Age of Reason

Rising Conflict: Reason and Emotion in Health Policy

We’re witnessing some intense interchanges on health policy right now. Reason and emotion are in vivid conflict. Jolting comments collide with disturbing facts. The new coronavirus “will disappear like a miracle,” says one policymaker. In addition, we hear promises of “packed churches all over our country” in just a couple of weeks.

But then, a science and health reporter asks, “How do you isolate everybody who’s obese in this country?” He tells us that we’re failing to slow the spreading virus. Worse yet, COVID-19 cases are exploding. Hospitals are straining under the burden of so many critically ill and dying patients. New York City is a federal disaster area. Scientists say that promoting social gatherings could bring disaster.

Facts and feelings are out of sync. Reason and emotion are driving us in wildly different directions.

Wishful Thinking Versus Hope

Hope is absolutely critical for coping with a health crisis. But it’s important to distinguish hope from wishful thinking. To let hope be the fuel for a rational course of action. When hope turns into wishful thinking, charlatans can have their way. Desperate people can harm themselves and others.

A perfect example comes from the possibility of treatments for COVID-19. It’s reasonable and important to hope that one of many possibilities for an effective treatment might be effective. However, it’s both dangerous and irresponsible to claim that a drug “seems to work quite well,” when it hasn’t yet been tested for efficacy. As a result, we now have a shortage of this antimalarial drug for people who really need it. At least one person has died because they relied on the “feeling” that it might work that one of our leaders expressed. Scientists are concerned about ill-advised action.

Speculation and Examination

Recently, we wrote about possible synergy between health risks of obesity and COVID-19. One response was to suggest that we just should not think about this question. Since then, more data has emerged to suggest this is a real concern. CDC has added severe obesity to its list of important risks for severe illness with the new coronavirus. Even more recently, observational data from the UK tells us that 70 percent of ICU patients with COVID-19 have overweight and obesity.

So we must balance speculation about what is possible with a careful examination of what is true. Emotion fuels our passion to find solutions. Hope is a critical emotion for human survival. But we need a passion for objectivity in order to solve difficult problems. And right now, both the coronavirus pandemic and obesity are prime examples.

Click here for more about the conflicts between scientists and policymakers on COVID-19. For more on the tension between science and policy on obesity, click here.

Age of Reason, painting by Alphonse Mucha / WikiArt

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March 25, 2020