Expert: Opinions on politics and science are fueling a public response to the pandemic

Expert: Opinions on politics and science are fueling a public response to the pandemic

David Van Dijcke and his co-authors found higher support of former President Donald Trump led to lower levels of mask wearing, and greater skepticism in science spurred less physical distancing among people and populations.

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  • David Van Dijcke

  • Van Dijcke, whose work with University of Chicago scholar Austin Wright has been published in the Journal of Public Economics and Nature Human Behaviour, says their collaborations have been a classic pandemic partnership: The pair met by Zoom discussing each other’s work and proceeded to collaborate on four papers before meeting in person.

Do you see these studies as complementary? Does the second pick up where the first leaves off, or fill out the picture?

There are several other studies with complementary findings, for example, showing that partisanship also played a role in compliance with stay-at-home-orders.

Van Dijcke: Yes, they are complementary in the sense that they study different drivers of noncompliance with public health policy during the COVID-19 pandemic in the states. Our Nature Human Behavior paper establishes that science skepticism affected whether people adhered to the stay-at-home orders issued in the first few months of the pandemic, while our Journal of Public Economics paper documents how partisanship was the most important predictor of mask wearing in July 2020.

Do you see any contradictions between them? I know this is a bit of apples and oranges: focusing on science skepticism and shelter-in-place policies vs. partisanship and mask mandates. But I wonder how important is this distinction?

Van Dijcke: That’s an important question. We put a lot of effort into making sure that the mechanisms we study — science skepticism and partisanship — were indeed the real drivers of this noncompliance, and not proxies for some other underlying causes.

In particular, there is a strong correlation between both mechanisms: Republican-leaning voters tend to be more skeptical of scientific authorities and expertise, and so one could easily think that the noncompliance with these public health mandates we study is driven completely by either one or the other. For that reason, in both studies, we allow for the possibility that there are these other factors also influencing noncompliance: science skepticism, partisanship, education, income. In our Journal of Public Economics paper, we even allow for the number of bowling organizations to affect mask wearing. Nonetheless, we consistently find that science skepticism and partisanship played an important, independent role.

When it comes to comparing mask-wearing to shelter-in-place policies, our findings suggest they are in some sense two different aspects of the same phenomenon: compliance with public health policies. For example, in our Nature paper, we also document a strong positive correlation between science skepticism and mask-wearing, although data limitations didn’t allow us to study that further. As I mentioned, there is also a body of recent research looking at the role partisanship played in the efficacy of the shelter-in-place policies. An important distinction between both policies, however, is that shelter-in-place policies incur substantial economic and societal costs to achieve reduction of viral spread, while mask-wearing essentially does not incur any costs, even as a rapidly expanding body of scientific work has demonstrated that it can be very effective in slowing the virus down.

In that light, it is somewhat surprising that we found such an important role for partisanship in mask-wearing: There appears to be no material reason to strongly oppose it, beyond signaling that you belong to a certain political tribe. It is true that at the start of the pandemic, there was some uncertainty around face masks, with some scientists worrying about self-infection and the World Health Organization recommending against their general use. That initial ambiguity may have opened the way for the subsequent politicization that we document, though that is mostly speculation.

We did not expect to find, however, that partisanship is a more important predictor of mask-wearing than any other factor we could find data on. That really struck us. It also immediately informs policy: Fix the politicization of mask-wearing and you will start seeing a whole lot more masks around. I think that’s where the contribution of this kind of research really lies: to provide solid empirical evidence for the drivers of politico-economic issues, and to put precise magnitudes on the importance of these drivers. It’s easy to say, based on anecdotes, “X has been an extremely big issue during the pandemic.”

Van Dijcke: When we set out with this research, we had some preconceptions about what we would find and, indeed, our results largely confirmed those preconceptions — they aren’t surprising in that sense. For example, for our Journal of Public Economics paper, we set out with the hypothesis that partisanship did indeed play a role in mask-wearing. For many, these studies will confirm what they thought to be true but backed by rigorous research. What was your reaction to the findings? What surprised or jumped out at you, if anything?

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