By Sally Best
Every day, we are inundated with articles regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Amongst every person’s news feed, you will find a sea of scientific updates, along with conspiracy articles and misinformation. Recently, I have found myself asking the question: “Are people doubting scientific integrity due to the multitude of articles released regarding COVID-19?”.
When it comes to science, there is one main rule: question everything you read. Question the research paper, the peer review, the journal it has been published in and, in turn, assess its integrity. I like to think I do this, however, there are times I fall short and take the ‘face value’ approach.
Peer review is the most common screening process, where a scientific study is submitted to a journal and scientists (qualified in said area) assess the scientific integrity of the study and judge it appropriate/inappropriate for publication. Comments are relayed back to the authors that suggest changes and improvements. Preprints have become common, where a version of a scientific paper is shared online prior to peer review and publication in a journal. Whilst preprints are important to scientists – especially in a race against time such as during the current pandemic – there are potential flags when these fall into the hands of people who don’t understand aspects of scientific processes. In this instance, there is no filter between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ science.
COVID-19 adds further complications to this system, due to the unprecedented demand for articles on this novel virus, and the rise in the number of journalists who publish preprint results prematurely in popular media as proven science (which of course, they are not).
Making news before the science is verified
A preprint was released suggesting there may be a mutation that causes COVID-19 to be more infectious. This was immediately written up by the LA Times and latterly the Daily Mail produced a similar story, potentially causing panic amongst its readers.
In fact, evolutionary virologists have stated there is no evidence for mutant types of COVID-19 that would be more transmissible. Despite the integrity of this publication, this side to the story has had much less coverage in the popular media than the original preprint.
Matthew Scotch – from the College of Health Solutions – recently experienced his COVID-19 research falling into the wrong hands. He tweeted: “NO NY POST, OUR STUDY DID NOT CONCLUDE THIS!!! THIS IS A COMPLETE MISREPRESENTATION OF OUR WORK”. The New York Post had taken Scotch’s research and declared a mutation suggesting that coronavirus was weakening. His research actually suggested nothing of the sort and he stated: “More sequencing and genomic epidemiology is needed” before any conclusions can be drawn.
This is frustrating to see, when research has been manipulated to fill a news story headline by someone who may not have the relevant scientific experience and knowledge to hand. This journalist also ignored the fact that more research was needed before anything could be proven.
The rise of conspiracy in the echo chamber
I have come to the conclusion that no matter how much evidence you provide – there will always be conspiracy theorists. This is not what worries me. What does worry me is the possibility that the number of conspiracy theorists is increasing due to the misuse of science by some journalists, along with the social media ‘echo chamber’ effect.
As we all know, once something is on the internet, no matter how much we battle to remove it – it can be there to stay. All it takes is a slightly plausible story, written by a journalist without scientific understanding, and social media plays its part to distribute the story far and wide.
Once this happens, any reviews that explain issues with the story are futile. You are fighting an uphill battle, with people responding that science is being ‘hidden’ and ‘suppressed’. Confirmation bias takes over, where people believe what they want to believe, and stop gathering information when the information gathered so far confirms the views they would like to be true.
Guided by the science
The public at large is unaware of the governmental discussions going on behind closed doors, and I’m not suggesting that politicians are ignoring scientists’ advice. However, at times, politicians use phrases like: “The science has changed” when in actual fact, science doesn’t change – the evidence available changes. Coining terms such as these can be misleading, as well as undermining scientists, suggesting they “got it wrong”. Science doesn’t deal in absolutes and it’s anything but black and white. It can be uncertain and transitory. Although uncertainty can be difficult to explain, hence, when any uncertainty (which of course, science is prone to) is masked, ‘new evidence’ is then painted as ‘science changing’.
Science acts as a guide in policy-making, but can also be used as a scapegoat when policies are questioned.
On watching the daily Downing Street press conferences, UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, usually appears with scientific and public health experts; Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government and Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England. However, the science presented at these updates has also been questioned.
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) suggested that the 10pm curfew implemented across the country would have a “trivial” effect, and there is some suggestion even the “rule of six” had not been modelled by experts to test its effectiveness in reducing the R number.
Further criticism regarding the implementation of the new 28-day lockdown has been received, with a group of top scientific advisors announcing they recommended a significantly tougher bundle of measures over three weeks ago. Further, Chris Whitty stated he was “not confident [these restrictions] would be enough to get on top of [the virus].”
This is no doubt a difficult time and, when scientific advisors are using ‘evidence’ to review the restrictions that are implemented, politicians must make their decisions considering a much wider number of issues.
What can we take from this?
The available scientific evidence will always be changing, as will story headlines. This does not mean science is changing, but the evidence on which it is based has. To the best of your abilities, make informed choices in your sources of information and the news you decide to believe. Don’t fall short with a ‘face value’ approach – remember, outrageous headlines often sell outrageous stories.
About the author: Sally is an Environmental Biology graduate from the University of Nottingham. She works as a freelance scientific journalist focusing on current issues, and aims to bridge the gap between scientific discovery and public understanding.