Since the global coronavirus outbreak, the sight of scientific experts on our TV screens has become a familiar one. When you’re listening to chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, or American physician Dr Anthony Fauci, or some such medical expert, do you ever find yourself thinking: maybe I could learn from these people?
I’m not talking about becoming a scientist; I’m talking about learning to think like a scientist. When you see Tony Holohan on TV, he appears serious and concerned but calm; informed, but quick to emphasise what he doesn’t know. He eschews drama and certainty; the words “we don’t know” are uttered frequently, and you will hear many references to what the data “indicates” or “suggests”.
The scientific method rests upon asking questions; gathering information; making a hypothesis; conducting research to test that hypothesis; observing and recording the results; analysing the data and drawing conclusions. Evidence-based research will note where the results align with the hypothesis but also where the results conflict with the hypothesis. Serious scientists don’t seek out information that confirms their thesis; they look for evidence that disconfirms it and are always alive to the possibility that they could be wrong. Serious scientists are not wedded to their opinions; they change their mind when new evidence emerges.
How would you feel if Tony Holohan took a different approach? What if he was more like Donald Trump, who relied on gut instinct when recommending the drug hydroxychloroquin as a potential coronavirus treatment? ‘I feel good about it’, said Trump. ‘That’s all it is, just a feeling, you know, smart guy. I feel good about it’. The virus is ‘going to disappear’, he said in February. ‘One day it’s like a miracle – it will disappear’. The following month, shortly after saying ‘nobody knew there would be a pandemic’, Trump said he ‘felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic’.
CBT AND BEING A PERSONAL SCIENTIST
No doubt, you would be less than reassured if Tony Holohan abandoned science and embraced magical thinking, denialism and gut feel. Most people agree public policy should be guided by calm, evidence-based decision-making, but people are less quick to see that the same principles can be used in our own everyday life. One of the key messages of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is you should strive to become a personal scientist, to question your own thoughts and beliefs rather than automatically accepting them. Like a scientist, you can weigh up the evidence for and against your automatic thoughts. Is this thought accurate? Is it it balanced? Is it helpful?
This scientific approach will help you identify and evaluate inaccurate and unhelpful thinking. It pays to remember the three C’s of cognitive therapy – catching, checking and changing thoughts. First, get into the habit of catching the thought; that is, if you are feeling sad, angry, or fearful, try and identify the thought that came before the emotion. Secondly, check the thought by reflecting on how accurate or helpful it is, gathering evidence for and against it. Thirdly, change the thought to a more helpful and accurate one as needed.
Remember, the goal is not to embrace wildly positive thinking; it is to become a balanced thinker, someone who doesn’t rush to unhelpful judgements. To return to the example of Dr Tony Holohan, imagine that in 12 months’ time there is an enquiry into the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (NPHET) handling of the coronavirus crisis. Let’s say the enquiry concludes NPHET got many things right but that it also got some things wrong and makes a series of recommendations to that effect.
How do you think Tony Holohan would privately react? Do you think he would berate himself and say, “I’m useless. I’m such a failure, I can’t do a thing right”. Do you think he would be angry and say, “I did nothing wrong, the guy who wrote that report is a scumbag who hates my guts, nobody gives a damn about me”. Or do you think he would try and be measured and sober in how he responds?
Aim to be measured. Steer clear of drama. Keep an open mind and aim to be a personal scientist.
(First published in Southern Star, 02/07/2020)