Home  /  Provocations

Science misinformation kills! Can we get a vaccine for that?

Adrienne Chan
Written By
Adrienne Chan
Science misinformation kills! Can we get a vaccine for that?
Artwork by Louise Pau

While the world has been combating the global COVID-19 pandemic, something far more sinister was lurking underneath, what the World Health Organisation termed, “a massive infodemic”.

Scientists fitted mathematical models around how information was spreading amidst the COVID-19 pandemic as one would model viral spreading. All social media platforms in the study (Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, and Gab) yielded a reproduction number (R0) of over 1. Simply put, in infectious diseases, a R0 greater than 1 implies that each existing infection causes more than one new infection and there may be a pandemic. The same study also found that ratios of engagement with posts from unreliable to reliable sources range from 0.35 to 3.9, suggesting that some platforms are more susceptible to misinformation dissemination.

Cultivating our scientific minds is in itself the best vaccine to counter the current COVID-19 infodemic. It requires us to maintain information resilience while holding realistic expectations towards our relationship with science. Here are a few points to remember when interpreting and sharing scientific information.

One. Science in daily life is quite different from what we learnt at school.  

To digest scientific information, we must first establish a fundamental understanding of how science works. Science is a continuous process to which we ask relevant questions and find evidence to support or contradict what we expect. Science should be testable and in fact revisable when warranted by strong evidence. No matter how much news outlets want us to, we should not be satisfied with sensational single studies. Be patient and draw conclusions from replicated findings.

Two. Those words that are not part of the headline? They are there for a reason.

Often social media has programmed us to reduce study findings into over-hyped one-liners like a tweet, or a caption. When in reality, hypothesis testing in science is extremely specific and only applied to the subject being studied. Always read the full study article and avoid over-generalising what the title says.

Three. The authors who wrote the article? Find out who they are.

Information is meant to be disseminated and interpreted by the public and especially so in the post-truth era.

Each individual is going to assert their own meanings and emotions to such information as it reaches a wider audience.

Conscious and unconscious biases are everywhere, so the key is to identify who wrote the article and why they wrote the article.

Four. You could be a super spreader! Sanitise before you share.

Just like any infectious disease, it is all about breaking the transmission chain. In a two-part study, scientists found that 32.4% more participants were willing to share false headlines than rated them as accurate. Following that, they found that participants who had gone through the first part, that is having experienced an accuracy nudge, were 2.8 times more likely to consider accuracy when deciding whether to share when compared to participants who didn’t participate in Study 1.

As Charles Dickens put it in 1859, not so far from the diphtheria crisis of 1856, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. It is now upon us to decide if misinformation will continue to claim lives in the 21st century.