Washing Hands

The Importance of Distinguishing Science from Ideology

Must everything be tribal and ideological? We think not. Yet avoiding this tendency is certainly hard for humans such as ourselves. Facing the health threat of COVID-19, we see a prime example of the importance of distinguishing science from ideology. It’s handwashing.

The Most Effective Way to Prevent Transmission

This is a matter scientific fact. Washing your hands frequently and well is one of the most effective ways you can reduce the risk of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Washing hands frequently and well can reduce the risk of spreading infectious diseases by as much as 70 percent. Of course, estimates of risk reduction can vary widely depending on assumptions and the specific infectious agent.

Regardless, the facts are clear. The coronavirus spreads easily from person to person. Washing hands and keeping your distance from other people are two of the most effective ways to prevent that from happening.

And Yet, Somehow Stupidly Partisan

Despite these clear facts, it appears that we are a little tribal about hand washing. Approximately 63 percent of Democrats say they’re washing their hands more often because of the coronavirus. Only 48 percent of Republicans say the same. Independents came in at 49 percent. We can spin this fact in many ways. Maybe people are just playing follow the leader in their political parties. Or maybe Republicans were already washing their hands a lot.

That latter theory, however, doesn’t explain away the fact that Democrats are generally more concerned about this virus than Republicans. For example, 62 percent of the Democrats are concerned that someone in their community will be diagnosed. Among Republicans, the number is 48 percent, while it’s 52 percent for independents.

One area of bipartisan agreement shines through, though. People with both parties are equally concerned that this will harm their investments for retirement. But independents are a little less concerned.

Maybe We’ll Get Sensible

Sooner or later, an imminent threat has a way of bringing people to their senses. Now that everyone, including our president, is on board with the idea that COVID-19 is a national emergency, perhaps a few more people will get serious about hand washing – and putting some distance between themselves and other people.

It’s all about taking science seriously and distinguishing it from ideology.

Click here and here for more on the polling about public response to COVID-19.

Washing Hands, illustration by CDC Global / flickr

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March 14, 2020

6 Responses to “The Importance of Distinguishing Science from Ideology”

  1. March 14, 2020 at 8:56 am, Andrew Brown said:

    With the caveat that I have not read the polls closely, the nature of the questions concerns me for making interpretations. Your interpretation could absolutely be correct; that it is some sort of ideological divide by political affiliation. But the question of whether someone will wash their hands MORE does not get at how much they will wash their hands in TOTAL. It could be Republicans were better at baseline. Also, concerns about getting it in a community may not be unreasonable given the urban/rural divide of Democrats and Republicans. If fewer people are travelling in and out and there is less close contact already, then they are technically already doing what has been recommended to prevent spread: more social distancing.

    I have no clue if any of these interpretations are right, but it highlights the concerns we have with interpreting surveys, whether on COVID, food intake, or anything else. A difference in groups may just be because they are very different people.

    • March 14, 2020 at 9:22 am, Ted said:

      Your point is a good one, Andrew, and precisely why I wrote: “We can spin this fact in many ways.” You’re right that Rs might have been more conscientious about handwashing at baseline. In fact, our president has a reputation for that. But, again as mentioned in the post, that doesn’t explain away clear patterns of more or less concern about the health implications of COVID-19 apparent in this data. The whole point is that we need to be more objective and if we are more objective, we will see less of these differences.

  2. March 14, 2020 at 10:48 am, David Brown said:

    A pundit once said, “We are emotional creatures pretending to be rational.” That said, is the phrase “objective opinion” an oxymoron? “An opinion, by its very definition, is subjective, because it is a personal view on a subject which might have other possibilities.” https://www.gingersoftware.com/english-online/spelling-book/confusing-words/objective-subjective

    The idea of “scientific debate” may also be an oxymoron as is “scientific consensus”. Progress in nutrition science has historically been hampered by insistence on using consensus to guide scientific investigation and inform public policy. Consensus science amounts to ideology which is OK if the assumptions happen to be correct. When the assumptions aren’t correct, problems multiply.

    To make life less problematic, this makes sense. “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. Thomas Jefferson

    • March 14, 2020 at 12:30 pm, Ted said:

      And yet it turns out that Jefferson, for all his brilliance, was subject to human fallibility.

  3. March 14, 2020 at 3:26 pm, Christine said:

    I’ve been told that “Dems are overhyping the virus to make the President look bad.” (I wanted to say, but didn’t, he doesn’t need Dems to do that.)

    • March 14, 2020 at 5:44 pm, Ted said:

      Wise. We really don’t need to make health and medical science into a partisan issue.