|18 Nov 2021|
In 1918, about one-third of the world’s population became infected with a virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide. In those times, it was the community’s response to the medical advice that determined its success. Fast forward a hundred years and we have made tremendous leaps and bounds in medicine, science and technology. Was the response better a century later and could improved scientific literacy assist future responses?
What has become clear from our shared experiences of the past two years is that there needs to be more awareness of popular science and increased encouragement of a trusted scientific culture throughout society. With people more concerned about public health than ever before, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a focal point for international scientific discourse and sharing of detailed health-care information. For the first time, many people were accurately informed about exactly what viruses are and specifically how SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted. With that understanding, they consciously chose to take appropriate precautions such as wearing masks, adhering to social distancing requirements and following stay at home orders at the height of the pandemic. Public support of vaccines has improved greatly in our part of the world and resulted in one of the fastest and most comprehensive rollout programs to date. There is also now a better awareness of the danger of consuming unusual food sources indiscriminately and a deeper desire for a more harmonious existence between humans and nature. (Han, 2021)
Unfortunately, at the same time, we have also seen the rise of scientific disinformation. ‘Fake news’ is a term that has been used commonly in recent times. At its core, it is defined as news stories that are false: the story itself is fabricated, with no verifiable facts, sources or quotes. Sometimes these stories are propaganda intentionally designed to mislead the reader and aligned to fringe political agendas or, as is more often the case, may merely be “clickbait” produced to generate advertising revenue. These fake news stories have generated substantial traction via social media, in part because they are so easily and quickly shared online. (University of Michigan, 2018)
During a public health crisis, the attitude of the population towards science-driven policies contributes greatly to a successful overall response. Distrust of expert institutions threatens to prolong the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jensen et al., 2021) This highlights the need for every member of society to be scientifically literate which will allow the more effective detection of scientific misinformation. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. (National Science Education Standards, 1996). The misinformation common in social media and news platforms, especially the comment sections, provide examples of the urgent need for people to be able to intelligently discuss current issues through a better understanding of the science behind it. This shows that scientific inquiry skills are not the exclusive purview of those involved directly in the field, but are for people from every walk of life.
In school, as part of scientific literacy, we teach students to critically analyse secondary data. Sarah Blakeslee of the University of California created the CRAAP test to evaluate sources. The acronym stands for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose. Students are asked to think about the source of information in terms of each of these and question their information before accepting fact. When reading about scientific studies, it is important to look at sample size, see if it is peer reviewed and if possible, look at the source of funding. With the sheer volume of information available to us through a variety of sources in our everyday lives, this skill is transferable to mainstream and fringe media when doing one’s own research and assessing the credibility of scientific information.
Mrs Simone Bryant
Head of Science
CDC (2019). 1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus). [online] cdc.gov. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html.
Curbing Misinformation and Disinformation in the COVID-19 Era: A View from Cuba. (2020). MEDICC Review, 22(2), p.45.
Han, Q. (2020). Introduction: The COVID-19 pandemic calls for the strengthening of scientific culture. Cultures of Science, 3(4), pp.223–226.
Hopkins, J. (n.d.). Research Guides: Fake News: Develop Your Fact-Checking Skills: What Is Fake News? [online] researchguides.ben.edu. Available at: https://researchguides.ben.edu/c.php?g=608230&p=4219610
Kurpiel, S. (2018). Research Guides: Evaluating Sources: The CRAAP Test. [online] Ben.edu. Available at: https://researchguides.ben.edu/source-evaluation.
University of Michigan (2018). Research Guides: “Fake News,” Lies and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction: What is “Fake News”? [online] Umich.edu. Available at: https://guides.lib.umich.edu/fakenews.