Opinion: Scientists Must Battle the Disinformation Pandemic
Opinion: Scientists Must Battle the Disinformation Pandemic

Opinion: Scientists Must Battle the Disinformation Pandemic

Fighting the spread of an infectious disease goes hand in hand with stemming the dissemination of lies, bad science, and misdirection.

Genna Reed
Oct 1, 2020

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As COVID-19 wreaks havoc across the world, scientists are making unparalleled, heroic strides to discover the virus’s biology and vulnerabilities. We have learned far more about SARS-CoV-2 than we knew about any pandemic-sparking pathogen in human history within a year of its emergence, and experts are working tirelessly to publicly share this information. These efforts should be bolstered and carefully considered by federal governments to save lives and stem the tide of contagion. In the US, however, the Trump administration has censored scientists, diminished the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s role in leading the pandemic response, politicized tracking and storage of health data, and attempted to undermine the credibility of its own researchers

A government actively silencing scientific voices has collided with a shrinking independent news environment and growing dependence upon social media for information. This has meant that there is a dearth of clear, science-based guidance—and in that void, both intentionally false information (disinformation) and unintentionally misleading information (misinformation) proliferate. As COVID-19 continues to claim lives, some US political leaders and pundits are spreading disinformation to understate the pandemic’s severity, discredit public health experts’ advice on preventive social distancing measures, and sow distrust of government data. The World Health Organization has defined this landscape as an “infodemic:” “an over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

Acceptance of disinformation can result in a cascade of dangerous events, such as consumers ingesting a form of chloroquine, government shelving important scientific work, scientists facing serious harassment, and the loss of public trust in the government as a source of science-backed advice, which is crucial to help keep us safe now and during future national crises. 

That’s why scientific voices are needed, now more than ever, to cut through the noise. Here are some ways that all scientists can help arm the public with the information they need to make evidence-based decisions about their lives as COVID-19 continues to spread.

A government actively silencing scientific voices has collided with a shrinking independent news environment and growing dependence upon social media for information.

Promote science literacy. Research has shown there are partisan differences affecting trust in science and public health measures related to COVID-19, but people generally trust scientists as messengers. A 2019 Pew poll found that 86 percent of the more than 4,400 Americans surveyed had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in scientists. The coronavirus pandemic presents an opportunity for scientists to have conversations with friends, family, colleagues, and members of the public about scientific concepts. Wider understanding of the scientific process may lead to a fuller grasp of the time it takes to make discoveries and build knowledge about COVID-19. Likewise, it will help people understand that one study is not representative of the scientific consensus and less meaningful on its own—which is hard to hear when findings are desirable. 

Address racism head-on. For too long, the scientific community has been perpetuating racist policies and practices that have excluded people of color—continuing to honor racist scientists, making work environments hostile, and participating in racist research that perpetuates falsehoods. While trust in scientists is generally high, trust in medical scientists is lower among Black adults than among other demographics. As a result, Black adults are more skeptical than Hispanic and white adults when it comes to experimental treatments for COVID-19. Communities of color are hit harder by the virus due to systemic racist policies that have led to health inequities, so scientists have a responsibility to rebuild trust and help ensure that accurate information is heard by those who need it most. A first step in rebuilding public trust among minority populations is for the scientific community to work toward being antiracist and advocate for radical change within research institutions. Scientists should foster inclusive, diverse, and equitable work environments to better recruit, retain, and lift up people of color in STEM fields. 

Make scientific information public. Scientists conducting and publishing research have more avenues than ever to make information about their studies and data accessible to the public. Researchers can post their work on preprint servers and publish in open access journals, pitch it to science and mainstream journalists, summarize the findings in an article for diverse audiences, or share it far and wide on social media. Science agencies and research institutions have scientific integrity and media policies that protect scientists’ right to speak about their work. If this isn’t the case at your institution, advocate internally for its creation. If your scientific home does maintain these policies, hold it accountable and ensure they’re enforced. 

Inoculate the public against falsehoods with accurate information. There is so much power in accurate information communicated by experts. Quality information can help to shield the public against bad information. When confronted with false information on social media, scientists should call it out, debunk it, and cite sources so that people who engage with the post in the future will, if they look far enough, encounter the truth. Research has shown that warning people about the ways such information spreads and providing scientific facts can work to reduce the likelihood of dis- and misinformation taking hold. Scientists can also help guide others to credible sources for public health information and explain what makes a source reliable so that people seek out the right messengers as they make decisions to keep themselves and their families safe. 

Advocate for the role of independent science in decision-making. Science advocacy has grown in the wake of an unprecedented assault on federal science and scientists. Become a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Science Network or of another science advocacy organization, and join your peers showing up at virtual hearings, writing public comments, and asking local, state, and federal leaders questions about the information and experts they’re using to support their responses to COVID-19. Scientists can nominate themselves or peers to serve on federal advisory committees tackling some of the issues related to the virus to help the government make informed decisions.

One of the lessons to take away from the myriad failures of this White House in responding to the spread of COVID-19 is that sidelining scientists’ voices during a public health crisis has grave consequences. It has resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands and in countless more lives turned upside down. It has also allowed the infodemic that accompanies and exacerbates COVID-19 to take hold. It will take more than scientists to get us out of this crisis, but scientists need to make their voices heard and tackle misinformation head on. A new generation of researchers is watching and learning, inspired by the heroes they see on the frontlines and those innovating to solve one of the world’s most devastating problems. Let’s give them the tools they need to help ensure that our country never makes the same mistakes again. 

Genna Reed is a lead science and policy analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Follow her on Twitter @gennareed and read her blog at https://blog.ucsusa.org/author/genna-reed.