Peter McKnight: Today’s ‘plague doctors’ and the psychology driving them
During the Black Death in Medieval Europe, many people came to know and fear the image of the “plague doctors,” the second-rate physicians who replaced legitimate doctors who had died or fled. Clad in ghoulish attire replete with beak-like masks, plague doctors seldom cured patients, but earned tidy sums by counting the dead after their dubious cures failed to work.
Alas, nearly 700 years later, the plague doctors are alive and well. Americans are all too familiar with “America’s Frontline Doctors,” the motley crew that promotes dubious COVID-19 cures like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin and opposes virtually all proven public health measures such as vaccines, masks and social distancing.
Here in B.C., the College of Physicians and Surgeons is currently struggling with how to handle a number of physicians who similarly reject sound medical advice in dealing with the pandemic. While many of their colleagues have spoken out about these latter-day plague doctors, few have faced any significant consequences.
Now to be fair, the Medieval plague doctors didn’t know what to do about the Black Death, and neither did anyone else, which is why many legitimate physicians ran away. In contrast, today’s doctors have an abundance of clinical and research evidence on how to combat COVID-19, which makes their promotion of conspiracies and quack cures all the more puzzling.
Indeed, while many psychologists have sought to understand why people promote COVID misinformation, they have centred on the fact that the promoters themselves are often misinformed. So the American Psychological Association details studies that found those who believe or share misinformation often fail to carefully consider the materials they read or hear, tend to be intuitive rather than analytical thinkers, and have limited numeracy skills.
None of those factors would likely apply to those who intentionally spread misinformation, however. For that we must look for other explanations. And psychologists have found that people who embrace conservative ideologies, especially those on the far right, are more likely to spread misinformation intentionally. But that’s only part of the story.