John Lee John Lee

Science, doubt and the ‘second wave’ of Covid

Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

In taking a position on an issue, most of us like to think that we accumulate evidence, consider the pros and cons, and then rationally come to a view that we’ll be willing to change if and when the evidence demands it. But it turns out that this is very much a minority way of going about things. The psychological evidence is very clear. What most people do is take a position very soon after being presented with an issue, and then accumulate evidence and reasoning to justify that position.

This goes some way to explaining the increasing polarisation of views about coronavirus, which have been hardening over the last few weeks. In one camp we have the government, their scientific advisors, and a large section of the population who reasonably trusted statements from authorities early on in the epidemic. They believe that measures such as lockdown and social distancing have helped control the virus, prevented a much worse death toll (at least if we only consider the effects of Covid-19) and that the measures remain absolutely necessary to keep it under control and prevent further outbreaks. They see everything through the prism of protection.

In another camp, we have those of a more contrarian turn of mind and people who perhaps waited a little longer to make their minds up. Because nothing was known about this virus, it is not surprising that evidence concerning its behaviour changed very fast during the early stages of the epidemic. Many things that initially seemed to be true were quickly found not to be – for example, the lethality, the prevalence of asymptomatic infections, age susceptibility and the immune response to the virus. Contrarians soon found their suspicions confirmed, and those who waited to make up their minds were ready to see that this epidemic is simply not as bad as was initially feared.

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