Tag Archives: science

Misinformation Matters

A good friend of ours, originally from Canada, left his faculty position in Indianapolis and moved to Ottawa to assume a position as President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies, or CCA.

Knowing my preoccupation with media and misinformation, he has shared some intriguing research from an expert panel appointed by the CCA. That research delved into the effects of misinformation on science and health, going beyond the typical hand-wringing over the extent of misinformation and its potential harms, and looking instead at the nature and extent of quantifiable damage done by widespread dissemination of patently wrong information.

As a news release explained

Considerable and mounting evidence shows that misinformation has led to illness and death from unsafe interventions and products, vaccine preventable diseases, and a lack of adherence to public health measures, with the most vulnerable populations bearing the greatest burden. The Expert Panel on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation estimates that misinformation cost the Canadian healthcare system at least $300 million during nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.

While combatting misinformation is a complex and long-term challenge, the report details several measures that have shown promise. Ensuring that accurate health and science information is widely accessible and is communicated honestly, understandably, and by trusted messengers can help insulate people from misinformation. Identifying, labelling, and debunking misinformation can also be effective, as are measures that better equip individuals to sort through the increasingly complex information environment, particularly the promotion of critical thinking and media and science literacy in school curricula.

You can access the entire report here.Some of the findings struck me as particularly significant, especially the description of when, why and how people come to accept what the panel calls “misinformation” and I would probably label conspiracy theories and lies.

Misinformation is designed to appeal to emotion and–as the report notes–intended to exploit our “cognitive shortcuts.” We are all susceptible to it, especially in times of crisis.

Science and health misinformation damages our community well-being through otherwise preventable illnesses, deaths, and economic losses, and our social well-being through polarization and the erosion of public trust. These harms often fall most heavily on the most vulnerable.

The research found a number of outcomes directly attributable to the spread and acceptance of misinformation; they included: Illness, poisoning, and death from unsafe health interventions and products; Illness and death from communicable and vaccine-preventable diseases; money wasted on disproven products and services; susceptibility to further and potentially more insidious forms of misinformation; increased healthcare and societal costs; and Inaction on or delay of public policy responses.

Misinformation contributes to a lack of adherence to public health measures and to vaccine hesitancy, which can result in vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, increased healthcare costs, and elevated risk to the health and well-being of vulnerable populations. Misinformation also amplifies social divisions, which have resulted in overt conflict and violence, often directed at racialized communities. Furthermore, the consequences of science and health misinformation are not borne equally — for instance, negative health impacts during the COVID-19 pandemic have been found to disproportionately affect the well-being of racialized and other underserved communities, exacerbating existing inequalities.

Where possible, panel members put numbers to these generalized descriptions, estimating that widely circulated misinformation about COVID-19 had cost the Canadian healthcare system “at least $300 million in hospital and ICU visits between March 1 and November 30, 2021.” That number did not include the costs of outpatient medication, physician compensation, or long COVID.

And for obvious reasons, the panel was unable to estimate what it called “broader societal costs.” Those included such difficult-to-quantify effects as “delayed elective surgeries, social unrest, moral injury to healthcare workers, and the uneven distribution of harms borne by communities.”

The negative consequences of misinformation are–obviously–not confined to citizens of Canada. In the absence of credible, trustworthy information that is widely trusted and accepted, it proliferates. In the U.S., political data confirms the harm: the MAGA folks who rejected vaccination (evidently believing it to be some sort of nefarious liberal plot) died of COVID in far larger numbers than the independents and Democrats who trusted the science.

The question is: what can be done to counter the confusion and reduce the damage sowed by purveyors of propaganda and inaccurate information? One answer is clearly education, especially science education.  (That conclusion supports concerns over the metastasizing  voucher programs that are sending students to private, predominantly religious schools–many of which have been found to teach creationism in lieu of science).

When citizens don’t inhabit the same evidence-based reality, both individual and social health are compromised–sometimes fatally.


That Sagan Quote…

Tomorrow, we begin 2022– a new year. It promises to be a turning point–since I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the barbarians are at the gate.

The divisions that characterize our “body politic” are deep, and every day appear more insurmountable. As yesterday’s post noted, we are rapidly approaching a point where the country will choose between two seemingly irreconcilable visions of what it means to be an American.

Or for that matter, a human. 

I can’t describe the stakes as well as Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan did in their 1995 book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.”A widely quoted observation from that book rings eerily prescient.

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…

The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”

The only element of our current landscape that that quote from Sagan didn’t predict is the “silo-ing” of that “enormously influential” American media–and the consequential division between those of us who occupy a credible, if confusing, evidence-based reality, and those whose “research” and selective media consumption lead them to…goodness knows where.

Somewhere else.

Credible and substantive information remains available, so we still have a choice–we can still opt for reality, messy and ambiguous as that reality is. But I don’t know how long that choice will be available. The institutional mechanisms of democratic government are being steadily appropriated by a barbarian cult composed of White Supremicists– along with the venal, the frightened and the ignorant. I worry that our window of opportunity for defeating that cult is closing.

The Democrats can’t do it alone–especially when they’re burdened with faux Senate Democrats like Manchin.

If at least a couple of “good guys”– aka honorable adult Republican politicians living in the real world and having the guts to speak truth to power– are ever going to show up, this would be a really good time.

Happy New Year….

An Inflection Point

I just watched one of those “viral” videos of people protesting–almost rioting–against a mandate that they wear a mask. If I were being kind, I would say that their complaints were uninformed. More accurately, their commentaries ranged from stupid to selfish to deranged. 

If protesting the wearing of masks to prevent transmission of a virus was the only symptom of American irrational behavior these days, that would be concerning enough, but these people are also, clearly, Trump voters. And for the past four years, I have struggled to understand the psychology of people who can look at this aggressively ignorant President with his pathetic make-up, listen to his inarticulate word-salads, read his childish and ungrammatical tweets, and think “Yes! That’s someone who should represent my country abroad, and control the nuclear codes.”

The United States is at an inflection point. Where we go from here will depend upon how we respond to the pandemic, to climate change, and to unacceptable levels of economic inequality, among other challenges–and whether those responses improve our society or further debase it will depend upon whether we decisively eject Trump, his appalling administration and his GOP enablers. 

That, in turn, will depend upon the number of voters who think wearing a mask deprives them of “freedom” and believe the ludicrous buffoon in the White House is doing a great job.

Political science research has convincingly tied Trump support to racism, and that relationship has become quite clear–but when you think about it, the persistence of so much virulent racism despite some 50 years in which society has (slowly) changed, and during which Black and White Americans have increasingly come to know each other as individuals is a puzzle of its own.

Why are these people so angry and hateful? Why does the loss of unearned social dominance enrage them? What do they fear?

It’s true that bigotry increases in tough economic times, but many of these people are financially comfortable. It’s also true that these attitudes are more prevalent among the  uneducated, but I know a lot of people who never went to college who are “salt of the earth” and I have also encountered plenty of racists with advanced degrees. 

One of Paul Krugman’s email letters (I don’t have a link) suggested to me that the answer may lie in an inability to live with ambiguity. Krugman was discussing Trump’s dismissal of science in general and climate change in particular, and noted that epidemiology, climatology and  economics all require the modeling of complex systems in which no prediction ends up being exactly right. Certainty eludes us.

Science and technology have created a world of constant change and multiple shades of gray.

The scientific method rests on consistent efforts to falsify prior results. Political ideologies and economic theories inform legislation that in practice often generates unintended consequences and sends us back to the drawing board. Religious diversity challenges fundamentalism. Technology continually upends everything from transportation to communication. All of these influences combine to open new intellectual vistas and cast doubt on the old– and that process inevitably changes the culture.

As I tell my students, the two phrases I hope they use more often after leaving my class are “it depends” and “it’s more complicated than that.”

A significant percentage of humans evidently cannot deal with an environment characterized by ambiguity and change, with a lack of “bright lines” and universally-accepted certainties–and as a result, they reject the possibility that people who look, love or worship differently from themselves have as much claim to humanity and respect as they do. 

In November, I guess we’ll find out how numerous they are.




Herd Immunity

As we get  closer to November 3d, Trump and his sycophants are becoming more agitated about polls that show His Orangeness losing.  Those negative polling results rest in significant part on the widespread ( entirely accurate) perception that Trump has failed spectacularly when it comes to protecting the public against the Coronavirus.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we are now hearing about a vaccine that might be ready on November 1st (that date is just a coincidence, of course), or that we are seeing the White House ramp up efforts  to distract from the sort of  sound, science-based advice being offered by actual experts like Dr. Fauci. One of  the more misleading  messages  emanating from the administration involves promises  about achieving “herd  immunity,” so  today I  thought I’d turn the  bulk of  the  blog over  to my cousin the cardiologist, whom I  often quote on these  matters. (You can read his blog, aimed at debunking “Snake Oil” remedies, here.)

This time, he  addresses the  question: What Is Herd Immunity?

Herd immunity occurs when a high percentage of a given population is immune to a disease, either from having recovered from an infection, or having received a prior vaccination. The end result is the prevention of subsequent outbreaks, or epidemics, of the disease within that population. The exact threshold for herd immunity depends on the specific disease, especially on how easily the disease is spread. Measles, which is highly infectious, requires over 90 percent of the population to produce herd immunity. Meanwhile, influenza can be controlled with a 60 percent level of herd immunity. COVID-19 might be somewhere in the middle: Most experts expect that coronavirus would require 70 to 80 percent protection to achieve this level of immunity.

Herd immunity is typically achieved through a vaccine, such as that for polio, a disease which, just a few decades ago brought justifiable fear to parents that their children would be paralyzed for life. And although isolated cases still occur in many places, a high enough proportion of people are immune through vaccination that epidemics no longer occur. Similar success was obtained with measles, until a misguided anti-vaccination movement has partially upended the desired herd immunity levels.

Originally the term “herd immunity” was employed by immunologists and epidemiologists to describe the percentage of the population that must acquire immunity through receipt of an effective vaccine in order to halt spread of infection. Used by Trump, however, herd immunity is interpreted as the percentage of the population that must acquire immunity by becoming infected to stop the infection from spreading further. This no vaccine approach requires a significant portion of the population to become gravely ill or die (as nearly 200,000 Americans already have) to achieve the same result.

Sadly, a New Coronavirus Adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, misinforms both the White House and general population with deceptive ideas. Dr. Atlas (a radiologist, not versed in epidemiology or infectious diseases) questions controls like masks. He has angered top health officials by pushing various other disputed policy prescriptions. He argued not only that the science of mask wearing is uncertain, but that children cannot pass on the coronavirus and that the role of the government is not to stamp out the virus but to protect its most vulnerable citizens as Covid-19 takes its course. Ideas like these, scientifically incorrect, have propelled Atlas into President Trump’s White House, where he is pushing to reshape the administration’s response to the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, Trump has embraced Dr. Atlas’s cockamamie ideas, as has Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, even as he upsets the balance of power within the White House coronavirus task force with ideas that top government doctors and scientists like Anthony S. Fauci, Deborah L. Birx and Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, find at best misguided , and at worst, outright dangerous

“I think Trump clearly does not like the advice he was receiving from the people who are the experts — Fauci, Birx, etc. — so he has slowly shifted from their advice to somebody who tells him what he wants to hear,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University, who is close to Dr. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator.

“He (Atlas) has many great ideas,” Mr. Trump told reporters at a White House briefing last month with Dr. Atlas seated feet away. “And he thinks what we’ve done is really good, and now we’ll take it to a new level.”

Let’s all hope that we can prevent this “new level” from materializing until after November, 2020!!


Tom Friedman isn’t one of my favorite New York Times columnists; I usually find him either tendentious or self-congratulatory. But he’s growing on me.

I especially liked his column last Wednesday, in which he suggested a slogan/bumper sticker for the Biden campaign:“Respect science, respect nature, respect each other.”

If only!!

As Friedman writes, not only are these values held by most Americans, they are in dramatic  contrast to Trump. (I’m pretty sure Trump doesn’t have anything we would call “values”–and I have never seen him display anything remotely resembling respect for anyone or anything..Even self-respect would be an improvement.)

Disdain for science is seen in Trump’s antagonism to fact, evidence and reality. It’s bad enough when his contempt for facts involves lying about crowd sizes or windmills causing cancer, infuriating when it involves denial of climate change– but with the advent of Covid-19, it poses an even more immediate threat.

But his disdain for science has become fatal, as we’re seeing in this widening pandemic. Trump has gone from offering quack remedies, like disinfectant, ultraviolet light and hydroxychloroquine, to mocking people, including Biden, for adopting the easiest and most scientifically proven method for limiting the spread of the coronavirus: wearing a face mask.

Trump doesn’t simply reject science. He’s lost whatever grip  he ever had on elementary logic.  Friedman echoes the astonishment so many of us expressed when our Commander-in-Chief–the purported leader of the free world–opined that we have more cases of Coronavirus because we test for it.

Think about that: Stop testing. Then we’ll have no knowledge. Then we’ll have no numbers. Then we’ll have no virus. Why didn’t I think of that?

Stop testing people for drunken driving, and then we’ll have no more drunken drivers. Stop arresting people for shootings, and then the crime rate will go down.

And if we didn’t have pregnancy tests, voila! Population control…

Then there’s the little matter of respecting Mother Nature.

Trump’s lack of respect for nature may be a political asset for him with his base, but it’s been a disaster for the country. …

Respect for nature also means understanding that we live on a hard rock called planet Earth with a thin cover of oceans and topsoil, enveloped by a thin layer of atmosphere. Abuse that soil, junk up those oceans with plastics, distort that atmospheric blanket and we will likely (further) destroy the perfect Garden of Eden that has been the basis of all human civilization.

According to National Geographic, the Russian Arctic has been having an extended heat wave that drove temperatures north of the Arctic Circle to 100.4 degrees F on June 20–the official first day of summer. (I can’t imagine what that will do to all the structures that have been built on the Arctic’s permafrost…)

The Trump administration has rolled back close to 100 environmental regulations–and has failed or refused to enforce a number of others. The administration reserves its “respect” for the bottom lines of fossil fuel and chemical companies that are operating with impunity as the planet heats and widely-used chemicals are found to be lethal.

Respect for other people? Can we even remember the civility, decorum and good manners of the Obama-Biden administration?

Respect each other? That’s not so easy in the midst of our other pandemic — a pandemic of incivility. You cannot exaggerate the impact on the whole civic culture of having a president who has elevated name-calling, denigration and lying to a central feature of his presidency, amplified by the White House.

Friedman acknowledges that there are multiple sources of disrespectful behavior–especially the algorithms of social media platforms–but he notes that restoring interpersonal respect will require  two things: a president who every day models respect rather than denigration, and citizens who actually listen to each other. Right now, we have neither.

Respect for science. Respect for nature. Respect for each other.

I like that.