Poor numerical literacy linked to greater susceptibility to COVID-19 fake news

Thursday 12th November 2020

Researchers at Cambridge University have investigated factors which predict the susceptibility of people from five different countries (UK, USA, Ireland, Mexico, and Spain) to believe in COVID-19 misinformation. The researchers concluded that people with poor numerical literacy are more likely to believe COVID-19 misinformation.

In addition to numerical literacy, predictive factors such as age, gender, education, political outlook, self-identification as a member of minority, and levels of trust in government, scientists and journalists were examined.

Participants were presented with nine statements about COVID-19, including six false ones, such as, “5G networks may be making us more susceptible to the coronavirus” and, “The coronavirus is part of a global effort to enforce mandatory vaccination”, and were then asked to rate the reliability of each of these statements.

The researchers calculated correlation coefficients between the perceived reliability of the six false statements, and these were found to be high, which gave the researchers confidence that the false beliefs could effectively be treated as a single belief system. Therefore, they were able to assign a combined score for each participant’s susceptibility to believe false statements about COVID-19.

The researchers then built a regression model to predict the susceptibility scores from the various predictive factors. What they discovered was that the most consistent predictor of decreased susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19 across all five countries was numerical literacy – the participants who showed the greatest numerical literacy were consistently less likely to be taken in by COVID-19 ‘fake news’.

We can interpret this finding in a very positive way – perhaps improving people’s numerical literacy can reduce their susceptibility to believe in damaging falsehoods; perhaps it improves their ability to think reflectively about the world around them. It seems to me that this is a major reason to educate children in maths.

Of particular interest to teachers will be some of the questions that participants in the survey had to answer to rate the numerical literacy scores. Here are three of the questions (with correct responses in brackets):

  • What represents the highest chance of something happening: 1 in 10, 1 in 1,000, or 1 in 100? (1 in 10)
  • Out of 1,000 people in a small town 500 are members of a choir. Out of these 500 members in the choir, 100 are men. Out of the 500 inhabitants that are not in the choir, 300 are men. What is the probability that a randomly drawn man is a member of the choir? Please indicate the probability in percent. (25%)
  • In a forest 20% of mushrooms are red, 50% brown and 30% white. A red mushroom is poisonous with a probability of 20%. A mushroom that is not red is poisonous with a probability of 5%. What is the probability that a poisonous mushroom in the forest is red? (50%)

The research paperOpens a new window is very readable and the researchers make further interesting observations. Some teachers may find it interesting to discuss the findings and methods with their students.

By Chris Luke

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