August 3, 2020

Doing our part, vetting our information

No doubt about it, we are being flooded with more data and information about COVID-19 and the pandemic daily. The virus was only first recognized in November and now 8 months later, data and information about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is passed at the speed of light, or at least as fast as Twitter. Yes, lots of claims and data and recommendations. But is it reliable? Is it made up? Is it proven? How can we know? And what about the disinformation that is being spread?

Fortunately, the problem is recognized and really smart people are trying to help us find reliable news and information. One is Carl Bergstrom, a professor at UW who teaches a class called “Calling Bullshit”. He also happens to be a virologist so he has exceptionally good insights about COVID-19 and the pandemic. I have written about him before. His new book called “Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World” is being published this week. In this article in Scientific American he lays out good resources and reliable writers to key into. Avoid seeking your news on social media, it can lead you astray.

But even many COVID-19 studies have limitations and have only low level or less significant evidence. In the rush to get information out quickly, results are not always vetted as well as they should be. Much of what we see in the news is from “pre-prints”, which are articles that have not yet been reviewed by expert peers, so the data may not be as reliable as ones that have been “peer-reviewed”.

Even the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet is warning about the Infodemic. It is happening worldwide. The research into the Infodemic shows it is often fed by social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others. The Lancet has an editorial called “The Truth Is Out There, Somewhere”. Discerning the truth is challenging, because the false information can be fueled by “bots”, as well as others who don’t have the public good in mind. Plus so many people share without considering the reliability of the data if it confirms a bias of their own. This great article from 2018 in Scientific American explains, and puts into understandable language, how we can be easily fooled or tricked into believing rumors, conspiracy theories, and disinformation because of certain biases we all have. Interesting and informative. The more we understand our vulnerabilities, the better we can guard against attacks and misinformation.

And I leave you with this article from a couple weeks ago by Helen Branswell, a skilled science writer, who lays out honestly what needs to happen to help get the United States back on track. It is both alarming and helpful with advice to stay safe with the bottom line that mask wearing, meeting people outdoors, and having space between you and others are key. We can stay safe by doing that but we are desperately needing better leadership and less disinformation to make things better sooner. We all need to do our part by slowing our spread of new information and vetting it before we share.

Wash your hands, cover your nose, keep safe six. Check your sources.

And finally, my caveat is that this is my experience and my opinions, which are subject to change as more information is available, and not related to the organization I work for. Thanks for reading.