3 Fallacies That Blighted 2020's COVID Commentary — Have You Fallen Foul Of Any Of Them?

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Throughout the pandemic we have seen a deluge of outright lies, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience from various peddlers of self-interest.

But to a philosopher like me, more vexing than these calculated cases of disinformation has been the amount of sloppy reasoning in public discourse about Australia’s COVID epidemic.

Barely a day goes by without a politician, official or commentator making the kind of basic failure of critical thinking that I teach first-year philosophy undergraduates to avoid.

While these are sometimes deliberate attempts to obfuscate, it is more frequently the well-intentioned who fall victim to these often appealing fallacies. The only antidote is a large dose of scepticism, mixed with some understanding of where our reasoning frequently goes wrong.

Here are three critical thinking errors that were rife in 2020.

Fallacy 1: false comparisons

In arguing against lockdowns, it was not uncommon to hear people decry the “hidden cost” of public health measures designed to curb the virus’s spread. Commonly cited examples include drops in cancer detection or the negative impacts of school closures, particularly on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is certainly reasonable to ask whether the costs of lockdown outweigh the benefits. But any such reckoning needs to factor in the costs of not imposing a lockdown.

It is a mistake to use the “pre-COVID normal” as the baseline for comparison. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Pre-COVID cancer rates or school grades are irrelevant when thinking about the impact of public health measures in our current circumstances.

What is relevant is the expected outcomes given the impact of the COVID infections that would occur without public health measures in place. In the case of cancer detection, for example, we should expect a drop in diagnoses relative to pre-COVID levels both with, and without, lockdowns in place. During a pandemic, the fear of infection creates a significant extra factor that would make people less likely to visit their doctor for a cancer check.

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Disclosure: This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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