I spoke with Angeline Chew Longshore from The Mauimama about my article, “Using sociology to think critically about Coronavirus COVID-19 studies.” We talked about how I was motivated to write about the sociology of science because I saw so many people struggling to make sense of the pandemic. We discussed how national cultures are impacting responses to the virus, why precarious employment in healthcare is causing high rates of infection, and how we can better check whether the information we hear is credible.
The pandemic is scary, and so much conflicting advice can be difficult to sort through. A quick way in which we can make sense of what we think we hear in news and social media is to ask four questions:
- Why do I think this is true?
- Where did I get this information?
- Whose interest does it serve?
- Does this maintain the status quo?
If something seems too neat, or convenient, or only helps a narrow group in power, it is best we dig deeper into the theories, methods and conclusions. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Watch the video below, for which you can turn on captions. Otherwise read a transcription for accessibility further down.
Angeline Chew Longshore is in a room alone, discussing the idea of “pandemic misinformation,” which is how incorrect ideas are circulated during a crisis because people are afraid of the unknown.
Angeline Chew Longshore: So, because of all of this and I was thinking about misinformation and how dangerous it is, I reached out across the Pacific Ocean to a sociologist in Australia, because she wrote an article that caught my attention. It was about COVID misinformation and she wrote this article because she saw that her friends and her family were falling for all these different things that were falsehoods. So she thought, “OK I need to help them to really understand how to walk through any information out there, whether it’s an article, a YouTube video, or something posted on social media, so they can really think through critically what they’re looking at.” So, I interviewed her last night and so let’s bring her interview into the Zoom Room.
[Transition shows Angeline and me on a gallery view. I’m on the left of the screen; I am a light-Brown Latina with short dark hair and I wear a colourful top. Angeline is on the right; she is a Hawaiian woman of Asian appearance, wearing a summer dress]
Angeline: Hi Zuleyka, welcome to the CoronaMama Zoom Room.
Thanks for having me!
Angeline: Yes, you’re coming all the way from Australia!
Angeline: So introduce yourself to us and tell us what you do.
I’m a sociologist. As part of my paid work, I am a researcher for social policy and in my spare time I actually write about sociology for the public.
Angeline: OK so that’s where I came across your article. It was a little bit of it off your normal studies that you do. It was about using sociology to think critically about Coronavirus studies. So tell me what led you to write this article.
It was a reflection of what I had been seeing for a while since the pandemic broke out. In Australia, like in many different places, we were seeing media reports coming out of China about how the pandemic had spread there. Then it spread here in Australia. I saw a lot of confusion amongst my friends and family. My family network is as diverse as probably for many other people. I am Peruvian. I’m a migrant and we’re working class. But I’ve got friends who are professional as well. I was seeing these sort of patterns in lots of different people, regardless of what they do for a living. I was seeing several things that were striking, that led me to think: I really need to start doing something about this, given what I know as a sociologist
One of the first things that was coming to me is just the level of confusion amongst my friends and family. The directions about how to follow the social distancing—what should we do to protect ourselves from getting infected—was changing all the time. This is happened around the world, because what we’re seeing is unprecedented. Everybody is experiencing what it’s like to do science in real time. Usually when we’re trying to study a phenomenon, we are constantly asking new questions and then your data come along, so we revise our recommendations or conclusions. Because it is a pandemic that is completely new—that’s why it’s a novel Coronavirus pandemic — the information is constantly changing.
The other issue is that like in many countries, Australia has different level of governance. The federal government looks after aspects of the healthcare policies [e.g. federal government runs the aged care system], but at the state level, they’re in charge of hospitals and running the actual healthcare services. The different levels of government at the beginning [of the pandemic] were giving completely different information and people weren’t sure what to believe.
Angeline: That’s the same in the US.
Yes. That’s why you actually you see in the United States and in other countries, including Australia, where some states are really struggling and they have very high rates of infection and high death rates. That is happening here [Australia] as well, because different states have different infrastructure, and were [initially] following different advice. Eventually things did come together. But in Australia, it actually meant that the federal and state governments needed to reach a new agreement about how they were going to coordinate. It was quite unprecedented that they had to set up a new form of governance quite quickly. It was to deal with these conflicting information [and actions].
I was seeing this confusion with my family, many dividing things. Like early on, you might remember, that there were a lot of debates about masks. You know: do they help? Do they not help? Should we wear them? What type of mask?
Angeline: Here, in the US it’s still a big thing of people who are anti-mask or pro-mask. Unfortunately, it’s still a thing. There’s a lot of confusion. The confusion is partly driven by politics, let’s be honest.
But it’s also partly driven by the science. At the beginning, the World Health Organisation was not [specifically] recommending mask use. Part of the reason for that is—because we know from other scientific research, including behavioural research, which is what I do is my day job—sometimes, when we’re trying to get people to change their behaviour and do something completely new that they’re not used to, we have to think about what is the optimal outcome. If we introduce new things will that lead to some adverse outcomes that we weren’t expecting?
With masks, first of all, because it’s a new virus, we actually didn’t know fully how it spread. You remember that early on, people were comparing it to the flu. Well, it’s not like the flu, we know that absolutely now. But this is why scientific organisations, including the World Health Organisation, they wanted to collect data about what type of masks work, and will masks actually help. Early on, what was evident is that aspects of social distancing made the biggest impact to stop the spread of infection. That was washing your hands, as you know, for at least 20 second; keeping our physical distance from other people; and observing some of the other rules that are now commonplace. But they weren’t at the beginning. It sounds silly to some now, but washing your hands for 20 seconds that in itself such a simple behaviour that, as you know, has taken a lot of work. That’s years of socialisation [we have to undo], because we’re not used to constantly washing our hands.
Actually, there’s a lot of research showing that even in health care, where they’re very, very busy and they understand why you need to regularly wash your hands, they also needed some coaching around this as well. When governments were trying to get people to follow social distancing rules, we knew some of these norms we’re not used to doing. We’re not used to being far away from people. We’re not used to not hugging our friends and shaking hands with colleagues when we see them. Policy makers and health experts wanted to correct for something that’s known as the backfire effect. Other [behavioural] research shows that if we are trying to initially get people to wash their hands, to focus on one of the key behaviours, and keep distance, it could have been that masks actually led to people to then not washing their hands frequently, and getting a little bit lax. This is where science is evolving. The World Health Organisation commissioned research and then they were able to give us—probably about a month or two ago—conclusive evidence that actually these the types of masks that help. And, yes, wearing at least a cloth mask is better than no mask at all.
We need to keep watching those behaviours, seeing whether people wearing masks might lead to them thinking, “Well, that’s my protective barrier. Maybe I don’t need to stay the full 1.5 metre distance.”
When ordinary people, like my family, and your friends, and your audience—when we’re hearing this conflicting information and we don’t understand how science works, you would have seen a lot of people spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories. I’ve seen a lot of people, even my friends who are very educated, talking about: “Well, why didn’t that World Health Organisation tell us from the very beginning, if they knew all along? It’s a conspiracy!” It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just the nature of science that when we’re going to do public health initiatives, we need it to be evidence based.
Angeline: It’s so interesting because of the fact that people—the lay person—does not know how it normally works, and how long it takes to go through the full research studies. It’s not just one study there’s multiple studies. I did cover medical news for a while. If they don’t know how long it takes, and all the different things that are involved, then of course they’re going to say: “Well, we’re getting all these different things, so there must be something behind.” It’s a sort of suspicion, because there’s such an unknown and we’re in this survival mode of fear around the information. People like to sort of grasp onto what they know. It’s to maintain control, it seems. Isn’t that right?
Absolutely. This is a time that people are afraid. People want what’s best for themselves and their family. We keep seeing behaviours that are a problem, where people are purposefully not following social distancing. Now that we know that masks are important, we do see people who talk about it in terms of human rights. It is not a human right to not wear a mask.
Most people wouldn’t understand that every government around the world have laws already in place that actually override individual freedoms. People don’t always understand how social policies are generated, why they exist, and how they impact our lives. Because we are now currently living globally through pandemic, it’s kind of brought these issues to the forefront. Even in democratic countries, the law can force us to stay home. The law can compel us to wear a mask. Individual rights that we have don’t apply during a pandemic. That’s what public health order are about. We’re seeing people not used to dealing with these dynamics in certain countries, like Australia and the United States. However, if you’d look at other countries who have lived through various pandemics and epidemics, they are more readily able to follow and shift and listen to direction.
In some Asian cultures, people are already are socialised to wear a mask because it’s considered respectful to not spread your germs. People would have seen this when they visit other countries. They were already primed, in some of these countries where they’d already been through SARS and other epidemics recently. So they were ready. People were ready. The infrastructure was ready. This is why in other provinces that initially had a high rate of infection, they were able to control it a lot quicker than some other countries. And why second waves of the infection are affecting some regions of the world, but not necessarily others.
Angeline: When I think about the difference of the interdependence versus the independence, Asian cultures really do care about each other so much more, because their typically multi-generationally living together. They depend on each other just culturally in a different way. In the US, that American spirit of freedom, you know, we are based on kind of being rebellious and really taking our freedoms to heart. In your unbiased opinion, from a different country, does it seem that because of this idea of freedom that we are actually worse off spreading the disease based on these ideals that we have?
If you look at the responses of different countries, culture is having a major impact on policy as well as how different public health orders are being managed and how individuals are reacting. In countries like the United States, which has a very specific history of colonisation, and a specific story that many people tell about what it means to be American—which is as you described it to be, a bastion of personal freedom. It does lead to the protests that we’re seeing globally, particularly, say, in the United States, where people are kind of talking about their personal freedom to not wear a mask. Or we are seeing obviously many videos of individuals being very angry when shops are trying to enforce public orders—so they’re doing the right thing. Then you see these people defending their right to not wear a mask, or their right to breathe, which is very different to other countries.
The interesting thing is national cultures, even the myths that we tell about our different national cultures, are impacting how governments are able to control the infection. In some countries, where people have a high trust of government, like the Netherlands, like Scandinavian countries; they have a far higher trust in their public officials. When they get directions they’re more likely to follow them. Those countries have also had very different approaches, and therefore different outcomes. For example, many countries have used SMS as one vehicle for governments to communicate their public health orders. I don’t know if you had that in Hawaii where you had text messages about the infection?
Angeline: We only have it for emergency services. That’s interesting. I think that’s because of the fears of Big Brother-ish idea, that if it’s in your phone, then they know where you are. They’re spying on you. So in a way, a conspiracy theory mindset. Maybe that actually would be helpful, but you know, there’s—I guess—that idea that doesn’t play over well with people and so they are reticent to actually do that.
Very interesting. Very interesting. ‘Cause, a lot of countries have been using SMS and apps to help their citizens be prepared for the current wave, as well as potentially future actions. When, you know, the government in the Netherlands, for example, they have been sending out texts at the beginning of the on pandemic just giving directions about what was happening, what they needed to do to prepare—and people don’t fight. They don’t have that reaction you just described. People are just used to their government having their best interests at heart. It’s not that everybody loves the government, it’s that trust is far higher, and that they’re more likely to therefore follow those directions.
In Australia were probably in between. There have been text messages used to inform the public. Interestingly, the federal government created an app which is a version of an app that’s been used very successfully in other countries, including Singapore, to give people advice to track [infection], when you’re out and about. It captures information about when you are out, if there are people around you—you are probably familiar with these—if there are people who have the same app, should you be exposed to infection, you’ll get an alert on your phone. [Note: it’s not working as intended in Australia, because Australians distrust the app.]
Angeline: I have heard about these things. We don’t have that—I believe it’s called geofencing? That’s something that has been talked about just recently in Hawaii, for the hotel resorts. So that if we had visitors that they could have sort of a wristband that would allow them to utilise all the services within the resort. And other people can’t come in to use them. But it also detects if they are getting closer to the borders where they’re not supposed to be going, outside of the hotel bubble. They’re talking about doing you know to help the economy. To bring in tourists but do it safely.
I think the mindset for our governmental leaders is that they don’t want to they want to utilise things, where we feel like we’re being protected but not abused, you know? Just the surveillance or the any kind of our rights are being taken away, or we were being spied upon. All those are really big fears. There’s very big camps that are divided with that.
I would say we haven’t had a top down leadership that is been giving us a clear message of: “Here’s how we do this together.” So, in a sense, like you were saying, your governments, state and federal, came together. Well, our federal has said: “You states figure it out.” I’m not wanting to be political here, but that’s just the fact of it. So everyone, every little state is scrambling. Each area has hotspots that are rising for different reasons. We are able to cross borders so there’s not that overarching umbrella that’s helping us to maintain something, so that we could just flatten the curve altogether. Then there’s one that pops up here and there. Then people can cross borders wherever, that is, to spread it.
It’s really interesting how our culture really determines so much. I mean there is reactionary back and forth, from the freedoms, and the belief systems, and the policy that is actually put in place. I find that fascinating because there’s too many people that would react, so they’re not going to do the geofencing nationwide. They’re too afraid to do that. Then federally, it’s sort of hands off, in a sense. I’m not going to say why, or get into that, but that’s just how it is. It’s so interesting in each state they are doing what that particular governor [wants]. Or even our Mayor in Maui is having different thoughts than the mayor in Oahu. Each of us can look to our leader, and there’s all these different ideas.
Fortunately, Hawaii has sort of come together with Governor [David] Ige. They’ve had discussions together, to really coordinate. That’s not happening nationwide though. We’re lucky that we have an ocean, which is a little bit of a border, that, you know, we can keep people out, but not for so long. We do depend on each other, as we do worldwide, because we are going to eventually open up again one day worldwide. We have to, I think, take care of each other. But then we have these cultural issues impacting understanding for countries.
It’s so interesting, because, you’ve touched on exactly public health. So with a pandemic, it makes zero sense, at least regions within countries or states, to have different practises. That’s why it’s a pandemic. A pandemic, the definition from Health Science, is about the how fast the disease can spread. The death rate, this is why it’s become—we know that it’s more lethal than the Spanish Flu, which is one of the another global pandemic that had a large impact. One of the things that the World Health Organisation and other international scientific agencies have said over and over is that we need to coordinate together as a one. It’s interesting, because globalisation has been a fact for decades now, through the ease of travel and changes to national laws around travel. It’s interesting because if one country manages to beat COVID-19, it’s great; but as you just mentioned, if they ever want to open up and stimulate the economy effectively, without another wave of infection, it matters what the country beside them is doing. Or what the country across waters is doing.
All of this leads to confusion. It’s really a time for us to rethink whether we are as individualistic as we say we are. And what are the costs. When you describe the individualistic norms of America which completely dominates national culture— it’s amazing that healthcare is it set up in the American system not as a universal right. So we’re seeing these patterns in the United States and elsewhere. Even in Australia, we do have universal healthcare which, positions us to respond differently to the pandemic. However, you know, if you’re working class person or a poor person, access to healthcare is different. Here, we’re seeing the second wave is much more lethal than the first wave. The first wave was when people were returning from overseas. Now [in the second wave], more people are dying, particularly in the state of Victoria, especially in healthcare—older people. You know, the fountain of knowledge that so many families rely on. Many older people are dying and the highest rates of infection are amongst first responders, health workers; people who are precariously employed. They’re working in aged care. They’re working in hospitals. They don’t have the same protections, the same rights, as, say, someone like me. I work in an office and I have access to sick leave. But they don’t. It’s a casualised workforce. So even here, we have universal healthcare but the way in which that happens on the ground, at the everyday level, is having an impact.
In America, in really big cities, the patterns in Los Angeles and New York—it’s primarily Black and other Hispanic, and another racial minority people who are being infected. It’s because they are the frontline workers. They do most of the work delivering the services that we need. They have to work. And if they don’t work, more people get sick. Right? It makes no sense that their rights are unprotected.
In Australia, we are now currently having an inquiry into what happened with the first wave. Now we’re going to need an inquiry about what led to the second wave, because the casualisation of the health care workforce is responsible for the spread of the second wave here, and in other places. Certainly in America as well.
Angeline: Well, because we still have controllable numbers, hopefully people can think about what you’re saying and realise that it can be a small group of people that can completely start spreading it, and even though we’ve heard of it’s exponential spread. But in the actions of just a group of people small group of people can make a difference.
To get into the part about the article that you wrote, and how people are just taking this information that they read and, out of fear, and out of what they’ve heard and what their friends are thinking, they extrapolate that this is the truth. They glom onto that and I think you’ve talked about that in your article is confirmation bias. Can you explain that?
Sure. So confirmation biases, that describes how, when people have very rigid opinions about the world—and we all have them about different things. But when we feel very strongly about one particular belief, rather than looking to grow our mindset, grow our awareness of underlying causes and issues and look broader than what we know; confirmation bias is where people do the opposite. Instead, they will look for information that confirms their belief rather than disproves their belief. It’s different for different people, but certainly we see it a lot in health. People have very strong ideas about vaccines, for example, or they have very strong opinions about their idea of rights. Which is very narrow definition of what it means to have right individual rights. So instead of thinking let me read different types of opinions, they will actually actively seek out information that just validates what they already believe.
Why this is an issue is when we’re trying to get people to follow social distancing rules and to be more aware about public health in ways that they haven’t been before, instead we have this tidal wave of information that people have to make sense of. In some senses it’s making people double down on their belief, because there’s so much information out there that they have to think about. With confirmation bias, usually people are going to reject something that requires them to do things a little bit differently. So if you really don’t want to wear a mask, then you’re going to start to believe conspiracy theories that they don’t work. Or that it’s an invasion of privacy. Instead of actually looking at it: well, maybe let’s read more about collective rights. Let’s read about what the legislation says about public health orders. Let me try and understand why wearing a mask protects the people I love. It’s not you’re not taking something from me, by asking me to wear a mask; I’m actually protecting the people that I love and my community.
The idea of confirmation bias is people are just so used to now [arguing]. Social media hasn’t changed this; it’s just amplified what people were already doing, which is, people prefer to get into arguments. We talk about voicing our opinion, but really we’re just voicing our biases.
My article is trying to look at ways to help the public to maybe unpack their own beliefs. There are lots of tips that we can think about. Very basically, if you want to sort of test your own confirmation bias—if I would encourage audience to think about: what’s one thing that they believe is true about COVID-19? A really quick way to check your own confirmation bias is to say to yourself:
Why do I believe this?
Where did I get this information from?
Whose interest does it serve?
And does it serve the status quo?
If you think about that checklist for people who might believe that: “I don’t need to wear a mask.” If they think about: where did they get that information? They did not get it from doctors. They did not get it from scientific experts on health. They need to say: “Okay, maybe I’m being drawn into confirmation bias.”
If I think about the question: who’s interests are served—what happens if I wear a mask? I protect the people I love. I protect nurses. I protect doctors. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
You know, if I don’t wear a mask whose interest does it serve? Well, actually, it’s gonna mean that people around me are going to get sick. And that I might get sick. That my grandparents might get sick and actually die.
Is it the status quo? Well, at the moment, not wearing a mask has really big implications. It’ll mean that the pandemic will just be protracted. It will be drawn out for a lot longer. Is that something that people really want? If they are upset that they have to wear a mask when they go shopping now think about how upset they’ll be if they have to keep wearing a mask for another two years.
Angeline: I like how you go down that list. At the same time, being the devil’s advocate of thinking about how other people think—this is not my view—but other people would say:
“Well, you know I heard from this epidemiologist on Facebook or on YouTube. I heard that it serves the interests actually, of say, the people who have the power and have the money, like the Bill Gates or the whomever. That they feel like are trying to make money off of people buying a vaccine. I mean those are the big things and then the 5G; but that’s part of the whole thing to really surveil, or and or to control. Or, you know and there was even something about a chip. That wasn’t really part of the real study—that people are saying well that can be injected, and then they can follow you around and know where you go.”
So those are the things that are being floated around as actually real things. So when we go down that list, how do we know what’s incredible and not credible, as far as sources?
Well, yes, it’s a great question! I think many people fall into this trap. I was engaging this very well-known journalist who was on Twitter, basically having a conversation with his followers, saying that COVID-19 is a disease of the privileged. He was going back and forth with his followers. I said: “Okay. Where did you get this information?” I went through the checklist, basically: “Which scientific study was cited? What do you mean by privilege?” And he said, “Oh, here’s an example,” and he linked to a story, on a credible news site, which is ABC News. Then I said: “Well, that study doesn’t actually say what you just said. Where does it say, like point me where? It doesn’t even mention the word ‘privilege,’ not once.” And I said: “Where are the scientific studies? He doesn’t reference any scientific studies they’ve just got quotes from different experts.” I said: “This is an old news story from May.” With the pandemic, information—as we were talking about earlier—changes pretty much every day. But when you ask random experts—I know that it’s hard. It’s hard to distinguish. To think, “Well this person is a doctor. All these people are epidemiologists.” Because we have so much information that we’re trying to make sense of the kind of.
Some of the things that people can look to is, if they haven’t linked to us to an actual scientific study that’s a first red flag for you. That it’s probably just someone’s opinion. I’ve got a PHD. I can have an opinion about masks, and whether or not this mask is better than that mask, but unless I’m looking to a scientific study that you yourself can go back to, and try and work through it, then you probably shouldn’t believe me. Because it’s going to be the same as asking somebody who works at a convenience store what they think about masks. Right?
Angeline: Right. So, in your article, you had cited something. I’m trying to remember what it was. There was a study that the meaning some journalist or some media outlet that took from a study. They misunderstood it. So do you recall which one that was? Can you tell us about that?
Yes. So that was the study by Poletti and colleagues; an Italian scientist. They were looking at one region in Italy, Lombardi, and they were looking at which age groups have a lower probability of developing COVID-19. The abstract says that young people in Lombardi have a lower probability of developing COVID-19. The media picked this up, saying kids can’t get COVID-19.
Angeline: So that study, that’s where all of our belief is from? This study that was misread that was saying it’s safe?
Yes, it’s one of the studies. Then that led to an extrapolation again. So you can see how we’ve already gone very far away [from the original meaning]. The study says the probabilityof developing COVID-19. The probability is different than certainty, right? The next step is to interpret that to mean, “Kids can’t get COVID-19.” To the next phase, which is what the media picked up: that it’s safe to reopen schools. And that is not what the study says at all. So that’s what happens with media stories, is sometimes they’ll report it, and they very rarely, unfortunately, very rarely link to the original study. So it is harder for the layperson to then—’cause how are you going to Google it? You know, if you don’t understand the scientific literature?
Which is why in these instances it’s so important for the public to maybe move away from just consuming media from narrow sources. There are so many researchers scientists who are putting out really plain language valuable information. And trying to increase scientifically literacy of the public. In this case, what scientists did is, on social media, they actually looked at the original study and what that showed is that, well the abstract said one thing, and then the media had misinterpreted the information. We need to think about things like what was the original study was looking at. That’s the first thing you need to think about: what was the original intent of the study? You need to think about: what sample did they use? For example, is it a randomised sample, where everybody in society had an equal chance of being included in the study? Or have they just focused on narrow group of people? In fact, most studies that have been misinterpreted to say that kids have a lower rate of infection we should treat them with caution, because a lot of them are looking at very narrow sample sets. It’s fine it’s fine for studies to focus on specific sample sizes, if that’s what they’re trying to look at. The problem is in interpreting the that small subset can be extrapolated to say something about the disease more broadly.
If you look at the original studies, there will always have a limitation section that tells the reader if you’re going to interpret our finding, this is what you need to know. In that particular study, it was really looking at the fact that children are much less likely to have over symptoms of COVID. That’s what keeps coming up again and again in scientific studies. It’s not that kids are less likely to spread it, necessarily; it’s that kids are being underdiagnosed, because they have milder symptoms. We’re so used to seeing kids pick up a cough or a sniffle, and parents think, you know: “They’ll shake it off. It’s just a bug.” When, in fact, what looks more likely, is that kids are picking up the virus but they’re being misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed. That’s certainly the case in many cities, including in the second wave of Wuhan. Because kids who were being tested there, for example, they were using a different method. Or using, you know, temperature checks, which is not as accurate as a nasal swabs. There are other tests that have been developed, like saliva tests, which are good for kids, but they’re not as accurate as the nasal swab. Nasal swabs are uncomfortable, and so parents also don’t want their kids to go through that.
So we need to think about: “Well, when they’re looking at the sample what are the specifics of the group they’re studying? What were they actually setting out to find?” None of these studies have actually have actually set out to prove that it’s safe for kids back at school. What scientists are trying to work out is rate of infection. They’re trying to work out: how does COVID-19 present in different subgroups? If you come across a study, or hear somebody talking about a study, it’s always worth, maybe, you know [rethinking].
Those academic papers are hard to read at the best of times. There’s a lot of it is technical language. But that’s why it’s good to start looking at what other scientists are saying. Start reading that as part of your daily reading. Don’t necessarily just rely on mainstream media. ‘Cause some of those reports are biased. The media is biased. But scientists have a broader commitment to working out how the virus is actually spreading. They’re not motivated—as a whole—the scientific community is not motivated by money, or any of these conspiracy theories. They’re just trying to work out what’s happening live in real time. That’s why we’re constantly updating what we think we know. We’re testing different hypotheses. The public needs to understand that. And know that there are scientists who will answer your specific questions if you write to them on Twitter on Facebook. They will answer your questions. It’s much better to go to someone like that than to tune into some random person giving their personal opinion.
Angeline: We have to look at the fact that there are some people who want to open schools for certain reasons, political reasons, economic reasons—mainly a lot of political reasons. So they’ll take a study like that and say: “Oh well, this fits so we can hold it up and say, ‘Here’s why we can open schools.’” But as we see now, schools are opening, and infections are happening. So if we can look back and kind of reverse engineer how these belief systems came to be, where they took the information, and waved it. But now we can see how they’re taking these sources and they’re utilising it. So we have to be a sceptic. We have to look at everything as: “Is this true?,” and let’s look beyond what the sensational headline is, and what’s being put out there. Because I know, being somebody from the media, that there is a headline. A responsible reporter will do the responsible thing and put the real study information in there. But I can’t say every media person will add is responsible. You know, I don’t want to step on any toes or anything, like that. You know that’s why I’m hesitating. But what we need to do is to be responsible for our own information. It sounds like you’re saying who we can trust are the people who are doing the work. The actual studies. And to look for that study.
What I do is I take that study name and I Google it. I try to find the actual study. Then I looked down even beyond the abstract. Sometimes you see the abstract which is sort of a summation of the study. I will say: “Oka. I got the gist. But now let me see really see what the were trying to prove. Does it have anything to do with that thing in the article? That could have been kind of formed to prove a point in the article. Because there’s always a point, you know. I guess some people say it’s biased; well there is a point that’s trying to be proved. And sometimes that things get utilised to prove that.
One of the questions is: is science reliable? For us, that means can we replicate it? Can we take these findings and apply them to everyone? That’s what that’s the point I made about sample sizes. If the sample is very narrow—one of the reasons why we need to look at narrow samples when we’re trying to build out theories and develop our ideas. Sometimes it’s valid to look at a narrow group. For example: we need to look at people who are more vulnerable to dying from COVID. But then we look at the limitations of those methods. So they’ve looked at a narrow population that probably tells you that it can’t be applied to everybody. So we can’t extrapolate from these findings to everyone.
So think about those methods. Do the abstract, methods and conclusions and match? Then the other thing is validity: did the researcher do what they set out to find? So, what was their research question to begin with? That’s always clear, that’s always plain to see. Then do their conclusions match. It’s rare for scientists to make those big leaps. That’s why we say, you know: big claims require big evidence. If they’re saying something that’s outside of what the scientific community already believes, then they better back it up with amazing data. So if they’re saying: “It is 100% safe to reopen schools,” you know that study is saying something that the rest of the scientific community around the world has not agreed on. That’s a red flag you gotta think about. Keep your critical thinking questions, ’cause the likelihood that study is going to prove that conclusively is very low. We know that because work around the world is showing that the outcomes at schools are, that it’s not that simple. In fact, we would be very surprised by anything that that was able to prove that it’s 100% safe to send kids back to school.
It’s the same sort of method with any of the other big claims you’re hearing about. Anyone who says, for example: “This this is the cure. Inject this substance. Or do this and you’ll never get COVID.” That’s a red flag because the entire scientific community has agreed that we still don’t understand how this virus behaves. We don’t know what long term outcomes are. We’re seeing patterns associated with chronic illness for people who get sick, even after recovery. So that tells us already, that this far in, we don’t know enough about it. So when there are big claims, then that’s where you’ve got to think about: What are the methods? What were their research questions? Do the conclusions match what they set out to do? Is the sample representative?
When you’re hearing media stories that seem to be too good to be true, or which serve the interests of people in power, elite groups, or only serving the interests of some, then that’s another red flag. Where we’ve got to think about: Well maybe I need to get other perspectives on this study, or on this issue. Let me look at what other scientists are saying.” There are lots of amazing podcasts and social media accounts that are out there.
One of the quick tests is actually is that person followed by other scientists? You’ll see because scientists will call each other out. That’s what science is about, where constantly debating. There have been examples of some people who set themselves as experts on COVID. You will see that the scientists will be there in the comments, constantly saying: “That’s not true. That’s not true. That’s not true.” Have a think about how the scientific community is reacting to different experts. That’s another really good red flag to think more critically.
Angeline: When we’re looking at all that we have to realise that this is an ongoing thing that scientists are not sure about. And that we’ve got to be okay with that too. Because there are, at this moment, no definitive answers. I think we all have to be wary of those definitive answers, when it wraps it up too neatly. That, okay. Of course, we want to believe those neatly wrapped packages of answers. It’s like, oh proven. Oh, this secret thing was going on, now it makes sense. But to be OK with the unknown and bits and pieces. Sort of like, we’re in an investigator, and we’re in the middle of a case. And we got this shred of actual evidence, and this is hearsay. So, like, to take all those pieces and to not really know but just distil.
[Angeline looks at the low light behind her, through her window.] Oh it’s getting dark in here!
Just to be comfortable, with; here are the things that we do know. And here are the things that are sort of grey area. So I’m going to operate with this set of knowledge. And tomorrow, or in an hour, it can change. To sort of be nimble and flexible with all of that, as we move forward. Realising everyone’s in this in the same way. No one knows everything. There is no definitive. We all are not immune to misinformation or to misunderstanding. And that it doesn’t make us wrong, or bad, or stupid. Or, if we read something like, “Oh that sounds so amazing!,” and for a second you believe it. Then you have to step back. You know, we all have a tendency to want to find that silver bullet, or the answer. So I just wanted to acknowledge that. That we shouldn’t feel bad, that that’s our reaction. I started saying something, but I just you know, this is really so helpful. Because I think there there’s not a lot of people who have really thought of how am I going to figure this out. We are inundated, and so many of us are overwhelmed. So thank you so much. And I would love to talk to you about more things in the future. I’m sure that will have you on the show more for more. There’s so many topics that I think you and I can talk about. It’s been great chatting. It’s been amazing. Thank you. Is there any last words that you need you feel compelled to say?
No. But I think the in the spirit of where you wrapped us up, you know, one of the—I guess—opportunities from the pandemic, if you like, is to reignite our inquisitive nature. All of us are inquisitive and curious. This is a really good time to sort of go back to the way kids look at the world. They ask so many questions. And you’re right—we don’t know what’s happening. Nobody knows that where we’re going to end up, how the pandemic will continue to evolve. But it’s really good to take our cues from kids and ask basic questions and be humble. We need to change our mindset.
Angeline: I love that! I love that. Well it’s daytime for you over there. Are you going to be zooming off somewhere today?
Back to my paid work!
Angeline: Yes, well good! Good for you that you have a job that you can go to! That’s awesome.
I don’t take it for granted!
Angeline: Yes. So nice to meet you. Thank you for your time. This is really wonderful.
Angeline: Thank you again.
[Cuts away to Angeline solo]
Okay. So do you know feel like you have a system to think through things critically? Well, I guess I was doing that already I didn’t realise it, but now I feel even better.