A physician of my acquaintance observed this week that if you’re going to get sick with novel coronavirus, it’s better that it happens later than sooner. The reason is that as time passes, the very large number of epidemiologists, infectious disease researchers, virologists, pharmaceutical researchers, computational biologists, and other researchers and practitioners studying COVID-19 learn more about it. The sheer scale of ongoing research, and sharing of that research, is unprecedented–not only do we have the experts, but we have the means for their expertise to be shared with one another, and with the rest of us out here weathering the pandemic as best we can.
The informational dimension of this pandemic is itself fascinating. I’m just old enough to remember when the Internet was a relatively small bunch of interconnected servers, mostly housed at universities and in government facilities. There was basically no commercial activity taking place, “news” meant a bunch of discussion groups of various topics that might be informed by what people saw on TV or read in the newspaper, and when I worked for Amazon early in its existence, what was weird about it wasn’t that they only sold books back then. It was that the idea of clicking some buttons on a computer screen to buy something was so novel that people regularly called us on the phone attempting to order that way instead, and were astonished that no Amazon storefront existed.
Times change, but it’s not just that. The volume of information we take in every day, just going about our daily lives, is so enormous that we can’t really conceive it. And what makes that a problem is how much of that information is biased, incomplete, deceptively modified or presented, or just outright false.
Over the years there have been a lot of attempts to deal with this. Several have come from my own profession, though the checklists from the early 2000s indicating that information coming from a .gov or .edu site could be trusted without reservation seem beyond quaint these days. More recently, the Center for an Informed Public launched at the University of Washington Information School, the same school where I received my MLIS degree. Their virtual town hall on healthy information practices during the pandemic is worth a look, but the Center, like the rest of my profession, is swimming upstream: when it comes to information, convenience, confirmation bias, and denial are mighty forces against which being a smart person isn’t as much of a defense as one might think. Sometimes being smart just means being better at fooling yourself.
In the library world we like to say that the information landscape has changed from one of relative scarcity to one of overabundance. That’s true, but the problem that has always confronted us remains more or less the same: finding the stuff that’s true, accurate, and reliable. While this used to mean a lot of time and effort just to access resources that might contain the information we sought, now it means combing through an incredible amount of noise to…find resources that might contain the information we seek. The difference is that our chief obstacle isn’t inaccessibility, but distraction.
Here’s what I mean. Pick something to fact check. It doesn’t matter what, though choosing something relatively recent might serve to highlight the problem. A Facebook or Twitter post, maybe. Something about the pandemic–there’s not a lot else out there, right now. And then try to verify or invalidate it, without making use of Factcheck or Snopes or any other site that does the work for you (although, much like Wikipedia, these sites can be valuable sources of references).
I added that last criterion not because there’s anything inherently wrong with Snopes or Factcheck, but because avoiding reliance on them highlights the problem I’m talking about. They’re very convenient, and whether someone believes in them or not often has less to do with their intrinsic reliability and more to do with whether they confirm that someone’s belief or opinion or not.
Verifying and validating information is a slow process. Still. It’s faster than it was in the old days, but once you have the sources to comb through, the rate at which you, the human reader, absorb the information you’re taking in hasn’t changed. If you’re not an expert in the subject matter, the content of, say, a scientific research study can be very difficult. It’s going to take you a lot longer to understand it than it would a reader with expertise similar to the authors’. While I’m generally in favor of scientific information being more accessible, that doesn’t make it more comprehensible. Misinterpretation can be actively dangerous. Look what happened with chloroquine. Disagreement among experts can translate to confusion among the rest of us. We’re seeking certainty and concrete guidelines during a period when there’s little of either to be had.
All of the above is why I haven’t said much about the pandemic itself, the infectious agent that’s causing it, or the social and political dimensions of it all. Plenty of people more knowledgeable than I am about these things have plenty to say about all of that already. So do plenty of people who are less knowledgeable, for that matter.
I do understand that deep desire for certainty, for being able to go back to normal (whatever that means, and without regard for whether that’s something that will ever happen), even if I disagree strongly with some of the ways that it’s manifesting. I’m no exception; I deal with things by working, and since early March I’ve been working a lot.
But if we’re not at the pandemic’s forefront, if we’re not among the researchers trying to understand as much as possible about this virus, to find ways to treat it, mitigate it, and prevent it, the least we can do is not add to the noise.
Sources I like:
- UpToDate, a subscription information service for clinicians and other healthcare workers, has a publicly viewable entry on COVID-19.
- Nextstrain, an open-source project gathering genome data on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
- How to read and understand a scientific paper: there are a number of guides on this out there; what I like about this one is that it’s geared toward non-specialists (i.e., most of us) and it acknowledges how much time that reading takes.
- Coronavirus: Research, commentary, and news from the journal Science.
- Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation COVID-19 resources.