Wednesday 13 March 2024

Stakes of knowing the truth: the case of a “miracle” treatment against Covid-19

Tiffany Morisseau is a researcher in Cognitive Psychology at the Laboratory of Applied Psychology and Ergonomics (LaPEA, University of Paris). Her current research projects mainly focus on the question of epistemic trust and vigilance, and the socio-cognitive mechanisms underlying how people come to process scientific information.

Tiffany is a member of the Horizon Europe KT4D consortium KT4D (, on the risks and potential of knowledge technologies for democracy, and leads the Psychology part. Here, she talks about her paper in the Philosophy of Pseudoscience special issue, introduced last week by editor Stefaan Blancke.

Tiffany Morisseau

Improving science education and media literacy is an important aspect of dealing with online misinformation. By doing so, the level of accuracy at which information is considered false is raised, thereby ensuring that blatant errors that are no longer perceived as plausible, are eliminated from the public sphere. But merely being plausible is not a sufficient condition for information to be valid! Information can be both plausible and false, and the likelihood of it being true must be critically assessed. 

This requires some cognitive effort, especially when it comes to complex scientific information that is not easily accessible to the public at large. From an individual point of view, engaging in such an investigation is only worthwhile if the stakes of knowing the truth are high enough. Significant efforts in media and science education may therefore not be enough: one can consume and share false facts while being highly educated, for reasons other than the search for truth.

In our paper (Morisseau, Branch & Origgi, 2021) published in this special issue in Frontiers, we illustrated this with the example of hydroxychloroquine, which has been considered as a potential treatment for Covid-19 and has been the focus of much media and popular interest, particularly in France. 

Professor Didier Raoult and his team at the IHU Méditerranée Infection (Marseille) had reported positive results from a study on the effect of HCQ against Covid-19, in March 2020 (Gautret et al., 2020). Although relatively unknown to the general public a few months earlier, Raoult was becoming increasingly popular. But in the weeks and months that followed, many questioned the assumption that HCQ was actually useful against Covid-19, with scientific consensus soon emerging that it was not effective. 

However, HCQ remained very popular with the public. What was the reason? Let us try to answer this question. To begin with, the hypothesis was certainly plausible, so it was cognitively and socially acceptable to hold it as true.

Secondly, holding the efficacy of HCQ to be true had many benefits, allowing for the satisfaction of a number of social and psychological motivations - from understanding the world (Lantian et al., 2021) to protecting one's identity (Nera et al, 2021; Nyhan and Reifler, 2019), as well as social integration and reputation management (Baumeister and Leary, 1995; Dunbar, 2012; Graeupner and Coman, 2017; Mercier, 2020). 

In particular, the promotion of HCQ has been strongly associated with an attitude of distrust towards French elites, perceived as arrogant and disrespectful of popular practices and lifestyles (Sayare, 2020). The appeal to popular common sense and pragmatism, as opposed to experts suspected of being disconnected from the field with their complicated methodologies, has also been used by politicians to justify pro-HCQ positions (Risch, 2020). 

But when its objective (in this case, the promotion of a political stance) moves away from the transmission of information per se, communication ceases to be associated with a strong presumption of truthfulness (Lynch, 2004; Cassam, 2018).

Of course, it is important to use accurate information when making decisions that rely on it. But in this particular case, neither the efficacy of the drug nor its actual adverse effects were paramount. First, the virus was initially perceived as posing little threat to healthy adults and children (Baud et al., 2020), and the question of whether HCQ was actually effective was ultimately of minor importance to most people. 

Secondly, the risks associated with taking HCQ were perceived as very low anyway. Many Covid-19 patients testified to the innocuous nature of the treatment, and the question of its dangerousness at the population level was not so relevant at the individual level.

More generally, we live with many false or approximate beliefs anyway (Boyer, 2018; Oliver and Wood, 2018). This is not necessarily a problem as such, if these beliefs do not lead individuals to make choices against their own interests, or against the interests of society at large. But precisely, the building of a science-based consensus shared by all members of a society is essential to create the conditions for translating this knowledge into effective policies. 

When “superficial” opinions – i.e., opinions that do not have a strong epistemic basis – enter the public sphere (in April 2020, a poll published in the newspaper Le Parisien claimed that “59% of the French population believed HCQ was effective against the new coronavirus”), they influence the way societal issues are conceived. 

This can negatively affect the quality of policy decisions that are made, with concrete consequences for people's well-being. Public opinions on scientific issues must therefore be interpreted at the right level, especially as they will determine major political and societal choices.

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