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Dr. Phil Just Compared COVID-19 Fatalities to Yearly Swimming Pool Deaths

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Throughout the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there have been a surge of TV doctors, pop psychologists and media reporters who irresponsibly publicize pseudoscience and harmful claims to millions of people.

Recently, on April 16th, Dr. Phil was interviewed on Fox News to discuss the health risks of COVID-19. He stated some incredibly problematic information that even he retracted after he received harsh backlash. For example, to explain why we should lift stay-at-home orders for the economy, Dr. Phil stated:

We have people dying, 45,000 people a year die from automobile accidents, 480,000 from cigarettes, 360,000 a year from swimming pools, but we don’t shut the country down for that, but yet we’re doing it for this? And the fallout is going to last for years because people’s lives are being destroyed.

As someone who is both considered part of a high-risk group for COVID-19 and a psychology student, I was profoundly disturbed by these harmful comments and inaccurate information. I’m not even sure why Dr. Phil was interviewed at all. He isn’t a medical doctor. While he does hold a doctorate degree in clinical psychology, he’s not actually licensed to practice psychology. He’s just another TV personality who attempted to discuss a topic far beyond his expertise. Have I mentioned he’s endured multiple ethical complaints and violations throughout his career for exploiting the people he “treats” on his shows?

But, Dr. Phil and people on Facebook are apparently the next media experts on how we should handle a pandemic.

As psychologists or future psychologists, from the beginning, we are supposed to exemplify and convey the dangers of biases, fallacies and pseudoscience—the latter defined as a set of claims, methods and assumptions that are mistakenly attributed to science. Some elements of pseudoscience may include grandiose or exaggerated claims that go beyond the evidence, inaccurate citations, lack of review, inconsistent logic and/or all-or-nothing claims of “proof.”

To start off, these numbers are exaggerated and unclear. There are no data that reveal 360,000 people die a year from swimming pools—in the entire span of 2005 to 2014, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 3,536 people died on average per year from unintentional drownings, and these data include both pools and other bodies of water such as lakes. It is not to dismiss these accidents, but the statements were undoubtedly inaccurate and unclear, as were several other claims surrounding automobiles.

These examples are also not a sound comparison to a highly contagious disease. Smoking, accidental drownings and automobile accidents are not communicable diseases that lead to a pandemic. They are isolated incidents—they do not overwhelm our health care system. They are not contagions that cause the widespread death of others. Even more, automobile accidents, drownings and smoking are not infectious diseases that communicably spread due to the actions of other people and thus disproportionately impact vulnerable people, such as chronically ill, disabled and older adults.

None of these examples resulted in a dramatic increase of deaths in a short time frame like we’ve seen COVID-19 do in the recent weeks alone. Proper measures depend on the context and situation, and these examples are completely dissimilar contexts. These examples are simply faulty comparisons and hasty generalizations.

His words appear to downplay the mass death and danger my community is facing. The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 30,000 people in recent weeks. The CDC released a list of 10 higher-risk groups, including multiple conditions and pregnant people. Altogether, that is a substantial portion of the population at any age, in addition to older adults.

I am part of two of the higher-risk groups mentioned, and many people I love are on part of groups on that list too. We are scared—and for good reason. Each day, we wake up to information that disregards our lives and implies we are less valuable.

It is dangerous and irresponsible to broadly televise information from a seriously flawed and biased standpoint, rather than scientific evidence, genuine disaster management strategies and the experts behind them. In a pandemic where the actions of others directly impact the lives of people around them and the health care system capacity, false information that destabilizes these efforts is a safety risk.

Yet, there is another issue I draw from this interview. Some persons may appeal to the public due to perceived authority, which the media has clearly taken advantage of with the surge of TV doctors. Perceived authority and “Dr.” titles are separable of their actual credibility and accuracy. In this case, Dr. Phil is not a medical doctor, not part of a disaster management team and he certainly isn’t an infectious disease specialist or epidemiologist.

TV doctors are elevated by the media as a credible authority on the topic and can appeal to confirmation bias. Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to favor information that confirms a preexisting belief and denies, misrepresents or omits any contradictory evidence. This bias results in further tunnel vision and prompts belief perseverance, where a false belief is maintained despite firm contradictory evidence.

No one wants to actually admit they are wrong or that their own life and people they know could be at risk. Optimism bias in psychology is the tendency to believe that negative events only happen to other people, so they are less likely to experience the event themselves. It can be an attempt to manage fear and threats, and can influence poor decision-making in the face of risks. False media stories may perpetuate these biases.

Similarly, Fox News also interviewed another TV doctor, Dr. Oz, who explained we need to reopen all schools because he predicts there will only be a 2-3% mortality rate, which is hundreds of thousands of people. He described it as an “appetizing” opportunity and trade-off. 

Science (and humility and care for human lives for that matter) would follow the evidence where it leads and follow proper disaster management strategies for all human lives—not begin with and form a conclusion based on emotional reasoning and fallacies, and work backwards to confirm that preexisting feeling, false belief or attempt to diminish fear.

Since then, both Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil have backtracked their claims. Dr. Oz noted he “misspoke” and Dr. Phil apologized on Facebook Live. He said, “Yes, I know those are not contagious, so probably bad examples” and “I’m not an infectious disease doctor.”

Dr. Phil then claimed he supported the CDC sheltering at home, social distancing guidelines and protecting vulnerable populations because:

Damn right we should, because that’s who we are. We care about everybody. We are Americans. We care about all of our people… We need widespread testing and continued protection of the high-risk portion of the population.

He contradicts some previous statements and continues to use questionable language, but I urge all people to be more intentional with their words, especially people with large influence.

Multiple credible sources that we should be attending to instead, such as the World Health Organization, have warned of a deadly resurgence, just as they warned of a potential pandemic back in January.

“WHO wants to see restrictions lifted as much as anyone… At the same time, lifting restrictions too quickly could lead to a deadly resurgence,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a recent press conference.

Likewise, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases warned that the threat and return to “normal” is “not going to be a light switch that you turn on and off.”

If we want to discuss economy, a rebound may lead to a second or longer restrictions and worsen the impact on the economy. Plus, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people are certainly not good for the economy, and neither is overwhelming of the health care system. Head here to see the WHO’s six strategies based on the latest available scientific evidence that must be put into place before lifting restrictions.

Without proper measures, the cases and deaths could likely rise again. There would be no way to collect data, trace potential asymptomatic cases and avoid transmission–especially in higher-risk people. Avoidable deaths would occur. People we love are not replaceable.

To use Dr. Phil’s words, people’s lives are not solely “being destroyed” because we are taking needed precautions to flatten the curve of deadly COVID-19, to protect our communities, prevent resurgence and care for each other. People’s lives are being destroyed because we live in a society where we cannot access the resources we need during a pandemic. People’s lives are being destroyed because of being underprepared for the pandemic despite warnings, and the overwhelmed health care systems. People’s lives are being destroyed because of the denial and political games among a created and biased two-party political system. People’s lives are being destroyed because they lack health insurance or cannot access physical or mental health care due to delayed appointments and overcapacity. People’s lives are being destroyed because they were excluded from stimulus checks due to the flawed criteria, and are now unable to care for themselves or a disabled/dependent adult, despite being in dire need for support. People’s lives are being destroyed because they lost a loved one, or they lost their own life, just to name a few.

Do not simplify and undermine the overall deaths, losses and desperation as the fault of measures to protect the lives of people in our communities and human health.

Concerned about coronavirus? Stay safe using the tips from these articles:

Originally published: April 19, 2020
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