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A pandemic of bad science

By Walter Scheirer
Jul 20, 2020

What can epidemiological models tell us about our potential exposure to COVID-19? What progress is being made with regard to coronavirus vaccine development? These days, the general public is asking these questions and more as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. That there is an extraordinary level of interest in coronavirus news should come as no surprise, but this elevated interest society now has in pandemic-related science has unintended consequences that shouldn’t be ignored. Studies are being rushed to publication even in well-regarded journals. Unvetted articles on so-called preprint servers have received enormous attention. Predatory journals are giving anyone with the ability to pay the opportunity to publish pseudoscience that can be amplified by mainstream news sources. Marketers are exploiting the public’s desperation for protection against COVID-19 and adding a scientific sheen to dubious products. And perhaps-well-meaning experts in data science are producing a raft of arguably meaningless research, creating a distraction at best and wasting valuable resources at worst.

Never before in history has humankind been so prepared to face a deadly pandemic. Our meticulous understanding of infectious agents, life-saving technologies, and sophisticated epidemiological models all mean the COVID-19 pandemic shouldn’t be as deadly as it might have been in a previous era. Scientific research will no doubt lead to an effective preventative treatment for COVID-19 in due time.

Countries and institutions around the world are investing heavily in vaccines, treatments, and research into the epidemiology of COVID-19, and to quench the public’s thirst for information, the news media is reporting on each development at a feverish pace. Prominent sections of news sites such as The New York Times, or The Washington Post have essentially been transformed into running scrolls of up-to-the-minute coronavirus news.

The public’s level of interest in science is high and many people of varying expertise have become eager to weigh in on COVID-19 in the media or on social platforms. Scientists in some fields such as epidemiology have even taken to Twitter to police who is and who isn’t a legitimate expert in certain subfields. But there are some unintended effects of the elevated importance society is placing on scientific endeavors surrounding the pandemic that shouldn’t be ignored.

Studies are being rushed to publication even in well-regarded journals. Unvetted articles on so-called prepress servers have received enormous attention. Predatory journals are giving anyone with the ability to pay the opportunity to publish pseudoscience that has been amplified in mainstream news sources. Marketers are exploiting the public’s desperation for protection against COVID-19 and adding a scientific sheen to dubious products. And perhaps well-meaning experts in data science are producing a raft of arguably meaningless research, creating a distraction at best and wasting valuable resources at worst.

Compared to public health crises of the recent past, there has been a distinct change in how science is communicated to the public. Experts no longer control the narrative through trusted outlets, and, accurate or not, social media allows anyone to craft their own narrative about science and publish it to an audience of millions.

Much like other contemporary cases of disinformation, this is happening because of the open nature of the internet (Woolley and Howard 2019; Yankoski, Weninger, and Scheirer 2020). Furthermore, the “shelter in place” orders many people have been living under mean that a substantial part of the global population has been spending considerably more time staring at their phones and computers, sifting through pandemic-related information. A larger than usual audience is taking in pseudoscientific conspiracy theories, medical scams, and even well intentioned, but half-cocked scientific work. Good science can be twisted in this environment. Perhaps no better example can illustrate how the coronavirus era has been shaped by this phenomenon than the story of bat soup.

Read more at http://www.defenddemocracy.press/a-pandemic-of-bad-science/