True or false? Think crit­i­cally dur­ing pan­demic

Read widely, and skep­ti­cally to eval­u­ate COVID-19 claims

Ottawa Citizen - - Opinion - RAN­DALL DENLEY

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 ran­dallden­ Con­tact him at ran­dallden­

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