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Thursday, April 15, 2021

New research: More Covid-19 data may not mean more understanding

The researchers conclude that data visualisations aren’t sufficient to convey the urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic, because even the clearest graphs can be interpreted through a variety of belief systems.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
Updated: March 9, 2021 2:22:09 pm
A woman is vaccinated against Covid-19 in Pune (Express Photo: Pavan Khengre)

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, charts and graphs have helped communicate information about infection rates, deaths, and vaccinations. A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, currently uploaded on a preprint server, shows how coronavirus sceptics have marshalled data visualisations online to argue against public health orthodoxy about the benefits of mask mandates. Such “counter-visualisations” are often quite sophisticated, using datasets from official sources.

The researchers combed through hundreds of thousands of social media posts and found that coronavirus sceptics often deploy counter-visualisations alongside the same “follow-the-data” rhetoric as public health experts, yet the sceptics argue for radically different policies. The researchers conclude that data visualisations aren’t sufficient to convey the urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic, because even the clearest graphs can be interpreted through a variety of belief systems.

As data visualisations rose to prominence early in the pandemic, PhD student Crystal Lee and her colleagues set out to understand how they were being deployed throughout the social media universe. An initial hypothesis was that if there were more data visualisations, then people would be better informed. To test that hypothesis, the team used a computational model on Twitter, scraping nearly half a million tweets that referred to both “Covid-19” and “data”. Using a computational model, the researchers found that anti-mask groups were creating and sharing data visualisations as much as, if not more than, other groups.

And those visualisations were virtually indistinguishable from those shared by mainstream sources. “It’s a very striking finding. It shows that characterising anti-mask groups as data-illiterate or not engaging with the data, is empirically false,” MIT quoted Lee as saying.

Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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