Coronavirus, Elections, Pregnancy: Evaluating the Quality of Information in Decision-Making

I canceled a flight yesterday. And yes, it was because of the new coronavirus.  

I’m not a panicky person by nature, and even less of a hypochondriac. Having a wellness-centered business means that I frequently have the opportunity to learn more about (and marvel at!) new science pertaining to the human body, and our weekly video series for our members gives me a real incentive to eat well and exercise. Plus, I’m a mom of two young boys—alone time in general is definitely at a premium, and I’d been looking forward to having a whole weekend to myself like a kid waiting for Christmas. So why cancel?

Before calling the airline, I did as much research as I could. If you know where to look, formal studies and expert advice is often available to the public—but the chances of getting infected are not yet available, and health professionals are saying that younger, healthier people may not have symptoms if infected anyway. And regardless of whether or not you display symptoms, the basic reproduction number, (or number of people you’ll infect if you catch it) is 2.5. So basically, the possibilities were: 

  1. go and hope that all my worries were for naught 
  2. go and become infected and sick, and infect ~2.5 more vulnerable people 
  3. go and become infected, not be sick, but infect ~2.5 more vulnerable people 
  4. cancel

In the end, the risks outweighed the rewards. I was going to see a pregnant friend weeks away from giving birth—how could I live with myself if I brought airport germs into her home just before she went into labor? And I have a lot of interaction with older people through my work, whom the virus is especially hard on. I also have a compromised immune system at the moment, thanks to this baby growing in my belly, so I made my choice. I postponed the trip. 

I told a few people this morning: most were supportive, but one insisted that it was “the media” overblowing the risks and it was part of a larger conspiracy meant only to make Trump look bad. 

How, in this age of information, do people still make important decisions that affect many other people based on gossip and hearsay? And if they can change their decision-making process, how do they know they should? Over the past four years, while we’ve seen the Trump administration tell countless lies that have been easily disproven, social scientists have written about confirmation bias and avoiding cognitive dissonance, but the people who need to hear it insist that they’re smarter than experts. 

I’m not an economist, but I like to make decisions like one: gathering information, assessing the quality of that information, weighing costs and benefits, and coming to a conclusion I believe is right for me and for those I love. By nature, I’m a questioner—except for a handful of exceptions (I was always vaguely repulsed by Lisa Frank, for example, but I did have several rainbow unicorn school folders growing up) I usually go with my own decision regardless of what everyone else is saying. 

The important thing to remember is that not everyone is a questioner. Some may value approval more than facts, in which case, it’s going to be harder make a different choice from friends or family. Recently, I read an article about how communities were helping older Americans prepare for the 2020 election by teaching them how to spot fake information online. NPR reported at “Researchers at Princeton and New York University found that Facebook users 65 and over posted seven times as many articles from fake news websites, compared to adults under 29.” If you’re older, and approval from your friends is important to you, not only will not research whether or not the article they just shared was valid, you also probably won’t correct them. 

A friend of mine, whom I really respect and think is very bright, told me recently that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez targeted facebook users who indicated they were sympathetic with Karl Marx. I said, “that doesn’t sound right. Did you look that up to make sure it’s true?” My friend’s reaction was explosive. NO, they didn’t look it up! They HEARD it! From a FRIEND. How could I be so CONDESCENDING. 

A three-second google search confirmed that it was a false story circulated by a far-right organization, well known for spreading fake information. But my point isn’t that I’m smarter than this person: it’s that this could easily happen to me, or to anyone who doesn’t bother to evaluate the quality of information. In the age of the internet, there’s really no excuse. 

But, I hear you thinking from the other side of the screen, so what if I want to believe fake information? So what if I want to make apples-to-apples comparisons of coronavirus to the flu and believe it’s all a conspiracy anyway? If people I trust tell me, and it makes me feel better, and it confirms my worldview, what’s the big deal?

I don’t know what the basic reproduction number is on clickbait, but even 1 is too many, especially as we head into another election that will decide whether or not our democratic systems matter. All of us are human, and therefore susceptible to error, and so none of us should feel immune. If you have even one drop of a sense of social responsibility, you can start making decisions like an economist: don’t repeat information you haven’t heard from a reputable source. Ask questions. Weigh the costs and benefits not only for you, but for your family and community. 

Decision-making has been on my mind a lot lately, not only because of what’s happening in the news, but because of what’s happening inside my body: there’s a naval orange-sized human sleeping soundly in my belly as I type this, and so every decision I make, from what to snack on to where to give birth, affects us both in a big way. Since the births of my sons, I’ve become somewhat of a childbirth junkie—not a professional by any stretch, but stricken with an insatiable curiosity about pregnancy and birth. That means that I’m constantly reading and re-reading books on the topic and taking action where I need to to improve my chances of giving this child a healthy, peaceful birthday. I know lots of people who do the same; moms (and dads and partners) who set their own needs aside and make intentional choices, and sometimes sacrifices, for someone else. 

I’m certainly not implying everyone should make my decisions–the whole point is to decide based on what’s best for your situation. But I do wonder: how would our world would change if we all included each other in our personal decision-making process?

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