This piece was originally written in May 2020. It remains sadly relevant most of a year later. —Dr. Orna
Good hygiene is one key way we can protect ourselves during the current pandemic. And hygiene applies to both the physical (washing our hands) and the intellectual.
We’ve mostly gotten a lot better about washing our hands. That’s great news, since soap is one of the most powerful tools we have to kill SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID19 infection. (Here’s my favorite soap company.)
We’re doing less well, however, with our information hygiene. That’s intellectual equivalent of hand washing to protect ourselves from disinformation infection.
Especially on social media, there’s a ton of bad information out there. I get it. We all want there to be answers, ASAP, and we clutch at anything that looks to provide us with those.
It’s easy to favor (and spread) ideas that support what we want to be true, rather than what there’s evidence to believe is true. (As I’ve mentioned before, this is a very real phenomenon called confirmation bias.)
Contrarian answers — those that subvert conventional wisdom — are especially appealing. And that’s even more the case when conventional wisdom offers nothing more than more waiting. (Meteorologist Marshall Shepherd has a great analysis of this effect.)
Both of these tendencies leave us vulnerable to disinformation. And disinformation is both infectious and potentially deadly.
Here are the questions and practices I employ for information hygiene, particularly on social media:
- Read the whole article. Headlines are often unrelated or outright wrong. I say this as a former newspaper reporter who fought over incorrect headlines a lot. If I post something without reading it first, which I sometimes do to bookmark articles I want to get back to, I always note this.
- When was this published? Our knowledge of and experience with COVID19 is changing very quickly, so timing matters.
- Where was this published? Does that outlet have an affirmed bias? Is it actually supposed to be satire? Some excellent thinkers post directly to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which leads to…
- Who is the author? What are their credentials? Lack of credentials isn’t necessarily disqualifying; but the writer needs to use better citations and logic to make their case. Pseudonymous pieces are a big red flag.
- Is this an opinion piece, news story or scientific study? If opinion, does the author have a financial or political stake in their argument?
- Does the piece include citations? If the ideas are controversial — or really appealing — check that the citations say what the author says they do. In the absence of citations, search for substantiation on Google, Google Scholar, among your trusted sources or elsewhere.
- Does the piece argue for “common sense” without giving reasoning behind its conclusions? A good article will give you the logic behind its conclusions. You can look at that logic and decide for yourself if the conclusion is justified.
- When in doubt, use a fact-checking site. Here’s a great list of options. Also check out this article by Dave Leiber, an investigative columnist at the Dallas Morning News.
Applied like hand washing with soap, this process helps neutralize disinformation and prevent infection.
Here’s how it works in practice: A month or two ago, a Medium post went around suggesting SARS-CoV-2 attacks our blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity. Very interesting! We know how to treat those symptoms, using oxygen, herbs and drugs. So I looked into it.
First problem: the author of the Medium piece used a pseudonym, so there was no way to check their credentials. Second, they quoted a research study, but didn’t cite or link to the study so you could evaluate it. I googled the quotation and found a prepublication article, which was all laboratory findings. Next, I asked my colleagues on Facebook to help me untangle that research. That debunked the whole premise on several fronts, including the fact that no SARS-CoV-2 has been seen in blood at all. Finally, I found an online expert who tore the piece apart — using both logic and citations to do so.
I understand that conventional wisdom resists change, and so remain open to ideas coming from unlikely directions. But I’m doing my best to vet those ideas against what I know of biochemistry, human physiology and clinical efficacy.
So please protect yourself, not just from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but from disinformation infection, as well.
P.S. I also published this post on Medium. If you’re heading over that way, please follow and clap!