What do American podcast megastar Joe Rogan, a UCP MLA from Airdrie and Alberta’s skyrocketing COVID case numbers have in common? Far more than you might think. While there are any number of respected health experts the public can turn to for information on the pandemic, freedom-loving elected officials like MLA Angela Pitt are driving them towards less reputable sources. As we’re seeing now, with emergency rooms and intensive care units filling up with COVID patients, the results of this refusal to embrace expertise are proving deadly.
In a recent Facebook post, Pitt encouraged her followers to “do your research and do what’s right for you” to decide on the vaccine. She doubled down on that post in remarks to the press last week, saying “(The post) in no way encouraged or discouraged anyone to participate in their ability to vaccinate themselves, but in fact encouraged them to find the information that they need to make that decision.” When asked whether she’d taken the vaccine or not, Pitt demurred. “I choose not to disclose that information,” she said.
If the informational landscape consisted solely of academic papers and peer-reviewed science, people doing their own research wouldn’t be a problem. But this isn’t where most people are grazing for their intellectual nutrition. Instead, they’re feeding off the junk food that predominates on Facebook and Twitter, where media entrepreneurs like Spotify’s Rogan — who recently mused that healthy 20-year-olds shouldn’t get the COVID vaccine — have audiences millions of times larger than those who tend to follow public health officials, leading scientists and researchers.
After some major blowback (including, one presumes, from Spotify, the company that is reportedly paying him $100 million) Rogan walked his comments back on Friday. “I am not a doctor,” he said. “I am a fucking moron. I am a cage-fighting commentator... I am not a respected source of information even for me. But I at least try to be honest about what I am saying.”
While Rogan is willing to admit his error, there is an endless array of digital misinformation peddlers who aren’t. They trade in half-truths, weaponized confusion and outright conspiracies, and they hold a disproportionate influence over the people doing the kind of “research” Pitt suggested for her community. Real research, after all, is grinding and time-consuming stuff. It’s not something that happens on a Facebook page or in the comments of a YouTube video. And yet, that’s exactly where it is happening for far too many people right now.
In Pitt’s defence, her own party’s leader isn’t doing much leading here. On the same day Pitt doubled down on her Facebook post, Jason Kenney gave a press conference where he suggested “there’s, I think, a false idea out there that lockdowns stop viral spread and that they can be effective in every instance. That’s not the case.”
That would come as a surprise to the people at The Lancet, who just came out with a paper suggesting that lockdowns work — and that countries that imposed more stringent measures have performed better on both health and economic metrics. “Evidence suggests that countries that opt for rapid action to eliminate SARS-CoV-2 — with the strong support of their inhabitants — also better protect their economies and minimize restrictions on civil liberties compared with those that strive for mitigation,” the paper says.
But Kenney and his government seem committed to discounting the public health information and advice they’re getting from actual experts, and instead pandering to the anti-science voters that helped elect them. And while this mismanagement of the COVID crisis will eventually fade into the background as the vaccines take over and help bring the pandemic under control, it will have taken far longer than it had to — and come with a much higher price than was necessary. That’s a direct result of the confused messaging coming from Kenney and his government MLAs, and the amplifying effect it's had on anti-maskers, vaccine skeptics and COVID-19’s other unwitting enablers.
If there’s one thing we should take from this when it’s all over, it’s that treating the work of scientists and researchers like an optional buffet is a dangerous new kind of privilege. The problem with treating the opinions of a professional scientist and your Uncle Frank on Facebook as though they’re equal should be obvious. And yet, that’s what thousands of people have done in Alberta — in some cases, with the full support of their local MLA.
Angela Pitt, Drew Barnes and the other members of Alberta’s anti-science caucus will continue to frame their reckless behaviour here in terms of freedom. For his part, Kenney will almost certainly continue to ignore their defiance, lest he provoke his already mutinous rural caucus members by mounting a more robust defence of the scientific consensus. But it should be abundantly clear by now that what we need from our elected officials during times of crisis is brave leadership, not a willingness to imitate the comments section on a Facebook page. The cost of cowardice, as we’re seeing right now, is just too high.