As we enter into the fifth month of coping with COVID-19, our nation faces three separate crises: a public health crisis with the virus itself, an economic crisis as a result of sweeping shutdowns and government mandates, and—most recently—a crisis of information overload.
We have experienced information whiplash over an extremely short amount of time—from having the nation’s leading medical experts tell us there was no need to change our behavior to panic-induced shutdowns based on a now-widely discredited model and draconian policy decisions based on limited, inexact, or downright faulty science.
The whiplash has caused us to settle into tribes of affirmation, distrusting everyone who does not agree with our theories—or, worse yet, not trusting anyone or anything at all. Each day, the public is inundated with new information—but largely without context or clarity. We all yearn for truth, but as the divisions among us become greater, deciphering fact from fiction is proving to be difficult, if not impossible.
Our symptoms are more representative of an “infodemic” than a pandemic—and the infodemic may be more dangerous to the long-term health of our society than the virus.
Science—both the time-tested facts we can trust and the half-baked hypotheses that seem to permeate the airwaves—shapes our behavior. Solid science can help us manage—but not eliminate—the risks we face in our everyday lives. Life is never without risk. But armed with clear and accurate information that we can trust, people can make decisions that manage and mitigate risks, including what household cleaners or garden supplies to use, what cars to drive, or what medicines to take.
Unfortunately, this infodemic of fear is not a new concept for our country. Faulty or “opportunistic” science— quackery—can trigger ungrounded fear resulting in panic-buying binges, calls for outright bans of perfectly safe products, and frivolous lawsuits that attempt to force companies to make financial settlements or risk their reputational integrity.
Perhaps it is time we emerge from our protective cocoons and begin to understand that science is a search for the truth, but that few scientific truths are immediate. In fact, most evolve over time. The latest and greatest Covid models are not truths, they are merely educated guesses. And, while observations and hypotheses are key elements of the scientific method, they must be tested, replicated, and peer reviewed before they can be considered truths.
Our nation is learning the hard way that speed and truth do not go hand in hand when it comes to determining scientific facts. But with patience and perseverance, the truth will emerge from what sometimes seems like an impenetrable fog. Let’s hope that one of the byproducts of the Covid crisis is a restoration of our respect for the fact-based scientific evidence that allows us to manage the risks we face every day and make informed decisions for ourselves, our families, and our communities.