Intellectual Curiosity

Mon Jul 27 2020

A friend and I were discussing school openings in light of Covid19. He was keen on keeping the kids home, while I though it would be better if our kids could go to school and interact in person. To convince me that school should remain online, he sent me an article with the following title - "Scans Reveal Heart Damage in Over Half of COVID-19 Patients!"

Wow, that sounds scary, no parent would want their kids to get heart damage from going to school! If Covid was indeed causing all these issues, then of course it would be wise to keep kids at home. But was it?

From what I could tell after reading the actual paper cited in the article (link here), the paper was not very scientific and had no clear evidence that heart issues in the study were somehow the result of Covid. They sampled a handful of old people who had Covid, and found issues with their cardiograms. They used the two unrelated measurements to draw a conclusion that Covid was somehow responsible for the potential heart problems. To be sure that I was not hallucinating, I asked a medical statistician friend for his opinion. His answer?

"This study reveals no clinically useful information. This is an online retrospective survey, which is generally the lowest possible grade of robustness of clinical data. Definitely not good enough to suggest any causality. Absolutely empty paper."

This is the new reality we live in. Information is free, it's abundant, anyone can publish without much thought, and it is being disseminated with incredible speed. Pick a catchy headline, make the most noise, and your opinion becomes the truth, regardless of how wrong it actually is.

Not only is this bad because false information gets across as facts, it also confuses people and makes us question the facts. No information is safe, no truth is for certain.

The problem with this paper on heart conditions, for example, is that it is not explicitly false. Even though the headline, the data, and the conclusion are all misleading, the very idea that Covid could be related to heart conditions introduces a doubt. The paper does not prove that Covid causes heart conditions, but it also does not prove that it does not.

A trained scientific mind will see that to prove that Covid does not cause heart problems you would have to design a study in which a group of volunteers would get infected with Covid at random, and then measured to see if they develop any such problems. You would not find many volunteers.

Unfortunately, many people without training would read this paper and interpret the lack of evidence as the evidence in itself. "See, they did not prove that Covid did not cause heart problems, therefore there is a chance that it may have caused heart problems." - they would say.

Nobody wants to get their kids sick, so it's only natural to look for ways to be at least somewhat right, when being right means your kids will be safe. But when it comes to serious issues, being right for the sake of being right is wrong.

If we continue down this path, where instead of having intellectual conversations we instead try to win arguments at all costs, we are going to fail. We will have true information presented as disinformation and visa-versa, and so long as it seems legitimate and appeals to one's believes, it would be interpreted as true information.

There is no quick solution to this problem. Facebook won't fix it for us. While Facebook, through human scanning and algorithms can identify that a shark walking across the desert is probably a piece of fake news, only inquisitive dissection of data can uncover fake news like the one above. No, the solution to this problem is us, the collective wisdom of humans.

To be able to identify this type of high quality fake, we need to debate, to discuss, to be willing to lose and to be willing to be wrong. We need to have the freedom to doubt, and the desire to uncover the truth, regardless of what we find. We need to share, openly, willingly, without being afraid that such thoughts would get us in trouble. Asking questions, reasoning, those are the basics we should hold dear.

It is on me, and on on you, and on all of us to be curious, to question the status quo, to question the authority, to question the media and the truth as it appears. But question it not blindly, at the expense of all reason, but question it with the naiveté and the intellectual curiosity of a child.

Assume you don't know, look for answers, don't stop until there are no more questions.