Interview with Dr. Bernardo Mateiro Gomes, Public Health Doctor and Public Health Specific Training Advisor with an interest in Infectious Diseases, Mental Health and One Health.
When you counter science or health misinformation, do you see yourself as a fact checker or more as a promoter of quality information?
I prefer to be proactive and provide quality information. But I only do this in my spare time. I think that the proper fight is to occupy the space, promote quality information and try to select people with whom you think there is an advantage to interacting.
On the other hand, some people only search for information that confirms what they think and you really don’t have any advantage in debating with them. But in general I think we need a professional approach. To counter misinformation, we can use two disciplines: risk communication and behavioural science, with the help of communication professionals.
From the very beginning of the pandemic, a bunch of ‘newborn experts’ on health topics, epidemiology, etc appeared. How can you fight these false experts pretending to know what they are saying and misguiding people on social media and in the news?
One thing that is mandatory in the risk communication approach (and in health communication in general) is to have a proper relationship with the media. Public institutions must have one that is healthy, stable, and also timely. The ‘Original Sin’ of organisations is to have people who know what they are doing, but are not available to respond to communication needs. Risk communication is a job for everyone, not just for one or two individuals. Public institutions should know the basics of communication and have time for it. Because if you don’t feed the media needs, someone else will do it.
Besides having experts available to talk to the media, what strategies can journalists and lay people use to identify false experts?
Don’t trust anyone who says that [he/she] knows everything and has no doubt. If someone does not admit that [he/she] made a mistake, [he/she] is not an expert. An expert usually recognises the shortcomings of his or her knowledge, admits mistakes, and knows how to approach uncertainty. The pandemic is really good for big egos. And when you detect a big ego, stay away. Despite it not being so reassuring to have someone tell you: “I don’t know,” it is one of the pillars of risk communication: transparency, credibility, accountability.
How can people distinguish between doctors that provide good information and doctors that spread misinformation, like the ones who were part of the group “Médicos pela Verdade” [“Doctors for the truth”]?
The general recommendation is that you should listen to people who express their doubts, who say their knowledge has limitations, and who give you the best information without stretching it. This is general advice that fits many other situations. On top of that, listen to people from trustworthy organisations with a record of giving science-based advice. Don’t listen to someone who is an ‘espresso expert’, who appeared from nowhere and is sharing his/her opinion. Also, a single individual who comments on many different topics is not an advisable model. No one can know so much about so many sensitive areas. Furthermore, some people have authority issues, do not update their understanding when presented with new information, and continue to occupy space in communication.
As for the medical doctor to whom you were referring, it should be underlined that the ‘Ordem dos Médicos’ [the medical doctors regulatory organisation] is responsible for being aware of doctors who spread misinformation using the title of medical doctor, because that is also a deontological flaw that should be monitored. We should not be passive when we see doctors providing bad information to the public.