As Coronavirus Rumors Spread, How to Assess Alleged “Health News”

myths include applying sesame oil to skin to prevent disease

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Conspiracy theories about the coronavirus are running rampant, according to NPR. The World Health Organization is fighting back with myth-busting and fact-checking on social media. Here’s how to separate medical fact from fiction.

Close up of someone using their phone looking at the news, in public.
As updates to coronavirus news stories draw the attention of people worldwide, the World Health Organization is trying to dispel misinformation. Photo by r.classen / Shutterstock

The NPR article said that misinformation about the coronavirus disease, now officially named COVID-19, is spreading faster than the truth does, likely because of the strong emotional response that such myths elicit from us. “The false statements range from a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus is a man-made bioweapon to the claim that more than 100,000 have died from the disease,” it said. “One untrue statement suggests that rubbing sesame oil on the skin will block the coronavirus.”

The reason that false information like this is created, the NPR article said, can be political. “Countries that are antagonistic towards China could try to hijack the conversation in hopes of creating chaos and eroding trust in the authorities,” it said. Parsing out the truth is easier than we think.

Even Gravity Is Just a Theory

“Part of the reason science and health news can be so confusing and frustrating is the very nature of science itself,” said Tara Susman-Peña, Senior Technical Expert at IREX’s Center for Applied Learning and Impact. “Scientific knowledge is always changing, and by its nature, it is uncertain; new discoveries are constantly rendering previous beliefs obsolete. At the same time, when the great weight of evidence favors a particular conclusion, there’s good reason to believe it.”

Susman-Peña said that the media, in its competition for our interest, sometimes fails at putting scientific findings in the proper context. The best starting point to understand what’s true and what isn’t is by reviewing the scientific method, the standard by which all sciences test and verify—or debunk—certain beliefs. She cited a summary written in 2011 by Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review.

Niles summarized the scientific method in seven steps. Find a topic worth discussing, do background research to read what’s been written before, come up with a hypothesis or best guess on the topic, test the hypothesis by collecting data, analyze the data, accept or reject the hypothesis based on the data, and publish the data with all relevant information.

“Notice the open-mindedness that the scientific process requires,” Susman-Peña said. “From start to finish, the scientific method demands humility, honesty, and transparency in order to achieve reliable results. Exaggeration or suppression of research results, or unsupported claims about what they could mean, are all completely contrary to the purpose and spirit of the endeavor.”

The Scientific Method as a Tool

Susman-Peña said that sometimes even the best news outlets use sensationalized language when it comes to science and health news. In order to separate the wheat from the chaff, it’s important to consider the scientific method when looking at articles relevant to the subject and ask yourself some questions.

“Does the story use hyperbolic language?” she asked. “Rarely do scientific studies yield true ‘breakthrough,’ ‘revolutionary,’ or ‘game-changer’ treatments, and they certainly don’t claim to have discovered ‘miracles.’ Science tends to gain knowledge in small steps.”

Second, which previous studies have been done on the subject? “No single study is good enough to make scientists reach a definitive conclusion; so a good science or health news story will place a new study in the context of past research,” Susman-Peña said.

Third, how big was the “sample size,” or number of test subjects, involved in the study? The bigger the sample size, the more representative of a diverse population it is.

Fourth, when it comes to the results of the study mentioned in the article, were the test subjects humans or rodents? Lab rats and mice offer promising stepping stones to human trials, but they don’t guarantee that we’ll see replicated results.

Finally, are the test results an example of correlation or causation? In other words, is there a proven link between the test and results or can it be a coincidence?

“For example, it’s been observed that as ice cream sales increase, so, too, do drowning deaths,” Susman-Peña said. “Does this mean that ice cream causes drowning? Why would that be? If you look more closely at the data, you’ll see that increases in ice cream sales and drowning deaths both occur in summer months. Instead of the increase in one factor causing the increase in the other, it seems more probable that as the weather gets warmer, ice cream sales and drowning deaths occur independently.”

Following scientific studies that employ the scientific method, and taking general health and science news with a grain of salt, can help you fight back against accepting medical misinformation.

Tara Susman-Peña contributed to this article. Susman-Peña is Senior Technical Expert in IREX’s Center for Applied Learning and Impact and in the Information & Media practice. She has an M.A. in Sociocultural Anthropology from Columbia University and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Yale University.