WORLD VIEW

Pseudoscience and COVID-19 — we’ve had enough already

The scientific community must take up cudgels in the battle against bunk.
Timothy Caulfield is a Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. You can find him on Twitter @CaulfieldTim.
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Cow urine, bleach and cocaine have all been recommended as COVID-19 cures — all guff. The pandemic has been cast as a leaked bioweapon, a byproduct of 5G wireless technology and a political hoax — all poppycock. And countless wellness gurus and alternative-medicine practitioners have pushed unproven potions, pills and practices as ways to ‘boost’ the immune system.

Thankfully, this explosion of misinformation — or, as the World Health Organization has called it, the “infodemic” — has triggered an army of fact-checkers and debunkers. Regulators have taken aggressive steps to hold marketers of unproven therapies to account. Funders are supporting researchers (myself included) to explore how best to counter the spread of COVID-19 claptrap.

I have studied the spread and impact of health misinformation for decades, and have never seen the topic being taken as seriously as it is right now. Perhaps that is because of the scale of the crisis and the ubiquity of the nonsensical misinformation, including advice from some very prominent politicians. If this pro-science response is to endure, all scientists — not just a few of us — must stand up for quality information.

Here are two places to start.

First, we must stop tolerating and legitimizing health pseudoscience, especially at universities and health-care institutions. Many bogus COVID-19 therapies have been embraced by integrative health centres at leading universities and hospitals. If a respected institution, such as the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, offers reiki — a science-free practice that involves using your hands, without even touching the patient, to balance the “vital life force energy that flows through all living things” — is it any surprise that some people will think that the technique could boost their immune systems and make them less susceptible to the virus? A similar argument can be made about public-health providers in Canada and the United Kingdom: by offering homeopathy, they de facto encourage the idea that this scientifically implausible remedy can work against COVID-19. These are just a few of myriad examples.

In my home country of Canada, regulators are currently cracking down on providers such as chiropractors, naturopaths, herbalists and holistic healers who are marketing products against COVID-19. But the idea that a spinal adjustment, intravenous vitamin therapy or homeopathy could fend off an infectious disease was nonsense before the pandemic.

The fight against pseudoscience is weakened if trusted medical institutions condemn an evidence-free practice in one context and legitimize it in another. We need good science all the time, but particularly during disasters.

There is some evidence that alternative treatments and placebo effects can relieve distress — a common justification for tolerating unproven alternative treatments. But it’s inappropriate to deceive people (even for their benefit) with magical thinking, and it is inappropriate for scientists to let such misinformation go unremarked.

Second, more researchers should become active participants in the public fight against misinformation. Those pushing unproven ideas use the language of real science — a phenomenon I call ‘scienceploitation’ — to legitimize their products. It is, alas, all too effective. Homeopathy and energy therapies, proponents argue, depend on quantum physics. Colonic hydrotherapy is justified using phrases borrowed from microbiome studies. And the language of stem-cell research is used to promote a spray claiming to have immune-boosting properties.

We need physicists, microbiologists, immunologists, gastroenterologists and all scientists from relevant disciplines to provide simple and shareable content explaining why this hijacking of real research is inaccurate and scientifically dishonest.

It does actually need to be said that quantum physics doesn’t explain homeopathy and energy therapies such as reiki. That a colonic won’t bolster your immune system. That, no, a supplement spray won’t enhance the functioning of your stem cells.

In a world where anti-vaccination advocates and climate-change denialists persist, talking sense might seem hopeless, especially when social-media algorithms and deliberate bad actors amplify pseudoscience messages. There is no easy answer to solving this, but science-informed messages are not easily found. We need more researchers making an effort. A quick search turned up only one physicist publicly countering claims that quantum physics explains homeopathy, although I know that their view is the overwhelming consensus.

Disinformation expert Claire Wardle at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has said, “The best way to fight misinformation is to swamp the landscape with accurate information that is easy to digest, engaging and easy to share on mobile devices.” So, let’s get swamping.

Tweet. Write a comment for the popular press. Give public lectures. Respond to reporters’ requests. Empower your trainees to get involved in science communication. Share accurate information that you feel is valuable for the public. Complain to the appropriate regulatory agency or oversight entity if you think there is a problem that needs to be rectified.

Correcting misrepresentations should be viewed as a professional responsibility. Some scientific societies have already moved in that direction. In 2016, for example, I worked with the International Society for Stem Cell Research on their guidelines for clinical translation, which tell researchers to “promote accurate, balanced, and responsive public representations”, and to ensure their work is not misrepresented.

Of course, part of the scientific community’s fight against pseudoscience is keeping its own house in order. Those pushing biomedical conspiracy theories and other nonsense point to legitimate concerns about how research is funded, interpreted and disseminated. Scientific integrity — particularly, refraining from hype and being transparent about conflicts — is crucial. We must promote both trust in science and trustworthy science.

Let us hope that one of the legacies of this crisis will be the recognition that tolerating pseudoscience can cause real harm. Good science and public trust are perhaps the most valuable tools in the fight against misinformation.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01266-z

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