An epidemic of mistrust

And some brief notes on how I vet information

The Covid States project recently ran some polling on the unvaccinated. It’s good stuff and it mostly touches on themes you’re probably familiar with if you’ve been following these issues. There’s a split among the unvaccinated between hardcore anti-vaxxers and those who simply haven’t gotten around to it yet (honestly the more baffling phenomenon, in my view). The anti-vaxxers are largely misinformed and have a wildly skewed perception of the “risks” of the vaccine (virtually non-existent) versus the risks of catching the virus (death, disability, etc.).

One of the more interesting areas the survey touched on was trust, particularly trust in the experts and institutions responsible for shepherding the public through a pandemic like this one. The breakdown of trust levels between the vaccinated and unvaccinated populations is particularly noteworthy — take a look.

Across the board, the vaccinated are typically anywhere from two to three times more likely to place “a lot of trust” in doctors, scientists, the CDC and other authorities. Note that the “unvaccinated” side of the chart includes both the theoretically willing and the hardcore anti-vaxx segment — if it were just the latter, the numbers would presumably be even lower.

“Unsurprisingly, we see massive differences between the vaccinated and unvaccinated in terms of their trust of different people and organizations,” the authors write. “For every entity that we asked about, the unvaccinated reported dramatically less trust. For example, while large majorities of the vaccinated report ‘a lot of trust’ in two categories of entities, ‘hospitals and doctors,’ and in ‘scientists and researchers,’ there is no category in which a large majority of the unvaccinated report a lot of trust.”

What’s interesting, of course, is that if you’ve talked to a hardcore anti-vaxxer you know that the issue isn’t that they don’t trust anyone. Rather, it’s that they put their trust in wildly untrustworthy sources — Facebook memes, YouTube videos of random middle-aged guys in cars shouting into their phones, notorious conservative misinformation peddlers, some of the slicker and better-funded anti-vaccine organizations.

It makes me think of some other recent studies on misinformation and our susceptibility to it. Most of us believe we have an above-average ability to identify misinformation and fake news, and we similarly believe that most other people are worse at it than we are. One study found that 90 percent of Americans rated themselves as above average at discerning misinformation. Perhaps not surprisingly, the more over-confident you are, the more likely you are to be snookered by false information: when researchers looked at people’s internet history, they found that the most over-confident had the greatest likelihood of visiting dubious information sources.

So many of the crises we’re facing right now — election conspiracies, pandemic misinformation, the moral panic over “critical race theory” — are driven in large part by people trusting shitty information. I’m not sure how to reverse that, or how any any of this gets better unless we do.

To not end on a completely hopeless note, I’ll very briefly share my process for vetting information. Generally speaking, I find that people who’ve devoted their professional lives to studying a given topic (experts, in other words) are more reliable sources of information on that topic than those who haven’t. And in cases where those experts are conflicted, I try to look for a balance of evidence: if 9 out of 10 dentists say you should brush with toothpaste, I’m going to go with them over the guy who recommends brushing with fish oil.

I recognize that sometimes experts, even groups of them, get it wrong — we’ve certainly seen plenty of that during the pandemic. But the best ones come clean about that and update their views accordingly, and in any case the experts usually have a better track record of accuracy than random people who think they’ve discovered something all the experts have somehow missed.

The press has a tendency to “both-sides” expert disagreements even when there’s overwhelming consensus on one side (see, for instance, most climate coverage between 2000 and circa 2015), and this makes it harder to track some of these issues than it should be. But in general it’s really not too difficult to keep yourself informed by following expert consensus — all it takes is a little trust.