October 16, 2022
Partisan Effect of Disinformation on COVID Deaths
Last week three Yale professors published a study of COVID-related deaths in the United States. The data they used matched COVID deaths, voter registration by party and age in two states—Florida and Ohio. One goal of the study was to test whether anti-vaccine or anti-mask campaigns contributed to differences in death rates by political affiliation. Here’s what they found.
Before COVID, the death rates between Floridians and Ohioans of the same age but different political affiliation was statistically identical. That is unsurprising. During the early days of COVID, the excess deaths began to rise, but political affiliation had no effect on the difference in death rates. Once you control for age, Republicans and Democrats died at exactly the same rate, just as the virus intended.
Slowly, the Republican death rate began to edge higher than the Democrat death rate, again controlling for age differences. In the weeks before the COVID vaccine was made available, a gap emerged, with Republicans of the same age dying at a 22 percent higher rate than Democrats in these two states. That is large, accounting for hundreds of extra dead Republicans. This might have been due to Republicans having been exposed to more anti-mask messaging, leading them to forego more public health recommendations.
However, once the COVID vaccine was introduced, the death rate difference between Republicans and Democrats of the same age ballooned to 153 percent. Most of the deaths were concentrated in counties with low vaccine rates, where it is more likely the anti-mask/anti-vaccine propaganda was more effective. This is gob smacking.
While it is always possible that there are some underlying risks associated with political affiliation, such as gun ownership or lifestyle choices, these didn’t cause death rate differences until COVID came along. It was partisan differences in the consumption of anti-vaccine messaging that killed many, many more Republicans than Democrats.
This is a stunning technical study, with profound implications about the role of public health and anti-vaccine propaganda. Unsurprisingly, social media immediately filled with folks questioning the study’s technical methods and data. In response, I could defend the quality of the study, and the pedigree of the research team, consisting of three full professors at Yale, including one of this generations most gifted econometricians. Still, that misses the point entirely.
Nationwide, at least 250,000 Americans died of COVID because they chose not to be vaccinated. More will continue to succumb to the disease. Every last one of these deaths resulted from the rejection of modernity and reason. These were voluntary and senseless deaths attributable to petulant ignorance. The people second-guessing a study about which they have no technical understanding, exhibit the same flawed reasoning as those who rejected the COVID vaccines.
Now to be sure, neither ignorance nor petulance are partisan human characteristics. We are all crafted from the same crooked timber of humanity. Indeed, before COVID, the rejection of vaccines and public health interventions, such as fluoride, were mostly confined to the political left. Something shifted in recent years, and has become more mainstream.
Neither can this be attributed uniformly to political leadership. Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine vigorously urged residents to receive a vaccine and led by example. In contrast, Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis embraced the political opportunism of the anti-vaccine crowd and still won’t publicly admit that he was an early recipient of the vaccine. His behavior was raw disregard for the lives of citizens in order to obtain short-term political gain.
It is tempting to view the widespread effect of the anti-vaccine movement as a national embarrassment. One might be enticed to view these unnecessary deaths through an evolutionary prism. The ability to discern truth from lies may be as much an evolutionary requirement for survival in the modern world as the ability to craft stone tools was 250,000 years ago.
Some claim that the vaccine hesitancy was caused by the mistakes of our public health officials. They certainly made mistakes, but in hindsight it is clear that they delayed the vaccine too long rather than rushing it into circulation. Most of the other mistakes involved simple human failures that inevitably accompany unfolding events with huge gaps of knowledge. Anyone who has served in a war or responded to a natural disaster will have seen this before.
Perhaps it is a byproduct of our seemingly safe and secure modern world that so many citizens are flummoxed by common uncertainty. This might make them susceptible to charlatans and propagandists who delude them with a pretense of knowledge and certainty. Still, the widespread anger and rejection of simple scientific knowledge will always elude my understanding.
As an active researcher, I understand how imperfect the scientific process is and always has been. Methods of analysis improve; data gets better and more frequent. Most importantly, with dozens or hundreds of people researching a single narrow topic, nearly every few weeks something new and useful is published. The advancement of knowledge is relentless. It is even more so in a crisis, like a pandemic or recession. Still, we all learned about the scientific method in elementary school.
I suspect most occupations are similar. Auto repair and maintenance, selling financial derivatives, or planning weddings are all jobs that undergo constant change and learning. The great economic philosopher Adam Smith recognized this in 1776, in his Wealth of Nations. His description of the benefits of the specialization of labor on production remain a standard fare in every economics textbook. This is part of what ushered in the modern world in which we now live.
This acceptance of expertise, trust and accumulated knowledge is necessary to sustain our modern world. Yet, we live in a time when social media allows more-skilled charlatans to deceive us. I think those of us who came of age before the dissolution of national media are especially vulnerable to purposeful distortions. That vulnerability killed a quarter million Americans, and it endangers us all in the years ahead.
The years before us require substantial effort to remedy the problem of disinformation and lies. There is much hope on this front. Some of the worst offenders face financial ruin in civil court, or lengthy criminal sentences. Younger Americans are savvier, and we are building institutions to better judge news and ferret out disinformation. Perhaps we can learn something meaningful from the partisan differences in COVID deaths. If not, these deaths will have been for nothing—heartbreaking, pointless and without meaning.
About the Author
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