Mon 18 January 2021

Our Secret Scientist looks why Coronavirus conspiracy theories have gone viral, and suggests new ways we can vaccinate ourselves against disinformation.

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In the last few weeks, I have been inundated with conspiracy videos, articles, tweets, and messages. These variously portray the COVID-19 pandemic as anything from a side-effect of 5G to a geopolitical “deep-state” ploy for a global state and vaccination programme. They have also suggested the virus is curable by anything from Madagascan herbal concoctions to healing microbes in the ocean.  It is a worry  when usually sensible people start sharing them, and conspiracy theorists make their way onto the amazon best-selling list as a result.

We are now dealing not only with a pandemic, but also with an “infodemic” and the two are inextricably linked. Dealing with the pandemic depends on trust and cooperation but it’s becoming hard to decide which is the bigger threat — the virus itself or viral misinformation – particularly as protests are beginning to break out in the US and the UK.

Scientific Consensus is S L O W

The plain realities of science do not lend themselves well to sensationalist slogans and bold claims. We only ever have the peer-reviewed scientific consensus, which is riddled with uncertainty and constantly challenged. To succeed in shifting the consensus, challengers must convince thousands of other scientific experts worldwide of their interpretation of the data that leads to their personal conclusions. The shift usually occurs when other independent scientists are able to independently verify the conclusions using a variety of different techniques.

The burden of proof is always on the consensus challenger, but for the consensus to shift, others must corroborate the proof. For that reason, science is self-correcting in a way that conspiracy theories are not. Scientists do not get to have their own version of the scientific consensus. It prevails until successfully shifted. This offers a degree of immunity, if you will, against ‘confirmation bias’ being the human tendency to favour the science that suits one’s ideology and worldview.

Scientific consensus surrounding COVID-19 is emerging; it is a viral infectious disease with significant risk of morbidity and mortality. Scientists are overwhelmingly in favour of preventative public health interventions, with the degree of intervention under debate as the pandemic progresses and new data emerge. This is an example of ever-evolving self-correcting science in action.

There is already enough excess mortality data in the UK and worldwide to put the notion that COVID-19 is simply an overreporting issue firmly to bed. Fewer people are exposing themselves to certain risks, and at this early stage of the pandemic, this may balance out against deaths related to the effects of lockdown and other mitigation strategies.

During a pandemic, the speed with which scientific publications are emerging is a concern.  It  is easy for onlookers to lose sight of the consensus, particularly when emerging science is hitting the headlines like never before.  This means the all-important nuance and balance is lost.

This is amplified when news outlets and politicians quote and interpret pre-prints, i.e. articles uploaded prior to peer-review, a practice that scientists ought to actively discourage. Pre-prints are invaluable for the scientists in the relevant field who can evaluate them and appreciate the nuances, but dangerous when others draw conclusions based upon them.

 It doesn’t help that many peer-reviewed articles can only be obtained on payment and are tricky to access for the general public. There has been a push towards more open access publishing in recent years, but there is a long way to go. The overall result is a picture in which there is little signal, and a lot of noise.

How COVID-19 Conspiracies Spread

Adding to the noise are the COVID-19 consensus-challenging claims and conspiracy theories. The human psyche is drawn to in-group vs. out-group narratives, and causal explanations that involve intention are favoured above those that involve coincidence. Add to that a climate in which there is social isolation, fear, uncertainty about the future, a lack of government transparency, along with a reliance on social-media for news, information, and entertainment and you have a perfect breeding ground for conspiracies.

The claims invariably involve a layer of truth, along with the suggestion that there is a deeper, secret truth on offer that powerful elitist “villains“ don’t want you to hear.  The “villains” in the claims I’ve seen include various elite institutions and individuals, such as Big Pharma and Bill Gates. Putting the science aside is where the layer of truth becomes apparent. Bill Gates is widely known as a wealthy tech titan, suddenly on a platform as an authority on health, pouring money into vaccine development.  Big pharma has an inherent and unsolvable conflict of interest between private enterprise and public health and is joining the vaccine development effort. Immediately, a credible and alluring narrative is set-up in which “villains” are seen to gain from the misery of others.

The pharmaceutical market is however valued at $1.2 trillion, with the vaccine market accounting for only $27 billion of that — a very small proportion. The importance of vaccines to Big Pharma and Bill Gates as a money-making mechanism is thus vastly exaggerated. There is far more money to be made in other therapeutics (e.g. for chronic and lifelong conditions) and the money invested in vaccines is at considerable risk.

Although publicly funded independent scientists at universities they have played and continue to play a vital role in the global scientific effort against COVID-19, they do not fit neatly into the in-group out-group narratives of conspiracies, and so are rarely acknowledged and conveniently left out of them. 

Why Monopolies on Truth may be Counter-productive

The official response of many major social-media platforms has been to censor and remove consensus-challenging content that is deemed to be dangerous misinformation. I understand the reason, but given that it feeds directly into the narrative that powerful villains wish to silence the truth, I feel conflicted as to whether it is the right approach.

In an ideal world, we would have a representative and balanced debate, in which multiple views are heard alongside the scientific consensus, with the distinction between theory (i.e. speculation) and evidence (i.e. data) made explicit. I don’t believe in shutting down free-speech or no-platforming, but I equally don’t believe in allowing potentially dangerous unchallenged claims to spread like wildfire on social media. We cannot idly sit by and allow alternative and demonstrably false versions of reality to take hold.

These two positions clearly cannot co-exist. Given that the internet is very much akin to the wild west in that content that is taken down inevitably finds a way back up – I’m not sure our resources are best spent on an unending game of whack-a-mole.

Rather than censor conspiracies, big tech ought to build into their algorithms a way for balanced and nuanced content to be favoured and more wide-reaching. The BBC’s “fact or fake” is a great example and we need more investment in this type of content. Perhaps we also need a platform where we invite conspirators to join defenders of the consensus in debate – such that they can be held to the same self-policing standards of science. At the very least, I think as scientists we need to share balanced and nuanced content along with the sceptical interrogation tools that our training equips us with.

How Sceptical Interrogation Tools can Help

Here are three interrogation tools that can help:

  1.  Consider the conflicts of interests of all parties. Do some background research on the claimant(s). Are they an expert in a relevant field? Do they have relevant publications in scientific journals? Are those publications highly cited (i.e. referred to by other scientists)? Do they have competing financial interests?
  2. Gain perspective: separate theories from evidence and challenge them. When faced with a theory, spin it and attempt to falsify it. Science is built on falsification rather than confirmation. Think of all the different theories that could account for the evidence; are there alternative explanations? When presented with the evidence, independently verify and evaluate it using as many primary sources as possible. How was it derived? What are the pros and cons of the method/technique? Is there corroborating evidence from other sources – gained using other methods/techniques? Bear in mind Occams’ Razor; when faced with two theories that describe the evidence equally well – the simpler of them prevails. If a theory is unverifiable – disregard it. It is inherently unscientific. Always remember that the consensus is a consensus for a reason.
  3.  Watch out for logical fallacies. These are the all too common enemies of logic. Particularly relevant in the context of COVID-19 conspiracies is non-sequitur, or “it doesn’t follow”. For example, just because vaccines, like most medical treatments, have the potential to cause side-effects in some people, that doesn’t mean that there is a sinister purpose behind them, or that they don’t prevent the spread of infectious diseases and save lives – there are limits to what a healthy immune system is able to resist.

For a plausible argument, all links must follow. Also, relevant in this context is the fallacy of incomplete evidence – or ignoring inconvenient data, and the fallacy of shotgun argumentation, where so many arguments are “fired” that the opponent (if there is one) is prevented from responding to them all. 

A final fallacy that springs to mind, and which is a favourite among politicians and political activists, is the tendency to attack the messenger and ignore the message, referred to as ad hominem or“the man”.  There are many more.

I hope these tools provide a form of vaccination against the virus of misinformation. As Nicky Case so aptly described on Twitter, if on average a single person convinced of misinformation convinces 3 others, the R, as all armchair epidemiologists will appreciate, is 3.

If we can effectively spread and inject approximately 67% of the population with balanced content and sceptical interrogation tools, the R will fall below 1. We will achieve nerd immunity and the infodemic will be contained. Unlike its herd immunity cousin, we do not have to accept any casualties, and we can also be confident that, even at this early stage of the pandemic, once gained, nerd immunity will persist.

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