‘12% corona patients experience heart problems’, reported the NOS liveblog last week. The finding was deeply worrying, especially in light of the rising number of infections. But it turns out that the figure concerned patients admitted to hospital, 30% of whom already had a history of heart problems. Some simple calculations reveal a far less calamitous perspective. In these uncertain times, it makes sense that scientists and journalists are sharing information with other more quickly, but they should pay closer attention to ensuring they don’t spread misinformation and anxiety. There’s enough on the line already.
What happened here?
Was it a case of fake news, incompetence, deliberate deceit, or something else? The concerns I published on LinkedIn were viewed, thanks to more than 1,500 likes, more than 150,000 times. An updated version of the article by the Dutch Broadcasting Foundation (NOS) ran with a different headline, but the damage had already been done by the rapid speed at which we consume news these days.
Why am I making such a big deal about this?
Careless reporting is a fact of life, is it not? And research does not always lead to reassuring findings, does it? That’s why. Misinformation is part of the reason for the absence of broad support for government measures. Prime Minister Rutte has said that his government is making 100% of the decisions about coronavirus with 50% of the knowledge. That is why it is crucial to clearly explain what we know and what we don’t (yet) know. As a data scientist I know how exciting it can be to fill in knowledge gaps, especially if it’s of huge social importance and the clock is ticking. What’s true for the Dutch government is no different for the average Dutch person. We want to know the risks we’re facing and how to protect ourselves, our children and our parents. Now we are in the second wave of a coronavirus outbreak and we still don’t know enough about the causes and effects of the virus.
A lack of scientific underpinning does not prevent most people from having opinions. In newspaper columns, news broadcasts and talk shows, opinion, speculation and (conspiracy) theory are bandied about willy-nilly, whether by experts or pseudo experts who may or may not substantiate their claims with evidence or have simply thrown some words together. Too often, sentiment has the upper hand and errors go unaddressed. The public appetite for information about corona is insatiable. The media, understandably, is doing everything it can to satisfy that demand, but I believe that viewers and listeners deserve better. A greater role for research data would benefit the public discussion and provide direction and certainty.
Medical research data is hot. Whether it’s about the health effects of a factory that’s emitting dangerous chemicals, the effects of consuming a certain product or the workings of a particular drug. Corona is no exception. But, when unreliable research findings seep into the public debate, it undermines faith in institutions, including faith in science and the media. People often only read the headlines and are quick to share articles. Fake news undermines support for policy, even when policy is based on scientific findings.
The current situation demands great care in reporting about scientific findings, but I make this appeal not just to the press. I’m also speaking to my fellow data scientists. People desperately need hard facts and figures based on good data analysis that is presented with clarity. In my opinion, this is the only remedy for fake news and conspiracy theories. Scientific research should serve the public good. But research also takes time, and some results are simply very difficult to thoroughly understand and communicate comprehensibly to a wide audience. And there’s the rub. False statistics should not be allowed to take on lives of their own after being spat out into the world. Yes, there are certain indications that people who are hospitalised due to corona experience heart complications, especially if they have a history of cardiac issues. Not exactly news is it? So let’s not pretend it is, like NOS did.
Journalists and scientists are under massive pressure to satisfy the hunger for information about coronavirus. But please, media, don’t create unrest by decontextualising individual findings and bits of data. And please, scientists, resist the temptation to share data that isn’t ripe yet. Exercise as much influence as you can to ensure your research findings are presented carefully and with the proper nuance. Clarity and context can prevent polarisation and scepticism and give people something to hold on to. And that’s exactly what’s called for now.