Information hygiene

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - July 14, 2020 - 12:00am

Quarantine has been an exercise in isolation for many, and in that isolation, we have come to a renewed understanding of how much we depend on one another. This goes beyond the assistance we get to sustain our everyday lives, or the treasured bits of connection we receive (from our households or remotely). Restricted to our homes, our view narrows, our knowledge of the outside world is dependent on what is relayed to us from others. During a pandemic where there is an active threat to our health and that of our loved ones, for most of us all knowledge of that threat – what it does, how to avoid it, what to do if we catch it – has been handed down to us from elsewhere. And because we are living in what historians call the Information Age, such knowledge is both plentiful and easy to access.

That, in fact, is part of the problem.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that at no time in human history has there been so much information available to so many. Computers and the internet allow not just the creation and encoding of information as data at an exponential rate, but its transmission and dissemination as well. Search engines, video tutorials, social media… The last in particular has become such a part of our daily lives that even our most important types of information get filtered through it – an SWS survey indicated that more Filipinos received their news from social media than from radio or newspapers. And while major media outlets are on Facebook and Twitter, much of the information that we are exposed to does not come directly from them, but from posts shared by others: infographics or text passed as if in a relay from one person to the next, so many times until it becomes almost impossible to pinpoint the source. And there are few things as dangerous, as unaccountable, as unsourced information.

During a pandemic, accurate information could mean the difference between life and death. And being critical about the information we receive – being rigorous about checking its veracity – is something that could save your life, or the lives of those you love.

As humans we view food as a good thing. But the idea that we should accept every edible item placed in front of us and shove it into our mouths is preposterous. We know that eating the wrong food could make us sick, and even do irreparable harm. Even if we are receiving food from a friend, or a famous restaurant, if we know we are allergic to certain ingredients we make sure we check and double-check. We do not take matters of import at face value.

What we need is to apply the same kind of caution when it comes to information, at least when it comes to arguments – messages that attempt to sway us into doing or not doing something. What we need is to cultivate in our people – particularly our children – the skills of critical thinking.

Critical thinking is not the same as cynicism, doubting for the sake of doubting, or because of personal distaste. Critical thinking is the insistence that arguments be backed by reasons, and when these reasons appear to be based on facts, that these facts be verified. Critical thinking is something to be employed not only when dealing with arguments we disagree with, but especially with those that cater to our biases, our hopes – and especially our fears.

It’s hard not to be afraid during a pandemic. That fear can act as a dampener on our ability to think things through, because when we receive “news” that scares us – that life-saving vaccines will actually make us sick, or that a virus is part of a biological attack – the real fear we feel in turn makes that information feel real to us. So we consume it, then pass it on. Better safe than sorry right?

Except in most cases misinformation is more dangerous than knowing ignorance: some of the false remedies being touted to treat COVID-19 such as injecting disinfectants or drinking methanol can and have led to deaths. The fact that the President of the United States appeared to have endorsed drinking disinfectant did not make this true, or safe. An authority is not the same as an expert, and expertise is narrow – a pediatrician cannot be expected to know much about brain surgery.

Critical thinking is notoriously difficult to teach but this is not an excuse to avoid making a genuine effort to do so. As formal schooling moves towards remote learning, making sure we train students in the basics of critical thinking and information literacy has become a matter of national importance. Infoliteracy, according to psychologist Daniel Levitin, is “recognizing that there are hierarchies in source quality, that pseudo-facts can easily masquerade as facts, and biases can distort... information.”

The best way we can teach others is to lead by example, and to share our best practices. It can be helpful to have a checklist of questions for evaluation of information online such as the CARS method or the IMVAIN mnemonic. While far from exhaustive, here are some questions I ask myself when I encounter new information:

(1) Is it coming from an identifiable source? Anonymous information is highly suspect.

(2) Is the source an expert on that specific subject? Remember that expertise is narrow.

(3) Is there a way to verify that the source actually said that? Most experts such as the WHO have official websites and platforms you can check.

(4) Is the information current? Information from the start of the outbreak may be outdated by now.

(5) Is the information corroborated? Is it being reported by more than one expert or trusted source?

Even with critical thinking, there is no way to be entirely sure that something is true. But we must not make the mistake of leaping from that fact to the notion that all information is of equal veracity. Credibility is a continuum, and it is our obligation – to ourselves and to others – that we allow our actions to be guided by only the most credible of our options.

In this pandemic, whether it be food or information, we must be very cautious of what we consume. It could be the difference between life and death.

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