservative pundits are anti-science, overly concerned with corporate interests and insufficiently concerned about social inequalities, then every public statement and guideline will be scrutinized for signs of malicious intent.

Partly by seeking out information that supports our own points-of-view, we become increasingly adept at fitting everything we read or hear into a framework of beliefs and attitudes that fits our prior conceptions. We become increasingly confident in our judgments about who is to blame, and why, about who is being socially responsible and who is correctly distinguishing the reliable evidence and arguments from the misinformation and propaganda. This growing confidence might bring some psychological comfort, but it also has costs. Basing our decisions on what we hope is true is dangerous. Just as importantly, as we become more confident in our own understanding of some issue, so we become less inclined to listen to those who we now regard as uninformed or foolish. When we stop listening to one another, we undermine our ability to work together. Times of crisis should bring people together in solidarity. We mustn’t allow COVID-19 to drive us further apart.

Creating Scientific Controversies By David Harker
Creating Scientific Controversies By David Harker

About The Author

David Harker

David Harker is Professor of Philosophy at East Tennessee State University, and the author of Creating Scientific Controversies: Uncertainty and Bias in Science and Society (Cambri...

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