Whatever their intent, protests aren't exempt from the laws of nature

Whatever their intent, protests aren't exempt from the laws of nature
© Getty Images

Conservatives are often accused of being “science-deniers.” From mask-wearing to global warming, the right is often the punching bag for those who venerate scientific evidence. Yet recently we’ve seen that the left is equally willing to buy into questionable evidence, when it supports their cause of the moment. 

A study released last month on the effects of social justice protests on coronavirus infection rates appears to be emblematic of this. 

The study has been given attention across a broad spectrum of news outlets, from The Economist to the Los Angeles Times. It purports to show that the protests in America’s streets have had no impact on infection rates across more than 300 cities. The ostensible mechanism for this lack of case growth is that the protests led other people to socially distance more. By itself, this puts an asterisk on the findings. If fear or aversion to the protests led people to stay home, this doesn't actually mean that crowding together in demonstrations didn’t spread the virus, only that countervailing decisions mitigated the harm that might have been caused. 

ADVERTISEMENT

But there are a number of far broader issues with the paper that deserve attention. 

First, the study attempts to compare a set of cities where protests took place to a control group of cities that experienced no protests. To the extent that cities a fair distance apart could be analyzed, this might be a valuable approach. But when one looks at the control cities, it is easy to find that some are mislabeled. For example, Irving, Texas, is mentioned as a control-group city in which protests didn’t occur — but a cursory Google search reveals protests involving hundreds of people did take place there during the time frame of the study’s analysis. If mistakes can be identified this easily, one questions the credibility of the study. 

But an even larger issue is that many of the cities included as controls are in the same metropolitan areas as cities that are part of the “treatment” group where protests occurred. As anyone who has visited a large American city knows, people easily and regularly cross municipal lines. Protestors were as likely to come to a demonstration from any number of surrounding locations — not just where the event took place. Because protests were widespread, and COVID-19 cases were growing fairly rapidly around the country at the time, it is simply not credible to think a viable control group could be created. 

To the extent that the coronavirus remains an important problem, research such as this can have negative implications for public health as well. If people hear that large-scale protests are totally safe, why wouldn’t going out to dinner, or making a trip to the local pub be safe as well? All of this is not meant as an attack on a particular movement. From the “Reopen America” protests in May to those involving police and the death of George Floyd, people of all political stripes in recent weeks have taken to the streets to let their voices be heard. But what this is meant to be is an indictment of the motivated reasoning of many Americans today. 

Motivated reasoning is a term from social psychology. It represents the manner in which we readily accept information that goes along with our preexisting beliefs while ignoring or rejecting information that runs counter to them. A conservative might not like to believe that reopening the economy will cause some increase in COVID-19 case counts. A liberal might like to believe that social justice protests are somehow exempt from the laws of nature. But both are incorrect. And when social scientific results are endorsed or rejected based purely on the political slant of the results, the credibility of the scientific research as a whole suffers.

Whether you have been out marching against racism and for police reforms, or to have America’s businesses reopen, or both, when analyzing the public health ramifications following this pandemic, we need to refrain from using “science” to justify our personal views and actually consider the facts objectively.

Will Flanders, Ph.D., is research director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a nonprofit public interest law firm in Milwaukee. Follow him on Twitter @WillFlandersWI.