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UW professors: Trump ‘has not done a good job’ being honest about COVID crisis

A mural of President Donald Trump in Italy. (Getty Images)

All of us have become statisticians thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, searching for any sign that a miracle is about to occur and that this is going to disappear, which usually involves citing statistics, KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross points out. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get confused over who’s right and who’s wrong, and statistics can be manipulated to support any point of view you want.

There are two professors at the University of Washington whose specialty is calling out misinformation. Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West designed the now-famous course at the UW, named “Calling Bull—-: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World.” That’s the same title as their new book.

Sorting through the endless coronavirus data and gauging what’s accurate

Dave prefaced the conversation by saying his questions reflect what he’s been hearing from others and do not necessarily represent his point of view.

He started by asking, in terms of the way the president has communicated the statistical information to the public, how would Bergstrom and West evaluate that?

“The president has not done a good job of providing the public with honest, accurate information about about the coronavirus using statistics or any other form of communication,” Bergstrom said.

“I would add, if you haven’t seen the Jonathan Swan interview that Axios put on where — it was actually a perfect advertisement for our book, I hate to say it — in that interview, Trump, and he’s not the only one that does these things, pulls out graphs to make an argument,” West said. “You could see pretty quickly that there was an argument trying to be made about those graphs shown that was probably more manipulative and not correct. That happens all the time with data, and stats, and figures, and that’s exactly what we talk about in the book.”

One example of this, Bergstrom said, is when President Trump called to slow down testing because more testing means more cases.

“If you start handling this as a public relations crisis and you’re trying to make the numbers look good, then you make the public health crisis worse,” Bergstrom said.

That’s not to say that public relations is not important.

“It’s just that this is more than a public relations crisis, and the way you go about handling public relations in a pandemic is something that’s actually been studied and thought about enormously,” Bergstrom added. “The CDC has a field manual for dealing with infectious disease pandemics that has a whole chapter on how you do this.”

The principles include: Be honest, don’t try to deceive people, don’t minimize things, don’t tell people that things are worst than they are, stick to the science, put a scientist up to speak instead of a politician, and be consistent.

“And so these are all messages that haven’t really been taken up with the communications that have been coming out of the White House,” Bergstrom said. “So, one of the things that I have been very concerned about is that the White House has done a lot to undermine trust.”

West pointed out that Bergstrom is a world expert on this.

“Not only has Carl spent a lot of time thinking about the way information and misinformation moves through society and biology like myself, he spent half his career thinking about infectious disease. So those two things came together,” West said. “And I’m not going to over talk one of the experts. That’s one thing that we teach in the book is we do have experts out there. There is such thing as truth.”

West studies conspiracy theories, what theories are exploding, how they go away, and how certain individuals become influential voices.

“There are people out there — there are professionals out there that, well, professionals in that they pretty much make money on this in terms of their influence, but they wait for crisis events, and then they start throwing rumors fast because there’s a lot of uncertainty during the early parts of a crisis,” West explained. “And all of a sudden they get amplified quickly on social media platforms from Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, … you name the social media platform. And then they can use that influence to make money because influencers today make money on social media.”

Ross: Stopping the other viral contagion sweeping America

That answers the motivation for spreading the nonsense, Dave says, but how much do these articles and statements influence or harm people?

“That’s actually something that the research community is looking at,” West said. “There’s been some results that say, this is having this unconscious affect on our behavior, and some are saying, well, it’s not as bad as we think. Most people are reasonable, reasonably smart, and they can tell that it’s mostly entertainment and ridiculous. But that remains to be seen. And I tend to be a little bit more concerned because there’s so much of it out there that drowns out the good voices.”

To hear the full conversation between Dave Ross, Jevin West, and Carl Bergstrom, tune in to the Ross Files podcast, available online here.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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