A new study from MIT researchers has confirmed that coronavirus skeptics and anti-maskers understand science and data better than their political opponents.
The study, entitled “Viral Visualizations: How Coronavirus Skeptics Use Orthodox Data Practices to Promote Unorthodox Science Online,” was published this month, and analysed the reaction from skeptics and anti-maskers towards the pandemic from March to September 2020, during much of the initial phases of the breakout and then its expansion. The study focused on Facebook groups and Twitter posts, and the interaction between anti-maskers and visualisations of the coronavirus data that was being published by mainstream science outlets and governments.
In the study, the researchers revealed that despite current narratives that anti-maskers are simply scientifically illiterate, they actually have a very good grasp of science and data analysis. In the Facebook groups they studied, the researchers saw a serious emphasis on originally produced content, with people wanting to make sure that they were “guided solely by the data.” Many participants made their own graphs, and instructed others on how to access raw data. “In other words, anti-maskers value unmediated access to information and privilege personal research and direct reading over “expert” interpretations,” they noted:
Its members value individual initiative and ingenuity, trusting scientific analysis only insofar as they can replicate it themselves by accessing and manipulating the data firsthand. They are highly reflexive about the inherently biased nature of any analysis, and resent what they view as the arrogant self-righteousness of scientific elites.
Anti-maskers found themselves not on the side of ignoring science and data, but striving to push for “more scientific rigour” in their approach to the pandemic. The researchers argued that “users in these communities are deeply invested in forms of critique and knowledge production that they recognise as markers of scientific expertise,” and added that “if anything, anti-mask science has extended the traditional tools of data analysis by taking up the theoretical mantle of recent critical studies of visualisation.”
In fact, the study notes, the interpretation of data and science from anti-maskers shows that they are “more sophisticated in their understanding of how scientific knowledge is socially constructed than their ideological adversaries, who espouse naïve realism about the ‘objective’ truth of public health data.” To simply “trust the science” as the meme espouses is to ignore the fact that “data visualizations are not a neutral window onto an observer-independent reality,” and that “during a pandemic, they are an arena of political struggle.”
The researchers found that the anti-maskers believed that much of the official data regarding coronavirus deaths and infections was being collected in a “non-neutral” manner, and that many of the “important metrics” are missing from this government-released data, a point exacerbated by the reluctance of some officials to release detailed data. “The lack of transparency within these data collection systems – which many of these users infer as a lack of honesty – erodes these users’ trust within both government institutions and the datasets they release,” they noted.
Coronavirus skeptics and anti-maskers could be compared to supporters of President Trump, they argued, in that supporters of the President were not “fooled by fake news,” but instead privileged “the personal study of primary sources and found logical inconsistencies not in Trump’s words, but in mainstream media portrayals of the president.”
The focus on primary data also echoes that of people who are concerned about coronavirus vaccinations. Dr Emily Brunson of Texas State University noted last year that people who are most likely to purposefully choose not to be vaccinated “are highly educated,” and have read the primary literature regarding vaccinations themselves.
In the same manner as Trump supporters, anti-maskers “seek liberation from what they see as an increasingly authoritarian state that weaponises science to exacerbate persistent and asymmetric power relations.” They come from a similar background of resentment against this elite, and then add “a particular emphasis on the usurpation of scientific knowledge by a paternalistic, condescending elite that expects intellectual subservience rather than critical thinking from the lay public.”
Anti-maskers, unlike their political opponents, “believe that science is a process, and not an institution,” the researchers noted. “They espouse a vision of science that is radically egalitarian and individualist,” they argue. “This study forces us to see that coronavirus skeptics champion science as a personal practice that prizes rationality and autonomy: for them, it is not a body of knowledge certified by an institution of experts.”