reThis information can be deadly. Tobacco industry propaganda that disguises the dangers of smoking; the actions of the big oil companies to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change; corrupt scientists who tell parents that life-saving vaccines are not safe – they have all cost lives. And so it happens in a pandemic. “We are not just fighting an epidemic; we are fighting an infodemic“Said the director general of the World Health Organization earlier this year. It was prophetic.
There are people with a clear motivation to spread disinformation regardless of the human cost. There’s corporate interests like conservative donor and billionaire hotel owner Rocco Forte, who was given primetime. BBC platform to spread falsehoods about Covid-19.
There are libertarian thinktanks and politicians who, in principle, resist any regulation that can protect people’s health, such as the American Institute for Economic Research, which has promoted unscientific claims about herd immunity. And there are the brash populists who will embrace any cause that allows them to consume increasing amounts of political oxygen, like Nigel Farage.
But the most puzzling motivation in the disinformation ecosystem is the scientists who get caught up in it. In this pandemic, a trio of scientists drafted the “Great Barrington Declaration” which stated that governments can control the spread of the virus simply by separating the vulnerable and their caregivers from society. This despite the fact that it would be practically impossible, and ethically questionable, for 30% -40% of the population to lock up for what would be more than a year at best. This magical thinking has given a glow of legitimacy to those who wish to corrupt the legitimate debate about social restrictions with the claim that they are not necessary.
Masks are another area where scientists have been co-opted in disinformation wars. There is growing evidence that the masks are effective to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus by reducing the risk that wearers of masks who have the virus will pass it on to others. First, we are learning more about how the virus spreads, mainly through droplets and aerosols that we all expel into the air when we breathe and speak; We know that even fairly basic skins can reduce this significantly. Second, observational studies comparing areas where people are required to wear masks in public spaces with those where they do not suggest that masks spread slowly. Third, there is little evidence that wearing a mask leads people to behave more risky; in fact, wearing a mask appears to be associated with other protective behaviors, such as social distancing.
So it was disturbing to see Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at the University of Oxford, claim in a Viewer piece He co-wrote last week: “Now that we have rigorous scientific research that we can trust, the evidence shows that wearing masks in the community does not significantly reduce infection rates.” He makes two serious scientific errors in his article, which is based on a misrepresentation of a Danish randomized control trial. First, the Danish study only considers the impact of the use of masks about him carrier, not in others. No conclusions can be drawn about the impact of wearing a mask on reducing community transmission based on this study, as its authors clarify. Second, implicit in Heneghan’s paper is the erroneous assumption that there is an abstract hierarchy when it comes to scientific evidence: a randomized trial is always stronger than an observational study. But a randomized trial is only as useful as its design; this one in particular wasn’t even created to answer Heneghan’s question.
Attacking the science around masks is just one tactic the anti-science lobby uses to undermine trust in public health councils. When Facebook correctly classified Heneghan’s article as false information, instead of committing to the essence of criticism, it took to social media to tweet: “What happened to academic freedom and freedom of expression?”, A message widely shared by prominent skeptics of the mask.
Academic freedom does not imply freedom to spread disinformation. But here’s a hint why scientists might end up here. Some of the greatest advances in scientific progress have come as a result of atypical scientists defying scientific consensus: think Galileo, Einstein, Darwin. Unwarranted groupthink, particularly when evidence is emerging rapidly, can be very dangerous to science.
That means that many scientists rightly see innate value in challenging consensual thinking. Heneghan himself has made some positive contributions as a challenging scientist, for example by asking questions about the way Covid deaths are counted. But challenging science must be based on evidence and data. There is a danger that scientists will develop a “Galileo complex”, that they will see all the scrutiny as similar to the ridicule that a scientific giant like Darwin faces and will cry badly at any challenge.
This is evident in Sunetra Gupta’s writing, one of the authors of the Great Barrington statement, when she combines fair scrutiny with harassment from a scientific pioneer. It is also evident in Heneghan’s claims that labeling his disinformation as such is an intrusion on academic freedom and in the way he presents himself as some kind of scientific crusader by demanding expensive randomized trials on masks. As other scientists dryly point out, given the low cost of masks and the “good enough” evidence base that they are effective, those resources could be better invested in the development of vaccines and treatments.
The moral of this sad story? Trust science, not scientists. They are just humans, subject to the same cognitive biases, the same ego whims, as the rest of us. In the real world, the line between bravely challenging a vague consensus and trying to stamp out legitimate criticism of bad science can be a very fine one. It’s a puzzling understanding, but scientists can be captured by anti-science just like anyone else.
• Sonia Sodha is the Observer’s lead writer-in-chief and a columnist for the Guardian and Observer.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.