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A pandemic of misinformation

I sometimes wonder what’s worse, the pandemic of the virus, or the pandemic of the misinformation.

Last night on Twitter, John Lilic and I got into a discussion about the effectiveness of masks in slowing the spread of covid, which led to, in my opinion, a perfect example of the kind of gross misinformation that is so prevelant and dangerous today, and how trying to get to the truth can easily end relationships.

Here’s an summary of the conversation leading up to the point of interest:

  • Me: I often see examples of mask nonsense, like people hiking alone in the forest wearing a mask.
  • MeSomeone asked how I can be both “Pro-mask” and “Anti-mask” at the same time. I replied that I’m simply pro common-sense, and if the primary purpose of masks is to slow the spread, relevant situations include indoors and extended periods of close contact, but not hiking alone in the wilderness.
  • John: What does common sense says about this article that argues that masks are ineffective, and links to some studies?
  • Me: Many studies across many domains are flawed, so for something like this, I rely on consensus. Every country in the world recommends or mandates masks, and I’d be surprised if they are all wrong.
  • John: If you’re interested in data on this, there’s plenty out there. Here’s two charts from South Korea and Japan that demonstrate masks are ineffective in controlling spread.

Here are the charts:

What seems to be shown in these charts are growing COVID cases despite high mask compliance. In fact, it looks like things even get worse with increased compliance!

Imagine the opinion about masks that would likely be formed by casual or even trained observers, who didn’t make an effort to dig deeper, based on these charts.

Had these charts been related to any countries other than South Korea and Japan, I probably would have also formed an incorrect opinion. However, since the beginning of the pandemic, these particular countries—with their histories of dealing with infectious diseases and cultures of wearing masks—have often been pointed to as references for how to properly respond as a societies to pandemics.

And so I was immediately skeptical of what these images are saying, and decided to look at them closer.

In Spain and other EU countries, mitigation measures—mask mandates, restaurant capacity restrictions, etc.—are based on an average of the number of daily cases per 100,000 people. The threshold for aggressive actions in Spain 1,000 cases per day per 100k people.

Let’s analyze these charts through that perspective:

  • The population of South Korea is 52 million, and the population of Japan is 125 million.
  • From these charts, the peak incident rate—the worst case!—in South Korea is 1,650 and in Japan it’s 14,250 cases per day.
  • The corresponding cases per day, normalized to 100k people, are 3.17 for South Korea and 11.4 for Japan.

Compare those numbers to the 1,000 number in Spain. Such levels—3.4 and 11.4 cases per day per 100k people—in any country on earth would be celebrated by politicians as a COVID victory, and everything would be wide open.

What does this mean? These charts provide evidence for exactly the opposite of what John was arguing. These charts support the idea that high mask compliance worked great to control the spread! (And even moreso when you consider the population density of these countries!)

Now, here’s where things get both interesting and sad. When I showed this analysis to John, his response was shocking to me.

OK. Clearly you’ve made up your mind, we’re not actually having an objective debate, but that’s fine. You can keep wearing yours as long as you like but you should also realize that means you’ll never fly commercial again without a mask for the rest of your life, among other costs.

Breaking this down:

  • He cuts off the conversation.
  • He doesn’t address the argument I made.
  • He accuses me of being closed-minded, and not engaging objectively.
  • As you’ll see in a bit, he accuses me of simply “not liking the data”.
  • He somehow places importance on having to wear a mask while flying.

What happened next is unfortunately what happens so often in debates around COVID. Having known someone who lost their life due to COVID misinformation, I fired off an emotional reply, which could easily be misinterpreted, was misinterpreted, and a fuck-you and block ensued.

What I intended to express was that misinformation kills, but John interpreted it differently, and so ends what was previously a multi-year good acquaintance.

Take aways?

Here’s some random takeaway thoughts I had:

  • If my analysis is correct, we’ve just seen the ultimate in misinformation—i.e. data that points in one direction, being convincingly misused to argue the exact opposite. This has very dangerous consequences.
  • Notice that it doesn’t even matter if my analysis is correct or not. Simply trying to get below the surface and to the truth killed the conversation, and ended an acquaintance.
  • John isn’t your run-of-the-mill conspiracy theorist. He’s a thoughtful, intelligent, well-respected, and widely-followed member of the Ethereum cryptocurrency community. Given the public platform he has, the consequences of him falling for and propagating misinformation are particularly dangerous.
  • If you review John’s feed, you’ll find many COVID-related tweets are intertwined with strong political opinions. I’ve not seen such politicization of COVID as I have in the United States, and this probably sits at the root of misinformation spread—intentional or inadvertent.
  • I see examples of this incident nearly every day on social networks. We truly have both a crisis of misinformation, and a crisis of civil discourse.
  • Finally, it’s sad to see an acquaintance with someone end like this. 🤷‍♂️
Published inSociety

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