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Study: Pandemic rumors may have killed hundreds of people
Pandemic rumors and information overload make separating fact from fancy difficult, putting people's health and lives at risk.
- An "infodemic" describes a dangerous time when an overload of information makes evaluating that information difficult.
- A new study found that pandemic rumors and conspiracies lead to people mistrusting governments and health agencies, leading to hundreds of avoidable deaths.
- Experts recommend that health agencies track misinformation, while individuals take steps to protect themselves from the infodemic.
The reason sanitizer kills novel coronavirus is that it contains north of 60 percent ethyl alcohol. To kill any viral invaders swarming your body, you need to drink enough alcohol to sterilize your system. According to research by Dr. John Lee Hooker, it only takes one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer to begin feeling the salutary effects.
That is, of course, utter bunkum. Dr. Hooker's field of study was the blues, not epidemiology, and a blood alcohol concentration of 0.40 percent can be fatal, a level well below antiseptic action. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), excessive alcohol consumption during the pandemic increases your risk as it can compromise your immune system.
But those facts didn't stop similar pandemic rumors from assailing social media and offline social networks. Other rumored "remedies" espoused ingesting bleach, garlic, and hot peppers or exposing the body to extreme temperatures. Such cures can have dire consequences: None of them kill the coronavirus, some are actively harmful to a person's health, and even the benign ones can provide a false sense of protection.
These pandemic rumors, and many more, are the dark side of the "infodemic," which the WHO defines as "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."
Recently, an international team of researchers sought to determine the impact of this "infodemic" on public health. They combed the internet for COVID-19-related rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories, and their findings suggest that hundreds of people have needlessly died as a result of the misinformation found online.
The dark side of the information age
A South Korean church became a viral hotspot after church officials sprayed a salt water "cure" in congregants mouths, without disinfecting the nozzle between uses.
On December 31, 2019, the researchers began chronicling COVID-19-related posts circulating the internet. They examined agency websites, online newspapers, and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, extracting reports until April 5, 2020. They then compiled and analyzed their data.
In total, the researchers discovered more than 2,300 reports of COVID-19-related reports. These reports were mostly classified as rumors (89 percent) followed by conspiracy theories (7.8 percent) and stigmas (3.5 percent). They came in 25 languages and from 87 countries. However, most of the false and hate-filled news spread from five countries: China, India, Spain, Brazil, and the U.S.
Of their accumulated reports, 2,276 had text ratings available, and these show the vast disparity between the dark and illuminating sides of the infodemic. False claims consisted of 82 percent of text-rated reports, while misleading and unproven claims took 8 and 1 percent, respectively. Correct claims made up a paltry 9 percent.
Their finders were published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
"Rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories have the potential to decrease community trust in governments and international health agencies. Rumors can mask themselves as credible infection prevention and control strategies and have potentially serious implications if prioritized over evidence-based guidelines," the researchers write in the study.
In their discussion, the researchers point to a telling anecdote from Iran. There, a rumor spread that ingesting methanol—non-drinkable alcohol that is even poisonous when absorbed through the skin—would disinfect the body of novel coronavirus. After the rumor gained purchase in the milieu, the country saw a 10-fold increase in alcohol poisonings. Close to 800 people died, thousands were hospitalized, and as many as 60 developed blindness. Other countries, including Turkey, Qatar, and India, have witnessed a similar, if less severe, trend.
In another story, also relayed in the study, a South Korean church told congregants they could be cleansed by spraying special saltwater into their mouths. The church soon became a viral hotspot as they used the same spray bottle on church-goers without disinfecting the nozzle. Nor are WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) societies immune to pandemic rumors. In April, the FDA issued a warning to Alex Jones, of InfoWars infamy, to stop peddling fake coronavirus cures, including a silver-laced gargle and toothpaste.
The researchers do note their study's limitations. For example, the speed at which COVID-19 information changes, especially during the study's report-gathering phase, means some report categorization could be subject to misclassification. Also, the researchers did not follow up on the misinformation, so they could not say how many people on average believe any rumor or conspiracy they came across online.
But the connection between the infodemic and real-world actions, as seen in Iran and other countries, shows the lethal implications if people cannot discern sound information from the flimsy. As we've seen with other outbreaks in the past, such as the HIV epidemic and the 2019 Ebola outbreak, when people are afraid, they will grasp for beliefs that return a sense of control to their lives. In that desperation, rubbish can be just as appealing as reality.
As Michael Shermer told Big Think in an interview earlier this year: "Whenever there's a high level of anxiety or uncertainty in an environment, your personal life or society at large, conspiracism goes up. That is to say, people find comfort in attenuating the anxiety or uncertainty they are feeling by concocting some overarching plan."
The cure for bad information is good
That doesn't mean we are defenseless. The best cure for rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories is good, evidence-based information. We just have to know how to recognize it when we find it. Unfortunately, that's difficult in the center of the infodemic vortex.
"Information overload is incredibly anxiety-provoking—which is true even when the information is accurate," Jaimie Meyer, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist, told Yale Medicine. "But here, if people get the wrong information from unreliable sources, we may have more trouble slowing the spread of the virus. And we can't afford to get this wrong."
In their study, the researchers concluded that governments and health agencies should study the patterns of pandemic rumors, track the misinformation, and develop communication strategies to circumvent these messages.
In the Yale Medicine article, Meyer provides advice for helping individuals deal with information overload. She recommends looking at data and graphs carefully, considering how individual studies connect with established facts, and considering the whole story (not just the eye-catching headline).
When it comes to garnering information from social media, proceed with caution.
"Everything looks the same on Twitter," Meyer said. "When you have a tweet from Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Association of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, next to a tweet that says the opposite thing from a celebrity or some random person—and they all appear similar, you have to weigh the credibility of your sources."
She recommends following health agencies like the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and your local and state health agencies. When you come across a pandemic rumor or something that seems suspect, you can double-check it against these authoritative sources, such as the WHO's COVID-19 mythbusters page. And if you find yourself stressing out over the news and your social media feed, take a mental break.
We all would like a return to some form of normalcy, but that return will not emanate from a miracle cure. It will be a slow, steady course of handwashing, social distancing, and learning to navigate the infodemic.
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When it comes time for humanity to pick a new home, where will we go?
- Regardless of whether you think the Earth will suffer some catastrophe or not, most individuals believe that humanity will eventually have to live on another planet.
- There is no nearby planet that can support human life, however; we'll have to pick a good candidate and terraform it.
- Each celestial body presents its own unique challenges and requirements. Some need more carbon dioxide, others need less; some would become water worlds, others more Earth-like; and so on.
Whether you're feeling optimistic or pessimistic about humanity's long-term chances on Earth, most of us agree that we should colonize other planets. Whether that's out of humanity's sheer pioneering spirit or the pragmatic survival instinct to spread out so that a catastrophe on Earth doesn't wipe out the species, establishing a colony on a nearby planet seems like a must.
Trouble is, our neighboring celestial bodies are constantly bombarded by deadly radiation, lack water or oxygen, rain sulfuric acid, swing from extreme heat to cold, and possess many other inhospitable characteristics. No matter where we go in our solar system, we'll have to engage in one of the largest projects imaginable: terraforming. Depending on the environment we want to transform into a more Earth-like one, the nature of this project will vary tremendously. Here's some examples from some of the most likely candidates for terraforming in our solar system.
An artist's depiction of Mars' gradual transformation via terraforming.
Mars has always been an appealing target for terraforming, as it is arguably the most Earth-like planet in the solar system. It goes through similar seasons to Earth, has a relatively similar atmospheric composition, its day-night cycle is extremely close to our own, it possesses abundant water in the form of ice, and it lies in the Sun's habitable zone.
But the biggest problem with Mars is that it has no magnetosphere. Without an envelope of shielding magnetism, solar wind will blow away any atmosphere before it can accumulate. Proposals to create the right kind of atmosphere on Mars — like Elon Musk's flashy idea of nuking the polar ice caps to release stored CO2 and water vapor, thereby heating the planet up — won't work long term without a magnetosphere to protect the planet against solar wind. With Mars' current, flimsy atmosphere, between 1 and 2 kilograms of gas are lost to space every second. Not to mention that the lack of this protective magnetosphere also exposes the planet and all life on it to deadly radiation from the sun.
One proposal is to place a gigantic magnetic shield in orbit between Mars and the Sun to recreate the effects produced by, for instance, Earth's rotating iron outer core. This would be an incredible engineering task, likely requiring regular maintenance and fuel to keep the magnet powered. But it would be the first step to ensuring that Mars could be made habitable. Even prior to that point, Mars gradual growth of an atmosphere would make future exploration on the red planet easier and easier.
An artist's depiction of Venus if it were terraformed.
Compared to Mars, Venus has very little going for it. The surface temperature is 462°C, or 864°F; it has the opposite problem as Mars, with an atmosphere more than 90 times as dense as that of the Earth; and it's got no breathable oxygen. Not to mention that it's covered in volcanos and rains sulfuric acid. On the other hand, it's our closest planetary neighbor, and its gravity is about 90 percent that of Earth's compared to Mars' 38 percent, meaning our muscles and bones wouldn't atrophy while living there.
While Venus also suffers from a lack of a sufficiently strong magnetosphere, it's abundance of atmosphere means that concern can be put aside for a while in our hypothetical terraforming project. Venus's major problem is its excess of CO2, which makes the surface of the planet too hot for life and too heavy for humans.
One approach would be to use autonomous robots to expose Venus's underground deposits of calcium and magnesium, resulting in a chemical reaction that would store CO2 in a magnesium carbonate. This would need to be supplement by a bombardment of those elements mined from asteroids as well in order to remove enough carbon from the atmosphere for human life.
There are a variety of other methods, but they all rely on removing CO2 from the atmosphere rapidly. Seeing as how our inability to do that on Earth may be one of the biggest reasons to find another planet, Venus may not be the ideal target for terraforming in the future. An alternative to terraforming, however, would be to build a floating city in the Venusian clouds, a feat that isn't too far-fetched technologically.
A full-color image of Callisto as captured by NASA's Galileo spacecraft/
NASA/JPL/ DLR(German Aerospace Center)
Many of the Jupiter's Galilean moons are attractive targets for terraforming due to their high abundance of water, but only Callisto lies far enough away from the radiation belts generated by Jupiter's magnetosphere. On Earth, we're exposed to about 0.066 rems of radiation per day. In contrast, Ganymede receives 8 rems of radiation per day, Europa receives 540 rems per day, and Io receives a whopping 3,600 rems. Callisto, in contrast, is exposed to about 0.01 rems per day, which humans can tolerate.
The process of terraforming these moons would all follow essentially the same recipe. First, heat up their icy surfaces either through giant mirrors, nuclear devices, or some other method. Then, let the radiation from Jupiter split the resulting water vapor into hydrogen and oxygen — the hydrogen will be blown into space by solar wind, while the oxygen will settle close to the surface. Use bacteria to convert the moons' ammonia into nitrogen, and there's a breathable atmosphere.
Of course, these planets would be completely covered in oceans hundreds of kilometers deep, and Callisto wouldn't have its own magnetosphere to keep that atmosphere in place long term, but their abundance of water makes it an attractive target nonetheless. More concerning is the possibility that life already exists beneath the Galilean moons' icy surfaces, in the warm waters by thermal vents. If we were to discover such life, would it be ethical to disrupt the only alien life we have ever known?
A composite image of Titan in infrared as seen by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Because Titan's atmosphere is so hazy, viewing it in the wavelengths of visible light is not possible. Using the infrared spectrum enables us to see through the clouds to the moon's surface.
The appeal of terraforming Titan lies in its vast reservoir of resources. Its hydrocarbon reserves (such as petroleum) are several hundred times greater than all known reserves on Earth. It's covered in a wide variety of organic compounds, particularly methane and ammonia, as well as a great deal of water. And its atmosphere is primarily nitrogen as well — a composition that scientists believe resembles that of early Earth's.
Together, these ingredients would be of significant benefit to any terraforming project. If Titan's atmosphere does resemble early Earth's, then transitioning to an atmosphere that resembles modern Earth would be (relatively) straightforward. One proposal would be to position mirrors in orbit to direct focused sunlight onto the moon's surface. Since the surface ice contains many greenhouse gases, this could warm Titan up considerably, releasing water vapor and consequently oxygenating the atmosphere. It also spends most of its time within Saturn's magnetosphere, protecting its atmosphere from the solar wind.
But perhaps more so than any other body in our solar system, Titan could already have extraterrestrial life owing to its abundance of organic chemicals. And, if all of Titan's ice were melted, it would become an ocean planet 1700 km deep, or over 1,000 miles deep, making the establishment of fixed, permanent structures a challenge.
There are challenges common to all of these potential candidates for terraforming. The big one, of course, is getting there. Many of these targets are incredibly distant. For a comparison, it took Voyager 1 a little over three years to get to Saturn, where Titan, the most distant candidate, is located, and a ship with all of the necessary equipment, people, and resources would be significantly slower than a lightweight probe. Then, there's the issue of establishing a semipermanent colony while the long work of terraforming goes on. It's difficult to speculate about the capabilities we'll have at our disposal when terraforming a planet becomes a feasible project, but it could be hundreds, possibly thousands of years before any of these planets are completely terraformed. And these are just some of the known issues: a project of this scale is bound to have unexpected problems and consequences. Despite these major challenges, the vast majority of humanity believes that establishing a second home in our solar system is a necessity — the question is, which will it be?
The author of 'How We Read' Now explains.
During the pandemic, many college professors abandoned assignments from printed textbooks and turned instead to digital texts or multimedia coursework.
As a professor of linguistics, I have been studying how electronic communication compares to traditional print when it comes to learning. Is comprehension the same whether a person reads a text onscreen or on paper? And are listening and viewing content as effective as reading the written word when covering the same material?
The answers to both questions are often “no," as I discuss in my book “How We Read Now," released in March 2021. The reasons relate to a variety of factors, including diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset and a tendency to multitask while consuming digital content.
Print versus digital reading
The benefits of print particularly shine through when experimenters move from posing simple tasks – like identifying the main idea in a reading passage – to ones that require mental abstraction – such as drawing inferences from a text. Print reading also improves the likelihood of recalling details – like “What was the color of the actor's hair?" – and remembering where in a story events occurred – “Did the accident happen before or after the political coup?"
Studies show that both grade school students and college students assume they'll get higher scores on a comprehension test if they have done the reading digitally. And yet, they actually score higher when they have read the material in print before being tested.
Educators need to be aware that the method used for standardized testing can affect results. Studies of Norwegian tenth graders and U.S. third through eighth graders report higher scores when standardized tests were administered using paper. In the U.S. study, the negative effects of digital testing were strongest among students with low reading achievement scores, English language learners and special education students.
My own research and that of colleagues approached the question differently. Rather than having students read and take a test, we asked how they perceived their overall learning when they used print or digital reading materials. Both high school and college students overwhelmingly judged reading on paper as better for concentration, learning and remembering than reading digitally.
The discrepancies between print and digital results are partly related to paper's physical properties. With paper, there is a literal laying on of hands, along with the visual geography of distinct pages. People often link their memory of what they've read to how far into the book it was or where it was on the page.
But equally important is mental perspective, and what reading researchers call a “shallowing hypothesis." According to this theory, people approach digital texts with a mindset suited to casual social media, and devote less mental effort than when they are reading print.
Podcasts and online video
Given increased use of flipped classrooms – where students listen to or view lecture content before coming to class – along with more publicly available podcasts and online video content, many school assignments that previously entailed reading have been replaced with listening or viewing. These substitutions have accelerated during the pandemic and move to virtual learning.
Surveying U.S. and Norwegian university faculty in 2019, University of Stavanger Professor Anne Mangen and I found that 32% of U.S. faculty were now replacing texts with video materials, and 15% reported doing so with audio. The numbers were somewhat lower in Norway. But in both countries, 40% of respondents who had changed their course requirements over the past five to 10 years reported assigning less reading today.
A primary reason for the shift to audio and video is students refusing to do assigned reading. While the problem is hardly new, a 2015 study of more than 18,000 college seniors found only 21% usually completed all their assigned course reading.
Maximizing mental focus
Researchers found similar results with university students reading an article versus listening to a podcast of the text. A related study confirms that students do more mind-wandering when listening to audio than when reading.
Results with younger students are similar, but with a twist. A study in Cyprus concluded that the relationship between listening and reading skills flips as children become more fluent readers. While second graders had better comprehension with listening, eighth graders showed better comprehension when reading.
Research on learning from video versus text echoes what we see with audio. For example, researchers in Spain found that fourth through sixth graders who read texts showed far more mental integration of the material than those watching videos. The authors suspect that students “read" the videos more superficially because they associate video with entertainment, not learning.
The collective research shows that digital media have common features and user practices that can constrain learning. These include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a propensity to multitask, lack of a fixed physical reference point, reduced use of annotation and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard or viewed.
Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximizing learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators – and parents – shouldn't assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.