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The perils of knowledge in a pandemic

Fake news and pseudoscience during a pandemic is a moral issue we’re all responsible for.

20 03 33.pigliccui.ata

Misinformation is rife during a pandemic. We all have a personal moral responsibility to counteract fake news and false claims. To protect ourselves and our loved ones, we must diligently examine the information we choose to share. 

Did you know that black people are naturally immune from the COVID-19 virus? It's actually not true, but it is one of many instances of conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and fake news that are accompanying our experience of the most frightening pandemic of the early 21st century. That particular piece of misinformation -- with its obvious racist overtones -- was put to rest by a number of media outlets, including a NBC article on March 19th, which also commented on false assertions that there are no cases of COVID-19 in Africa. To dispel that bit of nonsense, just take a look at this map put out by Johns Hopkins University. Indeed, NBA player Rudy Gobert, who is a Frenchman of Caribbean heritage, tested positive for the virus. You know what else is false? That singer Keri Nelson got COVID-19 by way of her 5G cellular phone, an assertion debunked by the HuffPost on March 16th.

It is also not the case that Chinese medicine (ah, the irony!) can treat the infection, as explained in a detailed article on MedicineNet. The Chinese government has put out misleading information that traditional medicine can protect against COVID-19 or alleviate its symptoms, part of a broader political campaign of misinformation that has been going on for years. The Chinese news agency Xinhua published an article stating that Qingfei Paidu soup, which is made of ephedra and licorice root, has been effective in treating hundreds of patients. Needless to say, there is no independent evidence, or peer-reviewed published paper, to back up this claim. As the MedicineNet article puts it: "Reports about traditional Chinese Medicine's effectiveness against COVID-19 from Chinese government-linked news agencies are suspect. Statistics appear in news stories without context or methodology, and these news agencies tend to follow the government-controlled narrative." So you really shouldn't believe them.

The misinformation about COVID-19 goes beyond the usual pseudoscience culprits, though, to encompass politically-motivated conspiracy theories.

Homeopaths, of course, have also gotten into the fray. The UK homeopathic community provides us with the following entirely fictional advice: "Homeopathic medicines have been used extensively for flu-like symptoms and in epidemics around the world. If you decide to take a homeopathic medicine, this should be in addition to the various measures outlined above [washing hands and the like] and should not be your only approach. Selection of the most appropriate homeopathic medicine is based on an individual’s unique symptoms. However, Gelsemium 30c and Bryonia 30c are commonly used for flu-like symptoms and have a long-established, traditional usage over many years." Importantly, the text adds that: "Homeopathic options can form one part of your approach to the current Covid-19 outbreak but should always be used alongside other measures." The other measures better be used, since homeopathic remedies do absolutely nothing, outside of creating placebo effects.

Along similar lines, HomeoCare International, based in India, unhelpfully tells us that "The AYUSH ministry has issued a health advisory and recommended that homeopathic medicines could be effective in the prevention of novel coronavirus (nCoV) infections... It has recommended that homeopathic medicine Arsenicum album 30 could be taken on an empty stomach daily for three days as a prophylactic medicine against the infection. The dose should be repeated after one month by following the same schedule in case the nCoV infection prevails in the community." Notice the unimpeachable phrase "could be effective," which is standard pseudoscientific lingo for "we have no evidence, but what the heck, try it and send us some money." Arsenicum album 30, by the way, is made of the highly toxic arsenic trioxide. But don't worry, the "30" in the name above means that it is diluted 30 times. Which comes down to an average of zero molecules of the stuff in the homeopathic pill. You'd just be buying an expensive bit of sugar and water.

Not to be outdone, chiropractors jumped in as well. An article in Science Based Medicine reports that some chiropractors are claiming that spinal adjustments both boost the immune system (something that simply cannot be done) and protect against COVID-19 (which is not true). Chiropractors make these unfounded assertions on the basis of their unscientific understanding of the human nervous system, which is not susceptible to interruptions of “nerve energy” between the brain and the rest of the body. Because there is no such thing as nerve energy.

In an excellent, fact-based article on COVID-19, Steve Novella mentions that "of course there is also rank pseudoscience taking advantage of the fear and ignorance about COVID-19 and science and medicine in general. Many of the familiar snake oils are making the rounds, such as colloidal silver. This is a dangerous product that should not be taken internally, and there is no evidence it is effective against any infection."

Fake news presents a moral issue. We all, collectively, share the ethical responsibility.

The misinformation about COVID-19 goes beyond the usual pseudoscience culprits, though, to encompass politically-motivated conspiracy theories. Jerry Falwell Jr., the President of the evangelical Liberty University, recently suggested that North Korea and China actually purposely created the virus in order to get back at the West, and the United States in particular. This despite the fact that China has had, at the time of this writing, over 81,000 cases and more than 3,000 recorded deaths. Predictably, the hosts of "Fox and Friends" did not contradict Falwell, who in the same interview speculated: "It makes you wonder if there’s a political reason for [the media hype]. It’s — you know, impeachment didn’t work, and the Mueller Report didn’t work, and Article 25 [likely a reference to the 25th Amendment of the US Constitution] didn’t work. And so maybe now, this is their next — their next attempt to get Trump." Only a paranoid ignoramus could make that "argument." But the interview got a lot of views on Fox.

Even some scientists are not immune from the craze. An article that appeared on March 18th in International Business Times, reported a "theory" by astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe to the effect that COVID-19 came from outer space, specifically, a comet that approached Earth (and more particularly, China) last October. Graham Lau, from NASA’s Astrobiology Institute -- quoted in the article -- commented that Wickramasinghe hasn’t provided any evidence for his extraordinary claim. Nor, I'll bet you dollar to donut, is any such evidence forthcoming.

A major source of fake news about COVID-19 is social media, of course, and particularly messaging apps like WhatsApp. An article by the Australian ABC comments about the personal battle being fought by Doug MacFarlane, a researcher on the psychology of health misinformation at the University of Western Australia, within his own family WhatsApp group. One of his relatives, for instance, shared a video in which someone suggested that blowing a hair dryer up your nose could kill any virus, including the one that causes the common cold. This is neither true nor advisable.

Interestingly, scientists have been studying the viral (metaphorically speaking) spread of fake news. Before the onset of COVID-19, Julii Brainard and Paul Hunter published a paper in the Transactions of the Society for Modelling and Simulation International, entitled "Misinformation making a disease outbreak worse: outcomes compared for influenza, monkeypox, and norovirus." They built what is known as an agent-based simulation model to test recently proposed strategies to counter misinformation. They found that "Reducing harmful advice from 50% to 40% of circulating information, or making at least 20% of the population unable to share or believe harmful advice, mitigated the influence of bad advice in the disease outbreak outcomes."

Another study, conducted by the same authors in collaboration with Ian Hall, was published in the East of England Public Health Conference under the title, "An agent-based model about the effects of fake news on a norovirus outbreak." The authors write that "Strategies to counter 'fake' health news were tested. A 10% reduction in circulating bad advice or making at least 20% of people fully resistant to believing in and sharing bad health advice were effective thresholds to counteract the negative impacts of bad advice during a norovirus outbreak."

These two studies are good news, in a limited fashion, but they put the onus on media organizations, social media, and every single one of us, to counter health and other kinds of misinformation. This brings me to my main point: fake news -- particularly, but not only, in the case of health matters -- present a moral issue. I believe we all, collectively, share the ethical responsibility to: (a) inform ourselves before we forward or endorse any alleged piece of information; and (b) counter others when they, wittingly or not, spread misinformation.

We can and should do something about misinformation, particularly during a pandemic, when people are vulnerable to false claims because of fear or anxiety.

The first task requires effort and due diligence. The second one can be uncomfortable, especially when the purveyors of nonsense are our own relatives and friends. We need, in other words, to turn ourselves into virtue epistemologists. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with questions of knowledge. The term "virtue" here comes from an analogy with virtue ethics, an approach to living embodied by the philosophies of Aristotle, Epicurus, Confucius, and the Stoics, among others.

Virtue ethics focuses on taking responsibility for and improving one's own character. Analogously, virtue epistemology focuses on taking responsibility for and improving one's own reliability as a purveyor of information. Epistemic virtues include conscientiousness, discernment, honesty, humility, parsimony (in evaluating proposed explanations), and warrant (as in: I have good reasons and evidence for that claim). Conversely, epistemic vices comprise close-mindedness, dogmatism, gullibility, and self-deception.

The problem is that we all have a tendency to recognize ourselves in the first group of characteristics, and to use the second set of attributes to label those we disagree with. This response is only human, but we can and should do something about it, particularly during a pandemic, when people are vulnerable to false claims because of fear or anxiety. For instance, make a handy guide of the following questions, and pose them to yourself the next time you are about to retweet something, or to intervene in a discussion online or (when the time will again be propitious for that) in person:

(i) Did I carefully consider the other person's arguments without dismissing them out of hand?

(ii) Did I interpret what the other person said in the most charitable way possible before mounting a response?

(iii) Did I seriously entertain the possibility that I may be wrong? Or am I too blinded by my own preconceptions?

(iv) Am I an expert on this matter? If not, did I consult experts, or did I just conjure my own unfounded opinion?

(v) Did I check the reliability of my own sources, or just Google whatever was convenient to throw at my interlocutor?

(vi) After having done my research, do I actually know what I'm talking about, or am I simply repeating someone else's opinion without really understanding it?

As always in virtue ethics, the practice focuses on change within ourselves. We must take personal responsibility to carefully consider what we believe and not to spread misinformation that might potentially harm others.  During this global crisis, let's do our best to be well-informed and safe. The two are so highly correlated, I'll bet they have a causal connection.

See big ideas like this one debated live at the IAI’s online festival, HowTheLightGetsIn Global between September 19-20. Hundreds of events live-streamed from London, Delhi and New York, featuring the biggest thinkers in philosophy, science, politics, the arts and economics. Find out more here.
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