As we get further into our fight against Covid-19 we are continually seeing the importance getting good information we can rely on. This should honestly go without saying, that spreading misinformation is extremely dangerous and that the consequences of that can be dire. Look at the United States from just this weekend, where stories have been circulating about hundreds of people taking President Donald Trump’s musing about ingesting cleaning products like bleach to try to stop this disease to heart, with predictable results.
The fact is that when you’re in a position of public trust, that comes with extra responsibilities in times like these. People look to those people for trustworthy information and will take them at their words. That’s why when we see stories like the one we saw last week with Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu spreading misinformation about alleged Covid-19 treatments, we need to call them out. I wish those were the only examples of people in positions viewed as trusted by the public doing this, but sadly I’ve got two more ugly examples to share. The first comes from Saskatchewan and dangerous misinformation from a university professor there:
Everyone meet Josef Buttigieg, associate professor of biology at the University of Regina. He specializes in neurobiology and stem cell physiology, so in the midst of a global pandemic, many people would reasonably trust what he has to say. But instead of using that trusted position to help the public and share reliable information, he went in the opposite direction. He went on Facebook and spread this rant into the world, one that’s dangerous on its face:
Yes he goes on social media to say that physical distancing measures, the same ones that have successfully slowed down the growth of Covid-19, are completely unnecessary and said that the Saskatchewan Health Authority has demonstrated “gross ineptness” so far. Being an academic in the sciences, you might give this some credence but what proof does he bring to the table? Well nothing except theories, which he decries people for not listening to enough in these times.
In another Facebook post at an earlier date, he claimed that Saskatchewan should be doing widescale antibody testing right now. According to his views and this theories, “the outcome of this test is going to show that the vast majority of the population has already had the virus, meaning that social isolation is 1) not necessary and 2) didn’t work as well as we thought it would.” Yep, he’s trying to put out there that social distancing is not needed, in a new variation on the trope of “the cure is worse than the disease.”
Needless to say, actual professionals in the medical field don’t agree with this “theory”. Dr. Hassan Masri, a physician and associate professor of medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, shot back that Buttigieg’s claim is nothing more than “just wishful thinking.” He also told CBC Saskatchewan that “it is not an evidence-driven claim at all… The claims are flat-out incorrect … But also, they’re misguided in their timing, spreading mistrust among society.” I’m glad that Dr. Masri has spoken out so strongly to shoot this down, but you can’t help but wonder how many other people heard Buttigieg’s claims and took them as gospel because of the trusted position he occupies before he could correct the record? That’s why misinformation is so dangerous in these times. But I do have another example of someone using their position of trust to spread this kind of misinformation, this time from Ontario:
Everyone meet John Weber, an instructor at Mohawk College who teaches Java programming, notably something that involves no knowledge of medicine the last time I checked. In a message to his students, he tells them to ignore physical distancing measures “just like he does”. “I do not stand 6 feet away from people. I will not be mind controlled (sic),” he told his students, going onto further point out “I voice my opinion in supermarket lines, and everywhere I go.” So you know that jerk at the grocery store who wouldn’t give you space now? Yep, he’s one of those.
But he doesn’t stop there, oh no, no, no. He took this another step inserting his personal, whacked out views into his “teaching”. According to CBC Hamilton, he assigned students to read George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World, which I should point out also have absolutely zero to do with teaching Java. And as a coup de grace, he used those same means to encouraged students to protest, socialize and “get out and enjoy” the nice weather. “I urge you to do research and to think for yourself and question everything the government tells you,” he told them. He went on to wrap it all up by saying “What is happening now is criminal. I urge you to write to college officials, your government representatives, local, provincial and federal and voice your disgust on how they are handling this situation.” Yep, this instructor seems to have forgotten his tinfoil hat that day when he wrote that.
As with the other case, here we see this college professor just not using but abusing his public position of trust to spread extremely dangerous misinformation in the time of a global health emergency. What Weber allegedly did here would be grounds for dismissal in normal times, but in this moment, they are even worse. He’s counseling his students to not only ignore public health advise from trusted health professionals, he calls the measures to save the lives of so many “criminal”. Furthermore, by telling his students that they should ignore physical distancing rules and should just go out as normal, he’s potentially putting the lives of those students or their loved ones at risk. That’s far worse and much closer to being criminal than anything Weber himself was calling that.
In both of these cases, I hope that both post-secondary education institutions involved here will be moving to reprimand and remove these people from their employ. The fact is that we look to our post-secondary institutions to provide us with trusted & factually correct information, which is especially true now. That’s the kind of trust the public puts in their hands, and in the hands of those who teach there. When that trust is trampled upon, like it has with these two cases, there are potentially dangerous consequences for the public.
When it comes to elected officials who abuse that trust, we have a ready-made solution at our disposal; vote them out at the next election. When it comes to educators like Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Weber, we have no such public option. The option of removal rests with their employers and it falls to those institutions to ensure that the trust that they are given by the public is protected. In this time when we see hard working health professionals putting their lives at risk and in some cases, being verbally attacked by fringe groups for their professional advice, we can’t have post-secondary institutions giving cover to the likes of those who add their voices to the deluge of misinformation. It’s time for these two institutions to act to show that the publics truth isn’t misplaced, and I really hope that they do.