Fake news and false information hang like the sword of Damocles over our attempts to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Here I try to lay out an argument for how the uncertainty of a crisis that drives us to experts, also drives us away from them.
Amid all the mayhem of the Covid-19 pandemic, the state epidemiologist of Sweden, Anders Tegnell, has become an unlikely cultural icon. So much so that people have gotten Tegnell’s face tattooed on their arms and legs, a tribute usually reserved for rockstars and sporting heroes. And he is not alone. Leading infectious disease expert and an integral part of the US Coronavirus Task Force Dr. Antony Fauci has garnered a huge following as the real-life septuagenarian version of Iron Man, saving his country from the virus and a seemingly self-destructive president. Similarly, a few British professors got their government to change their stance on the epidemic and potentially saved many lives. In fact, with the world facing an existential threat, scientists, academics, and technocrats of all hues have had the spotlight on them.
But the tide, it seems, is turning. The US President Donald Trump has accused Dr. Fauci of playing “all sides of the equation” in his recent testimony before Congress. Sweden’s response to the pandemic has been under constant scrutiny, some waiting for their numbers to get worse while others using them to highlight all that has gone wrong in other countries. The WHO has already lost much of the legitimacy it had the beginning of the pandemic. Blogs, podcasts, posts on Social Media, and forwards on WhatsApp castigating epidemiological models and the policies they helped frame are on the rise. As these ‘alternative’ sources of information gain more traction, concern around false information is growing.
Paradoxically, the increasing concern that led to increased reliance on expertise, has also led to a counter-current of distrust in experts.
This pattern is part of a much longer trend. The ability of experts to correctly inform the public has come into question since at least the financial crisis of 2008. The demand for alternative explanations was fed by the concurrent expansion of social media which made it possible for anyone with sufficient motivation to reach out to millions. This anti-expert sentiment has impacted the global political environment, swaying elections, and referendums. But the consequences this time around could be much more damaging and long-lasting, making it imperative to understand how the nature of science and the incentives for experts affect the dynamics of this process.
Watch: US President Donald Trump clashes with his top Covid-19 expert Dr. Anthony Fauci
Science as the solution
Science, of course, is our first port of call in attempting to understand the world around us. Consider this as a standard template for our appeal to science: at the first hint of the suggestion that the earth might be flat, we take out the textbook to point out that it is actually an oblate spheroid, before laughing at the flat earthers. While the earth is indeed not flat, the problem is that most scientific assertions are not as certain. In fact, It is this very lack of certainty that allows scientific understanding to evolve and improve our understanding of the world we live in. Contrary to what seems to be the popular perception, scientific research is a fractious enterprise.
Researchers frequently disagree and even research conducted by accomplished experts often does not meet the standard of proof expected by their peers. It takes many years, sometimes generations for consensus to build and some semblance of empirical certainty to emerge. Science is more of a process than an outcome. It is not the kind of fact generating machine that it is frequently mistaken for. This complicates any attempt at using scientific findings as real facts to counter misinformation. Consider the WHO’s suggestion that only people with symptoms should wear masks. The suggestion was based on the best available knowledge at the time and was in practice until it was revised as researchers found out more about the virus. If the initial suggestion was presented as the truth, new developments would undermine the claim and, in the process, also undermine the method by which it was arrived at.
Uncertainty of Truth
This problem is exacerbated when the perceived scientific facts are predictions. As I contemplate tossing a coin, it is scientifically correct to state that there is a 50% probability of the coin landing heads. But once the coin has landed, there can only be one outcome. This outcome is a fact that can be confirmed by a quick look at the coin. The prediction about the toss is a description of the uncertainty underlying the coin toss. Now consider the enormity of the challenge before epidemiologists. They can be certain of their predictions, but predictions cannot ascertain the outcome with certainty. This creates a dilemma.
Should they illustrate all the uncertainty inherent in their prediction and risk not be taken very seriously? Or do they state the more likely outcome is an inevitable fact, hoping that they can change government policy such that their dire predictions will almost certainly not match the observed outcome? In the former, some thoroughly non-scientific soothsayers will win over part of the public. In the later, the few of these soothsayers who downplayed the fear-mongering of scientists will get thousands of new subscribers.
The truth, on Average
This dissonance between lived experiences and scientific facts can manifest itself in another way. Consider the scientific claim that medicine A cures a disease. This and most other empirical claims are based on statistical averages, which means that for a large number of people, the result will not hold. This does not undermine the scientific correctness of the claim about medicine, it merely points out the problems of interpreting a result that is correct on average as an incontrovertible fact. If facts contradict lived experiences, people will likely look for alternative explanations.
If the purpose of facts is to remove uncertainty, in many cases science cannot help us. The struggle of combating the certainty of the unscientific, with complicated, nuanced scientific arguments is made even more difficult in the existing structure of the marketplace of ideas. The incentives that drive the interaction between media and experts determine the currency that experts have in people’s imagination.
Particularly in the time of a crisis, media courts experts to gain credibility, providing an opportunity for the academics who can get a platform, to get their name and ideas out there. The competition for eyeballs is intense at the best of times, but in a pandemic, it can create perverse incentives for both media houses and experts to make extraordinary claims, without extraordinary proof to back them. That is not to say that these claims are necessarily wrong, but that they blur the line between experts and conspiracy theorists, who also get things right every once in a while.
Platitudes and Ideologies
These incentives might tempt a young scholar, but a renowned one is unlikely to be tempted into jeopardizing a reputation gained over many years. But reputation can become so much of a preoccupation that such experts might be tempted to deal in platitudes and truisms: the government response could have been better, the poor are the most vulnerable etc. Besides the complete lack of actionable suggestions, the moral content of these platitudes might betray the ideological allegiance of the expert. This may compromise the perceived neutrality of the expert and end up antagonizing a substantial section of the intended audience, further pushing up the subscriber count of anti-intellectual YouTubers.
The WHO had warned that an infodemic will accompany the pandemic.
While we will surely find a cure to the virus, it may be much tougher to find a solution to the problem of bad information. Calling in the experts with simplistic appeals to the power of science has not been enough and might have even diminished the esteem in which either is held. With the problem becoming more and more intractable as we progress deeper into the pandemic, it may be prudent to remember that rumors and false information are as old as civilization itself and that completely eliminating it might not be possible. In fact, to the extent that they give people hope and help them make sense of their everyday lives, they may even be desirable. They can, of course, cause a great deal of damage; but calling people out on their unscientific-ness rarely gets them to tune in. Perhaps, the best way forward is honesty upfront about and our motivations and the limitations of our knowledge. That, coupled with a little bit of empathy, might get us just far enough to get through this.