Why some people are now doubting the official COVID-19 death count

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On the eve of the Republican National Convention, August 21, 2020, a coalition of Americans reeling from the COVID-related deaths of loved ones, unemployment, and all this crisis has wrought gathered at Barclays Center to participate in "March for the Dead, Fight for the Living." It's a candlelit procession across the Brooklyn Bridge to the Trump Building at 40 Wall Street in Manhattan, demanding the Trump administration and beyond take responsible action to save lives and end suffering. Photo credit: Erik McGregor/Sipa USA

Statistics show that more than 180,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. The CDC says 94% of them had comorbidities, or other health issues that may have contributed to their cause of death. That has led some skeptics to say the actual COVID-19 death toll is lower than 180,000. Some of these skeptics have political reasons to downplay the deaths. But cognitive reasoning might also have something to do with it.

KCRW speaks with Alan Jern, cognitive scientist and Associate Professor of Psychology at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana.

When someone with existing health problems, such as diabetes, catches COVID-19 and later dies, COVID-19 is still the official cause of death?

Alan Jern: “That's my understanding. … Assigning cause of death on these certificates is a complicated matter. But you can assign … an acute cause of death and contributing causes.”

Counterfactual thinking: Some people see this CDC figure of comorbidity and say it means coronavirus isn’t as deadly as previously thought. What leads to this kind of thinking? 

“When people make this claim that somebody who had heart disease died of COVID, they'll often say, ‘Well, this person would have died anyway if they didn't get COVID.’ And that's counterfactual thinking in the sense that they're imagining a situation or world in which they didn't get COVID. And would the outcome be the same? They're claiming the answer is no. 

Ordinarily, counterfactual thinking is a really valuable tool that we all rely on for reasoning about causes and effects. But this is a case where some people who rely on counterfactual thinking, that kind of thinking is breaking down. 

And one important reason is that … our intuitive way of applying counterfactual thinking, they're applying it to a complex system involving complex causal relationships about the human body, about cause of death. And simple applications of counterfactual thinking may not hold up here.”

Example: What caused the window to break?

“In a study by psychologist Clare Walsh and Steven Sloman, they presented people with situations like this, where there were these two potential causes. 

One of them, there was a clear mechanism. It actually was throwing a rock through a window. So somebody threw a rock, it's pretty clear how that would cause the window to break. 

The other potential cause is somebody was standing between the rock and the window, they stepped out of the way. So normally, there wouldn't be a clear mechanism between stepping aside and causing a window to break. 

And from a counterfactual perspective, both of those two causes were responsible for the window breaking because if either one of those things didn't happen, the window wouldn't have broken. 

But people were much more likely to judge the person who threw the rock to be a cause than the person stepping aside. 

And it's possible that when people are thinking about COVID-19 causes of death, they’re applying the same kind of … thinking. ‘Well heart disease, that makes a lot of sense, I understand that causes death. COVID-19 makes a lot less sense.’”

Driven by bias 

“These people who make these claims generally are not just completely neutral. But with respect to their views on the reality of the pandemic and COVID, most of these people probably are skeptical for other reasons. And they are then predisposed to look for reasons to doubt what's going on and to doubt the official death toll. 

And so this kind of causal reasoning heuristic is something that we all use sometimes. But this is something that's available to people who want to doubt the pandemic if they want to find a reason to doubt what's going on.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rebecca Mooney

Credits

Guest:
Alan Jern - cognitive scientist and Associate Professor of Psychology at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin, Rebecca Mooney