Communication is an essential part of almost every health professional’s work. Researchers share results with peers, clinicians guide patients through illness and toward healthier lifestyles, public health officials educate and advocate for best community practices, and so on. Clear communication is at the heart of all of these activities.
But now, all of these professionals have a second communications job; In addition to what they primarily do, they must now also help educate the public on how to evaluate health-related statements, theories, guidance, and scams. And related to that, they need to help make us smarter about interpreting statistics and evaluating risk as well.
And lest you think this is an overreaction, here’s a quick survey of the current situation:
- Poison control centers in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Maryland all saw an increased number of calls about disinfectants following Donald Trump’s suggestion that these cleaners could somehow kill the COVID-19 virus by injection [ 1 ] [ 2 ] [ 3 ];
- People were trustingly purchasing products from Alex Jones and Jim Baker that these media personalities had claimed would kill the virus, even while the FDA, the FTC, and various state attorneys general were saying it wasn’t true and threatening legal action if the sales didn’t stop [ 4 ];
- The French government actually felt compelled to state publicly that, no, cocaine was not a cure for COVID-19 [ 5 ].
How we became so gullible and so poor at evaluating the outrageous is a topic for another time. For now though, let’s look at what health professionals can emphasize in all of their communications.
Here are six ideas that would make us smarter, safer, and less susceptible to manipulation.
- Use Track Record to Assess the Odds of Truthfulness
Does the source of the claim have a track record of telling the truth? Are they a reliable source, or are they, like the president, someone who has somehow managed to make an average of more than 14 false or misleading statements every single day in office? (Remember, too, that’s an average, so on days when he doesn’t speak publicly or doesn’t tweet, the number of lies that day is even higher.) [ 6 ] On the other hand, there is a logical precept called the fallacy of origin or the genetic fallacy, holding that just because a source has been unreliable in the past, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their next statement must also be false. (As Susan Mallery says, Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.) But while that’s a logically sound approach, going with the odds is probably a solid practice in evaluating the dozens or even hundreds of claims we hear every day. And in the case of someone who has been consistently unreliable in the past, the burden shifts to them to prove that what they are saying now actually is the truth.
- Consider Qui Bono (Who Benefits?)
A longstanding legal tenet holds that in determining guilt, prosecutors may ask and jurors may consider who was likely to have benefited from the crime. For example, if arson of a company facility is alleged, ask: who was the insurance beneficiary or who was the principal corporate rival? When Donald Trump and others suggest that SARS-CoV-2 was created in, and/or released from, a Wuhan laboratory, the benefit derived from making these pronouncements accrues to Trump in that assigning blame for the outbreak distracts attention from his abysmal response to it.
- Place the Burden of Proof on the Proposer
Simply put, the person making an assertion is the one who then needs to prove it; it’s not the job of others to disprove it. When conspiracy theorists said we never landed on the Moon, it wasn’t NASA’s responsibility to disprove it. When Donald Trump says he has a “high degree of confidence” the SARS-CoV-2 virus was released by a Chinese laboratory and Mike Pompeo says he has “enormous evidence” of such a release, the onus is on them to provide that proof and that evidence. [ 7 ]
- Insist on Evidence, not Hearsay
It’s difficult to evaluate many statements unless there is some evidence provided to back them up. The simple act of making a statement does not somehow automatically give it legitimacy. Related to that, hearsay is generally not permitted in the American legal system because it is unreliable. In the same vein, when someone says “I heard that…” or “Many people believe…” those qualifications should be challenged by asking for the evidence instead. [ 8 ]
- Apply Occam’s Razor (or the Law of Parsimony)
Generally, the theory that requires the least number of assumptions is the one most likely to be correct. If you believe, as some people apparently do, that telecommunications companies are building 5G cell towers in order to infect people with SARS-CoV-2, because those companies are major shareholders in hospitals, which in turn are being built at an accelerated pace…well, you would have to assume, among other things, that electromagnetic radiation operates in ways we have never seen before, that viruses can be created by radiation (literally out of thin air), that hospital ownership and construction figures have been erroneously or purposely misreported…and a whole lot more. Similarly, if you believe, again as it’s been reported that some people do, that Bill Gates is behind the COVID-19 outbreak in order to, somehow, implant computer chips in everyone, the assumption-stack behind that idea is even more complex and even less likely to be true. [ 9 ] [ 10 ]
- Ask Yourself, Does it Make Sense?
Finally, and this admittedly is a highly subjective test, but to the extent anyone can, they should step back and ask themselves in all candor whether some theory really makes any sense at all. Away from anyone else’s judgement, and divorced from their political, social, and even religious beliefs, answer the simple question “Does it make sense?” If your answer (even if just to yourself) begins with “This does seem odd, but…” then that should be an indication that the assertion in question is dubious at best. [ 11 ]
Of course it’s not the job of just health professionals to teach us how to think more critically and evaluate more logically what we hear every day –it’s a job for all of us. Whenever a family member, work colleague, friend, or neighbor endorses a conspiracy theory or accepts an absurd statement without evidence, we need to –politely– challenge it and encourage that such statements be held up against these six yardsticks.
[ 2 ]
This is highly disturbing and disheartening: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6923e2.htm?s_cid=mm6923e2_w
[ 3 ]
Overly pedantic footnote: Viruses are not technically alive so they can’t actually be killed. Anti-viral medicines tend to target (latch onto and make useless) proteins either in our own cells that are used to reproduce a virus or within the virus itself. If the virus therefore can’t be replicated it can’t cause us further damage. And on terminology, COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease 2019) is the disease and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is the infecting agent.