Noble: The carrot and the stick
Politicizing science is not new — just ask Galileo. When he espoused the belief in a solar system with the sun, not Earth, at its center, he ran afoul of the religious authorities at a time when religion and politics were inseparable and new scientific concepts threatened centuries of religious dogma and political legitimacy.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use,” Galileo said.
The science of anthropogenic — or human-caused —climate change has been both politicized and framed in a binary manner: Either you accept the scientific consensus or you reject it. However, as the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication points out that there is a spectrum of beliefs regarding climate change. The “Six Americas” range from “alarmed” at one end to “dismissive” on the other.
In her book “Saving Us,” Katherine Hayhoe, the chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, contends that along the spectrum are many persuadable people. However, she cautions against engaging “dismissives” — those most extreme in their negative views. Dismissives’ politically driven identity is entwined with climate change denial, rendering them unable to accept information that challenges their views.
Similarly, America is currently divided into vaccinated and unvaccinated camps. For the vaccinated, it is dismaying to witness the voluminous scientific evidence supporting vaccine efficacy and safety failing to persuade the unvaccinated. More data only seems to harden their resistance.
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Alternatively, others claim to want more data on masks and vaccines but continually move the adequate data bar. More than 800,000 Americans are dead from COVID-19 —and that is the meaningful statistic. But not meaningful enough to penetrate callous political beliefs.
Here is what a preponderance of data reveals:
- The overwhelming majority of people hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
- Vaccinated and unvaccinated carry a similar viral load, hence the need for masks for everyone.
- Getting COVID-19 — natural immunity — does not provide superior immune protection compared to vaccination.
- COVID-19 is much more lethal than colds or the flu.
- Evidence suggests masks do not affect mental health but social isolation does.
- Wearing a mask reduces transmission of COVID-19.
Like the six Americas of climate change belief, not everyone reluctant to get the vaccine is a politically motivated “anti-vaxxer.” For instance, some younger Americans regard COVID-19 as a disease with mild symptoms that will likely be no worse than a cold or flu. They are willing to take their chances.
As with the climate-change spectrum, there are others in the anti-vaccine camp whose political identity is similarly wrapped up in downplaying the severity of the virus and amplifying misinformation to support their anti-vaccine views.
Does it matter if people believe in the vaccines, as long as they get vaccinated? Behavioral science informs us that the best way to nudge the vaccine-hesitant to get the vaccine is through incentives. Incentives target behavior, not beliefs.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to incentives. For the unconcerned and apathetic, a positive incentive like monetary compensation is one option. For the more entrenched anti-vaxxers, negative incentives, such as job loss or denial of service, may be required.
Public and private sector employers alike have used vaccine mandates to gain compliance with vaccination. United Airlines has achieved 99% vaccination of all employees who interact with customers. Of their 67,000-strong workforce, only 200 were dismissed for failure to comply, and another 2,000 were granted religious exemptions and moved into roles without customer contact.
No one did more to politicize the COVID-19 pandemic than the former president. He dismissed its seriousness, falsely predicted an early end to it, interfered with his own experts and suggested ineffective therapies.
Despite getting the vaccine himself, he did little to promote it, until now. Nearly a year after quietly getting the vaccine, and since then the booster, the former guy finally comes clean by recently telling the media: “Oh no, the vaccines work … The ones who get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones that don’t take the vaccine.”
Is this too little too late? Sadly, yes, for the tens of thousands of preventable deaths thanks to the politicization of the pandemic and the vaccine — but for the merely skeptical, it might change minds and save lives.
When reason and intellect fail, the carrot and the stick still work — and may even trump politics.
Claire Noble can be found online at Claire Noble Writer on Facebook.