Opinion: Diversity of thought needed in our pandemic response

Good, thoughtful commentary that applies more broadly than to the pandemic, and the risks of simplistic thinking and solutions:

Over the past nine months, we have seen an incredible change in the way we live, work and interact. The world is clearly different now. Our lives are intertwined with the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, and many look to experts from a variety of fields for guidance. Medical, public health and scientific leaders have become sources of insight and direction. Many may think there is only one “scientific truth,” and therefore every expert should be of the same opinion. But science, particularly when dealing with a novel threat, comes with many uncertainties.

As with any important issue, personal values influence how people interpret the science. We all have biases, which are influenced by our life experiences, cultures, emotions and personal beliefs, and experts are susceptible to these factors, as well.

This matters because diversity of thought, spurring civil debate, can help us collectively think through complex issues such as our pandemic response. Disagreement among experts is a normal and essential part of scientific discourse, as data continues to accumulate over time. However, one’s inherent beliefs and biases may play a significant role in the interpretation of the evidence at hand, and the messaging that follows.

Some may be motivated by their fear of infection, some by an urgent desire to return to a sense of normalcy and others by political or ideological beliefs, or even a need for notoriety. Some of the more polarizing views are what sow division among the population.

Oftentimes, the loudest voices espousing simplistic answers are not the correct ones, yet they may garnish the most attention and support in the media and online. The public — not aware of all the nuances — may lose trust in science after being bombarded with polarized, and often incorrect, views that are given as much, or more, attention than those that follow fundamental scientific principles and are transparent about their level of uncertainty. This eroding trust in the scientific community further splits populations.

Due to the emotions at play and the public-facing nature of the discussion, scientific discourse risks becoming politicized and devolving into a polarized conflict.

On the one extreme, discussion is interpreted as fear-mongering by people who think the potential harms of COVID-19 have been greatly exaggerated and that the harms of certain interventions have been underestimated. On the other extreme, the idea of personal freedoms are elevated over disease control and the focus becomes primarily on the harms of lockdown. Both of these positions have a nugget of truth in them, but the dogmatism may preclude any meaningful discussion that could lead to an evidence-based consensus.

Moderate voices that try to find a balance between the two more extreme views matter in this pandemic. It is important to listen to arguments from across the spectrum and try to interpret the data in as nuanced and unbiased a manner as possible. This is a tall order, as the moderate view often carries with it significant uncertainty, and pivots as available evidence evolves.

Recognizing the nuances and complexity of disease is crucial to forming a more complete understanding. Moderate voices may not make headlines or get clicks because the answers to simple questions are long and complex, but they are important to listen to. The moderate voice is not one single voice: opinions vary between the two extremes and the answers are often complex.

In contrast, the more extreme viewpoints have a tendency to be amplified to a great degree within their own echo chambers, which can then be prone to politicization. This drives false dichotomies, and polarized discussions — such as masks versus no masks, aerosols versus droplets, lockdowns versus personal freedoms — where in reality, the answer often lies in between.

People with extreme views often choose to compare countries to prove their point, celebrating certain jurisdictions while condemning the approach of others, but give no consideration to the complex demographic, social, political and geographic factors that lead to particular situations, as well as the changes that occur over time.

Who can be trusted given all the conflicting information? First of all, diversity of thought is crucial. And second, it is important to recognize our own biases and how they influence our perceptions and how we interpret evidence. People who are adaptable to messaging and acknowledge uncertainty as the evidence evolves are key, given that the scientific method is meant to gain more precision over time. Dogmatic stances are best avoided.

We are moving into the future with an evolving roadmap for how to deal with COVID-19 — one that’s guided by lessons learned from our collective global experience. Different perspectives offer valuable insights in this pandemic and together they can offer a clearer picture of the truth. That said, the “infodemic” will continue with the pandemic, and it is important to try to put information into context, recognize our own biases and be willing to revise our positions in the face of new evidence.

We require a diverse group of voices at the table, but must continue to make an effort to foster healthy public discourse that’s free of politicization, by appreciating and considering the input of experts from all walks of life. The general population is as diverse as their experts in their values and opinions, and public policy should try to find the middle ground. Therefore, moving forward, now more than ever, a balanced, pragmatic and evidence-driven approach to the interpretation and messaging of the COVID-19 pandemic is needed.

Zain Chagla is an infectious diseases physician and an associate professor at McMaster University. Sumon Chakrabarti is an infectious disease physician with Trillium Health Partners Mississauga and a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Isaac Bogoch is an infectious disease physician at Toronto General Hospital and an associate professor at U of T. Dominik Mertz is an infectious disease physician and an associate professor at McMaster.

Source: https://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/opinion-diversity-of-thought-needed-in-our-pandemic-response/wcm/c064636f-583e-41e0-8c8f-3b65a3b14e8b

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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