Science v misinformation: A battle for public health

27 Apr 2020

Image: © Мария Кокулина/

The Covid-19 pandemic is also a science communication crisis, and misinformation is too often gaining the upper hand, writes Elaine Burke.

Trump. Bleach. Dettol. Covidiots. This is just a snapshot of the words that were trending on Twitter after a world leader suggested that injecting disinfectant might be a good remedy for Covid-19.

US president Donald Trump now says his comments were made “sarcastically” as a “test” on reporters (specifically, the “extraordinarily hostile… fake news media”).

It may be more than a coincidence that advertisements on Facebook have reportedly been making similar suggestions to those made by Trump. It’s quite possible these aren’t serious either, but rather than an effort to entrap the media in some bizarre game, they appear to be intended to harm people who are in a state of pandemic panic.

But dismissing Trump or anyone who believes in the fallacies they come across online as idiots is a hopeless response. It’s not nearly as cruel as tormenting these people with content meant to harm them, but it isn’t going to help anyone either.

No matter what your estimation of someone’s intellect, it won’t change their mind or their level of influence. If you can bear to watch the full three minutes of Trump’s row-back on his initial bleach comments, you will see a man unfettered by anyone else’s opinions on his intelligence or otherwise.

He is impervious to insult because to insult him is to be against him and to be against him is to be wrong. Donald Trump does not live in a world of questioning, of trial and error, of challenging a firmly held hypothesis, of reasonable debate. He does not live in a world of science.

The age of misinformation

Where the ancient philosophers knew only that they knew nothing, Trump seemingly already knows everything that’s worth knowing, no matter what the moment. Even when he is wrong, he is right. This reckoning of the world is an immovable object laughing in the face of the unstoppable force of logic.

Trump is not alone in this way of operating. There are many like him, and they have their own followings. Key to the practice is a kind of mental gymnastics that favours all arguments in support of your own position and dismisses any in opposition.

In the case of online conspiracy theorists, in particular, this may take the form of a selective paranoia, whereby their fearful theories of mass manipulation from chemtrails or 5G or China or whatever are often broadcast on platforms notably charged with building and auctioning off the means of mass manipulation.

It’s also helpful to these people that, in the age of information, confirmation bias is easy. Google anything you want to find an argument for and you will find it. (Yes, pseudoscience is available in as much pick-and-mix abundance online as porn.)

‘It’s now hard to have a reasonable discussion online without inviting outlandish commentary invoking pseudoscience, conspiracy and – very often – xenophobia’

Right now, we are all very online – including the conspiracy theorists, the science deniers and those who just want to create havoc with misinformation. And they are all weighing in on discussions that weren’t always confined to a searchable digitised matrix. Legitimate concerns are now aired online in a space that is also becoming ever more crowded with crackpot theories.

It’s now hard to have a reasonable discussion about the implications of international 5G infrastructure owned by a single private entity, the environmental impacts of renewable energy projects, or even the rights and health of migrant workers travelling across Europe to maintain food supply without inviting outlandish commentary invoking pseudoscience, conspiracy and – very often – xenophobia.

Science communication breakdown

Because we write about the cutting edge of science and technology, we frequently run up against these people. We’ve received emails and phone calls ranging from curious to confused to paranoid. We’ve even had the odd threat, but nothing we’ve ever taken seriously.

Our job, in the face of this, is to walk a fine line between addressing gaps in knowledge that lead to this irrational thinking without adding fuel to the fire. (A little insight into Silicon Republic’s site analytics from the past month: old stories on 5G are seeing a lot of traffic. We’re even aware of traffic coming from particular conspiracy-minded online groups to stories we’ve done on Keeling’s. Make of that what you will, but please don’t make it a conspiracy.)

When Donald Trump’s disinfection comments were shared on broadcast news, they were followed up with expert comment that, unfortunately, didn’t strike me as very effective. The debunking was too implicit, assuming an audience with concrete sensibilities – but I don’t think those foundations are holding up the way they used to.

What’s more, a panicking public is a vulnerable one, and some are going against their better judgement in an effort to protect themselves. Even before Trump’s now infamous suggestion, a study from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that calls to the country’s poison hotlines had increased due to widespread misuse of cleaners and disinfectants.

In the midst of all this, the scientific community needs to effectively communicate public health advice that can sometimes seem contradictory. Concerns are now arising that present overuse or misuse of cleaning products and hand sanitisers could lead to an increase in antimicrobial-resistant bacterial species in future. The great ‘masks for all’ debate is one that weighs heavily on the challenge of communication as masks themselves are varied, their correct and effective use is extremely specific, and their presence is known to introduce the risk of a false sense of security among the general public.

Now, more than ever, the challenge of effective science communication has huge implications on public health and the consequences of failing are dire. Just look at a recent Irish study that found interest in the uptake of a possible Covid-19 vaccine “worryingly low”.

‘Even if you only partly understand the scientific reason why you shouldn’t inject yourself with bleach, you should still be 100pc certain that it’s a bad idea’

When it comes to communicating basic scientific principles to a broad public, we must remember that the greatest pitfall in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. Each member of the public will bring their own misinterpretation, their own misunderstanding and their own mistakes to the conversation. But even if you only partly understand the scientific reason why you shouldn’t inject yourself with bleach, you should still be 100pc certain that it’s a bad idea.

All we can rely on is a kind of information-based herd immunity. We must disseminate the good science as best we can, allow it to proliferate and hope that some semblance of sensibility gets through. It won’t create an impenetrable barrier but, like so much PPE, it will protect us from a vast proportion of harmful invaders.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.