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Coronavirus, distinguishing fact from fiction

Perhaps the greatest challenge for the general public---which includes me---in this crisis is the inability to distinguish fact from fiction, especially when it comes to knowledge about the virus and best practices for what to do during pandemic. Questions abound: Is the virus spread only through physical contact? If someone I don't know breaths around me, am I more likely to contract Coronavirus? What is the difference between "shelther-in-place" orders and recommendations to "stay home / stay safe"? Should I go to the grocery store or pharmacy? If so, when should I go? Ought I visit family? If I visit family members who are not in my immediate bubble, should I keep my "social distance"?

Here's a relatively good starting point: If you're not a medical practitioner, whether professional researcher or physician, you have no grounds to answer any of these very important questions. Leave the important decisions to the experts.

First, some advice. Do as the experts tell you to do. Medical practitioners are the experts. Experts have a great deal of knowledge about the virus itself, and they have the training to tell us what we ought to be doing during a pandemic. Since they have specialised knowledge, someone without any specialised knowledge has no grounds or evidence that the experts' advice is incorrect or false. If a medical expert on infectious diseases tells us to stay home and not travel unless it is absolutely necessary, then do it! Politicians, pundits, evangelists, etc., are not experts on disease; so, don't listen to them and their quarter-baked ideas.

Here are three steps to distinguish fact from fiction, especially when it comes from online sources.

  1. Is the author or source credible? A source is credible if it has either been reviewed by peers, if it has been cross-checked by fact-checkers, or if a consensus of experts agree that the source is credible. When the internet became popular and more ubiquitous in the late '90s and early '00s, people were optimistic about the virtues of crowd-sourcing. The idea was that we could reach the truth by permitting the free-flow of information by all interested parties (cf. Mill's idea of the marketplace of ideas). What we're discovering is that the internet permits falsehoods, outright lies, etc., to propagate unopposed. Critical readers of online resources should ask whether the writer, whether the source, is credible. Information published by government agencies that hire experts in, say, the medical profession, such as the US's Centre for Disease Control ("CDC"), is credible because the experts have likely weighed a number of responses to a variety of questions before publishing the information online. We can take what they say seriously and credible. A group formed on Facebook by a group of concerned community citizens, however, is likely not a credible source of information. People sometimes exercise a form of epistemic arrogance because they believe that they know more about a subject than an expert (cf. Montaigne). In a sense, that person is trespassing intellectually upon what others know better (Ballantyne 2019). Be wary of authors and sources. Ask questions if something seems askew.

  2. Is the source merely following others without having done any independent investigation? What we find online is sometimes an effect that is caused by information floating in an echo chamber or epistemic bubble (two technical terms that deserve consideration, see the fascinating work Thi Nguyen). When we read an article online that conforms to an opinion we have formed or maintained, our views become more firmly entrenched. This is a form of confirmation bias---to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs. The more firmly entrenches a belief becomes, the less likely we are going to give up on the belief, even in light of disconfirming evidence. Independent investigations, however, should take account of disconfirming evidence and either provide evidence for why we should ignore the disconfirming evidence or amend one's view in light of the disconfirming evidence. A relatively easy way to determine that an online resource has completed an independent investigation is to check its sources. If the sources come from other nearby sources---say, newsmedia citing other newsmedia---then we have good reason to believe that the source has not been independently investigated. The author(s) has not asked questions of sources found elsewhere on the internet. Notably, if one watches (but only briefly!) right-wing ultraconservative media like Alex Jones' Info-Wars, one quickly discovers that the sources are other news agencies or commentators who agree with the agenda of the anchor. That's a good example of dependent investigation, using non-credible sources.

  3. "If it sounds too good to be true, it is." Writers play upon one's emotion. They know that if readers have a positive emotional response to a news story, readers will react positively and will likely share the story with others. This works in the negative direction, too. If the story plays upon one's negative emotional response, readers will react angrily and will likely share the story with others. The power of emotional response grips us tightly, ultimately urging us to do something with the story. Don't be fooled by emotions, whether positive or negative. Resist the urge to share the new story and try to find a news story that is more even-handed. During this pandemic, this is difficult to do because everyone's emotional response is running high. It is becoming more apparent that everyone believes everyone else has the virus, and everyone treats others as strangers, others with whom they are not familiar, as having the virus. Think here of the millenial developmental trope: "Stranger Danger." Stranger danger is noticeable when one goes to the grocery store or to the pharmacy. People look at others suspiciously. Fear, a base emotional response, is palpable. If we have an emotional response to a news story, or to others in the store, step back and think rationally about the content. Ask questions of the story. Are there gaps in the reasoning? If so, then certainly don't share the story. Try to find a story that balances the information appropriately, giving a reasonable response to the same question(s).

These are just three starting points for critical reasoning about distinguishing fact from fiction in online sources. There's much to be analysed in each of these starting points, so don't take this as a final word but what it is---friendly advice.

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