Voices of Simmons

Assistant Professor of Practice Rachel Gans-Boriskin: Look for the Experts

Mr. Rogers, the beloved children’s television host who worked closely with renowned child psychology experts, offered the following words as guidance in difficult times: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'" I regularly see parents sharing Mr. Rogers’ advice on social media these days.

But to whom should we look when we aren’t even sure what the news is? News alerts are met with charges of “Fake News,” and frightening warnings are dismissed as “hoaxes”. Unable to ascertain the truth, many Americans put their faith in political leaders, while others abandon the idea that the truth is knowable.

I would like to offer another option — one I think Fred Rogers would approve of: Look for the experts.

The COVID-19 pandemic is made much worse by another pandemic — one of misinformation and disinformation. This pathogen takes the form of half-truths, misstatements, propaganda, and lies and is spread over the air by reckless leaders and broadcasters and through social media networks by regular people. The result is a population that has difficulty discerning fact from fiction — something that makes us far more susceptible to COVID-19.

To combat both the virus and misinformation, we need to start listening to experts. Practically, what does this mean? Here are some simple steps to follow:

Seek out experts who have pertinent knowledge

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has excellent information available on its website which has been compiled by experts in the fields of epidemiology, infectious disease, virology, and public health. 

If you are looking for more in-depth research, you can consult the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) website. NIH is also staffed by experts including Dr. Anthony Faucci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases division of NIH who is the country's top medical expert on the coronavirus pandemic and a member of President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force. You may have seen him on TV.

Additionally, the researchers at Johns Hopkins University have one of the most comprehensive websites with resources about the pandemic, including an interactive dashboard that lets you see the spread of the virus, frequently asked questions, and up to date advice from experts on the pandemic and its impacts.

If you hear an “expert” on the radio or on television, it’s important to figure out what qualifies that person as an expert. Just as you would want to consult an oncologist if you had cancer, with the Coronavirus, you want to hear people who have expertise in public health, infectious disease, epidemiology or those who are currently caring for COVID-19 patients.

Turn off cable news

Cable news networks have framed the pandemic through the lens of politics despite the fact that the virus has no political affiliation. Most cable “news” shows feature a panel of guests who are not experts on Coronavirus, but rather, political partisans promoting talking points. As a result, cable news networks frequently broadcast falsehoods that are dangerous to the public.

To get an accurate view of what is going on, you should seek out newspapers- preferably ones that have a proven track record of investigative and scientific journalism. At the moment, the New York Times, The Washington Post, and our own local Boston Globe are providing comprehensive coverage. AP and Reuters news services, NPR, as well as international news from the BBC are also reliable sources. 

Beware before you share

If you receive a forwarded email or see a post on social media, check the information before you share it. If it is supposedly a news story, a google search should reveal whether multiple sources are reporting it. If only one or two sites have the same information, it’s best to wait before you share it. 

If the posts or email suggest medical advice, check what the experts at the CDC, NIH, and Johns Hopkins are saying. As a basic rule, if someone is touting a cure, unless experts are backing it, it’s probably too good to be true. 

This may seem like a lot of extra work, but research shows that friends and family trust the information people share mostly because they trust the person who is sharing it. Like it or not, we are all publishers now and we need to be sure we’re not vectors of misinformation. 

Listen to politicians who listen to experts

Our policies should be guided by the considerable knowledge of experts who have dedicated their professional lives to combating infectious disease. Politicians who dismiss, belittle, or undermine the expertise of scientists should be ignored. 

If you are reading this and thinking that you have identified a bias on my part, you are correct. But my bias is for expertise. President Trump, Republican lawmakers, and pundits on Fox spent the better part of February and March downplaying the threat of Coronavirus as nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by liberal media. As a result, by mid-March, Democrats were nearly twice as likely as Republicans to be concerned about COVID-19. By politicizing the pandemic, President Trump and Republicans have endangered the lives of all Americans, but especially those of their supporters.

Amateur hour must come to an end. It’s time for us to listen to experts. Our lives may well depend on it.

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