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The current infodemic is a real crisis and is rightly named by the WHO. But how what is it & how did it come about? Read more!

What is Pseudoscience?

We’ve heard the word ‘Pseudoscience’ being peddled too many times in the past year. Nevertheless, a lot of us aren’t even sure what exactly it is! Well, simply put, it means fake news. A lot of information has come out about how different treatments can be used to treat various diseases, COVID-19 being one of them. The reason that it’s being called out as fake news is because of its lack of scientific basis.

For example, a lot of Indians are aware of how many ministry officials peddled the use of ‘cow urine‘ to treat COVID-19 as an Ayurvedic treatment option even though the rest of the world was still working on a cure. They received a lot of backlash for this moe but that did not stop them from continuing to do so. The damage was done. Many people including those in rural areas thought that since this was a government-backed remedy, it must be the only option they are left with.

But how can we convince them otherwise? We can’t. It’s done and dusted and no matter how much we try, the damage is done and if you’re sensical enough to differentiate myth from fact (most of us aren’t apparently) then you’re safe. Otherwise, you’re just sucked into this pool of misinformation and bias and it’s quite hard to get out of it.

Is it a common phenomenon?

Sadly, yes. The pandemic has brought it to light. I’m sure you’ve heard your friendly neighbourhood guy talk about how allopathic medicine is the biggest bane to our existence. Now, hold on. I’m not here to talk about how allopathy is the only way to cure a disease. Of course not. I come from India so I’m very aware of how certain conditions can be cured with homegrown ingredients. A cough maybe, but not cancer.

Somehow many people stretch this information a little too far and that’s where the problem lies. We pretend to think we know more than we actually do! This in turn becomes a game of Chinese whispers, and in the end, the intended message gets so distorted that it leaves everybody in disbelief. A great example of this is the COVID-19 lab leak hypothesis and the fact being that we still don’t know the origins of the virus.

A good example of this is all the anti-vaxxers who whine about the government and the WHO are installing microchips in the vaccine vials to ‘track you’. A particularly ridiculous belief considering that they are more than happy to share their information with all the web applications that they use. So, why does the transmission of misinformation work?

The psychology of pseudoscience

If everybody is doing it, there has to be a basis for it right? Turns out there is an actual psychological basis for this phenomenon and it’s quite basic. A key factor is a person’s political motivation and it’s quite obvious when observed in differing contexts.

For example, when a leader says that we don’t really need the vaccine, their supporters tend to believe that because it’s coming from somebody who they admire. Our political affiliations are always in line with our ideologies so this actually makes sense. It’s called identity protective cognition and I suggest you read about it here.

Another concern during this infodemic is the fact that many people share content that they don’t completely analyse themselves. I’m sure you’ve come across so many reshared stories and posts on social media that were not necessarily true. That’s because most people just don’t use that filter in their head. A recent study identified that just because somebody shares something on their social media, does not always imply that they believe it.

That’s the shock value of social media, I suppose. There’s no way to curb the spread of misinformation which is why so many use these channels to post ridiculous claims. But we are getting better at it and let’s get into how scientists are fighting back.

How can we tackle the problem?

As much as we’d like to think that it’s easy, it really isn’t. When somebody thinks that they’re right, it’s really hard to tell them otherwise. So, how are scientists tackling the issue? The same way the infodemic peddlers are. By using social media.

Scientists at the University of Gottingen made use of machine learning models to filter false news and block it from being posted. Now, this has not been done necessarily for health-related misinformation but misinformation in general. While their target has been the finance industry, especially for scammers who influence their audience to buy certain stocks. This can very well be used for the current infodemic crisis as well.

Additionally, many scientists and science communicators have taken it upon themselves to fight the infodemic. Pseudoscience has reached a stage where everybody has had enough. A lot of myth-busting posts have been posted in the past year and many doctors and scientists alike are fighting hard to provide accurate information!

Key takeaways

I hope you now understand that sometimes it’s just out of our control to explain certain things to people. They’re hard-wired to think that way and the only way you can actually tackle the problem is by addressing it yourself. If you see a problematic article or post, report it. Encourage a healthy discussion if possible. We’re in a day and age where information is at the tips of our fingers but unless we use it to actually make a difference, it’s absolutely pointless, isn’t it?

Comment and let me know what you think about this never-ending crisis!

References

Kumar, R. (2020, April 27). Face It: The Indian Government Is Peddling Pseudoscience. Retrieved from https://science.thewire.in/health/indian-government-pseudoscience-covid-19/

Pennycook, G., & Rand, D. G. (2021). The Psychology of Fake News. Trends in cognitive sciences25(5), 388–402. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2021.02.007

Caulfield, T. (2020, April 27). Pseudoscience and COVID-19 — we’ve had enough already. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01266-z

Michael Siering, Jan Muntermann, Miha Grčar. Design Principles for Robust Fraud Detection: The Case of Stock Market Manipulations. Journal of the Association for Information Systems (2021). Doi: 10.17705/1jais.00657

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