The other day, I happened to watch a video one of my contacts had shared on Facebook. A passionate guy was enthusiastically explaining how to “increase blood oxygen levels” by directly taking steam through a pipe connected to one of the outlets of a pressure cooker. While steam might help alleviate chest congestion in Covid-19 patients, other risk-free alternatives are available. Another such viral video presents the use of a nebuliser to improve oxygen levels. It didn’t surprise me that the videos were watched by millions, but that one of them was shared by a highly educated person.
With a surge in the number of daily cases, the health system is under immense pressure. Oxygen consumption has reached 90% of its production, and people are desperately looking for alternatives. So, it is no surprise that videos with home remedies for dealing with low blood oxygen levels will be watched by millions. I wonder why do people follow and spread such concepts not backed even by common sense? I believe that scientific illiteracy — the inability to evaluate scientific information and its credibility without the need to be an expert — is the culprit.
Social media has been a source of information during the pandemic. However, the dearth of science-based guidance has created a void where misleading information proliferates. Acceptance of disinformation by the public can result in a cascade of adverse events such as people drinking alcohol as a cure for Covid, that claimed hundreds of lives. Likewise, attempts to improve blood oxygen levels by steam or a nebulizer could prove fatal as they keep a patient away from the hospital and a time-sensitive proper treatment.
More recently, when Pakistan started vaccinating healthcare workers, several medical doctors hesitated in getting vaccine jabs. One of my cousins — a healthcare support staff — refused the vaccine saying it might have side effects. Several are confused and keep asking about the best vaccine. This shows a lack of basic scientific knowledge of how vaccines are developed and how they work.
Last year, former US president had suggested injecting disinfectants or irradiating UV light as treatment. Like our prime minister, Trump also believed that it is just a flu! His ignorance of science-based recommendations resulted in the spread of Covid-19, killing millions of Americans. Unlike the US, countries whose leadership responded more scientifically were able to contain the virus.
In Pakistan, conspiracy theories about the virus and its vaccines can be associated with science illiteracy. Likewise, mitigation strategies such as the installation of walk-through disinfecting gates and fumigation of streets lack scientific basis. Treating viral diseases with antibiotics, homeopathic medicines, and some magic tea shows a dearth of basic scientific knowledge.
Why does society believe in misinformation and conspiracy theories? According to brain scientists, healthy prefrontal cortex is needed to interpret information received by the brain. Careful interpretation of data requires extensive training and practice and can be learned as part of primary, secondary, and higher education. Suboptimal education likely weakened our brains’ prefrontal cortex, leaving us susceptible to misinformation and false beliefs.
By increasing science literacy, the public can better test claims they hear, watch or read, and differentiate science from conspiracy theories. A recent study supports the idea that high-quality education and science literacy can strengthen the brain, protecting it from false beliefs during times of crisis and uncertainty.
We need to prepare for the next pandemic of misinformation by promoting science literacy from early childhood. Scientific literacy can help people believe in pressing global challenges such as drug resistance, climate change, pandemics. Also, national policies supporting science literacy throughout the life span are required. Besides teaching basic science concepts, scientific thinking, and the scientific method, the philosophy of science must also be introduced. So that the public could differentiate science from pseudoscience, bad science, and misinformation.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2021.