What to Believe

You’ve probably noticed by now that (1) the news and social media are dominated by the COVID-19 crisis right now and (2) that you can find virtually any prediction on it’s significance, from conspiracy to world-wide disaster. With our media more partisan than ever and driven by readership numbers and internet clicks, it is hard to find the truth about any issue. It is made harder by the fact that as a species we are all prone to some degree of confirmation bias, that nearly unconscious tendency to pay attention to items that support what we believe. With COVID-19, we are deluged with information. Unable to read it all, we are forced to pick and choose making confirmation bias even easier. If have no preformed opinions about the crisis, confirmation bias will lead you to articles that support your world view … optimists will find more hopeful information, pessimists will find worst case scenarios. If you started reading this piece to see what you I think should believe, I’m going to disappoint you, I’m going to make some suggestions as to how to arrive at an informed opinion, with a minimum of confirmation bias. I think if you do that you’ll arrive at an opinion that not only will bear scrutiny but doesn’t scare the crap out of you or make you blow the whole thing off. Here are my suggestions:

Don’t Read Anything About COVID-19 on Social Media: Social Media is the sandbox of confirmation bias. Even the most reasonable articles are posted by someone who loves their own opinion. Get your news elsewhere. And really, do you have to post your favorite articles? It ruins a resource that can be a distraction from what’s going on around us.

Avoid Opinion Pieces: Labeling an article as OPINION is a license for a so-called expert to say whatever he wants and experts are notoriously prone to confirmation bias..

Avoid the Extremes: If the article says Half the Population Will Die of COVID-19 or Gargling with Lemonade Prevents COVID-19, stop reading. Results of natural occurrences tend to cluster around the mean or average outcome with the extremes possible but unlikely. Where one outcome is the direst, it is usually labeled the wort-case scenario. Scientists often compute worst case scenarios to determine how bad things could get, however unlikely. Scientists like to use the worst case scenario to emphasize how bad the situation is. The media LOVES the worst case scenario … it translates into large (but frantic) readership. To put it less technically, an old friend used to tell me, when I was in the midst of a personal crisis, The worst seldom happens, so don’t worry about it. If it does, worry about it then. On the other end of the scale, remember the old adage: If it sounds too good be true, don’t believe it. Gargling with lemonade does not prevent COVID-19.

Avoid Politics; This is probably obvious but don’t believe what ANY politician says about COVID-19. Self-interest drives confirmation bias and even our best politicians are partially driven by being popular with their constituency (and we know about the worst). If an article even mentions politics, move on. And I’d suggest avoiding commentators whose usual emphasis is politics … old habits are hard to break and easy to hide.

Consider Your Sources: This is a pain in the ass, so don”t do it for everything you read, just things you’re considering as facts. We’ve already eliminated social media, politicians and opinion writers. You can add that guy you ran into at CVS and the email from your old high school buddy. I would stick to articles by qualified medical authorities. But it amazes me how many people are ready and willing to comment on things outside of or above their level of expertise. Dr. Joe Abegotz might be a fine plastic surgeon but he’s hardly qualified to write about COVID-19. Google an authors name and see what else they’ve written and whether their credentials are relevant. I found one doctor peddling a simple miracle cure who had previously said it cures cancer. Another went to a non-existent university. Use the fact checking sites (like Snopes) to see if they’ve evaluated what you’ve read. They aren’t perfect but they provide more facts.

Beware of Your Biases: The hardest part is avoiding your own biases because you may not know of them or be willing to admit them. As far as I know, the only way to do this is to read articles that you don’t want to read, that you are ready to dismiss as wrong. Try to be open-mined (but, as they say, not so open-minded that your brain falls out).

Good luck … it’s a jungle out there.

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2 Comments on “What to Believe”

  1. Authoritative sources are the key.
    With the rest, sometimes reading widely and figuring out about half of what is said is the most accurate.

  2. Margy Says:

    Good advice – thanks!

    My advice: Wash your hands lots. Do not touch your face unless you have just washed your hands. Stay out of spitting distance of people who are sneezing or coughing. Fear is not your friend. We don’t even know what we don’t know about this. That pretty much covers it all, doesn’t it?

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