Shawn Vestal: Our stories often go beyond the facts, but the Sturgis facts, again, are bad
If this is a pandemic August in South Dakota, it must be time for Sturgis – again to count the growing cases, watch the divergent narratives unfold, and reflect on the unwavering persistence of the belief in the facts.
Because, as the South Dakota cases skyrocket, the delta version of motorcycle rally is set to look a lot like the alpha version, which sent COVID-19 home along with a significant number of bikers.
Last year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was held amid the summer outbreak of the pandemic, a big finger for the caution and common sense of nearly half a million people. Epidemiologists warned it was a terrible idea. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem insisted all would be well and refused to apply any precaution, treating the matter with the kind of proud and reckless defiance that characterizes so much of the United States. political response to the pandemic.
The rally went as planned – with the sale of the defiant “Screw COVID.” I Went to Sturgis »T-shirts added to the usual mix of outdoor rallies and crowded bars. As expected, there was a wave of infections that followed rally enthusiasts back home across the country.
The number of cases roughly doubled in South Dakota in the weeks following the rally, and a CDC report released in April this year showed there were “widespread” infections across the country. dating back to Sturgis – 649 infections in 39 states, including infections passed from rally enthusiasts to others at home. This figure is surely underestimated, given that several states did not provide data and many people interviewed by contact tracing officers showed “reluctance to acknowledge their participation in the Sturgis rally,” said the newspaper.
But in the early days after last year’s rally, before stronger evidence emerged, some researchers used a scientific model using cellphone data to estimate how great the spread had been. He produced figures that were considered grossly inflated – estimating that more than 266,000 cases came from the rally, spreading across the country in various counties.
Because the study included the claim that some cases returned to Sturgis’ Spokane, I wrote a column about the study, treating it uncritically as a reliable set of estimates. (The health district says three cases in Spokane County have been linked to Sturgis.)
The study immediately drew politically motivated opposition from COVID minimizers, many of whom attacked both the numbers and the underlying premise that large groups of unmasked people in bars could spread the virus, or that infected people could bring the disease home.
But the study also drew criticism from real scientists, who said the estimates were grossly inflated. Critics included Carl Bergstrom of the University of Washington, a biologist who co-authored the book “Calling Bullshit”, an invaluable text for sorting out what’s right and wrong in our factual world.
The study’s numbers, which many credibly claimed, were just too high. However, the underlying premise that Sturgis was a big-ticket event certainly wasn’t.
In the end, it was the kind of confusion that allowed people with conflicting beliefs to turn the event into “proof” that they were right from the start.
Shortly after the first column, after seeing some of the critiques of that initial study, I wrote a second. In this column, I tried to explain what the critics said were the shortcomings of modeling and cop for why I was too quick to give credit to the study in the first place: it confirmed what I already believed about events like Sturgis, which is that this – like Amy Coney Barrett’s welcome party to the White House – was inexcusably reckless.
The response to this second column has been instructive. Many readers took it as a full and complete admission that all of their skepticism and denial of COVID was correct, and seemed to think I had rejected the set of beliefs you might call COVID gullibility – the idea that the disease is real, the CDC is credible and that we should take proactive public action to limit its spread.
Something similar happened on the other side of the question, although to a lesser degree. Readers have written to me to say that I should not have “eaten crow” because cases have increased in South Dakota and cases have spread to other states, even though those particular numbers were. doubtful.
It was frustrating, although it shouldn’t have been surprising. The fact that we occupy different worlds in terms of COVID gullibility is more than obvious, and is now the main reason we are still stuck in the pandemic.
We all have confirmation bias, but not all confirmation bias lives the same distance from the facts. People who operate with beliefs based on scientific expertise and public health advice and those who operate with beliefs shaped by Tucker Carlson and a doctor on YouTube both have confirmation biases, but they do not distort the belief. same way. If you believe Rand Paul but not Anthony Fauci, your lens is much more powerful than those biased in the opposite direction.
Which brings me back to Sturgis. The rally has just happened again, wide open as hell. The governor continued to deny and resist, categorically and wrongly claiming that last year’s rally was not a large-scale event, and refusing to join efforts to get more gunfire in her. severely under-vaccinated condition. Of course, that makes her a heroine for some, seen as a possible candidate for a higher post in a party where taking the pandemic seriously is a handicap.
The parallel narratives are anchored, and we are all anchored in the results.
But the very early and far from definitive facts that emerged after the rally are bad, just as they were last year. These facts exist outside of our stories, like trees falling, unheard of in the forest. South Dakota has topped the list of the most infectious. The county where the rally took place has gone from almost zero cases to about 30 per day, an increase of more than 1,000% over two weeks. Its test positivity rate is the highest in the state at nearly a third. Hospitalizations have increased by 200%.
As for deaths, this delayed indicator? Stay tuned.