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Coronavirus Disease 2019

What Is Misinformation?

Commentary: Misinformation is false, inaccurate, or misleading information.

Key points

  • Information requires processes for representing, collecting, storing, retrieving, evaluating, transforming, sending, and receiving.
  • Misinformation is faulty information that results from breakdowns in the eight information processes.
  • Misinformation is a serious problem for medicine, science, politics, economics, education, and social inequality.

The USA Surgeon General has an excellent report on confronting health misinformation. He says: “Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.”

The report defines misinformation as “information that is false, inaccurate, or misleading according to the best available evidence at the time.” I like the inclusion of information that is misleading as well as false because even true reports can be harmful. For example, someone who posts on social media that a sister got a blood clot after getting a COVID-19 vaccination may be reporting the truth, but the anecdote is misleading if it suggests that vaccines are highly dangerous despite ample evidence that the risks of available vaccines are minuscule compared with the dangers of the disease.

I also like the standard of evaluating information according to the best available evidence, which recognizes that evidence can change over time but can still be used wisely even in the absence of a full scientific consensus. Good evidence is characterized by reliability, intersubjectivity, repeatability, robustness, and causal correlation with the world.

The major problem with the Surgeon General’s definition is that it depends on the meaning of information, which dictionaries unhelpfully define as knowledge, facts, or data. A psychologically richer way to characterize a concept is to identify its standard examples, typical features, and explanatory uses.

Standard examples of information include the personal (Paul Thagard is Canadian), the commonplace (apples are fruits), and the scientific (COVID-19 is caused by a novel coronavirus). The typical features of information are the following processes.

Representing, such as the belief that apples are red or a picture of a red apple.

Collecting, such as observing that some apples are red but others are green.

Evaluating, such as assessing conflicting representations of the color of apples.

Storing, such as remembering that mackintosh apples are red or typing it into a computer.

Retrieving, such as getting the color of apples from memory or a database.

Transforming, such as inferring that apples are healthy to eat.

Sending, such as telling someone else about the color of apples.

Receiving, such as recalling the color of apples or getting it from a database.

Finally, the concept of information contributes to explanation, for example of why people function well in the world because they have a lot of information about it.

Similarly, the concept of misinformation is open to threefold analysis. Standard examples include the personal (Elvis is still alive), the general (tomatoes are poisonous), and the pseudoscientific (COVID-19 can be treated with bleach). The processes for information can break down to generate misinformation in the following ways.

Misrepresenting, such as the false belief that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu or inaccurate pictures of the novel coronavirus.

Faulty collecting, such as relying on anecdotes about COVID-19 instead of systematically gathering evidence.

Flawed evaluating, such as accepting pundit pronouncements about the origins of COVID-19 rather than looking at the evidence.

Poor storing, such as only remembering or saving biased data.

Bad retrieving, such as relying on faulty memories or corrupt databases.

Erroneous transforming, such as making inferences based on personal biases rather than on all available evidence.

Spurious sending, such as posting lurid reports to social media without considering their accuracy. The Surgeon General insists: If you aren’t sure, don’t share.

Broken receiving, such as believing reports from media or other people without questioning their accuracy or scrutinizing the motives and reliability of their sources.

Just as diseases result from breakdowns in biological mechanisms, so misinformation results from these eight breakdowns in information mechanisms. Emotional feelings can be valuable information when they capture good evaluations of situations, but they can be misinformative when based on defective evaluations.

Finally, the concept of misinformation has numerous explanatory uses, such as explaining why large numbers of people decline to get vaccinated despite the strong evidence of their effectiveness in preventing disease and death.

The distinction between information and misinformation is important for many applications besides COVID-19. Medical misinformation includes many other dangerous ideas such as the new “rewilding” fad that spurs people to get fecal transplants from hunter-gatherers. Misinformation afflicts science on topics such as climate change and genetic engineering. Political misinformation is rampant concerning conspiracy theories such as QAnon. Economic misinformation undermines decision-making with bogus doctrines such as that budget deficits are evil. Social inequality is fostered by misinformation about racial, sexual, and other differences. Educational misinformation abounds concerning the best methods for teaching children how to read and do math. Identifying and curing misinformation is therefore crucial for medical, scientific, and social progress.

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