How do we deal with new information about Covid-19 at a time when the science, the advice and the consequences of the pandemic are all changing rapidly?
People are being bombarded with new information at a time of heightened stress and it’s playing damaging games with our decision making.
So how do we decide what’s good information and what isn’t? What should we think about before we make a decision to share information on social media, go out and mix with others or make purchases at stores?
“In some ways this is a perfect scenario for misinformation to thrive – it’s fast moving, it threatens everyone and there’s a lot of uncertainty,” says Dr Will Grant, of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science.
“It’s not quite a wicked problem like climate change in that Covid 19 is really pretty visible, linear and with strong historical parallels, but this is definitely an environment where information and misinformation will spread rapidly.”
1. Consider the source
New information is coming at us in charts, graphs, modelling results, social media posts, news articles, podcasts, TV bulletins and from friends and people we meet.
Few of us are epidemiologists, statisticians or healthcare experts, and fewer still are likely to have a good enough grasp on all the information that’s out there.
One unifying theme is that we should all be considering the advice of experts. But what is an expert?
Lyndal Byford, of the Australian Science Media Centre, says: “The main thing to consider is who is making the claim. Ask yourself what is the source of the information. Is the post from a reputable organisation such as the World Health Organization or is it based on a post by an individual who heard something that someone else told them.
“Misinformation can often read like a rumour. It is also worth thinking about who funds that organisation. Do they stand to make a profit from the information they are sharing?”
Grant says everyone should “slow down” before they decide to share information.
“But more importantly, listen to key sources of authority – for example, chief medical officers – before changing any behaviour based on something you read online. If the chief medical officer says something is dangerous but something you read online says it’s fine, go with the chief medical officer.”
Ben Newell, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of New South Wales, says we should always check the sources of information, “and check the intention of the person that puts it there”.
“We should stop and wonder why we have been sent something, and the impact of sending that information on to others.”
Newell said Australians rightly had a “healthy scepticism” for people in authority, and events like the sports rorts scandal were likely to have eroded trust.
“It’s hard for people to now recalibrate and say to themselves, this is now a situation where I should listen to the people who are in positions of authority,” he said. “But we should, and for good reason.”
Public health authorities, the World Health Organization and national science academies are reliable sources of information. Advice from your hairdresser probably isn’t.
2. Be wary of preliminary scientific findings
Under normal circumstances, new findings in science come at us through a long process of research, peer review and academic publishing that can take years to develop.
The Sars-CoV-2 virus was only defined in January and, while some assumptions can be made about how its close relatives have behaved, what’s known about the virus and the illness is still a work in progress.
Byford says scientists are sharing information with each other as quickly as they can.“This is vital to ensure there are no delays in moving towards treatments or vaccines. But it also means that lots of the information reaching the public hasn’t been through the usual science ‘quality check’ that is peer review.”
Findings from research that’s made public without being checked by other experts could “change dramatically” after peer review has been carried out, Byford says, and she would “discourage the public from sharing this sort of information”.
“If you do want to share it, perhaps include a note that it is preliminary work and has not been reviewed and scrutinised by independent experts.”
All of this also means that what may have been good information a few days or weeks ago may become out of date.
3. Remember that stress affects decision making
We’re in the middle of a pandemic – a situation few of us have experienced – and our screens are filled with frightening content.
Newell says when we have “additional cognitive load”, this creates inconsistency in our decision making. “That means we should push that pause button and then ask ourselves about the basis for the decision we are about to make.”
Prof Mike Kyrios, director of Órama Institute of Mental Health, Wellbeing and Neuroscience at Flinders University, says it’s very important for people to “switch off” from the “overwhelming emotional content” of the crisis each day.
Giving ourselves a break will reduce the tendency to panic and make rash decisions, he says. The development of apps or websites that centralise key information and advice will also help.
“We’re not seeing a lot of positive thinking, but having a positive attitude if you’re quarantined is important – we do need a more positive attitude instead of putting our internal resources into our fears. Fear is natural but we have to accept that fear is there and then move through it.”
Look for people who are responding positively, he says, and what’s needed is “actually physical distancing, not social distancing”.
“We should use social media sites to connect with friends.”
4. Think about the consequences before taking action
Grant says he would “never argue against critical thinking” but says our own simple actions – “wash your hands, increase social distance, isolate and test if you’re sick” – what’s important.
Newell says we should generally be thinking about the knock-on effects of our actions – whether that is simply coughing in a public place or deciding to clear out a supermarket when other community members may be in greater need.Byford says there are lots of factchecking sites that are debunking particular claims regularly: “A simple google of the claim and the word factcheck can do a lot of the work for you. Snopes is usually a good place to start, but Google also as has a factcheck explorer.”
She says people should also be aware that some conclusions may be based on a correlation, which may turn out to be irrelevant after scientists have examined it further.
“There are lots of situations where two things seem to change at the same time but it turns out that there is not real link – for example you can find a correlation between the number of films starring Nicolas Cage and the number of swimming pool drownings.”
5. Remember that information and assumptions can change
All modelling comes with uncertainties and is loaded with assumptions that may change, be wrong or be incomplete.
Often models are designed not to accurately predict the future but rather to show what might happen if different decisions are made.
“Uncertainty is the mind-killer,” Grant says. “It’s the real big issue here, and it’s why our sociological behaviours have become part of the crisis.
“We’re far more reasonable in the face of crises we’ve seen recently before – cyclones and bushfires – because we’ve seen lots of them before. Sure, they’re changing now, but they’re changing within bounds we can extrapolate to based on recent history.
“None of us have experienced a threat like this personally before, and we don’t know how long this will last. Any panic-buying behaviours are rational in this sense.”
Kyrios’s institute at Flinders University has developed a set of strategies to help people manage their mental health if they’re forced to stay home.
“Understand that uncertainty and novelty will lead to heightened tension and stress – Question yourself if you’re angry,” the advice says.
“Are your fears likely to eventuate? What does science tell us about the most likely outcomes? Is your response reasonable?”
Source: Ministry of Information, Lebanon