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Latter-day Saint medical doctor addresses the role of religion in the fight against misinformation during a pandemic

by | Jan. 23, 2021

After losing her mother last year to COVID-19, one listener of the All In podcast who is not a member of our faith expressed interest in hearing the Latter-day Saint perspective about the pandemic. So, while there are certainly many perspectives and we are unable to represent every Latter-day Saint, we decided to reach out to one Latter-day Saint doctor, Dr. Candace Mcnaughton, who has not only treated those with COVID-19 in the emergency room but whose colleagues are researchers working diligently to eradicate COVID-19. 

In the past 10 months, all of us have experienced something we have never experienced before but there is precedence for the type of situation we are experiencing now. Dr. Mcnaughton explains, “You and I have not seen anybody die of diphtheria. That's not a disease, right? Because we've all been vaccinated, and smallpox was completely eradicated. . . . So it's very foreign, and it was sort of beyond most people's imagination to, to even conceive of something that would kill, you know, almost half a million Americans in a single year.” 

The December 2020 update of the General Handbook includes the following about “seeking information from reliable sources”: 

In today’s world, information is easy to access and share. This can be a great blessing for those seeking to be educated and informed. However, many sources of information are unreliable and do not edify. Some sources seek to promote anger, contention, fear or baseless conspiracy theories (see 3 Nephi 11:30; Mosiah 2:32). Therefore, it is important that church members be wise as they seek truth.

Seek out and share only credible, reliable and factual sources of information. Avoid sources that are speculative or founded on rumor. The guidance of the Holy Ghost, along with careful study, can help members discern between truth and error (see Doctrine and Covenants 11:12; 45:57). In matters of doctrine and church policy, the authoritative sources are the scriptures, the teachings of the living prophets and the General Handbook.

Mcnaughton emphasized that her perspectives are that of just one individual but provided some thoughts on how we might seek reliable information on developments surrounding the pandemic.

Listen to the full episode here or in the player below. You can also read a full transcript of the episode here.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity. 

Morgan Jones: The Church just released a handbook update in December, and in it one of the new additions was an entry about being careful where we're getting our information from. And then Elder David A. Bednar said, "Misinformation is a major obstacle in a health crisis. Faith communities can debunk rumors, calm fears and facilitate accurate information. Many will be fearful of vaccines—religious leaders can be helpful in the fight against the Coronavirus." So I wondered for you, what role do you think religion has played through this pandemic? And how can our faith communities help with misinformation, but also how can we as individuals, dispel misinformation and find trustworthy sources?

► You may also like: Elder Bednar: ‘Never again can we allow government officials to treat the exercise of religion as simply nonessential’

Candace Mcnaughton: These are really great points. So our religion is interesting in that I think it's definitely part of our religion to go to the primary source, right? Which is in many ways different from other religions. Like I have an expectation when I pray that I'm going to receive individual inspiration. And similarly, when I have a question about what's going on in the world, I'll frequently go to the primary source. And so in this case for the Coronavirus, in general, that's been the CDC. Go to the CDC, they generally have like really good information. And if there's any further confusion then the local health department or your primary [or] regular physician.

I have not found it helpful to go to—in general—like magazines . . . the science has moved so quickly, that talking to other people has not been as helpful as it is potentially for some other things. I mean the science moved very quickly, and so things changed quite dramatically, pretty quickly over six months, as they should, as we gain new information we adjust our parameters and how we behave.

So I think for our religion in particular, like I said, I think going to the primary source. Go to the original source and don't rely on other people to form your opinion for you. Just like I can't rely on somebody else for my own testimony, for really important health information, I can't really necessarily rely on [information found] online, you know, social media. And if my health or the health of my family is on the line, I want to make sure I get the information right.

And you're right, as you said, what's particularly difficult here is that it's counterintuitive, right? The things that we would typically do to help people, and to show that we love and care for them are the very things that we should not be doing now and for really the foreseeable future—until we get enough people vaccinated, which is likely to be the fall. So information is really, really important.

And then the role of religion in this, you know, religion can't replace public health. Religion is the thing that gives us a moral compass and helps us have a framework for what's right and wrong. And our religion tells us that we need to take care of the least of those among us. And so, in order to do that, that means we need to support public health, which means we need to wear masks, we need to stay away from each other, we need to wash hands.

Now is the time to really sort of be humble and say, "Oh, okay, if I learned something new about how the way that I'm behaving might be harmful to someone else," rather than saying, you know, "Whatever, you're wrong." Maybe we can take a minute and consider, you know, why are they suggesting that we behave differently? Is there something that is beyond just sort of my perspective that other people are seeing, which is not easy to do, but going to be even more important in the next several months, I think.


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