When data shed light on societal challenges

In 2015, two Princeton economists published data showing that white people in their 40s and 50s in the United States were dying at much higher rates than expected — and that the death rates for that age group had been rising sharply for almost two decades. The big killers like cancer and heart disease weren’t to blame. Instead, alcohol misuse, drug overdoses and suicide caused these early deaths, which the economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, called “deaths of despair.”

I remember reading that paper and thinking it was a revelation — a dataset able to reveal something profound happening to our society that was largely hidden until this analysis. I was also moved by the phrase “deaths of despair,” which casts a vision of a person being ground down by years of disappointment and struggle. People without college degrees are most affected, the study and other research shows. The reasons for their struggles are many, including the evaporation of stable manufacturing jobs and health insurance, fractured families and a lack of social supports.

This trend toward more suffering and shorter lives shows no hint of waning. In 2015, U.S. life expectancy declined for the first time in decades. Other rich countries have not experienced similar declines.

In this issue, behavioral sciences writer Bruce Bower revisits the deaths of despair hypothesis, exploring Case and Deaton’s latest research connecting despair with reports of physical pain, as well as other scientists’ efforts to define despair to learn how to avoid despair-related deaths. It’s a fascinating exploration of how social scientists go about testing a new construct, seeking to learn if and how despair is different than depression and other mental health diagnoses. Bower also made illuminating connections between the demoralization, grief and anger that people feel during this pandemic, as they lose friends and family, jobs and social ties.

People who feel threatened, ignored and alone are more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and misinformation. The spread of misinformation has been disastrous for our country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, with social media channels awash with misinformation about fake cures and questioning whether masks are useful (they are!). That misinformation has caused needless suffering and death. Anti-vaccine rhetoric, including false claims that the COVID-19 vaccine contains a microchip designed to track people’s movements, is pushing some people to avoid vaccines, which are our best shot to end the pandemic, along with masks and social distancing. As of November, 21 percent of adults in the United States said they do not intend to get the shot, and that more information would not change their minds.

Shared facts and common truth can shed light on the challenges we face, including the pandemic and attacks on our system of government. The “deaths of despair” research is a shining example of how science can illuminate the effects of complex social and economic trends on our lives. Science can help us understand what’s happening to us, and how we can build a better future. It’s time to listen.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.