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Allan Maynard, May 18, 2020

The CoVid 19 pandemic presents one of the clearest examples in modern history regarding the critical need for evidence based decision-making. Unfortunately, the presentation of scientific evidence has often been undermined by deadly denial (see paper – on this web site – Deny Delay Deadly), misinformation about the consequences of such denial and even outright wacky conspiracy theories.  As citizens and voters, we need to be vigilant in seeking out the truth by using trusted sources. 

Wacky Conspiracies 

A documentary-style video called ‘Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind COVID-19′ has been removed by social media platforms after peddling potentially dangerous conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic. The documentary features a Dr. Mikovits’, a discredited scientist who states that the coronavirus pandemic was planned. In the video, she claims that the virus was created in a laboratory, that wearing masks actually makes people sick, and that flu vaccines increase people’s odds of contracting COVID-19. No medical or scientific evidence exists to support any of Mikovits’ claims in the video.

An even more whacky conspiracy claims that the pandemic is really caused by the rollout of 5G (high speed -5th Generation Cellular) networks around the world.  Despite there being no scientific links, a number of 5G towers have been set on fire. The 5G conspiracies make no sense whatsoever. The virus is spreading in countries without access to 5G – in other words – the correlation falls apart.

It is indeed a head-scratcher to understand the motivations for such nonsense let alone fathom how these wacky theories gain traction – but they do. And with social media, the false information spreads quickly. Our willingness to share content without thinking is exploited to spread various forms of disinformation.

Lacking Leadership 

It does not help when we have world leaders also peddling misinformation. When the President of the United States promotes unproven drug therapies and even muses about injecting sanitizing chemicals to kill the virus, the implications are worrying. The scientific community is understandably growing increasingly frustrated. This frustration boiled over when, on May 16, the Lancet, perhaps the preeminent international medical journal, took an unprecedented step and published a front page editorial calling on the US administration to properly recognize science and even concluded by stating “Americans must put a president in the White House come January, 2021, who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics.”

The lack of evidence-based leadership in the USA, the UK, Russia, China, Brazil and others has resulted in enhanced infection rates in these and other countries. For example, Brazil, led by a full-on anti-science president, now has more CoVid cases than China. The United States accounts for about 4.25% of the world’s population, but currently has about 29% of the confirmed deaths from the disease.

Information Disorder

What we are dealing with here is a pandemic of information disorder.  It has sprouted a whole new area of investigation in how lies originate and spread. Generally, the language commonly used to discuss misinformation problems can be too simplistic. Effective research and interventions require clear definitions, yet many people use the problematic phrase “fake news.” Used by politicians around the world to attack a free press, the term is dangerous. Recent research shows that audiences increasingly connect it with the mainstream media. It is often used as a catchall to describe things that are not the same, including lies, rumours, hoaxes, misinformation, conspiracies and propaganda, but it also papers over nuance and complexity.

The 3 main categories of untruths is well presented in a paper by Clare Wardle in Scientific American entitled “Misinformation Has Created A New World Disorder” The following schematic is from this article.

Most of what we are dealing with in the context of the science associated with CoVid 19 crisis and in the push back against climate change science is mainly that overlapping area in the circles of misinformation and disinformation. 

Understanding the motives for the lies

For the most part, the misinformation and disinformation can be understood in terms of the motives of those initiating the falsehoods. Withstanding the wacky conspiracy theories the motivations regarding the falsehoods by politicians are not all that difficult to discern. 

Initially – the motivations were all about money. The denial or initial downplaying of the CoVid crisis by a number of leaders (USA, UK, Russia, China, Brazil, Italy and more) is well documented and for certain linked to a determination to protect markets. See paper on this web site – Denial, Delay, Deadly. Of course we all know now that the denial strategy backfired.

Now that the virus has spread around the world, the motivation for the spread of misinformation and disinformation is to distract and even cover-up mistakes that were made and also to offer optimism even though not backed up by science.  A few examples:

  • The world cup of testing – an example of exaggeration. You would think in watching the news that testing rates is now an international competition. Donald Trump has falsely stated a number of times that the US has done more testing than any other country. His latest  – more than twice as much testing as all other countries combined. This is not even remotely true. Moreover, it’s irrelevant. The correct metric is tests per capita and the US is improving but still is not doing enough. (Some numbers – US – 36,000 tests per million population, Canada – about the same, Italy 50,000, Denmark – 80,000). Most scientists point to Denmark as the benchmark to attain or even exceed. 
  • Miracle cures – an example of wishful thinking – Despite cautions by medical experts, there has been a dangerous promotion by many in politics citing so called evidence that malaria drugs can treat the CoVid virus. This caused a major run on supplies creating dangerous shortages in some countries. Results from a number of studies, including the first randomized controlled trial, are providing further evidence that the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine may not help COVID-19 patients and in fact can cause premature deaths from heart problems. 
  • Origin of CoVid 19 – an example of the blame game. China and Russia initially blamed the USA. The Trump administration has continued to claim the virus came from a lab in Wuhan although it has recently backed off this stance. The evidence strongly suggests the source of the corona virus is bats. A new University of California study finds that bats have a fierce immune response to viral infections, which likely causes the viruses to replicate more rapidly. 

These are only 3 examples – there are many more especially in other crises such as climate change. It is disconcerting to see how these lies spread and even more so, how they are blindly believed. But, in many ways it’s not surprising. Social scientists and propagandists have long known that humans are wired to respond to emotional triggers and share misinformation if it reinforces existing beliefs and prejudices. The success of the purveyors of falsehoods also relies on people’s cognitive dissonance – when someone feels genuine mental discomfort when confronted with a view that upends their viewpoint or belief system. So – an alternative story winds up being believed even if lacking in facts. 

No government could have been completely ready for the pandemic, but taking the public for fools is destroying trust. The truth is out there if we are willing to dig – using fact-check sites, listening to medical experts and trusting our own instincts not be fooled by bullshit even if it appears profound.