How to read coronavirus news like a science writer

There’s a lot of Covid-19 news to take in right now.
There’s a lot of Covid-19 news to take in right now.
Image: Reuters/Manuel Silvestri
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In the current climate of Covid-19, health and science news dominates headlines everywhere.

It’s arguably the first “infodemic,” as news spreads literally virally across social media and media outlets. In a time of uncertainty, we hunger for information. Yet even though internet access means much news is at our fingertips, it’s not always easy to evaluate the quality of what we’re reading—and what it actually means about the state of science.

If you’re being bombarded with facts about Covid-19 and aren’t sure whether to trust them, think like we do here at Quartz. Questioning new information with a measured sense of skepticism and a little digging can help you avoid taking in sensationalized information. The following is good advice not just during this pandemic, but any time you pick up the health and science section of a given publication.

Remember the warp-speed timeline

Covid-19 is caused by a virus, SARS-CoV-2, that no one knew about until a few months ago. Scientists have not had time to study it in-depth. Much of what they’re learning is based on what we’re observing from an epidemiological standpoint and what we know about other viruses, like the flu and SARS.

The quality of science is good—it just isn’t as robust as other fields are yet. The pandemic has sparked an unprecedented amount of international research collaboration. Scientists are working around the clock to figure out new ways to treat the virus and develop vaccines against it. Journals are publishing pre-prints of papers as soon as they can to make sure that everyone has access to the most up-to-date information, rather than waiting for a period of review and to publish within a particular issue.

Remember that new information may be true, but hasn’t had time to be validated by other studies just yet. “This kind of healthy skepticism does not mean you’re dismissing everything as false—it simply means remembering the things you hear could be false, but they could also be true…or they could be something in between,” Emma Frans, an epidemiology and psychiatry researcher at Oxford University in the UK and Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, told TED.

Weigh the scientific evidence

When a headline claims a new study uncovered a truth about Covid-19, look for a link to the study in the article—or at least a scientific journal named so you can find it on your own. You don’t have to read the whole paper (if you can access it) to get a sense of what it’s about, although it’s great if you can.

First, make sure the actual scientific article seems to reflect what the news is saying. Is it even, in fact, about Covid-19? Or is it about another biological process that may have implications for the spread or severity of the disease?

If it is about Covid-19, see what kind of research it is. Many of the papers coming out about Covid-19 are observational studies, in which researchers report what happened to a group of people in a certain setting. These studies can be great—particularly if they have a sample size of more than 1,000 people. They can point researchers to correlations, or patterns of outcomes in certain circumstances. (You should be skeptical of papers that only write up one person, called a case study, or a handful of people. These are too small to make meaningful assumptions about the general public.)

Observational studies may be biased in the kinds of people they study (for example, only those who got sick enough to go to the hospital). They also can’t tell scientists why something is happening on a biological level, or the causation. They’re reporting what happened to a group of people in a way that may be able to inform what may happen to others in similar circumstances.

Ideally, any observational study would have some sort of lab study that presents more research that could lead to a reason why the observed outcome happened (as with this study and accompanying article). Scientists haven’t had time to do many lab studies on SARS-CoV-2 just yet, so unfortunately this information isn’t widely available.

For any research claiming that a treatment or vaccine works, remember that the highest standard of evidence is a randomized controlled trial. In these experiments, some participants receive a placebo intervention, some get the tested intervention, and neither clinicians nor participants know what they received. Researchers may not have time to do these kinds of studies—which, again, doesn’t mean that anything less is bad. It’s just a reminder that the science isn’t certain just yet.

It’s also common for scientists to publish reviews or meta-analyses, which are papers that gather and weigh the evidence of specific papers. Given that Covid-19 is so new, many researchers are putting forth ideas that could be good places to look in the future. These papers are helpful, but they can’t be taken as the absolute truth. Unfortunately, one such paper hypothesizing that ibuprofen could worsen cases of Covid-19 led to a panic about the pain reliever, despite the fact that there’s only anecdotal evidence. It could be true—but again, scientists don’t know yet.

See where the information is coming from…

Did you read your information on a news website? Or did it come from a social media post? If the latter, were you asked to share it on? If so, tell us—but also increase your skepticism.

If you’re having trouble figuring out if your source is a trusted one, remember that no trusted news outlets will be touting remedies or cures—those don’t exist for this virus (or most conditions, frankly).

Quality science writing outlines all of the information described above about a study, and states which research institutions the scientists came from. Ideally, there’s also an outside source weighing in on the new information being presented. And it should always note the study’s limitations, or what it can’t tell researchers.

…And who else supports it

If you’re reading a news story that no other outlet else is reporting on, and the information doesn’t seem like anything else you’ve read—chances are you should be extra skeptical.

And above all, the top sources you should trust for research about Covid-19 are the national and international public health groups. As Quartz previously reported, the World Health Organization, the US Centers for Disease Control, the National Health Service in the UK, or the Public Health Agency of Canada are your best bets.