I’m not the only one who has heard some wild strategies to prevent or treat COVID-19. From gargling hot water, to blowing a hairdryer on full heat up your nose, to taking ridiculous quantities of Vitamin C, the Internet offers a plethora of solutions. Three weeks ago, a televangelist boasted that his “silver solution” would not only kill coronavirus, but that it would boost the immune system. He is now getting sued. Pseudoscience has had a long-standing negative impact on our health. But now more than ever, it’s incredibly important to stop pseudoscience in its tracks.
If all these “remedies” show anything, it’s that I’m not the only person who is feeling overwhelmed by COVID-19. It’s causing me a lot of anxiety, and I want to do anything I can to prevent the disease from impacting me or my family.
And this is part of the problem with pseudoscience.
Snake-oil salespeople often prey on those who are seeking something that the “medical establishment” (I use that term loosely), has failed to provide. And while sometimes it is funny, like Gwenyth Paltrow’s vagina strengthening jade egg, it can become a huge problem. We saw this happen when President Trump tweeted another one of his famous all-caps rants about the potential of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. This led to shortages of the drug for those who need it to treat lupus. The need to stop pseudoscience goes beyond the desire to keep people from buying into MLMs or sharing Facebook cures.
It’s fairly well established that there are certain sources that present the news with less bias. But each time a media report or politician gets it really wrong, it breeds distrust. This distrust in their ability to appropriately convey scientific information has led to a distrust of science itself.
It’s frustrating because the second some politicians are critiqued on their views that conflict most scientific data, they turn to, “I’m not a scientist.” Somehow, these same politicians simultaneously feel qualified to speak on the magnitude of epidemics.
So, what can we do to minimize the effects of pseudoscience, both in times of crisis and in the future?
Admit that science is inherently political.
Scientists are often among the first to claim science as an objective field of study. While the cellular processes of science may be objective, the impact of science has always influenced politics.
The Black Death was used as an excuse to massacre Jews in Medieval Europe who were accused of spreading the disease. AIDS was called GRID, for “gay-related immunodeficiency” and was classified as a ‘homosexual disease’. Drug testing in clinical research doesn’t study sufficient numbers of women for a multitude of reasons. This results in women’s underrepresentation in studies on cardiovascular disease to being outright excluded because they are of child-bearing age. This isn’t new.
Even then, I’m not so sure that the cellular processes of science are completely free from policy’s reach. Just take a look at epigenetics.
The scientifically literate public needs to be okay with seeing science as a political issue. As scientists, we need to be the first to admit science’s dark past. It’s our job to learn about social epidemiology, ethics, and policy or hire people who know about these things. If we want to stop pseudoscience, we need to be willing to engage in discussion about when science really has failed people.
Stop broadcasting lies.
There have been some highly questionable claims from the Executive Office pertaining to COVID-19. Some of my faves include that we are “leading the world in testing” (we’re not), that this will end so we can be up and running by Easter (lol), and that if we are really out of luck, we can just count on summer’s warm temperatures to rid us of the virus (the Southern Hemisphere?).
While Trump has since rescinded these claims, they were still broadcast with little to no editing to 8.5 million viewers. Pod Save America host Jon Favreau is calling for media to stop broadcasting Trump’s 90-minute COVID-19 briefings and CNN published this article featuring 37 of the most tremendous lies from Sunday’s briefing.
When I say we need to stop broadcasting lies to stop pseudoscience, I’m referring to the human race in its entirety, not just Americans. Trump came under a lot of fire this week for saying that “every country” spreads lies about coronavirus. And unfortunately, he’s not entirely wrong.
Egyptians are falling for cures in the form of anise seeds and eating up conspiracy theories that the virus is manufactured biological warfare. Iranian citizens and officials blamed the US for creating the virus. They cited their lack of preparation against the virus as a result of sanctions limiting their ability to import medical supplies into the country, rendering them powerless against the spread of COVID-19.
Call out pseudoscience when we see it.
It’s pretty easy to call senators, post on social media, and email news stations when we see something pushing pseudoscience. There’s no risk to our relationships with these people. If we come off as elitist snobs with an encyclopedia’s worth of receipts, there isn’t a significant downside.
When it comes to family, friends, or that girl you know from 10th grade selling essential oils, it’s a little harder. (Ok, maybe not in the instance of that last one). We’re surrounded by pseudoscience, and it’s coming from people we care about. There is a way to tell people that they are wrong while still showing empathy. But many of us seem to have lost the art of being tactful in these types of situations. I’m definitely guilty.
In my one of my undergraduate leadership courses (yes, really, I have a minor in leadership), we read a book called Crucial Conversations. I don’t know if it’s necessary to read the book to learn how to discuss difficult things with people. This TL;DR version of the book seems to pull out the most important parts.
If you understand why the other person is attached to a belief, it’s easier to understand the gap between the facts and whatever they believe. Establishing the groundwork for a civil conversation is especially hard right now when we can’t talk face-to-face. But if you’re dedicated to science and ensuring that people understand it, snarky comments on a Facebook post might not be the most effective.
Things are weird right now.
This might not be a great time to change careers, get bangs, or start a new relationship. It is an excellent time to ensure that our policy and our conversations are based on science, not fear. It’s time to stop pseudoscience.
For up-to-date, accurate, that good-good info:
Your local health department (no link because idk where you live)