Thinking Out Loud – Misinformation and the COVID Pandemic

I came across this lens while reading an article about filing cabinets in The Atlantic [1]

“The coronavirus pandemic is just one powerful example of this tension between information and knowledge. In the early days, it became clear that very little was clear about what was going on. …Our information systems were filled not just with misinformation—false or misleading information—but also with what I call “myeinformation” (pay attention to e), or informational ambiguity based on scant or conflicting evidence, in many cases regarding emerging scientific knowledge.” [emphasis added]

Think back to the early days of COVID, a new virus that led to exponentially increasing cases and deaths. Remember the heightened concern and “all hands on deck” search for cause and treatment. For various reasons and you can impose whatever intention you want, it doesn’t matter; our public hair was on fire. And our great cultural tool, science, stopped whatever it was doing and turned its considerable collective attention to the growing pandemic.

Fomites and the Rise of Disinfection Theater

Consider in those early days the suggestions that we leave the packages outside for at least a day before bringing them inside, and clean them with disinfectant while wearing gloves. I wrote about the basic science that was based on the work of physicists and others on laboratory models. Unfortunately, while their calculations of how long COVID can survive on surfaces were correct, the underlying model they used was, as with all models, flawed. In the months that followed, it became clear that COVID was transmitted as a respiratory virus; contact spread by fomites is rare. This early work on the lifespan of COVID on cardboard is a perfect example for meeinformation. It is also a perfect example of how science works.

The Western scientific enterprise is built on the idea that the power of a hypothesis lies in its explanatory power. It can never be fully “proved”, but it can be disproved. The hypothesis that fomites can transmit COVID has been replaced by the hypothesis that it spreads primarily as a respiratory virus, which may explain more of the infections. The fome hypothesis was not wrong or mewithinformation; it was meeinformation.

Big Glove didn’t pay for the fomite research, and neither did Big Disinfectant (remember the distilleries that switched to hand sanitizer?). It was a reasonable effort of faith to use our available knowledge to fight an invisible being in which we fear.

The six foot rule

As it became more apparent that COVID is airborne, science turned its attention to our breath. We applied everything we knew about aerosols to determine how we could gather safely. As I wrote, the CDC’s decision to change its recommendation from six to three feet of distance between people in school was based on scientific research, not flip-flops. It was moving from earlier mineeinformation to later and better, new information. This is how our scientific enterprise works.

Preprints and Policy

“Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made. – Otto von Bismarck

One of the results of our early pandemic fears and the resulting urgency to prevent and treat COVID was that we, the public, were exposed to the sausage-making of “settled” science. Science has its own rhythm. It begins with individual studies shared initially between collaborating scientists and, when relevant, finding their first real mention at a national conference as a slide presentation. Otherwise, it will take several months for scientists to find a journal willing to publish their work and go through the six-month publication process. As consensus builds, this scientific information will find its place in yearbooks summarizing the year’s work in the field, and only much later will this science find its place in textbooks. The real fears of the pandemic interrupted this rhythm of science production with the increasing use and dependence on preprint materials.

Preprints were intended to quickly disseminate scientific findings to those interested in the field. They are the new digital form of collaboration, reaching people faster than a national conference call. They are at the beginning of the sausage making process and should be read and analyzed not so much with a keen eye as with knowledge. Once again, due to our public urgency and often out of an “abundance of caution”, we jumped from a piece of myeinformation about another; so did the politicians.

Should we forgive politicians for their judgments made for the best of meeinformation? Many of my colleagues, writing and tweeting, strongly condemned the actions of the politicians. Barrington’s Great Declaration, the value of masks, childhood vaccinations and school closures. Of course, they don’t actually make decisions that will lead to adverse financial or health consequences; they will not be held responsible for their words. I doubt they are disingenuous, but they are shielded from the burden of guilt for the lives and money lost by their actions. Actions speak louder than words.

Recognizing the role of myeinformation in the pandemic should temper some of the anger and lower the perceived high profile of the various accusers and fraudsters of our public health response. Obviously we can do better. We need to change our systems to make them more flexible and transparent. Continuing to attribute intent, to do no harm, or as part of some cabal to tear at our social fabric serves no useful purpose. Doctors make life and death decisions under uncertainty every day. We are often right, sometimes we are wrong. To improve our ability to choose well under uncertainty, we focus on improving our judgment and experience. The same goes for improving the responsiveness of our public health system.

[1] The logic of the filing cabinet is everywhere, the Atlantic Ocean

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