Evaluating Scientific Claims during a Pandemic and Infodemic

Megan Scudellari is a science journalist and a coauthor of Biology Now, Third Edition. In 2013, Megan was awarded the prestigious Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award in recognition of outstanding reporting and writing in science. Her work has appeared in publications such as NatureThe Boston Globeand The Scientist.

Did you know driving tractors or drinking vodka can fight COVID-19? True facts, according to Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko. But if you do get sick, try injecting disinfectant or irritating your body with UV light to kill the virus, says American president Donald Trump. 

Unproven claims concerning COVID-19 are ubiquitous, dangerous, and shared across all types of media by all types of people—even presidents. While some inaccurate claims are easy to spot (I’m looking at you, tractors), some are not. In the Philippines, a widely shared video demonstrates how to make hand sanitizer by mixing rum, bleach, and fabric softener. On first glance, it looks like a clever home hack. However, an accredited organization of chemists in the Philippines quickly released a statement asking people not to imitate the video for two very important reasons: The resulting mixture is only about 40% alcohol, so it does not kill SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19; and mixing bleach and alcohol creates chloroform, a toxic gas. 

We are living through a pandemic and an infodemic, which the World Health Organization describes as “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—occurring during an epidemic.” In other words, we’re drowning in a sea of information and misinformation, and it’s harder than ever to distinguish between the two. Identifying pseudoscience during a simultaneous pandemicinfodemic can feel like tunneling out from under a landslide with a fork.

I could spend hours writing about extreme COVID-19 health claims, but I won’t . (Okay, maybe two more favorites: A group in New Delhi hosted a cow urine drinking party to ward off COVID-19, and the French Ministry of Health had to tell people to stop snorting cocaine as a way to sterilize their nostrils from the virus.) Instead, let’s take on the harder challenge of figuring out how to evaluate scientific claims that are believable, or simply pop up regularly.

Not every scientific claim—that is, a statement about how the world works that can be tested using the scientific method—is true. A true scientific claim is supported by scientific research, evidence, and consensus. A false scientific claim is not. By honing our skills for evaluating scientific claims, and sharing those skills with peers and students, each of us can begin to replace mudpies of misinformation with shovelfuls of accurate, engaging facts.

When a scientific claim comes to your attention—such as, wearing a mask prevents the spread of COVID-19, or hydroxychloroquine effectively treats COVID-19—how can you quickly and effectively tell if it’s true? Because, let’s be honest, most of us don’t have days or even hours to dive deep into the literature for an answer, and most students certainly won’t do so.

From the author team of Biology Now, here are our top quick tricks for evaluating scientific claims:

1. Says who?

Is the person making the scientific claim a PhD or MD? If so, is their degree in the field in which they are making the claim? Don’t take health advice from someone with a PhD in physics, for example. If the person’s degree isn’t related, what is the source of their authority?

2. Check for agenda or bias

It’s important to assess if the person or organization making a scientific claim has an agenda or bias. Does the source of a claim stand to make money if others accept the claim? For example, an organization may promote a daily vitamin supplement for brain health, but if that same organization is funded by vitamin makers or sells the supplement, you have reason to doubt that claim.

3. Verify source

Where is the claim published? We find and read scientific claims across all types of media, from TV to newspaper to TikTok. In general, one should be skeptical of scientific claims made on social media, unless those claims are backed by a reputable scientific organization or scientific consensus in the literature. Primary research is the best place to verify claims, but it can often be hard to read. Instead, focus on outlets such as textbooks, scientific review articles, or popular science magazines for easy-to-read, reliable facts. Other places to look are trustworthy news agencies and government sites. In Biology Now, we include a handy chart of where to find reliable and accurate information.

4. Who agrees?

Has the claim been peer-reviewed and published in a reputable scientific journal? If the claim comes from a single study, does that study follow the scientific method? For a quick check, see our chart on “Science or pseudoscience” from Biology Now, below. For fast-moving science, as in the case of COVID-19, has the scientific community reached consensus about a claim, as would be reported in a scientific review article or popular science magazine, for example? If not, wait until there is more evidence and a consensus to decide if a claim is true.

5. Look for red flags

Be skeptical about very surprising claims and scientific “studies” that are vague or untestable, have overstated conclusions, or are not published in peer-reviewed journals.

6. Share carefully

If you still feel hesitant about the truth of a claim, avoid sharing it. If you are confident that the claim is supported by credible scientific sources, then go forth and spread the news! Share the content in a clear, easy-to-digest manner. Tweet, text, and responsibly spread credible information. Together, we can help build trust in science.

For an example of evaluating the hydroxychloroquine claim, check out this recent post and slideshow from Norton’s biology content development specialist, Todd Pearson.

And sometimes, when you need a quick answer, check a nonpartisan source, such as FactCheck.org, Snopes, or the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, to see if they’ve already done the work to evaluate the claim.

Further Reading

Pseudoscience and COVID-19 — we’ve had enough already by Timothy Caufield at Nature

UN tackles ‘infodemic’ of misinformation and cybercrime in COVID-19 crisis from the United Nations Department of Global Communications

How Can We Avoid Pseudoscience? by Sam Westreich at The Startup

For students (includes a glossary and student activity): Be a Science Fact-Checker from Scholastic