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“If you are annoyed by fakes about coronavirus, you need to just deal with it”

Andrei Babitsky about what is happening in society and in the media from the point of view of science

“If you are annoyed by fakes about coronavirus, you need to just deal with it”
PhD in Biology, scientific journalist, expert and trainer of the project “The Earth Is Flat - How to Read Media?” Andrei Babitsky told how science copes with the challenges of the pandemic, why people seek solace in the fake news, what fake Daniel Defoe wrote about, and why the future is with YouTube and Netflix.

- During the pandemic, there was a huge demand for scientific information: everyone was interested in biology, epidemiology, and medicine. Is there enough enlightenment capacity of scientific journalism?

- Now it’s a rather amazing situation, when it seems that enlightenment and scientific journalism are very necessary, and all people have a big request to be explained to them what is happening in a scientific sense. However, it seems to me that this request is in no way fundamentally different from peacetime. In fact, this request is that our policy, including health care, be guided by meaningful scientific knowledge, that quarantine, therapeutic measures, diagnostics, etc., are arranged and managed in accordance with what science says about it.

And for this, strictly speaking, the popularization of science is not very necessary. The decisions of the Russian authorities are not connected with the fact that they have read popular science or have good consultants, but with the consensus of the world community about coronavirus and the fight against it. The world scientific community does not influence the mayor of Moscow, Sergei Semenovich Sobyanin, through the Russian press — you cannot draw a direct line here.

For many years, popularizers have said that the antiviral recommendations of the Ministry of Health are at least senseless, and at the very least corrupt. For example, to combat viral diseases (including coronavirus), the Ministry of Health recommends Arbidol, the effectiveness of which has not been proven. The popularizers could not have changed this. There is no hope that if society requires more transparency from the recommendations of the Ministry of Health, this will happen in connection with the popularizers of science.

At the same time, the coronavirus puts both the world and each country in a rather strange situation, because now they still panically compare the effectiveness of their own power with neighboring power. And it is clear that in Western Europe and in the countries of the first world, in principle, authorities act on the basis of the same data about what coronavirus is, how it spreads, how to deal with it, but at the same time they behave differently.

Even within the framework of fairly plentiful scientific knowledge, it is difficult to make a definite decision. After all, the main difference between the current epidemic is the global consensus that we are ready to pay a rather large monetary price in order to save more lives. This is not a scientific decision, but ethical, value: everyone decided that we already live well enough and feel safe to think about saving as many strangers as possible. In particular, this is due to the indiscriminate nature of the virus: it affects the most socially protected people in the world as well as residents of third world countries.

  It is important that neither scientists nor scientific journalists can do anything with coronavirus. Now we are reaping the benefits of the scientific communication that existed before: what people who sit in parliaments or health administrations in different countries read, how society accepts recommendations in general, whether medical academies and services are respected.

At the same time, Russia objectively, for various historical reasons, is one of the not very large number of countries in the world that have their own rather developed virological, epidemiological and medical expertise. It is not clear why this is necessary in a world where everything is translated, but it’s nice to understand that in Russia there are immunologists, bioinformatics and molecular biologists who are vividly involved in the fight against coronavirus and, obviously, are already writing instructions for the future.

Nevertheless, I do not think that in a communicative sense the number of scientists or popularizers is important here. It is literally important: how quickly we make a vaccine, test drugs, optimize processes in hospitals. In this sense, I hope that in Russia there is much more expertise than in so many countries of the world: it seems to me that in terms of human potential Russia is quite lucky.

- How would you describe the information situation in Russia now? The ratio of fakes and real information, infodemia - is there anything specifically threatening or curious?

- The situation with fakes in Russia is terrible, but again it seems to me that this did not start with an epidemic, but it always has been. And in principle, there are a lot of fakes in the world now. Of course, every day I see a lot of fakes related to coronavirus, very often spread by people who, in general, seem reasonable, rational and educated to me.

Very often, these fakes are preceded by some ridiculous phrase like "I myself do not really understand this, but it looks convincing." I think that in these fakes there is no big evil. They annoy me very much, but they do not set the agenda. Relatively speaking, I understand that a certain number of people in Russia will die due to the fact that they have read some idiotic advice on how to be treated for infection. But, unfortunately, no one is protected from stupidity, as well as from unverified information. However, I understand that at such times, the request for any information — comforting, explanatory, instrumental — grows very much. Something crazy, strange and very big is happening, you don’t understand what it is, and science says: “You will have an epidemic for many months, it will come back, you will be ill for almost everything, millions of people will die.”

Science does not console at all in this situation. If science said: “We rolled up our sleeves and cured everyone the day after tomorrow,” then probably everyone would be praying for scientists. But scientists honestly say: "We don’t know how to quickly solve this problem, there is no vaccine yet, medicines still need to be checked." In this situation, it is very important for a person to get some information and some kind of deceptive feeling that there is salvation.

In my circle, or rather, on my Facebook feed, I see examples of this: for example, how educated people post the same fake in different languages. The first time I come as a scientific journalist and say: “Fear God, what is it?”, And the second — I don’t even know why. I understand that if this person had read what he was reposting, then he would at least understand that he was posting a translation of the same text.

As a consolation, I must say that this is not a specific problem of our time. For example, I read The Plague Year's Diary, which the writer Daniel Defoe kept in 1664 during the plague in London, and he has a whole chapter about endless fakes — snake oil and all sorts of magical medicines. Defoe was not a scientist, but even then he perfectly understood how much this was all fake. Then no one knew the nature of the plague, but since the plague pandemic lasted for centuries, doctors and educated people already knew a lot about the disease: in particular, they knew that snake oil did not help. But Defoe directly lists pages of ads that then, of course, did not hang on Facebook, but on poles and which then, I think, did more harm: in conditions of real mortal danger, a person is ready to give anything to anyone.

In the history of Europe, there were many fakes that led to rather bloody consequences: for example, regularly reproducing information that Jews, Huguenots, or, conversely, Catholics caused the plague, led to the fact that Jews, Huguenots and Catholics were slaughtered. And it was a fake repeated over the centuries. Now I read a lot of fakes, but not one of them associates coronavirus with Jews, Huguenots, or, for example, Uzbeks. The only person in my tape who speaks nonsense about the possibility of synthesizing coronavirus is Mikhail Kovalchuk, director of the Kurchatov Institute. That is, moral progress is being observed: thousands of people who spread total nonsense about this virus, nevertheless, have already risen to such a degree of analysis of information that they at least agreed that the virus is of natural origin. Therefore, when I see these fakes, I think: "Well, thank God, at least not the Huguenots."

If you are annoyed by fakes, I, as a person who sometimes fights with them, can only tell you: "I'm afraid you need to put up with it." Firstly, people need to be comforted somehow, and secondly, in a situation where you can’t do anything at all to fight evil, which is obviously quite massive, the only thing you can do is share some information. When people hang crazy fakes on each other on the wall, the accompanying comments show not a desire to teach, but a tender one: “Well, I found such a text. I don’t understand anything about viruses, but I liked it. ” It seems to me, when fakes are accompanied by such an introduction, this is already a great progress of mankind. But we will have to come to terms, in the coming months there will be very, very many of them: I am afraid that there will also be dangerous ones.

- Do you have any favorite fakes about coronavirus? Or maybe memes?

- My favorite memes are not about coronavirus, but about our unenviable position in video chats.” The best I've seen is Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson" in Zoom. And fakes cause me irritation, so it's hard for me to love them. Now all the fakes are about how to fight: about the doctor who discovered a new method and so on. And at the next stage, we get to fictional stories about human heroism: about a girl from India who sewed 17 billion masks and so on. And I always like such fakes, because they are completely harmless, and you can see how people cheer themselves up.

- Do we need to fight fakes? Or just compete, producing better information and more attractively submit it?

- I think that fakes and high-quality information do not crowd out each other: if you produce more high-quality information, fakes will not go anywhere, at least now, in an epidemic.

Of course, this does not mean that quality information is not necessary. There are areas where quality information is desperately needed, but thank God no one is concerned with fakes: virologists, vaccine developers, pandemic analysts, and so on. We know that these people produce very valuable information, they simply do not always begin to immediately disseminate it. And we know for sure that we need this information: firstly, this virus will not go anywhere in two months, and secondly, the next virus will also not go anywhere.

Our experience of recognizing and combating this virus is fundamentally different from our experience of fighting, for example, the “Spanish flu” in the USA. There during the epidemic, progress was much less: from spring to autumn, people only learned to wear masks. Nevertheless, there was progress: I read the archives of 1918 and see that the scientific community was then very actively involved in this issue. Therefore, the production of the necessary information is infinitely useful in itself. And when we produce and popularize this information (we interview good scientists, tell us what models they build, and so on), the benefit of this work is not that there are fewer fakes in the world, but that it appears more people who initially didn’t really like fakes, and now decided to perhaps become virologists, learn more about diseases or go to the medical, biological faculty. This is the development of mankind.

The fact that fewer people are dying from diseases now than a hundred years ago is connected not with the fact that there are fewer fakes (on the contrary, there are more fakes), but with the fact that there are more biologists. You should never look back at fakes, but you need to produce a positive value: science and the popularization of science, so that there are more scientists and that science solves our problems even faster. This is an optimistic view.

I really don’t think that in this situation you can fight fakes. There are dangerous fakes that, for example, lead to the Lynch trial or where you are advised to drink chloroform from a coronavirus, and you have to fight it — but it’s pointless to do it with dislays on YouTube, you can only deal with it with some cruel institutional methods. And since I am a journalist, not a prosecutor, my powers here end. At the same time, one must be condescending: when more than a billion people are sitting at home, then inevitably they have nothing to do and they produce, among other things, a lot of fakes. One must be tolerant of them, especially in such difficult times.

- What changes in the media and in the relationship of people with online will remain with us forever after the coronavirus?

- I don’t really like futurism, but it’s clear that everything from Zoom, in which we talk, Slack, in which we sometimes correspond, Netflix, and so on, grows at a frantic interest per week. And, as is always the case with good products after people began to use them inevitably, they are unlikely to completely stop after the epidemic.

Now a lot of publications have closed printed versions, and I think that many of them will not resume it. But, frankly, it was a historical inevitability even before the coronavirus: in 2008, the front desk with magazines looked like the Faceted Chamber, but now you can’t always notice it the first time.

Surely we can say about two things. Firstly, a lot of people will now inevitably try all the remote services that mankind came up with, and accordingly they will become more popular. Secondly, a lot of people will become much worse off after the epidemic. By all estimates, this will be a fall comparable to the past economic crisis, and maybe more.

What I want to believe in a positive sense is the growth of infrastructure: surprisingly, the epidemic showed the limited infrastructure, in particular, the Internet. Now that everyone is watching YouTube and Netflix, the EU specifically asks YouTube and Netflix to lower the quality of the video so as not to overload the channels — but, obviously, our near future will consist of YouTube and Netflix. We know that the future will require much better video communications and better internet. In addition, video calling is cheaper than a taxi ride, and no one will have money.

On the one hand, the amount of remote work will increase, on the other hand, there will be less money, which means that more and more people will work “in the gray,” that is, from home. In general, it seems to me that we have been moving towards this for so long.

Moreover, the good news is that, in fact, humanity is doing very well so far. With the epidemic itself, it may not be the most ideal way, but it turned out that you can put a billion people in quarantine — and nothing will stop. In such a situation, you wait for something to sprinkle: a large company will go bankrupt, a sewer will burst, and so on. This is not a very media thing, but it seems to me that it is important.

It is also interesting to develop a part of the media, which we do not see at all, but which is very important, professional networks. For example, networks of biologists or epidemiologists who study the virus. This is also media, just very functional. It was made not for entertainment, but for the exchange of information, rapid scientific progress. I connect my hopes for the progress of mankind with such media structures that are growing in parallel. Relatively speaking, one of the main media in the world is GitHub, a site on which ready-made scripts and programs are put together.

In any, even bad circumstances, there are people who do better than others. Nobody likes quarantine, but there are those who are very effective in quarantine, and not very efficient. Those people who work more efficiently in quarantine will obviously understand why and how, and how it can be scaled in ordinary life.

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