In the face of a Covid-19 "infodemic," here's why you should embrace uncertainty

"People want concrete answers. But a big part of science is actually grappling with uncertainty."

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Throughout 2020, the novel coronavirus has swept through nearly every corner on the planet. The virus has transformed our lives and livelihoods, and the response from scientists, politicians and the media has created massive information overload.

In February, the World Health Organization declared an "infodemic:" "An over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it."

Staying updated on the latest coronavirus scientific advancements and media coverage can feel overwhelming. Scared and confused, some people rely on what some scientists call their "lizard brain" and oversimplify the mixed messages — just to get through the day.

But reductive thinking causes people to fall into mental traps, reducing complex nuanced topics into binary categories.

According to a recent scientific paper (which has not yet completed peer review), people are faced with five common false dilemmas throughout the pandemic — polarized scenarios that create impossible choices.

These are:

  • Health v.s. the economy
  • Indefinite lockdown v.s. unlimited reopening
  • Symptomatic v.s. asymptomatic
  • Droplets v.s. aerosols
  • Masks for all v.s. no masking

Looking at these complex issues in terms of "black and white" is not only inaccurate, experts say, but it's making us miserable. But by following some simple tips, it may be possible to revolutionize our thinking and navigate these false dichotomies.

Angela Rasmussen is a virologist at the Columbia University School of Public Health, science communicator, and co-author of the recent preprint on the perils of "black and white thinking."

"'I don't know,' is inherently unsatisfying for people," Rasmussen tells Inverse. "People want concrete answers. But a big part of science is actually grappling with uncertainty."

To overcome the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and come out “in one piece,” Rasmussen says it’s time to embrace shades of gray.

"There are a lot of things that we can all still do by understanding the situation for what it is: a complex shades of gray type situation," Rasmussen says.

"By thinking in a more continuous way rather than a categorical one, that it really opens us up to a lot more possibilities to get through this," she adds.

Crisis confusion — With every global crisis — September 11th, The Ebola outbreak, the 2008 financial crisis — there's a torrent of media coverage and, all too often, an uptick in conspiracy theories. But some experts argue no event has sparked a flood of misinformation quite like the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is the first massive event that affects the entire world when we are "extremely interconnected—physically and digitally," Kevin Escandón, a researcher at The University del Valle and co-author on the recent preprint, tells Inverse.

"This is the largest infodemic in human history, in my opinion."

Since January 2020, some experts estimate more than 23,000 scientific studies to do with Covid-19 have been published. The number appears double every 20 days.

"The difference compared to other epidemics is that the world is watching because it affects everybody's life so profoundly," Rasmussen says. "People are seeing the science happening in front of their eyes in real time and they're not used to this process."

Researchers who study potential Covid-19 treatments and vaccine candidates often fail to communicate the full complexities of their research to the public. In turn, journalists, lay people, and even public-health authorities can misinterpret the findings and even jump to conclusions.

"You have to be okay with the unknown."

Mikhail Varshavski is a family physician and popular science communicator on social media. He was not involved in the recent preprint.

"We are faced with so much information and so quickly that our brains want to make the most sense out of it as quickly as possible — just simplify the message to make it black or white," Varshavski says.

"When people hear a lot of information, and on top of it contradictory information, they're going to think fast and more emotionally. And they're going to take less time to make a rational decision of what's right and what's wrong. Because if you're not thinking fast, you're falling behind," he tells Inverse.

Even when scientists and health officials provide messages that are clear and evidence-based, they are often muddled by conflicting political agendas. On this point, Rasmussen is "deeply concerned."

"This is the first pandemic we've been through where it has been politicized to the point that we actually have leaders in the federal government undermining public trust in doctors, scientists, and public health policy experts," Rasmussen says.

"This is what happens when a pandemic goes out of the hands of people who know about public health and public health policy and pandemic response and put into the hands of people who are politically motivated," she adds.

Seeing shades of gray — As research unfolds at a breakneck pace and certain public health issues — from masks to school closures — become polarized, Escandón, Rasmussen, and other global coronavirus experts say they are increasingly "alarmed" at where the public discussion is headed.

"We started expressing our frustration that a lot of things in this pandemic are really being referred to as categorical things. It's either they they work 100 percent, or they don't, or the virus is all transmitted by inhalation or it's not," Rasmussen says.

"People were not understanding that most of these things are actually nuances. They are a spectrum of different possibilities."

This is a dangerous line of thinking because it could lead people to prematurely reject a helpful solution: like vaccines, wearing a mask, or social distancing.

To counter this overly simplistic approach, Escandón, Rasmussen and their team outlined a roadmap to navigate these Covid-19 mental traps. They laid out five of the most common false dilemmas people are facing:

Five common Covid-19 false dichotomies.

Escandón, K., Rasmussen, A. L., Bogoch, I., Murray, E. J., & Escandón, K.
  • Health v.s. the economy: As lockdowns were hotly debated, people often pitted health and economic well-being against one another. But that's a false choice, the team writes. "Health and economy are as deeply interconnected as lives and livelihoods are," Escandón says.
  • Indefinite lockdown v.s. unlimited reopening: At this stage in the pandemic, "eliminating risk is not really possible," Rasmussen says. "So we have to approach it from a harm reduction standpoint." No public health authorities or politicians are calling for people to be shut in forever. They're simply asking people to social distance, avoid populous public gatherings, and wear a mask. "We've got to accept that SARS-CoV-2 will stay with us, so we have to live with it, while we actually live," Escandón says.
  • Symptomatic v.s. asymptomatic: "The key message for people is knowing that there are degrees of "sickness,"" Escandón explains. A Covid-19 patient is not necessarily a symptomless "silent carrier" or a patient struggling on a ventilator. "While some are evidently sick, and others are entirely asymptomatic, some are in between with very few symptoms," he adds.
  • Droplets v.s. aerosols: Scientific "inside baseball" debates on how the virus transmits became global public hysteria over whether the virus is airborne. "People say, 'It's either 'This is spreading through your whole building,' or it's 'basically just on doorknobs,'" Rasmussen says. The debate really hinges on scientific semantics, which shouldn't necessarily change behavior.
  • Masks for all v.s. no masking: From the preprint authors' perspective, masks should not be universal. "Masks must be worn during risk-prone activities and settings, not always 100 percent. That approach avoids fatigue, likely increases compliance," Escandón says.

Escandón, Rasmussen, and Varshavski suggest taking breaks, pausing before reacting, and doing research to help you navigate the pandemic and stay sane.

"You have to be okay with the unknown, that perhaps science doesn't have a clear answer and we have to take it day by day and take evidence as it comes," Varshavski says.

Ultimately, coronavirus research — and the resulting panic-inducing news— isn't slowing down. But ending absolutist thinking can help you keep mentally afloat.

"I'd encourage people to start thinking in shades of gray rather than black and white. Because we all know that we live in a world that's mostly shades of gray; there were very few things in life that are either one or the other," Rasmussen says.

"Apply that same understanding of the complexity of the world that we all live in to the scientific discoveries. Try to understand the pandemic in the context of it been a really complicated situation where there are not a lot of easy answers."

Amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, a myriad of logical fallacies and cognitive biases have interfered with the understanding of the nuances and communication of evidence-based guidance. In particular, multiple false dilemmas have run rampant across social media with the pitfalls of black-or-white messaging and reductionist frameworks. In this article, we thoughtfully review the evidence around five COVID-19-related false dichotomies: 1) health and lives vs economy and livelihoods, 2) indefinite lockdown vs unlimited reopening, 3) symptomatic vs asymptomatic severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection, 4) droplet vs aerosol transmission of SARS-CoV-2, and 5) masks for all vs no masking. While we acknowledge that there is not one unequivocal answer, we make a call for comprehensive messaging and science-informed tailored policies that reckon with gray shades, uncertainties, and social contexts.

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