Empathy in the age of misinformation

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Recently many of my peers in the health care and science professions have found themselves on a new, unexpected frontline in the war against COVID-19: the battle against widespread medical science misinformation on social media.  It is important for us to engage empathetically if we choose to enter into this discussion. This is particularly challenging for those of us who have spent our entire careers adhering to the standards of evidence-based medicine. When we see misinformation spreading online, whether it be in the form of conspiracy theories or acceptance of bad science, it is tempting for us to respond in anger or with ridicule. Please remember that the vast majority of our friends and family have not been trained to review medical research. Concepts such as selection bias and statistical power analysis, which are instantly apparent to us, might be completely foreign to our friends. They are not deserving of our contempt for being presented with deceptive data, nor is condescension helpful in changing opinions.

Confirmation bias and attitude polarization are greatly enhanced by emotionally charged issues.  There have been a few times we have seen in our generation as emotionally charged as the crisis we are currently battling. Everyone is experiencing world events even more strongly through the filters of their personal values and beliefs. Social media has heightened our respective filter bubbles to an extent never before seen in society. Derisive or dismissive rebuttals do not serve well in this environment as they only act to increase the emotional weight of the issues at hand.

Our community members, like us, are faced with a world that may be irrevocably changed. Like us, they are facing financial hardship and ruin. However, unlike us, some of them are suffering the further indignity of a passive inference that their roles in society may not be “essential.” This perception has no basis in reality; all of our societal roles are essential in creating the world that we know and love. Regardless, nothing is more damaging to self-image than the perception of a loss of demand in oneself. When looking for an explanation for such a radical change in perceived reality, it is tempting for anyone to look for explanations that minimize the role of the natural world. It is tempting to look for reassurances that the problem is overblown or to find evidence of man-made hoaxes and conspiracies. This temptation is not a reflection of one’s intelligence or moral fiber; it is a strong universal psychological defense mechanism that requires significant emotional discipline to overcome.

As health care and science professionals who have had the honor of being on the frontlines of this epidemic, it is our privilege to be witnesses for our community, but it is imperative that we do so from a position of extreme empathy. Only from an empathetic footing can we hope to defuse some of the substantial emotional reflexes innate to our current crisis. This level of empathy is well within our ability. Few of us would have guessed in mid-January that the world would look like this today. None of us know where we will be in a month. By acknowledging our own uncertainties regarding the times, we can be of greater use to our fellow human beings. It should not be seen as our role to force change in people’s minds. Instead, we have an opportunity to present our own eyewitness accounts and high-quality interpretation of the best available research, and to do so with an understanding of the fast-changing nature of this novel situation we call life.

I am optimistic that, as a profession, we are generally mindful of empathy-based communication. I want to reassure our health care and scientific community that our voices matter greatly, especially when many of us may be despairing at the conspicuous anti-science sentiment. In fact, if we were to take a broad view of recent history, it is obvious that our voices as a whole are profoundly relevant in decision making at all levels. Our world has shut down on the recommendation of the scientific and medical community. The Pope held an Easter Mass in an empty basilica. Mosques remain closed during Ramadan. Dust gathers on Las Vegas blackjack tables. We spoke, and the world listened. Innumerable lives were saved but at a terrible cost. Greater challenges await that will require a strong collaborative effort with our community. In order for our collective voices to remain effective, we must try to keep an empathetic approach and to be aware of the consequences of our interactions.

Yenting Chen is an emergency medicine physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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