Becoming a More Responsible Consumer of Health and Science News in the Age of COVID-19
A perspective from Julia Soplop
There’s nothing funny about COVID-19. But it’s a little funny that in any crisis, we suddenly think we’ve become relevant experts based on our few-days-worth of news consumption. As a hurricane approaches, we become meteorologists. The wind speed just shifted over the threshold. Now it’s a Cat 5! When an earthquake rattles us, we become seismologists. There’s a 10 percent chance that was just the foreshock, people! And now we’re finding that in the midst of a pandemic, we’re quickly becoming epidemiologists and infectious diseases experts. Who needs a PhD or MD and tons of experience researching and modeling disease spread to figure out what’s going on? Not me!
In crisis situations, many of us tend to suffer from a touch—or full-blown case—of the Dunning-Kruger effect, meaning we overestimate our competence. Many people also overestimate the competence of low-quality information sources that call themselves “news” but don’t report from an evidence-based perspective.
They’re overblowing it. (Said no legitimate epidemiologist on the planet.) It’s the same as the flu. (Said no one who understands the function of a decimal point or how to read a number off a piece of paper.) If I just stay six feet away from other people, there’s no way I can get the virus. (Said no one who understands how little we know about a virus that has been infecting humans for maybe three months and on which we have very little data.)
We can’t afford to go Dunning-Kruger on COVID-19.
So please. I beg of you. Be responsible consumers of health and science news. Don’t overestimate your competence. And understand that guidelines are continuously changing as more data emerges.
I’ve been out of the science writing game for a while, but my professional training is in medical journalism. (I’m not a medical professional or health sciences researcher.) I’d like to share some things with you that I’ve learned along the way about finding the most reliable sources of health-related information.
GO DIRECTLY TO THE SOURCE
If you’re wondering how we can still know so little about COVID-19 and why guidelines are rapidly changing, let me put the virus’ novelty in perspective. My daughter is allergic to peanuts. A few years ago, she participated in an oral immunotherapy clinical study to desensitize her to peanuts, meaning she started to eat miniscule bits of peanuts each day, then built up that amount over time to be able to tolerate some peanut exposure without reacting to it. The principle investigator of her study pioneered the field of immunotherapy for peanut allergies, beginning about 10-15 years ago. This field of study is still considered young. Just about every time I asked my daughter’s study team a question about her reactions or the long-term impacts of daily exposure to something she’s deathly allergic to, the answer was, “We don’t know,” or “We’re not sure yet.”
COVID-19 has been active in humans for maybe three months. We can expect a lot of “We don’t knows” and “We’re not sure yets” in the coming months from the most respected researchers out there. The patients in China are the first study subjects. The patients in Italy are the first study subjects. Some of us will become the first study subjects.
So how are public officials developing guidelines to help slow the spread of COVID-19 with limited information?
Science is the process of building evidence to develop a clearer and clearer understanding of how something works. The science around COVID-19 itself is very, very young. Researchers aren’t starting from scratch, though. Data on related diseases, such as SARS, another strain of coronavirus; extensive modeling of previous epidemics and pandemics; and increasing data on the spread, mortality rates, and effects on health care systems in countries that are months or weeks ahead of us all contribute to our understanding of COVID-19.
The best available evidence shows us that COVID-19 is extremely dangerous. As the evidence we collect grows and creates a sharper overall picture, we can expect guidelines for our health and safety to change.
The best we can do is to ignore that Dunning-Kruger-infected neighbor in Florida who says COVID-19 is no big deal and go directly to the sources that collect data, model disease spread, and conduct other research on the disease:
Local health departments
This list is not exhaustive; I’m just including some of the journals that have already published important COVID-19 articles. We can expect many more articles soon in many more publications. If you can’t access the full journal article, you will almost always be able to access the abstract. Look at the numbers. Look at the limitations. Look at the conclusions.
New England Journal of Medicine
CHOOSE RELIABLE SOURCES FOR SCIENCE NEWS
Newspapers and magazines can help us contextualize studies. When people complain about “the media,” it’s a dead giveaway that they’ve chosen to consume low-quality sources of information. If you consume poor excuses for journalism, that’s on you. By clicking an article from a low-quality source—even out of morbid curiosity—you’re supporting that publication financially through advertising dollars. (Also, in case it needs to be said, “the media” isn’t a thing. It’s not one entity that acts in concert.)
We’re fortunate in this country to have a free press, which is a cornerstone of democracy. (Democracies don’t function without watchdogs.) But in the digital age, a free press means that alongside serious publications, anyone can throw up a virtual shingle and calls themselves a news source. Back away from the clickbait your helpful high school friend posted on Facebook that actually came from a Russian troll farm. Turn off the TV. (I always recommend reading your news if you can. An article usually offers much more nuance and contextualization than a 20-second TV piece that you didn’t quite catch but now feel confident talking about with anyone who will listen.) Back away from sources that don’t try to operate from an evidence-based perspective. (Good science reporting stems from data.)
Solid, seasoned health and science reporters work to pick apart scientific studies, watch for shoddy study designs, examine the data and analyses, dig around for limitations, be skeptical of overly stated implications, identify conflicts of interest, and ask the right people the right questions to figure out what studies really means. They work to translate statistics into digestible language for the non-scientists and non-mathematicians among us. In the case of COVID-19, their articles should be full of qualifying statements, like, “given the available data,” rather than bold, unqualified, definitive assertions.
Below are some sources often recognized for their reliable reporting on health and science news. (This list is not exhaustive. Some are free. Some have dropped paywalls for COVID-19 coverage.)
Will they get every story right every time? No. Reporters are obviously only human. Will their reporting evolve with new evidence? Yes. Is an epidemiologist who is trying desperately to figure out how to curb the spread of the disease more likely to take the call of a reporter from a reputable news source than a non-evidenced-based outlet when getting 100 calls a day in a moment of crisis? Yes.
The New York Times (Science section)
NPR (Health & Science sections)
BBC (Science section)
FiveThirtyEight (Fantastic for contextualizing statistics)
UNDERSTAND THIS PANDEMIC ENDANGERS YOUR LIFE, EVEN IF YOU’RE YOUNG AND HEALTHY
If we don’t “flatten the curve,” we can expect to experience the same health care system overwhelm that Italy is experiencing right now. I’m seeing pleas for everyone to participate in social distancing for the good of the community, particularly for the elderly and chronically ill. But I get that many people don’t ever operate for the good of the community.
So I’d like to shift that conversation a bit. Even if you care nothing for the elderly and chronically ill among us, you need to social distance for selfish reasons. We all become vulnerable if we don’t slow the spread of the disease, even if we never contract it ourselves or develop complications from it, for this reason: if the health care system becomes overwhelmed and you get in a car accident or experience an unrelated medical emergency, there may be no medical professional or medical equipment (think ventilators) to keep you alive. This isn’t a hoax. It’s isn’t theoretical. We’re watching it play out in other countries right now.
And if your personal health doesn’t motivate you to act responsibly, maybe your wallet does? Have you noticed any fluctuations in the stock market lately? Have you noticed any other signs the economy could take a nose dive if we don’t contain the pandemic soon and get people back to work?
CONTINUOUSLY EDUCATE YOURSELF THROUGH RELIABLE SOURCES AND DON’T SPREAD HOGWASH
This entire piece is a plea to act responsibly in this difficult and confusing time. Please go to direct sources for updates. For further contextualization, please consume only reliable news sources that base their reporting on the best available evidence. Please understand that we need to act on the best available evidence at any given time, even if that evidence is slim. Please understand that increasing data will cause public health guidelines to change continuously over the coming months, and you will need to change your own behaviors accordingly. Please try to stave off the Dunning-Kruger effect, people. (Really.) And please, please don’t spread hogwash.
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