True or false? Think critically during pandemic
Read widely, and skeptically to evaluate COVID-19 claims
There’s a story going around that some popular beliefs about the COVID-19 virus are nothing more than conspiracy theories. Well, they’d say that, wouldn’t they? The source is not something reliable like Facebook or Tumblr, it’s an outfit called The Canadian Press, a thinly disguised mainstream media organization.
These are the same people who carried stories saying we shouldn’t wear masks, then that we should. The mainstream media said closing borders was wrong, then that it was essential. They routinely run stories saying there are more COVID-19 cases, but the source of that information is government, and how can we trust them? To be more specific, progressive Ontarians shouldn’t trust the numbers because they come from a government run by PC Premier Doug Ford, who doesn’t care about children or human life, as Twitter often tells us. Similarly, Conservatives shouldn’t trust anything Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says, because he’s a Liberal.
If you want to know what’s really going on, the best thing is to Google what you already believe and you’ll almost certainly find something to show you’re right. Thinking that hydroxychloroquine is a cure for the virus? Find reassurance in support from U.S. President Donald Trump. Pretty sure that the pandemic is caused by 5G networks? Well, look at the evidence. You can’t see the virus and you can’t see 5G; both are associated with China; and actor Woody Harrelson has promoted the idea on Instagram. How much more do you need to know?
The main focus of the Canadian Press article was criticism of those who courageously defend their right, constitutional surely, not to wear masks. I encountered one of these thought leaders in a big-box food store on the weekend. Just in case bystanders were curious, he loudly explained that he wasn’t going to wear a mask because other people weren’t walking in single file or physical distancing enough to satisfy him. This is the mutually assured destruction approach to the coronavirus.
While conspiracy theories and weak thinking are easy to detect, one would hope, it is the expert opinions that have left people feeling whipsawed during the pandemic. The evolving views on wearing masks and closing borders stand out. Even the question of exactly how the virus spreads is still unresolved.
That doesn’t mean the experts are wrong, not all of them anyway. Before March, they knew something about coronaviruses generally, but nothing about COVID-19 specifically. Collective knowledge is expanding rapidly, but science is a process of trial and error, and of collecting and assessing evidence over time. It’s not usually conducted with so much publicity.
The flood of contradictory information has produced two large and misguided groups: unquestioning people who believe anything an expert says, because he says he’s an expert; and those who mistrust all scientists and think facts are just a type of opinion.
The solution is learning to think for ourselves, to critically assess data and language. We also need to consider what others are trying to achieve with their numbers and words. For example, one might believe that governments and public health officials wanted to scare people into accepting an unprecedented economic shutdown, for the greater good. That’s why the alarming term “outbreak” has come to mean a single case of COVID-19. In epidemiology, it means an occurrence of disease in excess of normal expectancy. One case would be an outbreak only if your expectation was that there would be no COVID-19 cases during a pandemic. Similarly, if the number of local cases rises from 10 to 15, it is said to have “spiked.” Not really. There are a million people in Ottawa.
“Why” is always the right question to ask. For example, when local health authorities mandated masks well past the peak of infections, it was reasonable to ask why now, and for what benefit?
There is a vast amount of information available from professional media, think tanks and health organizations. Read widely with an informed skepticism. That’s always a useful approach, but especially now.
Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and author of the new mystery Payback, available at randalldenley.com Contact him at email@example.com