On paper, Team Reality should be winning the battle for truth about COVID-19, and it shouldn’t even be close. After all, we’ve got the science along with over a year of hard data to back up our positions against lockdowns, masking, and other useless measures to “stop the spread” of a highly contagious respiratory virus. Team Apocalypse, however, does have the media, Big Tech, and the medical & political establishment firmly behind them, and thus the power to brainwash the majority of the non-critical thinking populace with platitudes, scare tactics, and appeals to authority.
We are making headway though, albeit frustratingly slower than we would like. And while our gains may be snail-like for us, the other side has been paying attention, and they are NOT happy about it. So, how SHOULD the powers-that-be deal with us rebellious, meddling upstarts who refuse to know our place, especially when we happen to have the data on our side and are using it effectively? One team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) did a whole lot of research to find out.
In a paper released in January titled “Viral Visualizations: How Coronavirus Skeptics Use Orthodox Data Practices to Promote Unorthodox Science Online,” MIT researchers Crystal Lee, Tanya Yang, Arvind Satyanarayan, and Graham Jones along with Wellesley College’s Gabrielle Inchoco attempt a deep dive into the topic of how “activist networks use rhetoric of scientific rigor to oppose public health measures.” But although they do try to link “anti-maskers” and other pandemic measure-skeptics to so-called climate deniers, Christian fundamentalists, and Trump supporters, they also give us a grudging measure of respect for our success at using real data in a powerful way.
“This paper investigates how pandemic visualizations circulated on social media, and shows that people who mistrust the scientific establishment often deploy the same rhetoric of data-driven decision-making used by experts, but to advocate for radical policy changes,” the introduction reads. “Using a quantitative analysis of how visualizations spread on Twitter and an ethnographic approach to analyzing conversations about COVID data on Facebook, we document an epistemological gap that leads pro- and anti-mask groups to draw drastically different inferences from similar data. Ultimately, we argue that the deployment of COVID data visualizations reflect a deeper sociopolitical rift regarding the place of science in public life.”
The paper gives a nod to prominent Team Reality Twitter accounts like Alex Berenson, Ivor Cummins, Ian Miller, Phil Kerpen, and others for effectively using data to promote the view that the non-pharmaceutical interventions they’ve been parroting this entire pandemic haven’t worked at all. Here are a few other places where the researchers admit the effectiveness of not just our rhetoric, but the way we employ data:
“Far from ignoring scientific evidence to argue for individual freedom, anti-maskers often engage deeply with public datasets and make what we call ‘counter-visualizations’—
“We find that anti-mask groups on Twitter often create polished counter-visualizations that would not be out of place in scientific papers, health department reports, and publications like the Financial Times.”
“While previous literature in visualization and science communication has emphasized the need for data and media literacy as a way to combat misinformation, this study finds that anti-mask groups practice a form of data literacy in spades. Within this constituency, unorthodox viewpoints do not result from a deficiency of data literacy; sophisticated practices of data literacy are a means of consolidating and promulgating views that fly in the face of scientific orthodoxy.”
“Anti-mask approaches acknowledge the subjectivity of how datasets are constructed, attempt to reconcile the data with lived experience, and these groups seek to make the process of understanding data as transparent as possible in order to challenge the powers that be.”
Although the paper is written with the frustrating underlying assumption that we are wrong, it significantly never specifies exactly how, only that we are a problem to be overcome. “[C]alling for increased media literacy can often backfire: the instruction to ‘question more’ can lead to a weaponization of critical thinking and increased distrust of media and government institutions,” they write, citing a source who “argues that calls for media literacy can often frame problems like fake news as ones of personal responsibility rather than a crisis of collective action.” Hmm.
Then they cite another source who “argues that increasing fact-checking or levels of scientific literacy is insufficient for fighting alternative facts.” To them, anti-maskers “value unmediated access to information and privilege personal research and direct reading over ‘expert’ interpretations.” Bingo!
So, we distrust elites and the medical establishment, preferring instead to get the accurate, hard data ourselves and interpret it in a common-sense, rational way. And we must be stopped, apparently. Oh, the humanity!
“As a subculture, anti-masking amplifies anti-establishment currents pervasive in U.S. political culture,” the paper reads. “Data literacy, for anti-maskers, exemplifies distinctly American ideals of intellectual self-reliance, which historically takes the form of rejecting experts and other elites. The counter-visualizations that they produce and circulate not only challenge scientific consensus, but they also assert the value of independence in a society that they believe promotes an overall de-skilling and dumbing-down of the population for the sake of more effective social control. As they see it, to counter-visualize is to engage in an act of resistance against the stifling influence of central government, big business, and liberal academia … Most fundamentally, the groups we studied believe that science is a process, and not an institution.”
Well, I’ve got to give them credit. They’re pretty spot-on. I mean really, it’s hard to do much better than the endorsement of MIT, right? Indeed, the authors’ words are so praising at times that they feel the need to later insist they aren’t “promoting these views.”
“Instead, we seek to better understand how data literacy, as a both a set of skills and a moral virtue championed within academic computer science, can take on distinct valences in different cultural contexts,” they write. “A more nuanced view of data literacy, one that recognizes multiplicity rather than uniformity, offers a more robust account of how data visualization circulates in the world. This culturally and socially situated analysis demonstrates why increasing access to raw data or improving the informational quality of data visualizations is not sufficient to bolster public consensus about scientific findings.”
“Convincing anti-maskers to support public health measures in the age of COVID-19 will require more than ‘better’ visualizations, data literacy campaigns, or increased public access to data,” the researchers conclude. “Rather, it requires a sustained engagement with the social world of visualizations and the people who make or interpret them.”
I’m not sure what all that means, but I’m pretty sure they don’t have a lot to counter us or they’d have presented it by now. How about some data from the powers-that-be that bolsters their view instead of moral shaming and demands to shut up and obey? Toward the end, the researchers even warn against “data-driven storytelling as an unqualified good” and “calls for data or scientific literacy” because - wait for it - such calls “risk recapitulating narratives that anti-mask views are the product of individual ignorance rather than coordinated information campaigns that rely heavily on networked participation.”
Got it. Shut up and obey. Except, no thanks. I think I’ll just keep examining the hard data and waking as many people up as I can along the way.
I’m still on Twitter, but I’m also working on building alternate platforms (as we all should). To that end, please consider following me on Parler and Gab and friending me on MeWe (I will accept all contact requests). Also please be sure to follow my COVID ‘Team Reality’ Twitter list, 180+ doctors, medical professionals, analysts, data hounds, media, and politicians unafraid to tell the truth about COVID-19.