Power and Prerogative in the Time of Covid-19

Power and Prerogative in the Time of Covid-19 By Kari Flickinger

Timothy Caulfield’s article “Pseudoscience and COVID-19” points to a veritable “explosion of misinformation.” While he quantifies false information as “countless,” the World Health Organization does seem to agree, titling this phenomenon an “infodemic”. Caulfield suggests the major sources of this misinformation include politicians, universities, and healthcare institutions.[1] This is a serious problem as it offers credence to theories that can, have, and will kill the very people who are seeking respite from Covid-19.

When people look to authority figures as the most educated sources for treatment, they will trust that those treatments are efficacious. Unfortunately, the status quo of popular thinking applies many of the aspects of pseudoscience. Methods in Behavioral Research authors Paul Cozby and Scott Bates define pseudoscience as “the use of seemingly scientific terms and demonstrations to substantiate claims that have no basis in scientific research.”[2] Too little time in the research stages of potential treatments leads to inaccurate, vague, and untested data information. [3] For instance, President Trump has touted the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment. According to a Forbes article from March 2020, this irresponsible authoritarian compelled a Texas man and his wife to take chloroquine phosphate, which they confused for the drug, leading to the demise of the man.[4] This death could have been preventable if the authority figure in question had exercised due caution. However, this is just one of the many, many Covid-19 related deaths that we have experienced just in this country. When dealing with a proliferating illness, people need to be using their strongest tools. Our tools are too blunted by the range and aggregate of misinformation.

Part of the reason for the vast amount of misinformation has to do with the very method of dissemination that Caulfield suggests should be leveraged. He suggests that those with a professional responsibility “[t]weet.” While well-intentioned, a complication with this line of thinking is that Twitter provides a platform that may be too fast-moving to lend itself to the amount of time needed for research. We can share results eventually, and often do, but under a verifiable peer-reviewal process, a great deal of research comes too late to reasonably debunk per social media. The way we are consuming information is making it impossible to have accurate conversations.

While researchers and those familiar with the scientific method might have learned to question their world and the credibility of those that would offer them advice in it, there are too many who may look to leaders to provide that depth of thought in times of duress. Those who have the tools to think critically have a responsibility to society to use those tools. As Caulfield puts it, “[w]e need physicists, microbiologists, immunologists, gastroenterologists and all scientists from relevant disciplines to provide simple and shareable content explaining why this hijacking of real research is inaccurate and scientifically dishonest.” Sharing credible information and offering verifiable sources obtained through testable and peer-reviewed channels is just one step in the long march to beating Covid-19 and pseudoscientific practices.

For more reading on upping your media literacy skillset, I suggest JSTOR Daily’s article: “Media Literacy & Fake News: A Syllabus”

[1] Caulfield, Timothy. “Pseudoscience and COVID-19.” Nature. 27 April 2020. Online.

[2] Cozby, Paul and Scott Bates. Methods in Behavioral Research. 14th Edition. McGraw-Hill Education. 2020

[3] It does not mention it directly in Caulfield’s article, though it gives it a definite nod.

[4] Haelle, Tara. “Man Dead From Taking Chloroquine Product After Trump Touts Drug For Coronavirus.” Forbes. 23 March 2020. Online.