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  • Dr. Peffer

Oh no, another article on the coronavirus? Here's a different take...

Like everyone else, I'm following the news on #coronavirus. Also like you, I’ve seen conflicting information about coronavirus and how worried (or not worried) we should be right now. Is it worse than the flu or not? Are people making a mountain out of a molehill? Is it going to shut my kid's school down? Should I cancel upcoming travel? Should I join the masses of people stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer?

Rather than join all the others out there making my opinions about coronavirus threat or lack thereof know, I'm going to take a different approach: how to evaluate articles on coronavirus. I'm not trying to sway you either way, but instead help empower you to make your own decisions and evaluate the outpouring of information about coronavirus taking the internet by storm.

Step 1. Check the source.

Who wrote the article? Where was it published? When was it published?

A reputable article will have the credentials of the person who wrote it (or reviewed it) listed. Are they a doctor? Epidemiologist? Or some dude named Joe? Or is there no author listed and it’s a meme with no author or citations for the sources? Was it published on someone's blog, or by an agency like the CDC or WHO? Or by a news source? Is it a news source with known political leanings? If it has sources, can you follow them back and validate what the article is saying? Sometimes there will be a reference listed, but it leads to a source that was misinterpreted, or that is not high quality itself.

When was it published? If it's reporting statistics even a few days old, they may be inaccurate. For example, I was just recently reading an article from Johns Hopkins that started there have been no deaths in the US--this is no longer an accurate statistic. Someone died of coronavirus in the US since that article was published. Part of the problem with coronavirus is since it is so new, what we know about it is also evolving quickly. As I mention in my book, Biology Everywhere, that is part of the power of science—what we know is subject to revision in light of new evidence.

Step 2. Check the claims.

Are the claims fact based or inflammatory? Sometimes headlines are specifically designed to grab your attention so you click on the page and generate ad revenue. These can give the wrong impression about how serious (or not) a situation may be.

Also, are the claims broad generalizations, or making specific claims? Are there statistics and can you see how those numbers were generated and/or how current they are? This gets back to my point about about the source. Can you find quality evidence to back up the claims made in the article?

Also, are you observing a consistent trend among claims made from various news sources? Are they giving a consistent message? Or is one article presenting an unusually pessimistic or optimistic view? This could reveal potential bias in the claims made.

Step 3. Check your bias.

As I talk about extensively in Biology Everywhere, we are all biased. Do you secretly hope it will be bad so you can stay home and watch it unfold? Or, can you not be bothered with this pandemic crap? Your biases will subconsciously influence what you read and how seriously you take it. Here's a challenge: can you identify any bias with how you read articles (and which articles you choose to read) about the coronavirus?

As promised, I'm not leaving you with my opinions on coronavirus. Virology and epidemiology are not my areas of expertise. My doctorate is in molecular, not microbiology. Rather than study microscopic critters, I like molecular phenomena like cell signaling and gene expression. And of course how people learn and engage with biology, including the psychology of how we use biological evidence to make decisions, which was the inspiration for this blog article.

Instead, I'm hoping you feel more empowered to review the evidence for yourself on coronavirus (which is, of course, the heart of my #biologyeverywhere mission). Happy evidence evaluating and don’t forget to wash your hands.

#scienceliteracy #evidenceevaluation #epistemologicalbeleifsaboutscience #coronavirus #biologyeverywhere #scienceeducation

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