The explosion in disinformation about COVID was a defining aspect of the pandemic. Aside from the virus itself, we have been shadowed by what the World Health Organization has called infodemia. This is well known, of course, but much less discussed is the role of supposed “experts” in perpetuating dangerous fictions. Since the beginning of the crisis, a disturbing number of highly skilled scientists and doctors have spread falsehoods on social media and rose to be gurus to give empty, dangerous claims a veneer of ostensible scientific legitimacy. And these false claims, like their pathological namesake, have gone viral uncontrollably.
For example, in March last year, doctor Thomas Cowan insisted that COVID-19 was caused by 5G radio frequencies. While this claim was both without evidence and physically impossible, it did not pose a barrier to widespread adoption, as anti-5G sentiment accounted for at least 87 cell phone tower arson attacks in the UK alone. The alleged documentary Planemy, with Ph.D. The virologist Judy Mikovits has gathered millions of views with the central thesis that the coronavirus is a planned joke. Even Nobel Prize winners in Medicine were at fault; Luc Montagnier’s testimony that COVID was likely made earned him both the enthusiastic embrace of conspiracy theorists and the hostility of fellow scholars who disproved the presumption as completely false.
Ineffective treatments from hydrochloroquine to ivermectin to vitamin D and alternative medicine have also had success, which is confirmed by a rouge gallery of doctors and researchers. Even now that the life-saving effects of vaccination are being felt around the world, a new cohort of impressively recognized contrarians has emerged who are spreading falsehoods about vaccination. The grandiose “World Doctors Alliance” is a strong example that among its members are Doctor Vernon Coleman (an anti-vaccine activist and author of a book that insists COVID is a joke) and Dolores Cahill, the Once respected Irish scientist, her conspiratorial proclamations have become a staple of lockdown protests and disinformation from COVID denialists across Europe.
In sophisticated videos that are tirelessly shared online, these fringe scholars are lauded as experts who are not afraid to tell the truth to power. However, it is vital that, despite all of their formal references, these individuals extol a narrative that is completely contradicting reality and is easily refuted by public health authorities around the world. These pseudoscientific, conspiratorial claims are archetypal arguments of the agency, using the assistance of a perceived expert to justify positions that are not supported by data. Scientific claims derive their authority not from the fact that they come from scientists, but from the weight of the evidence behind them. In contrast, pseudoscience focuses on alleged gurus rather than consensus opinion. The only authority a scientist can ever really invoke is a reflective one, one that depends on the precise presentation of the evidence base. If they are marginalized and override the principles of scientific skepticism, then their qualifications, education, and prestige mean absolutely nothing.
If these claims were vague, that would be bad enough. But they also damage public understanding in a unique way. Scientists and physicians occupy an extremely trustworthy position in society, and an imprimatur of scientific legitimacy is powerful. This is a trust that is completely abused by marginalized groups who submit qualifications as proxy for scientific validity. This is superficially convincing to the point that it doesn’t matter that these videos come from conspiratorial circles; The intrinsic aura of “science” that apparent experts offer enables them to metastasize well beyond this hideous origin. This in turn casts doubt on the advice of public health authorities and skews public understanding by presenting fictional rankings in the stolen robes of science.
The rise of pseudo-experts may be symptomatic of a change in access to information. As we become curators of our own media, the traditional gatekeepers and fact checkers that used to be included in most reports are increasingly being disregarded. This, in turn, polarized us and reduced our ability to distinguish fact from opinion. Motivated reasoning, our human propensity to only pluck arguments that match what we want them to be true certainly matters. The impositions of COVID are many; It’s not surprising that fringe scientists are inevitably drawn on as sources for those who have a strong feeling against bans, masks, and vaccinations. Even if we are not ideologically predisposed to such positions, these claims undermine public understanding, blur the perception of scientific consensus, and collectively drive us to fear and distrust.
The dark irony is that these marginal figures increase the societal trust of science and over-enhance its ability to cause serious harm. To mitigate this, we need to take into account the crucial distinction between “science” and “scientists”. Individual scientists are far from infallible. They can be fooled by subtle mistakes, haunted by false conclusions, or even so ideologically attached to belief that they twist facts to fit that bias. Your motives are human; You can be seduced by the lure of money, shame, or admiration. In contrast, science is a systemic method of investigation in which positions are formed on the entirety of the evidence. To be labeled “scientific” ideas should be testable, and those that fail dispassionate scrutiny are duly discarded.
For all qualifications, marginal scientists fail on this basic principle of science because they agree in their willingness to accept the conspiracy theory if their claims are refuted. The lack of evidence to support their position is being dismissed as a cover-up by everyone from WHO to the entire medical establishment. But this performative outrage is so loud and angry that it distracts from the inevitable reality that its positions are completely refuted by the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. This is scientifically reprehensible and amazingly irresponsible behavior.
It is perfectly understandable that many become confused and restless by the vocal assertions of marginal characters, but the burden of proof always rests on those who make great claims. The history of science and medicine is littered with the hubris of the arrogant and misguided, and mere testimonies are no obstacle to being wrong. Only evidence is really important. When confronted with the pronunciation of marginal characters, the Royal Society’s motto should always be in the foreground of our thinking: “Nullius in verba”(Don’t take anyone’s word for it).
This is an opinion and analysis article.