< Rationality

How to untangle the truth from the false about the COVID-19 pandemic in the media?

Text updated on 2020-05-20


Our opinion can easily be influenced by information that plays on emotions. Before giving in to emotions, it is important to check the reliability of the information. Here are a few ways to question and verify the source of the information that is transmitted to you. It's up to you!

Here are some "keys" to learning how to develop your critical thinking skills:

  1. Communication is not necessarily a guarantee of quality: Just because we hear information over and over again does not mean that it is true and validated by the scientific and medical community. There is a tendency in the media to communicate provocative studies that do not represent the majority opinion of the scientific community, or that are published in marginal journals.
  2. Go back to the source of the data by asking yourself the key questions:

o Is the study published in a leading scientific or medical journal?

Scientific data are published in peer-reviewed, international, specialized scientific and medical journals. The data produced are peer-reviewed by other researchers with expertise in the field, and these experts are responsible for verifying the rigour of the experiments and their interpretations. Some of the most respected journals include: Nature, Science, Cell, Journal of Virology, Immunity, Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of Experimental Medicine, PLoS Biology, etc.

It is obviously difficult, without scientific knowledge, to understand these articles, often published in English. Fortunately, summaries of articles are very often relayed, in French, by major research and health organizations (ARS, INSERM, CNRS, etc.) and French universities. You can also use an automatic translator to get an idea of the content of articles published in a language you do not understand (Mandarin, etc.).

o Are the arguments supported by facts and presented in a logical manner? An argument supported by a scientific study carries more weight than a belief or conviction.

o How many cases/patients does the study base its conclusions on? The conclusion of a study on 1000 patients will be more robust and representative than a study on 50 patients.

o Do the authors have a conflict of interest, disclosed, or concealed? How was the research in question funded? Numerous studies show that the source of funding biases the results of scientific studies (protocols established beforehand to prove what is desired by the funder, turn of phrase in the presentation of results, etc.).

o Can the results be interpreted in any other way? Did the authors consider all parameters in reaching their conclusions? Many factors influence the observations of an epidemic: behaviour of individuals (wearing masks, distancing, etc.), age distribution/comorbidity/gender factors in the population, population size and density, screening and isolation policy, temporality of outbreaks, organization of the health care system, etc. Be careful not to make hasty comparisons between countries or regions.

o Have the results of the study been validated by other, independent research teams using a different methodology? Data that are consistent using multiple methodologies are more robust. Data validated by different institutions, different countries, rather than produced by a single media personality, are more likely to be robust.

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  1. Gauging the reliability of blogs, websites, media interventions.** Whether on the internet, social network, or the media, many authors analyse a scientific/medical issue and draw conclusions. Are these authors research professionals (attached to a research organization, a university)? If not, what qualifications do they have to be experts? Do the authors have a personal interest in providing certain information or supporting a particular opinion? Is the information supported by direct references to scientific articles rather than beliefs? Do authors give counter-arguments/present the different arguments? Do the authors recognise grey areas?

Use official sites such as WHO, European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC), Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Johns Hopkins University. Other websites, approved by scientific journals or universities, synthesize scientific data on an issue: Our World in Data, SciLine, EurekAlert, the live article written every week by KU Leuven or analyses of current events by researchers and academics such as The Conversation.


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Sources

A study analyzes how minority opinions in the scientific community are more widely represented in the media.

Petersen, A.M., Vincent, E.M. & Westerling, A.L. Discrepancy in scientific authority and media visibility of climate change scientists and contrarians. Nat Commun 10, 3502 (2019).

Fear is an essential emotion for the survival of individuals, but it is not always constructive. While fear causes people to reduce social interactions and adopt barrier behaviours, excessive fear can lead to negative mental health consequences by triggering phobias, or obsessive-compulsive disorders.  It is important to be informed but also to protect ourselves in order to not be overexposed to the media and to avoid a continuous stream of information especially during the night when it is healthier to rest/sleep. This study models the role of the media on the fear associated with the spread of the pandemicCOVID-19.

Kumar, S., Sharma, B., & Singh, V. (2020). Modelling the role of media induced fear conditioning in mitigating post-lockdown COVID-19 pandemic: perspectives on India. arXiv preprint arXiv:2004.13777.

This article illustrates the manipulation of research results in a different context by the tobacco industries.

Bero L. A. (2005). Tobacco industry manipulation of research. Public health reports (Washington, D.C.: 1974), 120(2), 200-208.

This article describes manipulations put in place by the industry in order not to interrupt the use of carcinogenic pesticides.

Burtscher-Schaden, H., Burtscher-Schaden, P., & Robinson, C. (2017). Glyphosate and cancer: Buying science. GLOBAL 2000 Friends of the Earth Austria Neustiftgasse 36, 1070 Vienna, Austria.

Link for the WHO

(English)

CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

(English)

Further reading

How long is the coronavirus infectious?

What is the purpose of social distancing?