As I write this the UK is into the second week of “lockdown” because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Every day, normally at 5pm, a daily press briefing is held on the crisis. This briefing starts with a statement from a member of the government, often accompanied by one or two appropriate experts providing a statement on current government-led interventions followed by questions from the press. I try to watch it. It does not contain special effects, incredible singing or emoting, or impressive lighting, but the critical situation we find ourselves in makes it far more dramatic viewing than Eastenders or The Voice.
My stock in trade is writing and talking about “critical thinking” – the application of a scientific way of thinking and debating to help us make better decisions. You can find out more at my website here. An important part of this is to debunk “baloney”: a polite catch-all term for the type of misinformation, nonsense and rumour that can infiltrate our thinking and, at worse, influence important decisions. Opportunists and mischief makers will often use whatever is currently topical to generate more of this baloney and the COVID-19 outbreak is no exception. A few people have carefully explained to me that COVID-19 is a biological weapon created in military laboratories in the US or China or Russia (the country varies depending on their favourite type of foreign policy paranoia). This sounds like it might be true and if you do enough research on the internet you will undoubtedly find many arguing for all three origin stories and many more besides. However, proving it is not going to be easy, perhaps even impossible, at least at the present. Even if it was true it’s highly unlikely that such “top secret military laboratories” would willingly disclose it – not much point in being “top secret” if you do…. This is an example of what Carl Sagan described as an “untestable proposition” – “propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much…. You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate sceptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.” The military laboratory story is worthless because it´s unverifiable – at least for now – what are you going to do with this information? If you could verify it, maybe you could exert pressure to shut the lab down, or change the focus of the research to finding a vaccine (although if it’s true this could be happening anyway….). However, you can’t, so you won’t, and the information is worthless. This leads to the question as to why somebody created this story and then somebody else felt obliged to pass it on in the first place? Well, it could be boredom, or more sinisterly an attempt to enlist you into their anti-US, anti-China, anti-Russia propaganda club. The point is, it doesn’t help, and it doesn’t help to pass it on as if it were true.
Democratic votes have always suffered from this kind of propaganda and this has been particularly noticeable in elections worldwide in the recent past. Politicians conveniently forgetting to identify their sources, happy to let their opinions be mislabelled as facts, or just straight out generating or passing on misinformation. This caused me great concern as it became apparent COVID-19 was becoming a big problem for everybody globally. However, the daily UK briefing is giving me great comfort and here are the reasons why:
- There is a big emphasis on facts. Numbers are published daily, and questioned with reasonable vigour by the free press in attendance. The politicians are increasingly deferring to the experts stood next to them who are extremely careful at identifying any opinion or speculation as such, and focus on what is known rather than what might happen. We can be pretty confident a fact stated here is a fact.
- The press are sceptical but not hostile. During the Q&A the press ask questions of detail – often prompted by independent research. A recent example is Robert Peston of ITV investigating the efforts to improve testing (both pre and post virus). He doesn’t just accept the answers, he prompts, checks and verifies. This is not about criticizing the government or the health service, but prompting the questions and actions to improve the current situation.
- The absence of apparent bias in the dialogue. These journalists, politicians and experts have many areas of disagreement but their focus is on the job at hand. How do we save as many lives as possible? How do we get through this? What are the trade-offs? This is a really high stress situation, and we have already sacrificed a great deal in terms of freedom and lifestyle, but the tone is calm whilst maintaining a rigorous debate. If you want to know how to have an argument you could do worse than study these briefings.
- Many of the journalists and politicians involved have changed their approach: partisan name calling and referencing of stereotypes has fallen away. This direction of travel can only be a good thing for future policy making.
This situation is not the same everywhere. You will find clips of online evangelists or the Brazilian President spouting nonsense, and we have our share of baloney-providers in the UK. However, to me it seems that the tone globally is moving more towards that shown by the World Health Organization and the UK´s daily briefings and that gives me hope. The voices that follow Carl Sagan’s approach are starting to hold sway. Stay with this path and we will survive this. Hard facts and scepticism will see us through…