Health and Healthcare Systems

How to read the news like a scientist and avoid the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’

A woman wearing a protective face mask reads a newspaper as she walks in a street on the deserted Ile Saint Louis in Paris as a lockdown is imposed to slow the rate of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in France, March 18, 2020.  REUTERS/Christian Hartmann - RC2AMF9F0BT8

Conspiracy theories and rumours have also gone viral in the time of coronavirus. Image: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Alice Hazelton
Programme Lead, Science and Society, World Economic Forum
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Last week I returned home from a month-long trip during which – shock horror! – I was without an internet connection.

As if coming back to the reality of a global pandemic wasn’t enough to process, I was also bombarded by WhatsApp messages on the supposed risks of taking Ibuprofen and Facebook posts telling me to drink warm water to keep the virus away. And even though these messages and posts were well-intentioned – this type of information dissemination is anything but helpful.

As the SARS-CoV-2 virus – more popularly known as COVID-19 – has spread around the globe, conspiracy theories and rumours have also gone viral on social media platforms and other outlets. As World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus rightly said in February, “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”.

Have you read?

Finding reliable information in the digital age is already challenging enough, even more so during a global pandemic when fake news, misinformation and hyperbole are rife. This is a once in a generation, perhaps even once in a lifetime event for many of us, so it’s a time when I feel grateful that I am trained in science communication and therefore equipped to see through the sensational headlines and bogus science stories.

Here are my tips to help you do the same.

Embracing uncertainty – responsibly

This virus was only identified in December 2019, so there has been little time to investigate it properly, let alone conduct large-scale randomised controlled trials or peer review so there is still a great deal we don’t fully understand about COVID-19.

Add to this that the fact that science itself is a process that takes time and sometimes studies will present contradictory evidence (which is okay). Any good science journalist will endeavour to give you the most accurate representation of which way the evidence is swaying but would caution against making statements such as “scientific evidence proves that…” so be sceptical of anything that makes such claims.

Where’s the information coming from?

Many people write about science, or information related to science, but not everyone who does has been trained how to properly evaluate evidence, interpret jargon or report on statistics in the way that some specialist science journalists have. Stay mindful that information from the original source (most likely a research study) could have been reinterpreted, modified and even ignored altogether depending on the point the person writing wants to get across.

If you can find a reference or link to the original research in the story you are reading then it’s probably a good sign that the person writing it actually understands or has questioned the original work. Depending on the nature of the claim, you should check whether it’s also being reported in other media outlets. Chances are that if it really is a “breakthrough” discovery then many other outlets will be reporting the same thing. If it’s a lone WhatsApp message with a certain claim with no evidence, then you should think twice.

Who’s backing up the claim?

Ideally, reports of new scientific research should include comments from the study authors as well as an independent comment from someone in a related discipline who was not involved in the work. That’s not always the case though, and just because someone is a scientist doesn’t mean that they’re qualified to comment on the work as they may not have had training or experience in that specific topic area.

During the COVID-19 pandemic there’s been a lot of “I’m not a virologist or epidemiologist but…” so be aware of scientists in unrelated disciplines being elevated to positions of authority. Other questions to ask yourself are whether the quoted sources have a conflict of interest or stand to benefit in any way from what they’re saying. Are they affiliated with an organisation that could be swaying them to comment one way or another?

Applying the above lenses to anything you read or share could help you to discern what sources you should trust and those you shouldn’t, and even when well-known authoritative outlets over-exaggerate scientific findings or misinterpret them.

Of course, there is plenty of great reporting out there, especially during what is a complex and fast-moving situation. Many of us wouldn’t be aware of the risk that COVID-19 could overwhelm our lives and livelihoods without the power of journalism. Even with the above in mind, if you’re unsure of where to turn or what to share, be sure to check out the World Health Organization website as a trusted source of evidence-based information.

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