The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how much we look to science to instruct our moral perspective. But whilst governments have consulted scientists on lockdown guidance, their decision-making is also influenced by many economic, cultural, and social factors. From debates over principles in global health to economic and social policy, our traditional view of science as a reliable source of information is being questioned.
We scientists are unsurprisingly more inclined to trust in the scientific method as a way to approach problem solving. The scientific method involves questioning a phenomenon, setting a hypothesis, and testing the prediction, until collective results indicate a pattern. From controlled experiments, scientists interpret the data within the confines of their work.
But what about the odd anomaly? Perhaps the real world is too complex, and resists being summarized according to the scientific method; the cataclysmic break of Brexit tumultuously intertwines political, economic, social and personal spheres. But making scientific claims which disregard the concrete steps of the scientific method can lead to misinformation.
"...the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism concluded that, out of 225 articles on fake news, roughly 60% distorted a valid fact."
This lack of procedure may explain why fake news on our health (eg. “tips” to prevent catching the virus) has spread so quickly. In their study of how misinformation spreads, J. Scott Brennen and his team at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism concluded that, out of 225 articles on fake news, roughly 60% distorted a valid fact. In doing so, people are tempted to change fact to fit bias: of bringing information from the realm of the objective and placing it into the subjective.
Paul Hunter and Julii Brainard, a virologist and a statistician team at the University of East Anglia, have created a model to study how misinformation can affect the spread of disease. Three simple actions against misinformation were found to help control the virus: to question online news sources, avoid sharing fake news, and to choose more reputable sources. These, Hunter and Brainard suggest, will slow down unscientific advice, which might otherwise tempt people into unsafe behaviour.
On a wider scale, the scientific method is what underscores our new hygiene practices and lockdown regulations in the pandemic, but it appears more of an afterthought to our individual moralities. How, then, could we consider our responsibilities now, in relation to science and our morality?
Let us consider the usage of masks in the pandemic. The discrepancy in attitudes to mask-wearing shows that eastern cultures tend to be more amenable, treating masks as a general tool to prevent the spread of diseases. Mask-wearing across Asia is reflective of a “collectivist society”, in which relationships between people are emphasized: wearing a mask protects others from falling ill.
Donald Low, a behavioural economist and professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, compares mask-wearing to performing a ritual or wearing a uniform, explaining that “in ritual behaviour you feel you have to live up to what the uniform stands for, which is more hygienic behaviour”. By framing masks as a requirement, Low presents a moral obligation to society in which ‘ritual’ participation demands mutual respect for the collective’s well-being.
Wearing face masks at a bus stop in Macau, China, in the surroundings of a public hospital. Credit: @macauphotoagency.
"...if masks were judged as categorically beneficial to one’s safety, there would be less of a battle against them in individualistic societies."
Western societies, on the other hand, tend towards an “individualistic” approach, where individual rights are prioritised: masks are unpleasant to wear, inconvenient to maintain, and indicate poor health. As such, individualists can argue that the trouble with masks does not outweigh their benefit, since masks do not positively promote their individual health. However, the benefits of mask-wearing are less apparent in that the individual’s health is at less risk of catching the virus when everyone uses them.
"False Information. We are all glued to our mobile devices seeking information about the crisis but a lot of false information is spreading as fast as the virus itself. This piece aims to make people think twice before sharing and reposting myths about COVID19." Image created by Ruth Burrows. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives - help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Appealing to compassion, too, is often not enough if such a sense of individuality is challenged. It might be different if masks were framed as imperative to protecting the individual’s health; at least, if masks were judged as categorically beneficial to one’s safety, there would be less of a battle against them in individualistic societies. This approach could be advantageous to better controlling the viral spread in countries like the US and the UK.
But mask effectiveness is just one scientific debate by which fake news has manipulated a helpful asset into an undesirable one. We can also find the mobilisation of misinformation in reports of the supposed 'unreliability’ of virus testing, where accuracy can be dependent on the patient’s timing and risk of infection. However, within the science community it is widely accepted that tests which approach 100% perform well enough as an indicator. Virus testing, which may only be 60-80% accurate, is still useful for medical professionals for diagnosis, and better planning of treatment and care.
To apply the scientific method to our daily lives and improve our behaviour relies on checking our interactions with the world. In the pandemic, this means further educating ourselves on the virus and applying well-grounded methods to avoid it.
In the same way that the scientific method refines itself through repetition and constant examination, so should we evaluate our view on the world and always question our experiences. Consider your sources on what their biases might be, and make the choice to stop fake news when you encounter it.