You’ve heard the expression don’t talk politics and religion at the dinner table. In 2020, that became don’t talk politics, religion and COVID.
How did a virus get so controversial?
We don’t hear people getting into Facebook fights about strokes. We haven’t had a growing fraction of Ebola-deniers… Or a pushback on annual flu shots.
Being on the front lines of the virus and a physician, I’m not here to argue with how real the virus is. All of the data consistently shows, it’s much more dangerous than the flu and it’s extremely contagious. And because this truly is a novel virus, we don’t know the long-term implications for those that have recovered.
We are blessed that this virus can be killed with soap and water. And we’re fortunate that the simple act of wearing a small face mask can be helpful to curb the spread.
Looking at the pandemic in a non-medical context, there’s some really interesting observations and things we can learn from this experience. Things that have nothing to do with the medical side of the virus.
Many of these issues are communication-based, rather than the data or the science of the virus. They’re about the phenomena that we are seeing, particularly in the United States in terms of messaging and group behavior.
Analyzing the reactions of the public can reveal a lot about how effective our strategies and messaging worked. It’s not about pointing fingers and blame. Although certainly we could go on and on about blame in some individuals’ cases. But that’s another story for many authors to write very long books about.
I’m more interested in observing the public’s reactions and behavior to what the public health messaging has been from leaders. What things could we have done differently? How can we do better starting today? Really diving into the details of the communication of COVID can give us some hope this doesn’t happen the same way again.
There’s two interesting phenomena I’ve noticed play out in the pandemic. One was the Stockdale Paradox and the other is Pascal’s Wager.
The Longest Mass Demonstration of the Stockdale Paradox
Admiral James Stockdale was a Navy fighter pilot who was shot down during the Vietnam War. As a senior Naval officer, he was held for over seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. During that time he suffered through unspeakable torture and solitary confinement.
After his release and return to freedom, Stockdale was asked the question, “How did you make it through?” His answer detailed his unwavering belief that he was going to get out. He just knew he would get out.
And he was asked, “In your opinion, why did so many others not make it out?” He answered quickly, “Those were the optimists.” Which is confusing at first, because he credited his unrelenting belief of one day being free as well. So what’s the difference?
The difference, he would go on to explain. The optimists would say “I’ll be out by Christmas, I’ll be home with my family then.” Christmas would come and they were still prisoners. And they would say, “It’s okay, because they’re going to come get us by Easter,” and Easter comes and goes. The hopelessness of getting your hopes up and then getting them ripped away time and again tortured them. Optimism tied to a date, that really was their downfall.
I say the COVID-19 pandemic is now the world’s largest demonstration of the Stockdale Paradox because of those similarities. One of the problems we’re having, particularly in American society, is that we locked things down in March and gave people an end date.
We told people, “You just need to make it ‘til June. In June, we’ll be fine.” And we heard all of these things about “We’ll have Easter gatherings,” and “Heat will kill it.” and “You’ll be outside more, it’ll go away, it’ll just disappear.” “This will be gone by June.” And then the fall comes and it’s still here.
That was incredibly defeating. Then in the fall, not only is it still here, but then it starts getting paired with, “We want you to give up seeing your family for Thanksgiving. Don’t go, don’t see anyone.” And it just became too much. People starting saying, “I’m going to do whatever the hell I want to do.” And now we’re all suffering because many people just gave up trying.
What Could We Have Learned from Admiral Stockdale?
Of course hindsight is 20/20, but what we can learn and articulate from this pandemic can help us to get better at our communication in the future. The Stockdale Paradox quote became public knowledge decades ago. Had we drawn on this wisdom better, we would have known not to set the American public up for failure with dates for reopening and life returning to normal.
Sure, it’s a daunting to suggest we tell the American people, “We don’t know when things will get back to normal.” But I think they would have handled it better than the scenario that did take place. Giving those milestones of hope (that had zero scientific backing to them) gave a temporary goalpost to cling to.
But every time they were (unsurprisingly) not met, it eroded trust in our public policy messages and in our overall morale.
If we had followed Admiral Stockdale’s lesson, we would have framed the COVID fight in terms of the long haul, in terms of years, not weeks or months. We could have instilled unwavering hope, that didn’t get ripped away due to arbitrary dates not being met.
The Medical Version of Pascal’s Wager
Pascal’s Wager is a philosophical argument originating from the French physicist, theologian, mathematician and overall genius Blaise Pascal in the 17th century. The argument essentially describes the logic to believing in God and an afterlife, even if no one can’t prove or disprove there being a heaven and a hell. He proposed, that if the only thing it takes for me to get into heaven and spend eternity dancing on the clouds is to show up to church on a Sunday for an hour a week, I’m down. That’s cool, sign me up. Because, what I’d be giving up is so low compared to the potential return. Even if the benefits are unprovable, to him this would kind of be a no-brainer to any rational person.
And this scenario comes to mind for me in the mask debate. People say things like “You can’t prove to me that masks are effective.” or “You told me originally, masks don’t matter. Now you’re saying they do?”
Okay, maybe I cannot 100% prove you would or wouldn’t have any trouble with this disease. But if all it takes to potentially minimize your risks is to wear a stupid mask, is it really that much of a sacrifice?
Present Mask-Wearing as Pascal’s Wager
Our messaging could be presenting more like this argument about heaven and hell. “Look, I’m not saying you have to cut off an arm, it’s just wearing a mask. What’s the big deal?” It’s not a sign of tyranny. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t.
If it doesn’t, was it really that big of a deal? Did it really negatively impact you that much?
But if wearing a mask does make a difference, then it’s changed the game. And since we have no idea what long-term consequences are for this disease, why not just avoid it in the first place?
I think Pascal would agree.
Want to hear more on my observations, relating to the COVID-19 pandemic? Sure you do. Listen to my interview with Roger Wilkerson on Do Not Listen to This Podcast below.