MINIREVIEW: Pseudoscience and COVID-19 — we’ve had enough already

Author: Dimitrios Spiliotopoulos; Reviewer: Maria Clara Liuzzi.

The COVID-19-related infodemic[1] highlights how tolerating pseudoscience can lead to real harm and must not be accepted. Getting involved and swamping the landscape with accurate and engaging information – easy to digest and to share on mobile devices – and correcting misrepresentations should be the professional responsibility of researchers.

Even in the Middle Ages every outbreak led to sharing not only information but also misinformation and rumours. The amplification of this phenomenon creates an exquisitely time-sensitive challenge (“you need to be faster if you want to fill the void”) which is perpetuated by

  • deliberate bad actors
  • social media (Facebook, Twitter … and the Chinese counterparts): pseudoscience may be spread by social-media algorithms
  • search engines (Google)
  • mass media (newspapers, tv): traditional media plays a key role in providing the general public with evidence-based information, which would be hopefully picked up on social media.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, fact-checkers and debunkers are dealing with the large amount of misinformation that is spreading, and regulators are holding those marketers of unproven therapies to account. The WHO risk communication team launched the platform EPI-WIN[2] to share tailored information with specific target groups, and is working with international agencies with extensive experience in risk communications. But talking sense might still seem hopeless.

With his decades-long experience on studying the spread and impact of health misinformation, Timothy Caulfield urges all scientists to stand up for balanced, quality information:

  • health pseudoscience (including but not limited to homeopathy, naturopathy, reiki) cannot be legitimized, especially by health centres at leading universities and hospitals, and must be dealt with by the regulators. Should problems arise, researchers should complain to the appropriate oversight entity;
  • researchers should actively partake in the public fight against misinformation and scienceploitation,[3] i.e. presenting unproven ideas using scientific language, and contribute with simple and shareable content on the unethical aspects of spreading misinformation. In Claire Wardle’s words (Harvard University), “The best way to fight misinformation is to swamp the landscape with accurate information that is easy to digest, engaging and easy to share on mobile devices.”

[1]: infodemic: explosion of misinformation.

[2]: WHO Information Network for Epidemics.

[3]: scienceploitation: exhibition of unproven ideas using scientific language.


Timothy Caulfield. Pseudoscience and COVID-19 — we’ve had enough already, Nature, 27 April 2020

John Zaracostas. How to fight an infodemic. Lancet.

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