Dr. Yenting Chen is a board certified emergency medicine physician practicing at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center emergency departments in Berkeley and Oakland, California. In this opinion piece, he discusses the importance of empathy when tackling misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Yenting Chen wearing PPE
Dr. Yenting Chen is on the frontline in the war against COVID-19 misinformation.

Recently, many of my peers in the healthcare 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, even though 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 undergone training in reviewing medical research. Concepts such as selection bias and statistical power analysis, which are instantly apparent to us, might be completely foreign to others.

They do not deserve our contempt for being presented with deceptive data, and condescension is not helpful in changing opinions. 

Emotionally charged issues greatly enhance confirmation bias and attitude polarization. In our generation, we have experienced few times 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 that society has never seen before. 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, face 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 for oneself.

For people trying to identify a cause of such a radical change in perceived reality, it is tempting to look for explanations that minimize the role of the natural world, to seek reassurances that the problem is overblown, or to find evidence of human-made hoaxes and conspiracies.

This temptation is not a reflection of a person’s intelligence or moral fiber. Rather, it is a strong universal psychological defense mechanism that requires significant emotional discipline to overcome.

As healthcare and science professionals who have had the honor of being on the frontline 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 capabilities.

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 humans.

We should not see it as our role to force changes 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 healthcare and science community that our voices matter greatly, especially when many of us may be despairing at the conspicuous antiscience 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.

On the recommendation of the scientific and medical community, our world has shut down. The Pope led an Easter Sunday 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 by our community. For our collective voices to remain effective, we must try to keep an empathetic approach and be aware of the consequences of our interactions.