A new study from MIT researchers has confirmed that coronavirus skeptics and anti-maskers understand science and data better than their political opponents.
The study, entitled “Viral Visualizations: How Coronavirus Skeptics Use Orthodox Data Practices to Promote Unorthodox Science Online,” was published this month, and analysed the reaction from skeptics and anti-maskers towards the pandemic from March to September 2020, during much of the initial phases of the breakout and then its expansion. The study focused on Facebook groups and Twitter posts, and the interaction between anti-maskers and visualisations of the coronavirus data that was being published by mainstream science outlets and governments.
In the study, the researchers revealed that despite current narratives that anti-maskers are simply scientifically illiterate, they actually have a very good grasp of science and data analysis. In the Facebook groups they studied, the researchers saw a serious emphasis on originally produced content, with people wanting to make sure that they were “guided solely by the data.” Many participants made their own graphs, and instructed others on how to access raw data. “In other words, anti-maskers value unmediated access to information and privilege personal research and direct reading over “expert” interpretations,” they noted:
Its members value individual initiative and ingenuity, trusting scientific analysis only insofar as they can replicate it themselves by accessing and manipulating the data firsthand. They are highly reflexive about the inherently biased nature of any analysis, and resent what they view as the arrogant self-righteousness of scientific elites.
Anti-maskers found themselves not on the side of ignoring science and data, but striving to push for “more scientific rigour” in their approach to the pandemic. The researchers argued that “users in these communities are deeply invested in forms of critique and knowledge production that they recognise as markers of scientific expertise,” and added that “if anything, anti-mask science has extended the traditional tools of data analysis by taking up the theoretical mantle of recent critical studies of visualisation.”