The COVID-19 outbreak has disrupted everyone’s way of life. People are searching for answers and, due to the lack of authoritative direction and our increased internet usage, misinformation has become rampant. Some of the inaccurate pieces of advice I’ve heard are: check your breath every morning, drink water every 15 minutes, drink warm water, and get sunlight because the heat will kill the virus. Even President Trump made more than two dozen false claims about the coronavirus before his Oval Office address, causing an even greater mistrust in the government. While social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are trying to combat false information, the sheer quantity of content is making this task difficult. Consequently, this misinformation has caused more panic and diverted attention from important health advice.
The widespread circulation of false claims sheds light on the disconnect between the scientific community and general public. Typically, publications are written for the scientific community, specifically peer reviewers who are experts in the field. They are often translated to news outlets by a reporter who is unfamiliar with the subject, causing miscommunication. The public is oftentimes forced to rely on an inaccurate translation because the original research paper is written in complicated scientific language and is difficult to access behind a paywall that asks for an institution affiliation or forty dollars. These barriers prevent accurate scientific information from reaching the general public and the impact is beyond the coronavirus: it affects our policies and beliefs on a wide range of other topics like climate change, vaccination, and AIDS.
So, what needs to happen? Changes need to occur at two levels: institutional and individual.
A shift to open access: The open-access movement believes that research papers should be free because public taxes usually fund research initiatives. The current system works like this: 1) a researcher pays a journal to publish their article 2) the publisher assigns a few unpaid peer reviewers (other researchers) to make sure it meets scientific standards 3) the article is published, but the publisher requires anyone (whether you are a researcher or not) to pay for access. Institutions like UCI will buy a subscription so UCI-affiliates can access that journal. Any non-institution-affiliated person will pay $40, often turning away curious members of the general public. Journals justify this as the cost necessary to oversee the whole publication process and ensure quality control. Many institutions and researchers are supporters of open access, but some researchers are unwilling to change for prestige and traditionality purposes. The UC system actually cut ties with Elsevier, a popular scientific journal, and now UC researchers can’t access or publish in the journal. Withdrawing from for-profit journals is important because it pressures the journal to take a lower profit margin.
Research papers should be summarized in layperson’s terms: Researchers themselves need to translate their articles for the average person, not a translator. Each paper has an abstract, so why not a layperson’s abstract? This would also require PhD and undergraduate programs to heavily emphasize scientific communication.
News outlets need to employ actual scientists and have rigorous fact-checking with the researchers whom they are citing.
Don’t spread misinformation and, if you are bold, call it out. There are numerous fact-checking websites. The World Health Organization even keeps an updated page called “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Myth busters.” NewsGuard has a list of all the websites known to spread misinformation.
Talk about science: Before discussing a topic, you will want to do your own research. It will also force you to consider new questions and ideas.
Believe scientists: Researchers want to inform the public; that is their main goal. Be open to their ideas and pay attention.
Verify sources: If the research is coming from Nature (a well-known science journal), it most likely has a lot of supporting evidence because it went through a rigorous peer-reviewing process. If it is coming from Shell and is about fossil fuels, be sure to fact-check them.
Pressure institutions to provide access to research articles: For example, Sage Hill should have research subscriptions (we already do, but not for scientific journals).
And, I’ll leave you with this: You know that picture of the Venice canals that claimed the reappearance of swans as the silver lining to COVID-19? That photo was actually taken in the canals of Burano, where swans regularly appear. And dolphins that also reappeared? They were filmed in a port in Sardinia, hundreds of miles away.