Sorting through endless coronavirus data and gauging what’s accurate
April Fool’s Day is a good day to talk with Jevin West from the UW Center for an Informed Public, who teaches classes about making sure that data isn’t being used to mislead people. Considering that we’re awash in data these days, it seemed necessary to ask: Are we measuring the virulence of the coronavirus correctly?
In the beginning, there was a sense that what made this virus scary was how much attention was being drawn to it, and that it was no more dangerous than the flu, which has not been the case.
“Well, I think what’s different in this situation is that it’s an emerging infectious disease, there’s so much that’s still unknown about it,” West said. “If you look anywhere where there are conversations in the virtual world, you’re going to find discussions about the virulence, about how scared should we be.”
“I tell others and even myself to look to the experts on this, the people that have spent a career thinking about how virulent this is and how worried that we should be,” he added.
Instead, West likes to focus on the health of the information that is spreading, helping to ensure it’s not misleading and worsening the situation.
“What we try to do is is work on the health of information that’s traveling around those particular issues. So if we see a mis-sourced item or a claim that needs to be debunked, that’s the kind of thing that we’ll spend our time on. People’s stance on how scared we should be — I think that’s something for individuals to sort out.”
Is he paying attention to the briefings going on in the various states and the White House briefing, and what is he looking for in terms of the role that leaders have during a crisis like this?
“What we’re looking for are consistencies (in) the different agencies within the government. Are they telling the same story? Are there conflicts? … I think our local governments — when you look at some recent surveys — are the ones that are being trusted most when asking the public, which is interesting, and obviously it depends on political orientation. But that’s one thing that has been pretty strong.”
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