Science Takes Time: Understanding Information and Misinformation About COVID-19
Every day I read something new about COVID-19. Some of it is clearly “snake-oil,” but some sounds very legitimate, and a host of other information seems to fall somewhere in the middle.
Should I wear a mask? Wash my groceries? Will the virus hang around in the air for days? Or merely seconds? Will there be a vaccine? Should I drink Lysol? Has anyone else noticed how many COVID-19 research papers contain the words “non-peer reviewed”? What does this mean and why is it happening? How should I interpret all of this information? A recent episode of Quirks and Quarks and a CBS news article helped me to understand what was happening.
CBS reports that social media bots are responsible for spreading a massive amount of misinformation about COVID-19. These Twitter accounts are pushing the “reopen America” agenda and sharing the various conspiracy theories that are circulating. Why? Apparently, these are propaganda campaigns, similar to others launched by Russia and China (although researchers have not yet determined the source of these bots). The purpose appears to be to create division in the U.S.
On May 15, Bob McDonald of Quirks and Quarks interviewed associate producer Amanda Buckiewicz to discuss scientific “pre-prints” (i.e., non-peer reviewed papers) and the questions they raise. According to this article, the international research community is very engaged in finding out more about COVID-19. In fact, there are already over 7500 published scientific papers on the virus.
Because of the demand for information and the desire to share preliminary findings to expedite further research, papers are published without peer review. Since peer review takes time, publishing preliminary findings allows scientists to quickly share what they are learning. While other scientists understand the limitations of these studies, for many of us, these pre-prints are problematic. We read a preliminary study, or worse, only the headlines for a preliminary study, and then jump to conclusions.
Michael Woodside is a biophysicist working out of the University of Alberta, trying to develop a treatment for COVID-19. Woodside cautions: “We have to try as many things as possible because we just don’t know which approach is going to end up being most successful. There’s a danger if we try and move too fast, which is that you end up with a lot of data that are not as solid as you’d like. And then the conclusions that are drawn from that are also not solid.”
Perhaps one of the commonly held beliefs is that a vaccine will be the quick route out of this pandemic. Many people are cautioning that it will take 12 to 18 months to develop a vaccine. According to Amanda Buckiewicz, the quickest we have ever developed a vaccine is four years. She also reminds us that scientists have been searching for a vaccine for HIV for over 40 years.
So, what’s the average person to do?
Please read the entire article, recognize the limitations of non-peer-reviewed articles, and understand the limitations of the study. There are no “quick fixes.” More than ever, it is important for critical thinkers to call out misinformation and clarify the limitations of scientific studies that are not yet peer reviewed. The science is important and will provide the answers, but we need to allow the process to take the time required to produce reliable and valid information.
This article appears in the June 2020 version of Critical Links.