Last month marked three years since Covid-19 exploded in America and began devastating the world. Sadly, over this period, trust in our public health officials and government agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control, has plunged.
Recently, public health expert, Dr. Leana Wen, commented about the growing mistrust of science and public health policies. Her remarks deserve our attention. She explained how the government’s messaging about COVID-19 helped to creat confusion and skepticism.
I believe that, that therapists, also have an obligation to inform and educate folks about important issues which affect public health. This responsibility is especially important when there is wide-spread confusion and misinformation. Thus, I would like to review and build on Dr.Wen’s remarks concerning 1) The conflict between the evolving nature of the scientific method and the human need for certainty. 2) The brain-science behind mistrust and 3) the limits of science in guidiing public health pollicies. Trust in science was another casualty of Covid-19 pandemic (Guest Opinion by Michael Heath) – syracuse.com
The Scientific Method and the Public’s Need for Certainty
Dr. Wen noted that, although she supports the CDC’s Covid recommendations, she felt the agency mistakenly failed to educate the public about the tentative nature of its recommendations. She explained that the public needed to be better prepared with more realistic expectations concerning how science proceeds when encountering a new virus.
She felt that agencies should have spent more time educating the public about the evolving nature of the scientific method. Wen explained that news releases did not sufficiently explain why recommendations made on one day could change on the next if new data was received.
Brain Science 101: The Effect of Trama on the Human Mind
The fundamentally anxious nature of human psyche is also an important factor in understanding why public support for CDC policies wasn’t stronger. Beyond our species anxious pre-disposition, trauma super-charges our danger response mechinsm.
Trauma correupts our danger-alert system and causes our alarms to be triggered by minor stimuli. Further, past trauma can cause an exaggerated and unnecessary response. Put another way, feeling emotionally overwhelmed results in irrational thinking and paranoia.
This paranoid reaction is rooted in the basic structure of the human brain. Neurologically, a perceived threat shuts off access to the human/reasonable part of our brain (the cortex) and leaves us with only the primitive fight (anger) or flight (shutdown) reactions of the limbic system. COVID, Science and Anger | Pastoral Counseling Syracuse NY (revmichaelheath.com)
Left uncalmed, the brain reacts with anger, which often expresses itself as blame. Thus, the traumatized brain is vulnerable and unable to tolerate the unresolved threat. The trauma makes the brain hyper-sensitive to threats and exagerates its response.
Without access to the cortex, rational assessment of a threat is impossible. Ironically, unsubstantiated but certain conspiracy theories are more calming than the tenative and evolving findings of the scientific method. For some traumatized people, conspiracy theories are calming because they bring clarity to the chaos by identifying whose to blame.
An example of blaming is found in conservative reaction to the latest FBI assessment that Covid-19 is the result of a laboratory leak in China. Conservatives immediately accused China of deliberately releasing the virus. Dr. Wen points out the crucial distinction that the right-wing media overlooked in their “I told you so” rants is the notion of intentionality.
While best current evidence suggests that the release of the virus may have come from a Chinese laboratory an accident, there is not information to suggest that the leak was deliberate much less that it was realted to create biological weapon, as some on the right have claimed.
Mistrust is a crucial factor of irrational limbic-“logic” which ascribes malevolent and ulterior motives to unexpected developments. For example, some attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci for lying to the American people when, in fact, he was presenting new scientific data that required a revision of previous statements. Unfortunately, paranoia assumes that changing information implies intentional deception.
To be fair, Wen pointed out that irrational anger and paranoia are bit conservative reactiions. Some progressives flipped out as well. Dr. Wen was the target of liberal attacks when she modified her position on masking and vaccinations. Many progressives were unable to hear or accept the disappointing data about the efficacy of masking and vaccination in preventing transmission or the reality of natural immunity.
The Limits of Science when it Comes to Formulating Pulbic Policy
While it’s crucial to understand the evolving nature of science, Dr. Wew points out that it’s also necessary to appreciate the limits of science when it comes to guiding public health policy, She notes that “following the science” does not automatically determine what’s best in a given situation. This is because every public policy has consequences that cut different ways, depending on where one sits.
For example, from a public health standpoint, remote learning was helpful to suppress the transmission of Covid-19. However, we have learned that this decision caused emotional and learning problems for some children.
The same was true for impact of closing businesses. Balancing health and economic interests/consequences is not a simple task and can only be decided by the difficult political process. In the future, more attention needs to be paid to way policy decisions are communicated to the public. The complexity of the process needs to be better explained, i.e. how difficult it is to prioritize and balance conflicting concerns and outcomes that result from a single government action.
Hopefully, we can learn from the mistakes that were made dealing with this pandemic. Going forward, we must find a way to reduce the polarization and lower the temperature in the room so that reasonable discussion can take place.
People need to feel heard when they are panicked and no solutions are immediately available. One way to calm things and reduce animosity is for the administration to acknowledge the fears of the opposition. It is important to discuss and address their concerns without agreeing with their irrational conclusions or conspiracy theories. Likewise, progressive must accept that there are legitimate but sometimes conflicting values and concerns that need to be resolved. That is what the art of politics is all about.
We have seen in recent elections that voters overwhelmingly defeated candidates who promoted false conspiracies. Although the threat to reason exists for many, there are enough Americans who have the maturity and mental stability to experience hardship and tragedy rationally without falling prey to paranoid schemes.
Likewise, although there are unscrupulous politicians who pander to and exploit fear, I trust that the rational majority will elect reasonable representatives. We need leaders who have the strength to craft reasonable, science-informed public health policies to deal with life’s challenges.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC 4 14 2023