Tyler Cowen: Misinformation about misinformation
It is conventional wisdom that misinformation — particularly about COVID and vaccines, and often enabled by social and other media — is worse than it’s ever been. It’s hard to measure misinformation over time. But the premise that there was ever a golden age of accurate information, especially about public health, is suspect.
I just turned 60, so my youth is now fairly distant. Still, I can recall debates about smoking: not so much whether it was bad for you — that science was established, and the federal government had already initiated an anti-smoking campaign — but whether it was really all that bad. And I’m not talking about the occasional cigarette, but one or two packs a day. The scientific knowledge wasn’t nearly as socially salient as it is today, and there were many millions more smokers. That meant social opinion was invariably somewhat split.
Or consider the debate, such as it is, over exercise. With each passing decade, the health benefits of exercise have become better known. In earlier decades this point simply wasn’t stressed. Regardless of whether we in fact exercise, we now obsess over it and boast about it — to the point of becoming annoying. Social media has definitely played a role here, as you can now tweet that you just ran a marathon or climbed some rocks. And if you don’t exercise, you are made to feel guilty about it.
Seat belts are another area where the state of public knowledge has changed for the better. The first few years I drove, I did so without a seat belt — and not because I was a risk-loving, rebellious teenager. It simply wasn’t that unusual at the time, and I don’t recall being scolded very much by my fellow passengers for not wearing a seat belt. Fortunately, I wised up. Mandatory seat belt laws have spread, but public understanding has also improved. This counts as a public health information triumph.
These few areas of huge improvement all have significant consequences for human health and longevity. They are not small areas of concern. But other issues remain debatable.
Diet is a more contentious area with less consensus, even today. And clearly obesity problems have worsened. But was the past dietary advice of the medical establishment so great? My father, after having a heart attack and being diagnosed as a diabetic, was advised to eat lots of pasta and bread because they were considered vegetarian. He didn’t have access to many alternate sources of information and so he complied, probably for the worse. More generally, the medical establishment overrated carbohydrates and probably worried too much about the health risks of meat.
There is also a lot more awareness about the health costs of various jobs, ranging from chemical exposure to repetitive motion problems. Maybe there has been overreaction and overregulation on some of these issues — but in earlier decades there was definitely underreaction. And today, while there are huge amounts of misinformation about air pollution and especially climate change (on both sides to be fair; it is a very serious but not existential threat), overall I prefer the awareness level of the current world to that of the past. These too are public health issues that will only grow in importance.
One thing I do recall from my early school years: a very positive attitude toward all sorts of vaccinations. At least in my school district, and I believe more generally, they were seen as a kind of miracle. The measles epidemic peaked in 1958, only a few years before my birth, and polio had also been a problem (Neil Young, only 16 years my senior, contracted it as a child).
I don’t know if “miracle cures” were worse then or now. Now there is hydroxychloroquine for COVID. In an earlier era there was laetrile for cancer, and there was a long and painful experience with false cures for HIV-AIDS.
Overall, I am genuinely unsure that misinformation about public health has become worse in my lifetime. My uncertainty is only strengthened when I do a reality check of how much general public misinformation there has been over the last six decades. A lot of experts and members of the public used to think the economy of the Soviet Union was just fine. They thought the Vietnam War was OK. They saw Nixon’s wage and price controls as justified.
Some of the worst misinformation of today is about the supposedly wonderful past.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."
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