Combating coronavirus misinformation

One of the most common questions we've heard during the pandemic has been how to navigate the good science from the junk.

This is a big concern for Humanists, who value science and evidence, so I'll do my best to provide some pointers that I use when browsing the news.

My first source for information has been Public Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry's daily briefings. These can be livestreamed from the Government of BC's Facebook page.

In each presentation she starts with the latest data - how many new cases have been detected, how many people are in hospital and how many have died. She also provides any additional new orders and touches on a different theme. For example, today focused on the fact it's been 100 days since BC issued its first warning about the novel coronavirus. She's generally followed by Health Minister Adrian Dix who provides a bit more policy update.

Dr Henry's frequent advice - be kind, be calm, be safe - is a Humanist motto for our times.

Additionally, the BC Centre for Disease Control has a wealth of information, including self-assessment tools if you are worried about symptoms. There's no shortage of information there.

Beyond the official voices, there is a lot of great information out there but picking it apart from the more disreputable sources. This is where tips like Carl Sagan's baloney detection kit, from The Demon-Haunted World come in handy:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  • If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations.
  • If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  • Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified…. You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

Many of the major skeptical organizations have turned their attention to coronavirus misinformation, such as Science-Based Medicine's recent analysis of the claims around hydroxychloronique. Along those lines, we encourage you to check out Viral Transmissions every Sunday evening.

Finally, writing in the prestigious journal Nature, Timothy Caulfield, the Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, implores the scientific community to "stop tolerating and legitimizing health pseudoscience, especially at universities and health-care institutions" and for researchers to "become active participants in the fight against misinformation." Notably, here in BC we've challenged the recognition of medical regulatory colleges that aren't based on evidence-based medicine.

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