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COVID policy skeptics may put 'rationality and autonomy' to 'horrifying ends,' academics fret

MIT researchers praise anti-mask advocates while comparing them to January 6 rioters.

Updated: May 26, 2021 - 11:01pm

MIT and Wellesley College data scientists have published a paper that undercuts the prevailing media portrayal of skeptics of government COVID-19 policies as ignorant and unscientific, even while warning that their emphasis on "rationality and autonomy" can be put to "horrifying ends."

Skeptics of government COVID-19 mitigation methods, such as mask mandates, "often reveal themselves to be more sophisticated in their understanding of how scientific knowledge is socially constructed than their ideological adversaries," the researchers acknowledge

However, their skepticism, based on their own analysis of scientific data and unwillingness to defer to a "paternalistic, condescending elite," also might embolden the kind of people who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, they warn.

Based on analysis of half a million "data visualization" tweets and anti-mask Facebook groups from March-September 2020, the paper is drawing attention from COVID policy skeptics for portraying them reasonably well.

Ethical Skeptic, one of the Twitter accounts described as an "anchor" for anti-mask advocates,  told Just the News the researchers were "very gracious towards our sector … especially given the social pressure they could face."

The authors recognized that "we were well aware of the practices and philosophical tenets of science," said the user, who calls himself a former naval intelligence officer, market consultant and scientific research lab operator.

He didn't mind the reference to January 6 rioters. Ethical Skeptic said he was frequently warned that "my analysis was being touted far and wide by far right ideologues," not that it was incorrect.

Other identified anchors of the anti-mask network, former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson and San Diego data analyst Justin Hart, did not respond to queries. 

Neither did the paper's authors — Crystal Lee, Tanya Yang, Graham Jones and Arvind Satyanarayan of MIT, and Gabrielle Inchoco of Wellesley. 

'Empirically false' that anti-maskers are 'data-illiterate'

The paper was presented at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems earlier this month, but it was posted in January. It was partly funded by the National Science Foundation and the Social Science Research Council.

MIT promoted the study in March, though it didn't mention the provocative January 6 comparison. It quoted Lee, the lead researcher, as saying it's "empirically false" to cast anti-mask groups as "data-illiterate," when they correctly recognize that metrics such as infection rates are not objective.

But the research didn't draw much attention outside of data visualization communities until May 10, when an anonymous Twitter user shared a thread about the findings juxtaposed with the "bizarre" conclusion that anti-mask groups illustrate the danger of encouraging people to "think for themselves."

The researchers challenged the notion that better data visualization will convince skeptics that "the pandemic is urgent and ongoing."

The studied communities already use "polished counter-visualizations that would not be out of place" in scientific papers, health department reports and mainstream media, and they practice a "sophisticated" form of data literacy to challenge "scientific orthodoxy."

The paper even compares them to "data feminists," who view data science through the lens of feminism. Both highlight the "problems of political power within datasets that are released (or otherwise withheld) by the US government." 

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COVID-19 skeptics see an "increasingly authoritarian state that weaponizes science to exacerbate persistent and asymmetric power relations," the paper argues. They value "unmediated access to information and privilege personal research" over supposed experts.

While sharing government datasets among their communities, they also fault governments for leaving out certain metrics, hiding data and using biased visualizations to obscure data that undermine harsh COVID-19 policies. One emphasis: the conflation of symptomatic and asymptomatic cases.

Skeptics acknowledge their own subjectivity on the data while pointing out the bias that emerges from "specific profit motives," even comparing pharmaceutical companies to tobacco companies that have "historically manipulated science to mislead customers," the paper says.

The communities tout their own credentialed experts, such as Stanford University Nobel laureate Michael Levitt, but use data visualizations to counter what they see as health misinformation and lack of scientific rigor.

Many of them aim to develop networks of "well-informed citizens" who can analyze data to "make measured decisions during a global pandemic." They've had some political success, including in Texas, where local officials discovered a testing backlog was overstating the state's infection rate.

"The message that runs through these threads is unequivocal: that data is the only way to set fear-bound politicians straight," the paper says.

Using data literacy to inculcate 'heterodox ideology'

The researchers fault Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to President Biden, for dismissing these communities as "anti-science," which feeds into their view that elites expect "intellectual subservience rather than critical thinking from the lay public."

These groups are already the most inclined to dig through scientific literature and highlight "the uncertainty in academic publications that media organizations elide."

Anti-mask groups mistrust establishment scientific analysis, the product of a "hierarchical social model," unless they can "replicate it themselves by accessing and manipulating the data firsthand." They warn of the "de-skilling and dumbing-down" of society to improve "social control" over Americans.

But the paper's authors fret that skeptics of COVID orthodoxy use data literacy "as a way of inculcating heterodox ideology" and promoting "political radicalization."

Anti-mask views are the product of "coordinated information campaigns that rely heavily on networked participation," they say.

"The attempted coup on January 6, 2021 has similarly illustrated that well-calibrated, well-funded systems of coordinated disinformation can be particularly dangerous when they are designed to appeal to skeptical people," according to the paper.

Critics of anti-maskers praised the study for better framing the threat posed by these communities. "[O]ne of the most important #scicomm [science communications] papers i've read" since the pandemic started, British National Health Service COVID-19 researcher Harriet Carroll tweeted last week.

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