Whom to Trust in a Crisis

A year ago, in an environment not dominated by a virus, I wrote about how to recognize cranks in your research at work. However, as we are all now living with a science-related crisis, this seems like the best time to revive this topic. This time, the research we’re conducting is for our own good.

Okay, ready to go? The reason why the ability to recognize cranks has become important on a personal level: we are all, one way or another, having to get educated about a scientific topic. There is a lot of data out there–good grief, we’re practically drowning in it! In this country, that deluge of data is being complicated by political partisanship.

It would be one thing if the arguments were confined to policy–what should we do about the virus for the good of the country? However, I’m also encountering a bewildering array of alternative studies and facts, which is not a good problem to have. This is why it’s now more critical than ever that we have a clear understanding of what’s going on and whom/what to trust. The difference here is that you’re not worried about getting a document right, you’re doing what you can to keep yourself and those you care about healthy and safe in an uncertain environment.

The most useful advice I have is:

  • For facts that directly affect your personal health and safety, gather your information from multiple trustworthy sources. From my perspective, those include the Centers for Disease Control (CDC); Johns Hopkins University (JHU); the Mayo Clinic; the American Medical Association (AMA); doctors, nurses, and first-responders known to you personally (as opposed to something posted by someone claiming on social media to be a practitioner); and your own doctor. If any of my readers overseas have other sources you trust, I’ll be happy to include them.
  • If you’re interested in the political side of things and why things are unfolding the way they are, you need to familiarize yourself with what “the other side” is saying as well so you have some idea of why they are advocating for the response(s) they’ve chosen. The people you disagree with have a voice, too. Pick up some international sources as well.
  • If you see news stories about this or that study, bypass the news outlet’s interpretation and look up the actual publication. Then run the study itself through the filter I suggested in my previous post.
  • If you don’t understand something, look it up and keep digging until you find a publication that can explain the content in words you understand. Try not to bother your medical practitioner friends, especially the first responders. They have more important things to do than educate you on virology, biology, or statistics.

The coronavirus is serious and needs to be treated as such. This is absolutely the wrong time to huddle in our various partisan bubbles and seek comfort from whichever narrative we find most comforting. We need hard data and educated, clear explanations of that data that we and our elected officials can trust to make good decisions.

Let’s be careful out there.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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