The Real Problem with the Dr. Mike COVID Party

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Photo from NY Post

When the COVID-19 pandemic started to flare up in the United States, I started to freak out a little bit. I have a generalized anxiety disorder, and like many other people, I was constantly refreshing social media and news websites for updates. Thankfully, I had Dr. Mike. Unfortunately, he recently had to apologize for being caught partying during the largest COVID spike of the year.

For those of you who don’t know, Dr. Mike is a doctor with almost 6.5 million subscribers on YouTube. I first started watching him because he had some great takes on mental health, but when the pandemic started, he became my most-trusted source. There was so much conflicting information going around about whether we should or shouldn’t wear masks and how bad this pandemic would get, and Dr. Mike always had a level-headed approach to the conversation.

He explained how we need to adapt as new data comes out and we may need to change how we protect ourselves from catching and spreading COVID-19. I learned a ton in the early days of the pandemic because of Dr. Mike, but most of all, he beat into all of our heads to stay alert and not anxious.

At the time of writing this, it’s the end of November, and we’re consistently breaking records of COVID cases. This is during the holiday season when many people decided to stay home for the first time in years rather than seeing their family for Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, Dr. Mike went to one of the COVID capitals of the country, Florida, to visit his father, but this wasn’t the issue.

The issue was that he attended a party on a boat and someone took a picture of him and over a dozen other people in close proximity without masks. After getting caught, he made an apology video on his second channel, which only has 58k subscribers compared to his main channel’s 6 million. Not only was this apology riddled with flawed logic and self-justification, but now the opposition to COVID guidelines now has more ammunition.

While I don’t think Dr. Mike should be canceled over this incident, I do think it’s important that we have a rational conversation about what he did, why his apology missed the mark, and where we go from here.

The Apology

As someone who has personally had the internet come after him for mistakes, I know that public apologies are hard to navigate. As a public figure, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The worst part about making a public apology is that people are going to pick it apart and explain what was wrong with it. As someone who is also a recovering drug addict, something I learned 8 years ago when I got sober is some people will accept your apology and some won’t.

With that being said, my intention isn’t to invalidate Dr. Mike’s apology and pick it apart as others are doing. My goal is to break down the flawed decision making and self-justification that brought us to this point. Why? In the great words of Otto von Bismarck, “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

This year, I’ve become fascinated with the psychology of decision making and have read some amazing books like How to Decide by Annie Duke and The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. And something I’ve learned is that assessing risk is crucial to making good decisions, which is why I loved Risk Savvy by Gerd Gigerenzer.

In his apology, Dr. Mike discusses how he assessed the risks of traveling to Florida to visit his father, and then he assessed the risk of having this boat party. Mike checked in with the CDC guidelines for how many people should be on a boat, and he also said that everyone who attended had been tested. Based on the fact that Dr. Mike is young and healthy and was following guidelines, after assessing the risk, he figured attending this boat party wasn’t a bad idea.

Unfortunately, there were some flaws with his assessment of the risk. While some people are pointing out that the Florida boat occupancy guidelines are only 10 people max but you can clearly see more than 10 people in the photo, I want to discuss how Mike assessed his personal risk.

Yes, Dr. Mike is young and healthy, so he’s at low risk of severe COVID complications if he contracts the virus. The issue is that Mike’s self-justification for attending this boat party created cognitive dissonance. This dissonance made him disregard the fact that he taught me and millions of other people, which is that it’s not about my personal risk; it’s about the risk that I may infect others.

Regardless of Mike’s personal age and health, if he catches the virus, he puts everyone at risk that he comes in contact with. As he mentioned, he was visiting his father, and older people are at a high risk. Not only that, but he also puts people he passes on the street at risk, the people he passes in the airport on the way home, the people on the airplane, the people at the airport back home as well as those he comes in contact with back in New York.

Now, Mike did say that everyone who attended was tested, but that’s still not looking at the bigger picture when assessing the risk. Dr. Mike has been one of the leading voices on the COVID pandemic throughout the year, so aside from potentially spreading the virus, the biggest risk is getting caught. By getting caught, not only does he set a bad example to his followers, but he gives anti-maskers more ammunition.

And in my opinion, that should have been the main point of the risk assessment.

Recently, a wealthy friend of mine had a gathering of a couple dozen people. Fortunately, he and those who attended are like Dr. Mike and could afford rapid tests for everyone in attendance. Even though they did rapid testing, I did give my friend some flak for having this get together in the first place, but one place where I’ll applaud him is that the attendees took into consideration something that Mike didn’t, which is photos.

At my friend’s get together, he knew that him and others are influential, so even though they were participating in risky behavior, they ensured it wouldn’t go public. At this gathering, no photos were allowed. Meanwhile, Dr. Mike physically posed for photos knowing his influence and the fact that he has an audience of millions. So, although I respect Dr. Mike’s apology, I don’t think he assessed the risk as well as he thinks he did.

Lastly, one of his justifications for this gathering was that this year has taken a mental toll on everyone being in isolation. And I think this comment summarizes how many of us are feeling about his justification:

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Where do We Go From Here?

As mentioned earlier, no, I don’t think Dr. Mike should be canceled I do think it’s important to discuss the situation as a whole. Not only do we need to pay attention to who we hold up on a pedestal due to their ranking on the social ladder, but we also need to realize that people are fallible and will make mistakes.

In a recent Johns Hopkins study, it showed that more than 250,000 people die each year in the United States due to medical errors. In his book Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed explains why this happens and how the medical field doesn’t have a self-correcting model to really help decrease these numbers. But I bring this up to showcase the fact that even doctors make mistakes, and Dr. Mike did a TED Talk where he discussed the need for intellectual humility.

My concern isn’t so much that a doctor was caught, but more of the issue we see with the wealthy and upper class. I respect Dr. Mike a ton, but I do worry that he’s gone down the same route as Dr. Drew. Dr. Drew Pinsky is a famous doctor who did one of the only studies on celebrity narcissism, but after reading his book The Mirror Effect, I couldn’t help but think, “But Dr. Drew, you showcase a lot of the same behaviors as these narcissistic celebrities.”

Although I hope it’s not the case, Dr. Mike may be sliding into the “do as I say and not as I do” category of doctors. But I also wonder if his friends are going to cover this story.

Like Dr. Mike, I started watching the independent news channel Philip DeFranco because I could get away from the extremely partisan views of mainstream media. When Phil covers a story where there may be a conflict of interest, he makes that very clear. Now, I’m curious to see if Phil covers this story because he and Dr. Mike are friends. Over the last year or two, I’ve noticed Phil changing a little, so I really hope he maintains his integrity by discussing this story even though it may shed a negative light on his friend.

Above all else, the most disappointing part of this whole scenario is that anti-maskers and COVID deniers are going to use this as ammunition. People like QAnon and those who politicize science on the right are going to have a field day with this, and that’s not going to help slow the pandemic. When assessing the risk, this should have been a key factor in Dr. Mike’s decision making due to his influence, but that’s not what happened. Although the vaccine is on the horizon, hospitals are at capacity as the COVID numbers spike, and we need to do our best to decrease the spread in the coming months while also setting a good example for others.

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