Virus partisan errors

Pedestrians with and without face masks in Fredericksburg, Texas, on Saturday, March 13. Conservatives aren’t the only ones misinterpreting scientific evidence in systematic ways. Americans on the left half of the political spectrum are doing it, too.

Americans on the right half of the political spectrum have tended to underplay the risk of COVID-19. They have been less willing to wear masks or avoid indoor gatherings and have been more hesitant to get vaccinated.

These attitudes are part of a larger pattern in which American conservatives are often skeptical of public-health warnings from scientists — on climate change, air pollution, gun violence, school lunches and more. In the case of COVID, Republican politicians and media figures have encouraged risky behavior by making false statements about the virus.

To many liberals, COVID has become another example of the modern Republican Party’s hostility to facts and evidence. And that charge certainly has some truth to it. Yet the particular story with COVID is also more complicated — because conservatives aren’t the only ones misinterpreting scientific evidence in systematic ways. Americans on the left half of the political spectrum are doing it, too.

That’s a central finding from a survey of 35,000 Americans by Gallup and Franklin Templeton. It finds that both liberals and conservatives suffer from misperceptions about the pandemic — in opposite directions. “Republicans consistently underestimate risks, while Democrats consistently overestimate them,” Jonathan Rothwell, Gallup’s principal economist, and Sonal Desai, a Franklin Templeton executive, write.

The mistakes people make

More than one-third of Republican voters, for example, said that people without COVID symptoms could not spread the virus. Similar shares said that COVID was killing fewer people than either the seasonal flu or vehicle crashes. All of those beliefs are wrong, and badly so. Asymptomatic spread is a major source of transmission, and COVID has killed about 15 times more Americans than either the flu or vehicle crashes do in a typical year.

Democrats, on the other hand, are more likely to exaggerate the severity of COVID. When asked how often COVID patients had to be hospitalized, a very large share of Democratic voters said that at least 20% did. The actual hospitalization rate is about 1%.

Democrats are also more likely to exaggerate COVID’s toll on young people and to believe that children account for a meaningful share of deaths. In reality, Americans under 18 account for only 0.04% of COVID deaths.

It’s true that some of these misperceptions reflect the fact that most people are not epidemiologists and that estimating medical statistics is difficult. Still, the errors do have a connection to real-world behavior, Rothwell told me.

Republicans’ underestimation of COVID risks helps explain their resistance to wearing a mask — even though doing so could save their own life or that of a family member. And Democrats’ overestimation of risks explains why so many have accepted school closures — despite the damage being done to children, in lost learning, lost social connections and, in the case of poorer children, missed meals.

The states with the highest share of closed schools are all blue states: California, Oregon, Maryland, New Mexico, Hawaii, Nevada, Massachusetts and New Jersey. “I think in many ways it’s based on the fact that these voters are misinformed about the risks to young people and they’re misinformed about the risks generally,” Rothwell said.

Information can help

The reasons for these ideological biases aren’t completely clear, but they are not shocking. Conservatives tend to be more hostile to behavior restrictions and to scientific research. And liberals sometimes overreact to social problems. (A classic example was the overpopulation scare of the 1960s and ’70s when people on the left wrongly predicted that the world would run out of food.)

COVID, of course, represents a real crisis, one that has already killed more than a half-million Americans and continues to kill more than 1,000 per day. As in the case of many crises, underreaction has been the bigger problem with COVID — but it has not been the only problem.

Perhaps the best news from the Gallup survey was that some people were willing to revisit their beliefs when given new information. Republicans took the pandemic more seriously after being told that the number of new cases was rising, and Democrats were more favorable to in-person schooling after hearing that the American Academy of Pediatrics supports it.

“That’s very encouraging,” Rothwell told me. “It’s discouraging that people didn’t already know it.”