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National Academy of Sciences attempts to grapple with “misinformation” and “disinformation”

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COVID-19 is, as so often, the catalyst:

Some saw the COVID-19 crisis primarily as a crisis of misinformation, following a longer trend of “truth decay” (1): that is, an array of confusing and conflicting messages that question facts, blur the line between fact and opinion, and dismiss formerly respected sources of information as merely political interests pushing a partisan agenda. The World Health Organization went so far as to warn against an “infodemic … an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it” (2).

But, of course, the informational environment surrounding COVID-19 continues to be highly complex. Since the beginning of the pandemic, science has moved at breakneck speed and under immense public scrutiny. Influential journals published studies only to retract them a short time later. And the scientific community was faced with the dilemma of having to correct misinformation they knew to be false with science that was emerging and would continue to produce new and sometimes contradictory findings in the months to come (3). Misinformation about sciencein the public sphere

Misinformation about science in the public sphere. Dietram A. Scheufele, Andrew J. Hoffman, Liz Neeley, Czerne M. Reid Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Apr 2021, 118 (15) e2104068118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2104068118

We sympathize. But get off your high horse. Further down, we read this: “What does it mean for citizens to be scientifically literate in a world where authoritative and well-vetted scientific information sources compete with an onslaught of disinformation and misinformation in fragmented and often partisan information environments?”

Well, re COVID-19, a good deal of that disinformation and misinformation was purveyed by authorities, scientific and political. Books have been written about that. See, for example, The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic into a Catastrophe (October 2020)

Accept the fact that, these days, “trust the science” is, for many, an act of faith contrary to evidence.

It’s going to take a long time to come back from this and authoritarian posturing won’t help. It would just prove the cynics right.

Also: World Health Organization? Oh, spare us. See Was the investigation of COVID-19’s origin thwarted by China? The World Health Organization team was not really allowed to conduct a proper investigation in China. The Big Science dance around the problem has been, at best, painful to watch.

7 Replies to “National Academy of Sciences attempts to grapple with “misinformation” and “disinformation”

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    Doctors and scientists are no more perfect than the rest of us but when we are faced with a pandemic of a novel virus, which we’re trying to identify, characterize and treat on the fly, we don’t need philosophers, statisticians or biologists so much as ll the virologists, microbiologists and epidemiologists we can lay our hands on.

    Politicians who are trying to turn this to their political advantage or journalists who, like politicians, push conspiracy theories that pander to their readers prejudices are not going to save your loved one when they get sick.

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    I’m glad to see Briggs getting into the act. He has been a beacon of sanity against bad uses of stats in all subjects, long before the current genocide. He sees the problems more clearly than most.

  3. 3
    jerry says:

    How many understand just how this virus works or how the various treatments and vaccines work? It they did the scientists and politicians would be standing in lines for their turn at the gallows. They have been the purveyors of the misinformation that has led millions to die while others are making billions as vast numbers slip into poverty.

    Don’t expect the educated to lead the path to understanding. They are the ones most easily misinformed and they don’t care. The callousness of our advanced world indicates somethings actually deteriorate as we advance technologically.

    We are certainly not better human beings. Is the cause the scientists themselves? But why do they feel the need to misinform?

    Always look to money and power.

  4. 4
    ET says:

    The fact that the media has not been promoting the medically recommended and scientifically backed prophylaxis says it all, really. It is beyond pathetic that no one is promoting it.

  5. 5
    johnnyb says:

    Seversky:

    “we don’t need philosophers, statisticians or biologists so much as ll the virologists, microbiologists and epidemiologists we can lay our hands on”

    Actually, we *needed* the philosophers more than anything. Philosophers are the ones that tell you if your thinking is good or bad, and if there are other considerations to be had. The problem is that the national policy was run by epidemiologists who didn’t have the philosophical insight to understand how their actions affected anybody else, for anything else. And, it turns out, the epidemiologists were generally wrong about the epidemiology as well.

    I can forgive the epidemiologists for being wrong about their own subject – aren’t we all wrong sometimes? But what was ghastly was the refusal to consider any other aspect of the problem. That’s a philosophy problem, and that’s what was fundamentally missing.

  6. 6
    johnnyb says:

    Also note – the person who is most accused of spreading disinformation/misinformation – Trump – is also the *reason* the regulatory environment was alleviated sufficiently to allow fast vaccine production. And he is neither a philosopher nor an epidemiologist.

    So, in other words, from a leadership perspective, a layperson (Trump) stopped the virus, while the expert (Fauci) caused us to do permanent damage to ourselves for no reasonable gain.

  7. 7
    orthomyxo says:

    William Briggs, who consistently claimed the covid pandemic would be less deadly than recent flu seasons, wrote a book about what others got wrong? That’s some brass neck.

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