Throughout the pandemic, governments have claimed to be following “the science”. But of course, many aspects of “the science” were never settled.
The WHO, as well as the UK Government, initially told us not to wear face masks. They then decided that face masks were essential. Countries like Australia and New Zealand introduced border controls in early February. Meanwhile, UK scientists were advising against port-of-entry screening. Researchers predicted there would be 96,000 deaths in Sweden by July. But as it turned out, there were fewer than 6,000.
Of course, many people have been sceptical of “the science” (by which I mean the officially endorsed science) from the very beginning. And of course, they’ve formed communities online with other like-minded persons. (Lockdown Sceptics would be one example of such a community.)
In an unpublished paper, researchers from MIT sought to understand how the users of these communities obtain, analyse, share and curate information. Surprisingly (to them), they found that users place a premium on data literacy and scientific rigour.
The researchers used a mixed methods design. First, they analysed a large sample of pandemic-related tweets sent between January and July 2020. Second, they employed ethnographic methods to study users on “anti-mask” Facebook groups. (Note that they use “anti-mask” as a “synecdoche for a broad spectrum of beliefs: that the pandemic is exaggerated, schools should be reopening, etc.”)
In their analysis of Twitter data, the researchers found that sceptics “share the second-highest number of charts across the top six communities”, and that they are “the most prolific producers of area/line charts”, while sharing “the fewest number of photos”. They also found that such individuals “often create polished counter-visualizations that would not be out of place in scientific papers”.
In their study of “anti-mask” Facebook groups, the researchers found that users “value unmediated access to information and privilege personal research and direct reading over “expert interpretations”, and that “their approach to the pandemic is grounded in more scientific rigour, not less”.
“Most fundamentally,” the researchers write, “the groups we studied believe that science is a process, and not an institution”. They note:
While academic science is traditionally a system for producing knowledge within a laboratory, validating it through peer review, and sharing results within subsidiary communities, anti-maskers reject this hierarchical social model. They espouse a vision of science that is radically egalitarian and individualist.
According to the researchers, “anti-maskers often reveal themselves to be more sophisticated in their understanding of how scientific knowledge is socially constructed than their ideological adversaries”, and data literacy is a “quintessential criterion for membership within the community they have created”.
Based on these descriptions, one might assume the paper was written by a cadre of undercover sceptics. But the researchers make clear they are “not promoting these views”. Overall, it’s a fascinating study which is worth reading in full.