Garlic and sesame oil will not, we repeat, will not safeguard you from the new coronavirus, unless the garlic keeps others at a safe distance. Nor is bathing in bleach a good idea.
The myths traveling the social media circuits about COVID-19 are sometimes ludicrous and occasionally dangerous. Yet at the same time, the evolving advice from experts about this novel threat has left the public uncertain what to believe. The news media haven’t always helped matters by publicizing seemingly dramatic findings prematurely or without adequate vetting or context.
Scientists are churning out papers at an unprecedented rate, resulting in useful new information as well as a fair amount of confusing and/or contradictory messages. Medical and biochemical researchers, universities and businesses promote new studies that are often not ready for prime time, or they give opinions that aren’t based on real evidence. Other scientists helpfully jump in to counter problematic reports, but don’t attract the same level of attention.
Society isn’t nearly science-literate enough. So when there’s news about studies of a potential therapy’s effect on animals — such as with the Oxford University vaccine candidate — many readers and viewers see an imminent solution. There’s too little heed paid to the saying among scientists that “mice lie and monkeys exaggerate” — in other words, what works with animals frequently doesn’t translate into success with humans.
HealthNewsReview.org, a website devoted to critiquing health and medical journalism, has found a lot to criticize lately. One main concern, said the website’s publisher Gary Schwitzer, is how many preprints of studies are suddenly being picked up as big news. These preliminary reports — which haven’t yet been subjected to peer review and found rigorous and important enough to publish — have been available online for years, largely so that scientists could get early feedback on their work from other experts. The papers that are ultimately deemed worthy of publication are often modified before they appear in a medical journal. That’s why news reporters generally waited for the vetted articles to be published by journals.
Now those papers provide an unending source of interesting fodder about the biggest story in many decades, mixing worthwhile material with the occasional questionable conclusion or flawed methodology. With a surge of new preprints coming online, there is a danger of creating a deluge of seesawing information about COVID-19 that leads the public and its elected representatives down misleading paths.
Articles written for lay people should explain how preliminary the results are, Schwitzer says. Multiple expert sources should be consulted to give the preprint a critical eye, and if they say it sounds dubious, perhaps it isn’t news after all. Often, journalists do all of this work. Occasionally, they don’t.
This is a confusing and terrifying time. The pandemic calls for speeding up science in ways that seemed impossible a few years ago, but the scientific world is commendably doing it. And we as journalists make a major effort to bring readers the most important news as quickly as possible. But when sketchy or premature information makes the rounds, the public is misinformed, sometimes in dangerous ways.
When does fast science become problematic science? COVID-19 is testing us on that question and many more. Just remember that the rush to publish can take us down a road to nowhere.